What are good formats to use for purchasing and storing music and movies? I remember a time in the past where it was possible to pretend that Ogg Vorbis was a reasonable choice for many of your audio needs; that is, unfortunately, no longer the case.

Desirable qualities for a format, in no particular order:

  • Quality should be as high as possible.
  • File size should be as small as possible.
  • The standard should be open.
  • The standard should be unencumbered.
  • There should be a wide range of software tools (including free ones and best-of-breed ones) to play the format, on all platforms I use.
  • There should be a wide range of hardware devices (including best-of-breed ones) to play the format, in all locations where I’d like to use it (home, car, bus, jogging, …).
  • There should be a wide range of software tools (including free ones and best-of-breed ones) to convert to/from the format.
  • It should be possible to easily purchase content in this format.
  • It should be possible to easily find free content in this format.
  • I should be able to easily copy, excerpt, etc. the content for the forseeable future.
  • The format should support adding metadata (titles, composer, performer, album art, …)
  • The format should support aggregation (e.g. a podcast with multiple pieces of music should be a single file with indexing).

These are, of course, incompatible goals, but never mind that. Given the above, what are the conclusions?

One is that DRM is to be avoided: it fails on the copy/exceprt criteria, and probably also fails on open standard and free tools criteria. Having said that, it’s almost impossible to purchase video without some sort of basic DRM being involved. So, in some circumstances, I guess I can live with DRM, as long as tools for cracking it are widely available. Which is, fortunately, the case for DVD’s, though I’m somewhat worried that hardware might start getting in the way there. (For example, my understand is that many current DVD drives force you to respect region encoding.)

What are suitable audio formats? The aforementioned Ogg Vorbis unfortunately doesn’t look so hot to me. The big reason is that best-of-breed hardware devices don’t play it: I can’t use it on my iPod. There’s very little content available in the format. And it’s lossy, so I can’t store content in it and convert it to other formats as necessary.

Also, its main advantage over MP3s is that it’s unencumbered by patents. The problem is, in this crazy day and age, I don’t know if I can even be sure of that. There are so many overbroad software patents being granted that I can’t be confident that any decent a/v compression format couldn’t be attacked by patent trolls.

So, basically, it only helps me if I want to burn a CD and play it on a computer using particularly purist tools. And that’s a situation where I never find myself. The only Ogg Vorbis files I had on my computer were from Lambda Expressway, but now I see it’s available as MP3s, so that won’t be necessary any more.

So, in practice, there seem to be three obvious candidates for music: Audio CDs, MP3s, and AAC files. Audio CDs are widely available for purchase, playable in lots of ways, as high quality as is easily available, easily convertible to other formats. The downside is that file sizes are somewhat large, and they’re lacking in the metadata department.

MP3s are quite widely available, too. File sizes are smaller; quality is generally acceptable for my listening purposes. They’re lossy when compared to CDs, though, which makes them less suitable for archival purposes. Better than CDs for metadata, but there’s room for improvement there. Bad for aggregation. Also, it’s quite difficult to purchase MP3s; I hope that will change in coming years (decades?), but maybe I’m over-optimistic. Tons of players.

AAC is one of my current favorites: it has most of the advantages of MP3s, but does better in metadata and, especially, aggregation. So it’s a great format for podcasts. Slightly fewer players, but enough of them for my purposes. The patent situation seems somewhat better than that for MP3s, but not perfect.

MP3s and AAC suit my needs for free stuff. For purchasing, CDs are good, but it would be nice to have a format that I liked that would enable me to purchase music digitally. Unfortunately, all the choices suck: Apple’s and Microsoft’s DRM solutions are both loathsome. So, for now, I’m buying music on CDs: I’d rather do that, wait a couple of days to have it shipped to me, and rip it myself, than have music delivered quickly and painlessly in either of those formats. I have to think that this suggests that the recording industry could find a way to make more money off of me if they were willing to give up on DRM; the recording industry is not, alas, well-known for its forward-thinking business acumen.

I am a little worried that, at some point, music that I care about won’t be available on CD. Recently, for example, I wanted to get music of some of the artists I liked from Next Big Hit. They’re all independent, so it wasn’t too surprising that I couldn’t find all of them at Amazon; that’s what CD Baby is for. But I couldn’t find any of the music from one of them there, either; looking at her website, I did find her music for sale, but not on a CD, and some of it was apparently only available from iTunes.

So it sucks that new artists are getting caught up in DRM protection that’s really designed to serve (or “serve”, perhaps) the interests of large labels. Fortunately, in this case I could just e-mail the artist directly, and it turned out that she did have a few copies of her CDs left over. But a taste of a world that I’d just as soon avoid.

For video, the story is less pleasant. There’s no long-standing open format like CDs. Videos that are on the web are generally either in Quicktime (which encompasses many different formats, but these days I can usually play it under Linux) or Windows Media (which I can’t play under Linux). Actually, that’s not even true – videos are frequently hidden behind Flash front-ends to the extent that I don’t know what the underlying format is, and can’t get at the bytes short of doing a tcpdump or something. MP3s and AAC both have analogues, namely MPEG-2 and AVC (a.k.a. H.264), which are as acceptable as their audio compatriates. And there are new physical formats coming out that do look noticeably better than their predecessor, and that will probably be harder to copy and play on free players. (And there’s no reason to believe that this is the end of video formats.)

The upshot is that, for video, I just stick my head in the sand. Fortunately, most stuff on the web I click on once to watch but have no desire to save. And almost nothing I really want to watch is in Windows Media format, so I don’t have to install that viewer on my Mac. I like watching DVDs, but will happily avoid upgrading to newer formats for the indefinite future. (And I’m cautiously optimistic that the general public will be slow to adopt either of the new formats.) I haven’t yet grappled with the whole backup issue: my DVDs aren’t showing signs of age the way my CDs are, and disk space isn’t quite cheap enough for me to want to back them up wholesale anyways.

I suppose I should look on the bright side: no matter what, we live in a much better world now than when we had to deal with LPs, cassette tapes, videotapes. New media are much more robust, much easier to copy, much higher quality, much more broadly available. And the current RIAA leadership will retire eventually.

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