Buckle your seat belts, because we’re going to jerk you back some twenty years to trace the history of the impressive AVI player.
Developed by Microsoft for use in their Windows PC architecture, the formal name for the AVI container format is Audio Video Interleave (Interleave because the video and audio are bound together in chunks) and is identified by its file name extension .avi. Microsoft had long seen the world of video as its entrée into the living room by creating an AVI movie player that would blend together computing and television. Although Apple was already ahead of the game, incorporating video into computers with its QuickTime technology. The question was, would AVI video players help Microsoft catch up?
WHAT IS AVI? HOW DID IT LEAD TO FREE AVI PLAYERS?
AVI was originally created as a file format to contain nearly any kind of CODEC (compression/decompression algorithm) of that era. Many of those CODECs were not the most efficient in terms of crunching down large amounts of data into small ones, AVI file players could produce especially high-quality playback when uncompressed (lossless) content was captured in what is also known as RAW form. Unfortunately, like any uncompressed format (even more so today, with high-definition (HD) and even higher resolution formats used in professional video), this would produce very large files, requiring fast hard disk drives (HDD) and fast computers to keep playback smooth without dropping frames or having audio synchronization issues. So saving video as an AVI file that could later be played back using an AVI movie player was not for the typical user who wanted simple video playback on what today would probably be considered primitive computers.
One of the first widespread uses of the AVI file format was for capturing DV (there are a lot of variations of the DV format, which we won’t go into here), or camcorder video for use in some of the early Non-Linear Editing (NLE) systems. Compression software (sometimes with hardware assist) could be used to capture or ingest the original DV content, which could then be edited with a NLE system into the content’s final form. In the mid-1990’s, CD-ROM and to some extent, CD-I (CD-Interactive) content was all the rage, as they became among the first delivery platforms for video material. CDs had comparatively (to HDDs) low playback bitrates so the video on them could be viewed smoothly. As a result, there were considerable constraints on the video quality itself. Much of this by the way had been predicted in Bill Gates’ earlier book, “The New Papyrus.” Who knew learning about AVI video players would be so interesting?
Remember these were the days of digital video players with postage stamp sized windows. An image with 320×240 pixels at 30 frames per second was considered pretty good at the standard video frame rate. There were all sorts of techniques employed by NLEs to make the final video product appear better than it actually was because all the technologies of the time were being pushed to their limits. Setting key frames, altering bit and frame rates, along with scan line interpolation were a few tricks. Going beyond 320×240 of what was then highly compressed video being played back on a CD device simply required computing power that wasn’t practical for the average user.
Even many professionals scoffed at whether digital video itself would ever reach standards beyond that of tiny, choppy images on a computer screen that wouldn’t be suitable for use in broadcast video, let alone eventually in motion picture production. How wrong that’s been proven to be. Free AVI video players were on their way.
TODAY’S AVI FILE PLAYERS
AVI’s legacy format is still widely used today because there is a lot of content available in the AVI file format and there are a large assortment of AVI file players that will handle it. Among the more popular video players today are DivX, VLC (Video LAN Client), RealPlayer and of course, Microsoft’s Windows Media Player. Most of these are free AVI video players, and some offer additional cost upgrades with enhanced capabilities.
AVI’s primary use is still for to playback AVI files on a computer, and although all aspects of quality have improved greatly, it does have its constraints. It was not specifically designed for streaming Internet content as modern video players are today. That means you aren’t going to be using an AVI movie player to stream video from the Internet. Flash, H.264 and now HTML5 are much more highly tuned for that function.
WHY DO I NEED AN AVI VIDEO PLAYER?
What the AVI design did not foresee (or couldn’t do anything practical about at the time) were some of the advanced compression formats such as H.264/AVC and the more advanced versions of the MPEG (Moving Picture Experts Group) family of CODECs, and even Microsoft’s own current VC-1 and Silverlight methods of delivering HD content on Blu-ray or on streaming environments respectively. These more contemporary approaches employ sophisticated “look ahead” techniques for analyzing the content of upcoming video frames to estimate the amount and type of compression and optimization formulas needed in order to keep file size small, and quality high. That’s fine, since HD wasn’t even on the radar when people first needed an AVI file player.
AVI was initially made for encoding and decoding in an individual, frame-by-frame basis. MJPEG (Motion JPEG, I-frames only), the DV codec and uncompressed content are examples that did provide both for high-quality capture and for precise NLE editing. In later years, MPEG-4 has been included in the AVI wrapper, which again adds to AVI’s lifespan. It wouldn’t be surprising if you still came across AVI files that you wanted to watch. In that case, you are going to need a AVI movie player or you’ll have to convert the file into another format that will work with your computer. The good news is that there are plenty of AVI players for Windows available and they’re free.
Since AVI was created by Microsoft, it’s easy to find AVI players for Windows computers. Unfortunately, if you have a Mac you’re going to have a hard time locating an AVI movie player that works with your computer. You can also get a AVI movie player for your mac, by picking a video player that supports multiple formats. It may just be easier to use a video file converter program to convert the AVI file to one that works easily on a mac.
GET YOUR VIDEO READY FOR USE WITH AN AVI MOVIE PLAYER
There are many tools available to do the initial encoding of content into an AVI container, or to convert whatever the initial codec might be to another one. Most of the better AVI players have these capabilities built-in. There are also standalone encoders and converters, some fairly expensive, that will encode and/or convert virtually any format to anything else. Many people regularly rip DVD’s (possibly illegally), which are encoded in MPEG-2, to an .avi file for viewing on a computer using AVI movie player. This is possible because CODEC packs that extend AVI’s influence into MPEG-2 and several audio formats not envisioned for the original AVI specification are available from a variety of vendors. AVI files can also be converted to MOV, MP4, MPEG, WMV, and other formats with the right AVI converter software.
You’ll have to be your own judge on the quality of these add-on conversion or ‘Extender’ techniques. As the saying goes, ‘You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.’ The same goes for transforming content that was originally Standard Definition (SD), or poorer quality, into HD (if that’s what you’re trying to do) simply by using a more modern CODEC. There certainly are high-end professional hardware and software tools costing thousands of dollars which are used for this kind of work where you can almost work miracles, but that’s a whole other topic. The general rule is you can’t transform something into better quality than what it was in its original form. So you may just be better off playing the AVI file in an AVI movie player.
THE LEGACY OF AVI – IS THERE STILL A NEED FOR AVI PLAYERS?
Today, Microsoft has more than kept up with the times and moved on with its video player technology (Perhaps, you’ve heard of WMV?). In the company’s current offering, the Windows Media Center can be used as an AVI movie player so AVI files are still in the mix. Additionally, there are a wide selection of MPEG-2 and MPEG-4 formats, Windows Media, Windows Recorded TV Show, and even Apple QuickTime .mov files that it supports.
With the world of modern video seemingly splitting into two main areas; broadcast television and feature film production (already creating digital video with equipment and specifications way beyond what consumers today consider HD), alongside content produced exclusively for the Internet, it would appear AVI has had its day. On the high-end, there are simply vastly superior technologies available for professionals who have the best quality distribution channels available. On the lower end, but not a lesser tier, the Internet has better tools available to make it possible to create higher quality initial content and repurpose it for online distribution. Combined with more and more of online content residing in the cloud, then being sent out via wireless networks to mobile devices where efficient speed is paramount, it may be time to relegate AVI as a milestone, albeit an important one, in the history of digital video.
Please leave a comment if you have any questions on AVI players, converters or encoders that I didn’t cover. I’m always happy to help.