Ever wonder why some movies have additional features like subtitles and surround sound and others dont? You can thank something called Matroska for all those features. Matroska, now there’s an exotic sounding name for a media player!
You’re probably more familiar with its file name extension .MKV, and recognize it is a container format for holding audio, video, and subtitle tracks. The name Matroska is a made-up word, intended to evoke the notion of the famous Russian Matryoshka nesting dolls, but for MKV it means a container for various kinds of media files. Clever use of the term, because that’s exactly what the MKV does, and doing it with a flair that’s gaining fame and followers.
WHAT ARE MKV FILES?
MKV enjoys increasing support as one of the most flexible formats available, primarily because of MKV’s ability to store an unlimited number of video, audio, and subtitle tracks. Combine that with the various kinds of Metadata (tags) and you have a container format, which not only performs the expected tasks of delivering movies to you, but also carries multiple sound (including Dolby Digital 5.1 surround) and subtitle tracks (for different languages and commentaries), chapter points, and even thumbnails. It packs all of these into a single video file, nested together as would its namesake Matryoshka dolls.
Another element making MKV so attractive is the fact that it is an open standard. Its technical specifications are available to anyone, making it both technically and legally much simpler and less expensive for other companies to incorporate MKV features into their own products. Matroska makes no bones about intending to establish itself as THE container format standard. Going the open source route is reminiscent of the company Red Hat, which has had considerable success with Linux by relying on the open source community. Judging from the considerable listings of MKV converters available on the Internet for either free download or a modest price it would seem Matroska’s tactic is working.
WHY YOU NEED A MKV MEDIA PLAYER
Remember, MKV is a “container” (Matroska refers to it as an “envelope”) format. It is not a codec (a compression-decompression algorithm), so it’s impartial when it comes to allowing virtually any other codec to be transported within its container or envelope. It is designed to be a lightweight package, so it’s perfect for streaming content over the Internet, local networks, and even mobile devices. Since MKV has open source roots and the objective of becoming the go-to container format, it’s not surprising MKV is available in cross-platform flavors Windows, Mac OS X, Linux, Windows Mobile, Symbian (a cell phone OS), and even relatively obscure operating systems such as the BeOS and Haiku.
The key element of MKV is to encapsulate multiple streams of video, audio, subtitles, metadata chapters and even menu elements within its format, with robust reliability. Stereoscopic (3D) video files can also be incorporated in one version of the container. In order to see all the data available in MKV files, you need a MKV media player. There are many MKV player downloads available, but be sure to get one that supports all the features available in the MKV file you want to play.
For example, television is no longer simply the process of just watching pictures and listening to sound. There are multiple streams of additional information being carried along with those signals. Some of them are readily apparent, but most aren’t. The split screens, scrolling text at the bottom of cable news programs, and closed captions are just a few of the most noticeable illustrations. The same thing is happening with movies that you view on a computer or mobile device. Hidden streams of metadata are constantly keeping track of what video frame and what audio track of the movie you are watching, bookmarks you might make, which chapter you are viewing, and more.
Many container formats can hold multiple media streams, but MKV seems to be going the extra mile in providing a platform, along with the instructions and in some cases, the tools. This allows content providers and MKV media player manufacturers to both create the media and properly extract the contents in the MKV envelope.
CURRENT MKV FILE PLAYERS AND CONVERTERS
Given all the MKV format offers, it’s not surprising that there are a number of player manufacturers who are making their devices compatible with MKV. DivX, VLC, Windows Media Player, CorePlayer Pro, MPlayer and Perian (which adds MKV support to QuickTime for Mac OS X) are the predominant leaders. RealPlayer Plus also plays MKV files. Special .mkv codec packs are available for download to players, which are not already set up to playback MKV.
For converters, several of the above MKV media players can perform double-duty, converting MKV files to AVI, MP4 or other formats. Some players can also go in the opposite direction and converting a range of formats into the MKV container. There is also another separate category of dedicated converters for this same purpose. Many of these converters, either packaged within a MKV media player or as a standalone product go one way – from MKV to another format. So be aware of what you need and what you are getting when you choose a MKV player download.
Going from MKV to another format also presents the distinct possibility that much of the multi-stream, metadata, chapter and other special information contained within the MKV file will be lost in converting to a format that does not recognize those distinct data streams. Some of the best true converters, which have the necessary software components to create full-spec MKV files, are SUPER, FFmpeg, and Handbrake. Handbrake is especially embraced by Matroska because it too is an open source product and considered by Matroska to be friendly to use.
THE FUTURE OF MKV PLAYERS
It can’t be said that Matroska is the first to the table with many of the ideas incorporated into their product. Multi-stream formats have been around for years, Apple’s QuickTime being one that had extensive capabilities for that kind of use, but was seldom implemented to its fullest capabilities. That had something to do with being at the beginning of an era where just seeing a reasonably good quality motion image and hearing sound was considered an unqualified success. Today, expectations and demands are much higher and rightfully so. Technology has improved, the processing power available on our devices is impressive, and we expect a seamless video experience. The right MKV media player can deliver that.
Matroska knows that’s just the starting point, and has designed the core features of MKV to not only keep up with the times, but to (hopefully) help lead the way.
Please let me know if you have questions about finding the right MKV player for your particular use by leaving a comment below.