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What is a codec?

A codec is a device or computer program that compresses and decompresses large amounts of data. The name “codec” is a blend of “coder/decoder” or “compressor/decompressor.” Codecs shrink (compress) large media files like audio and video to save space and more efficiently send files over the internet. Then, when the file arrives at its destination, the codec reverts the file back to its original size (decompress) for playback.

Why codecs are important

Using a codec has several benefits, especially for live streaming video. Some of the most important reasons codecs are used are:

  • Data management: Codecs compress media files so they take up less bandwidth when being sent and less space when being stored.
  • Maintaining quality: Codecs can maintain the original quality of a file and some can even adapt the bitrate for better playback experience based on network conditions.
  • Compatibility: Using a codec ensures that content can be played on multiple devices and platforms. 
  • Content creation: Some codecs, like H.264, are better for live streaming because they balance quality with bandwidth efficiency. Others, like ProRes, maintain maximum quality for editing purposes.

Types of codecs

Codecs can either be lossy or lossless. Lossy codecs sacrifice some data to get higher compression and smaller file sizes. Some examples of lossy codecs are MP3 and JPEG.

Lossless codecs retain all of the original data and ensure high-quality output but with less compression. Some examples of lossless codecs are FLAC and PNG.

There are codecs for all types of media, including video, audio, images, etc. Video codecs are used for live streaming platforms and handle things like frame rates, resolution and bitrate. Examples of video codecs are:

  • H.264
  • H.265
  • VP9
  • AV1

Audio codecs are used for music streaming, digital downloads, voice communication and other applications. Some popular audio codecs are:

  • MP3
  • AAC
  • Opus
  • FLAC

Image codecs are used to send and edit still image files. Some of the most popular image codecs are:

  • TIFF
  • PNG