How to Watch Streaming Video with a Computer

There are five major file types used for streaming video online. They all offer similar video quality, but differ in their popularity with end users. Generally speaking, the five different formats are not compatible with each other.

In order to watch streaming video with a computer, users must have the appropriate software installed. There are some third party video players, however, that are designed to handle a variety of streaming video formats.


The most popular streaming video format is Flash. Flash files require a special plugin which allows users to watch streaming video in a browser window, but the plugin is easily accessible and easy to install. Flash files can be used for a broad range of multimedia content including games, which is a factor in their popularity.

Windows Media

Windows Media is a close second to Flash because it is included with the Windows operating system. Since most computers operate on Windows, most computers can handle streaming Windows Media. Microsoft, however, frequently changes the format of Windows Media, so users who don't update their computers may find their old Windows Media Player to be incompatible with the new video files.

Apple Quicktime - RealMedia

Apple Quicktime and RealMedia share about the same market popularity which is much lower than either Flash or Windows. One reason for this may be their emphasis on the paid versions of their media players. RealMedia is particularly notorious for making it hard to find the free version of their player, and also discourage many potential users with the large number of forms which must be filled out before being able to download the player.

Apple is not quite as bad as RealMedia, but their player is a huge download, and every time it starts you are reminded to buy the full featured commercial player.

MP4 Video Streaming

The fifth major format used for video streaming is MP4 which is supported by several different players including Quicktime and Windows Media Player. MP4 offers a slightly better file size/video quality ratio than the other formats, but not enough to be noticeable by the average viewer.

Video files destined for streaming must be compressed to reduce the data transmission requirements. Without compression there would be no video streaming, at least not at the data transmission rates that we currently use for the Internet.

Streaming video compression is done with software called a CODEC - COmpression/DECompression. There are many different codecs and each uses a different method to compress the video. In order to see the video, a compatible codec must be present on the viewer's computer. If the correct codec is not present the video cannot be viewed.

Most computer operating systems come complete with a set of standard codecs, but if you wish to watch a streaming video file that uses another codec, you must find that codec and install it on your computer. There are a variety of software tools that can tell you what kind of codec is required, and codec packs are available from the Internet that contain the most popular ones.

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