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What is an MP4 file?

MP4 is a media file format that can contain video, audio, subtitles, and images. It's a popular format, widely used both online and offline. MP4 is often preferred due to its broad compatibility and small file sizes.

MP4 files are efficiently compressed, resulting in a portable file with minimal quality loss. That provides an obvious benefit, both for the Net and for local storage. Small MP4 videos can be embedded, bought, downloaded, and shared. They are great for devices with limited storage capacity, such as mobile phones. This is helped by the fact that the format is widely supported.

What is a MP4?

Most commonly, .mp4 contains MPEG-standard video and AAC audio. At the time of their appearance, the codecs had very little competition. Because of that, they were coded into hardware and adopted by Apple and Microsoft. Now that you're up to speed, read below for some more info about these codecs. And if you’re looking at how to play MP4 files, we have reviewed the best MP4 player for Mac in our article.

How to open MP4 files on Mac?

1. Download Elmedia Player and install the app on your Mac.

Install Mac Media Player on Mac

2. To play MP4 files, add them to Elmedia’s library. There are several ways to do so:

  • Drag and drop the MP4 file(s) onto the player window or onto its icon in the Dock.
  • Right-click on the MP4 file, choose "Open With”, then select Elmedia Player from the list of available option.
  • From the Main Menu, click on File > Open, then choose the MP4 file that you’d like to open.
Elmedia - best Mac media player

3. Sit back and enjoy your MP4 files!

Step 4: Finalize Your Choice

Now that the steps on how to change default video player are complete, you should click "Change All". That will apply your new settings to every file of the appropriate type. One more confirmation, and you’re all set.

The Origin of MPEG Standard

MPEG stands for "Moving Picture Experts Group", an international company. True to its name, the company has worked to improve the process of video and audio compression. MPEG-4 is their magnum opus. Primarily, it includes encoding methods (H.264 and AAC) and a container format (MP4). It also describes many other features for playback, storage, and networking. This makes for a very versatile standard.

These features weren't standardized all at once. MP4's staying power owes itself to the format being constantly updated for over a decade. Quite recently (just in July 2020), the MPEG company has undergone some shrinkage and restructuring. Will MP4 stay relevant in a year, or maybe ten? The format's fate remains to be seen. Right now, though, it’s still at the peak of popularity.

What is an MP4 File Format Capable Of?

Various data types supported by MP4 files are described in separate standards, referred to as "parts" of MPEG-4. An .mp4 container doesn't necessarily contain MPEG-encoded streams, but that is usually the case. Below, we will present some of these data types.

Part 14

describes a container file format. It can hold media streams and their metadata. Files of this format may have a different extension, depending on their contents. Your average video/audio file is .mp4.

Part 10

describes AVC, the Advanced Video Codec, a.k.a. H.264. Currently, it has successors (H.265, H.266), but they have poor flexibility and strange licensing issues. Nowadays, an MP4 video is likely to be encoded in AVC.

Part 3

standardizes AAC, an audio codec. Unlike video, this one didn't change much over the years. An MP4 file can contain audio without video. In that case, the extension .m4a is used.

Part 30

describes compatibility with .ttml and .vtt, common XML-based subtitle formats.

That covers basic MP4 functionality, and it looks quite similar to other file types. Of course, an .mp4 can hold some different encodings. However, such a file would be supported by fewer video players.

MP4 Advantages Over Other Formats

Media formats don't exist in a vacuum, and there's almost always a choice. Given how often MP4 is chosen over other formats (for example, AVI and MKV), or even its direct competitors (such as WebM), it's bound to have some serious pros.

This is a concise list of said pros:

  • It's multiplatform. This goes beyond mere compatibility: a lot of hardware has MPEG codecs built into the system, so that they decode faster and with less battery drain.
  • AAC/AVC, while not the best, are reasonably good at preserving quality.
  • MP4 supports XMP, an advanced form of metadata. That makes it possible to integrate images, text, 3d graphics, menu systems, etc.
  • Software for MP4 is easy to find, and there is plenty of it. With popular players (MPC, VLC, etc.), you don't even have to consider if they play .mp4. They do.

The Downsides of Keeping Your Movies in MP4

MP4 is not without its downsides. They are mostly connected with the advantages, creating a trade-off situation. You should definitely weigh up MP4 advantages and disadvantages, especially if you want to convert many videos and store them for a long time.

Here are some examples:

  • Not every codec is supported perfectly. Some may, for example, cause audio drifting.
  • If there's no native support for the format, decoding may be resource-intensive. That goes double for editing, or any non-AVC situation.
  • MPEG codecs (and most other compatibles) are lossy, and compression is one-way only. You can't restore the quality, resolution, bitrate, etc. to what it was originally.
  • Some variations of MP4 - m4v, for example - have DRM. It may be great for Apple's profit margin, but definitely not for the buyer.


Supposedly, QuickTime can open any MP4. At least that's what the website claims; but it's worth keeping in mind that .mp4s can contain many different codecs, including open codes, or those licensed by Microsoft. Apple's obviously not a fan of those.

So what happens if QuickTime player can't open MP4? One of the better alternatives is Elmedia Player - it doesn’t have any issues supporting that multitude of codecs. It’s simple and functional, and all it takes is a few clicks. This MP4 player for Mac brings all popular codecs to Mac.

Alternatively, you can convert the video. There are a lot of converters out there. If you prefer graphics, you’ll likely find many web apps or downloadable converters. And if you aren’t scared of text interfaces, FFmpeg is a good choice, both on macOS and Linux.

Depends on the file. But generally, they are very similar. MPEG-4 was made on the basis of QuickTime File Format (.mov). The two file types support the same codecs. However, .mp4 is more advanced in terms of metadata, and it is overall more accessible.

An MP4 file contains metadata and some compressed media streams. When a player opens an .mp4, it reads that data to find out how these streams are encoded, and how to sync them up. Then the streams may be decoded and either played, edited, or converted.

MP3 isn’t designed to hold video data and subtitles, and it lacks many other features than MP4 has. In regards to audio, an MP3 has higher compression. It also has some metadata fields specific to music, such as album and track names, or an image file for the album cover.

Pretty much. Either can refer to the standard, or to the container format. If you aren’t writing a research paper, people will understand, and it won’t make much of a difference. You’ll hear "MP4" more often, though. To learn more about what sets the two terms apart, read our MPEG4 vs MP4 comparison.

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