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Movie File Terminology – from Confusion to Movie Download Revolution!

by Andrew Castlewood

From Movie Theaters to Multiplexes and then to home cinema systems. From Betamax to VHS. From VHS to DVD. Analogue to digital. We all know the story so far.

But are you up to date with the latest? If you are new to the Internet are you totally confused by the jargon?

Do you know your DVD from your P2P? Do you confuse your Divx and MPEG4? Have you got your MP3s, codecs and plug-ins. What does it all mean and does it matter?

The acronyms get longer, the speed of change faster, the confusion greater. I am one day watching a movie on my laptop – and another day I am teaching my uncle to program his old VHS recorder!

The speed of change has opened up a huge gap between different users and this gap seems to continue to grow.

It is now very easy to download movies to watch when you want, with perfect digital reproduction and you can even watch them where you want – perhaps on a laptop on the commuter train or on the TV as normal.

But to do so it helps to learn the new language and if you are interested in joining in the movie download revolution then some basic grounding in the essential terminology will help.

So where to start? Let’s start with something we think we know:

DVD: "Digital Versatile Disc" or "Digital Video Disc" - these are discs that look like compact discs (CDs) but hold much more data and are used now for storing movies.

Rewriteable DVDs can be used for storing your music and computer files. Sorry there is no space here to go into the difference between the different permutations - DVD-R, DVD-RW, DVD+R and the rest – that would be a separate article in itself!

Clearly when you download a movie you are not downloading a DVD! So when you download a movie what do you actually download?

It is quite simply a computer file – but of course they come in many flavors! Here are the highlights of the file jargon you may come across.

MPEG-4: this is a set of standards for a file for video and audio, put together by the "Moving Picture Experts Group" (hence MPEG) and yes, it is their 4th version at the standard. So you can now download a movie in MPEG-4 format – but this can take time!

DivX: developed by DivXNetworks, is a file format that enables movies to be downloaded much faster without losing any picture quality – and DivX is based on the MPEG-4 technology that we mentioned above.

Codec: although it sounds mystical it is quite simply a piece of software that enables file compression and decompression to transfer it across the internet.

MP3: short for "MPEG Audio Layer 3" – from our MPEG friends again. This file format is for digital audio only, it uses a compression method that means smaller file sizes.

You do lose some information but most people can't notice the reduction in quality. So it's great for downloading music and playing on an MP3 player. But this is just for music, not for movies.

P2P: short for peer-to-peer. This is not a file format but one popular method of sharing these files. Peer to peer is a form of computer network that does not rely on a client and server, but each computer is a peer or equal - great for sharing and downloading audio and home video content.

Even with compressed files it can take some time and sharing the load amongst several computers is a clever way to harness the power of the internet.

So you’ve downloaded the files - how do you play them?

On Windows PCs these files will usually play without a problem on the standard Windows Media Player particularly if you have the latest version.

For Apple Macs, QuickTime is both a file format and a player. Designed by Apple Computers QuickTime has been around a while. You can download the player from the Apple website and you can run it on a windows PC.

Having mentioned Apple it would be difficult not to mention the iPod. But playing movies on iPods and other portable players is another topic entirely!

Andrew Castlewood is content editor at and an impatient movie viewer. He monitors changing technology to make movie-viewing as fun and entertaining as it should be!

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