The Internet is littered with poorly-converted videos that look and sound awful. Back in the days of 56K dial-up connections and Netscape Navigator, even the most hardened of tech geeks may have had an excuse for creating such hack jobs, but that era is gone forever. Today, it’s possible for anyone with a basic understanding of streaming video, computing terminology, and the characteristics of various file formats to create professional-quality video conversions. Whether you need to convert your grainy cellphone video to AVI format before uploading it to YouTube or to MPEG-2 for easy storage on your PC, you’ll want to keep these simple video-conversion tips in mind.
1. Understand the Basics of Digital Video
You don’t have to be an audio-visual whiz kid to make high-quality video conversions, but you’ll encounter fewer problems and finish the process faster if you arm yourself with some basic digital video knowledge before you start.
Like its analog predecessor, digital video conveys the illusion of motion because its “frames-per-second” rate, usually 24 FPS, is faster than the roughly 16-frames-per-second “refresh rate” of the human eye. Each static frame is known as an “orthogonal bitmap” that uses a fixed number of colored pixels to create recognizable images. Other important digital video terms include:
- Color depth: Video quality depends in large measure on “color depth,” which describes the number of supported color variations within the video.
- Bit rate: Color depth, in turn, depends on the video’s bit rate. Videos with high bit rates contain more information, which increases their clarity and subtlety.
- Transcoding: This is the “industry term” for the process of converting digital video into different file formats.
2. Use a Free Video Converter for Easy Jobs
A proliferation of freeware and mobile apps has strengthened the amateur transcoding industry in ways that would have been unbelievable just a decade or two ago. With the help of aggregator websites and techie bloggers with far too much time on their hands, you can find dozens of video-conversion programs online without really trying. These products are more or less interchangeable, although amateur transcoders often stick with one or two favored programs, such as a handbrake download. The sheer number of free applications capable of putting high-quality video conversions out there suggests that the space’s barriers to entry have all but disappeared.
3. Know When to Use a Constant Bit Rate
Before you begin the video conversion process, determine how you intend to use your newly-converted file. If you are going to be streaming your video, you’ll want to create a conversion of the highest possible quality to maximize the fluidity and clarity of the picture. Though it will take a little longer to complete, opt to encode your streaming videos and professional-grade presentations at a high constant bitrate, or CBR. Its prohibitive size makes CBR less than optimal for video storage formats, however.
If you’re planning on storing and sharing your converted video, use a variable bitrate instead. VBR, as it’s known, manages your file size down by dramatically reducing the amount of storage space reserved for less complex or “busy” segments of video and upping the bitrate only when the amount of data in the frame necessitates it.
4. Use Lossless Formats
Since it usually involves compressing a video file to fit in a limited amount of storage space, the transcoding process tend to be “lossy.” This means that each successive video copy will contain fewer bits than its predecessor, with obvious negative implications for video quality.
It is possible to minimize or eliminate data loss during conversion with certain compression methods, or codecs, that allow for “verbatim” data transfer between original versions and their copies. Popular lossless video codecs suitable for professional use include PNG and FFV1. If you’re new to the video conversion process, choose a more user-friendly option like the Freemake Free Video Converter. As its name suggests, its developers won’t be charging for this convenient program anytime soon.
With so many different file formats, conversion tools and scary-sounding terms to remember, the world of video conversion can seem a little scary. Don’t overthink your options: with dozens of free codecs and plenty of troubleshooting advice available online, you’ll find it easy to reproduce high-quality video for streaming or storage right in your own home.
Amy Nielson is a freelance blogger. You can follow her on Twitter @NielsonAmy.