MKV vs MP4: Battle of the Formats

Blog 1 min read | Sep 26, 2023 | JW Player


If you’ve ever played a video on your computer, you’re no stranger to the .mkv and .mp4 extensions. Although they might seem like just a couple of similar video formats, each has its own features and benefits.

Keep reading to find out the key differences and similarities, advantages, and disadvantages and make an informed decision about which format to choose.

What is MKV?

Pioneered in 2002 by Steve Lhomme, MKV is the most popular video format. MKV stands for Matroska Video, a name with a clever origin. Namely, the video format was named after the Russian Matryoshka dolls, known for their ability to be stored inside one another.

Similarly to the Matryoshka dolls, this free, open-source container format packs different audio and video files, along with subtitles, into a single file. For instance, an MKV file can contain a video in H.264 and audio in MP3. Therefore, if you watch an MKV video, you can watch it with multi-lingual audio and subtitle support.

Additionally, MKV is a lossless format. Simply put, lossless compression reduces the video file size without interfering with its quality. However, the file size will likely go up to several gigabytes on account of the high-quality video.

The reason behind the extensive reach of MKV for HD online videos is that it is capable of storing descriptions, ratings, cover art, and chapter points. It was also chosen as the primary video container format for DivX Plus.

What’s more, Matroska’s developers made sure to future-proof the format through special features, including:

  • Online streaming support
  • Fast seeking
  • Support for menus, channels, and metadata
  • Multiple audio and video streams
  • Subtitles
  • Playback of corrupt files due to error recovery functionality

How to play MKV files

Although opening an MKV file is pretty straightforward, just like you would open a video in any other format, you might find some of your MKV videos don’t play properly. This happens because your device doesn’t already have the codecs necessary for rendering the specific video stream.

Having said that, your options are either downloading the video codecs for your preferred media player, or playing your MKV files using the VLC player.

The VLC player is a great option as it’s super easy to download, offers built-in support, and doesn’t require installation of additional files. Plus, it’s available for both Windows and Mac operating systems, as well as iOS and Android mobile devices.

Matroska’s website also provides decoder filters you need to install on your computer in order to play some MKV videos.

On the other hand, downloading codecs for a player that doesn’t support MKV can be quite unsafe. Namely, codecs are known for bringing in malware. Nevertheless, if you are downloading your codecs from reliable sources, it could be a useful solution.

What is MP4?

Developed in 1998 by the Moving Picture Expert Group as their standard video format, MP4 is another one of the most used multimedia container formats. The first version of the MP4 file format was an implementation of ISO/IEC 14496-12:2004, which was based on the QuickTime file format (.mov). MP4 is compatible with the majority of devices used to view video, without noticeable lagging or buffering.

The official format for encoding videos from MP4 files is the MPEG-4. There are more than one MPEGs available, but the MPEG-4 Part 14 is the chosen output format for MP4 videos. Similarly to MKV, the MP4 file format can also contain video and audio files, subtitle tracks, and images.

MP4 shows its versatility through its extensive support for video and audio codecs, including H.265 (HEVC), H.264 (AVC), and AAC. On top of that, the MP4 format supports two of the best streaming protocolsMPEG-DASH and Apple’s HLS protocol.

What makes MP4 an internationally accepted video format is its high compression capability, resulting in smaller file sizes that are easier to distribute. Still, keep in mind that this could lead to loss in quality of your video content.

How to play MP4 files

Opening an MP4 video file is exactly how you’d imagine — you click on your file and watch it open with your computer’s default video player. Most of the time, the video will automatically play as the majority of users already use QuickTime or Windows Media Player.

In the unlikely event an MP4 file doesn’t automatically open, you’re likely missing an application compatible with the format. In this case, you can install the VLC player, which supports MP4 and plenty of other video formats. Alternatively, you can convert your video file with a video converter.

MKV vs. MP4: Which one should you choose?

Now that you’ve read about both video formats and their individual features, it’s time for the ultimate showdown. Let’s have a look at the differences and similarities between MP4 vs. MKV by comparing several key aspects.

1. Video quality

Starting off with the most important factor, it’s crucial to note that the difference in the video and audio quality of the two formats won’t depend on the format itself. Instead, the quality of your video file will depend on the codecs you’re utilizing to play it. Namely, MKV and MP4 are output formats as opposed to encoding formats. This means that if you use the exact same codecs and settings to play both video files, the quality won’t differ.

For example, the H.264 codec is known to provide top video quality along with a good compression rate. Both MP4 and MKV support H.264, meaning the final quality will be the same and equally good.

2. File size

Just like the better quality doesn’t depend on the file formats, the file size will also be decided by the video codecs and video bitrate used in the encoding process. Hence, if you apply the same bitrate settings and codecs, you’ll notice that the file sizes of both formats will be similar.

Still, a MKV file will be larger in size due to its extra features, such as subtitles or multi-lingual audio tracks. In case you come across an MKV file smaller than an MP4 one even with a higher resolution, it could be that it’s using more advanced codecs. The possibility of packing several audio and subtitle tracks in MKV files is especially useful for streaming movies and TV shows, which can be distributed and viewed in multiple languages.

3. Platform support

When it comes to platform compatibility, MKV is supported by most common video players and video editing software, such as VLC, Blu-Ray, Adobe PremierPro, or Final Cut Pro.

In comparison to MP4, though, MKV is supported by only a short list of multimedia players. Conversely, MP4 is compatible with practically all operating systems, browsers, and media devices, including Windows and Mac computers and laptops, as well as iPhone, Samsung, or even Huawei phones.

4. Audio and video codec compatibility

It’s already a well-known fact that MKV can pack an infinite amount of multimedia content, including audio, video, images, and more. This is the main reason why it’s the go-to choice for movies and TV shows.

Unlike MP4, MKV supports more audio and video encoding formats. Furthermore, MP4 lacks support for FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Codec), making MKV the superior format for lossless digital audio compression.

However, there are lossless compression solutions for MP4. Although less effective than FLAC, MP4 supports ALAC and Apple Lossless. The HEVC/H.265 video codec, which supports UHD resolutions like 4K 2160p and 8K 8320p, can be used to encode both MKV and MP4 files.

5. Licensing

If you’re looking for an open-source, free-to-use video format, MKV is the clear winner. The format has a GNU L-GPL license for personal use, and holds a BNU license for commercial use. On the contrary, MP4 is protected by a patent and utilizes DRM (Digital Rights Management) to avoid piracy.

Pros & Cons of MKV and MP4

To choose the ideal container format for your needs, it’s essential to take a look at their advantages and disadvantages. Read along for a closer look.

Pros of MKV

  • High-quality video and audio: Thanks to its support for top-quality video codecs like H.264 and H.265, as well as lossless audio codecs like FLAC and DTS-HD, many users prefer MKV over MP4 for bigger screens with larger resolutions.
  • Error recovery: In case a portion of an MKV video file becomes corrupted, the error recovery feature steps in to recover the file so the playback remains unaffected.
  • Open-source: Since MKV files don’t require a license, developers find it much easier to improve their video files and take advantage of the compatibility with modern systems.
  • Metadata and tagging: You can easily organize and and categorize your media library by embedding information about your video, including title, author, or cover art.
  • Future-proofing: As previously mentioned, MKV’s features make it a future-proof format. As new video and audio codecs emerge, users can transcode content into MKV to preserve compatibility while staying in touch with new technologies.
  • Active developer community: Having a community of developers consistently guiding you through changes is an underrated benefit of using MKV for videos.

Cons of MKV

  • Larger file sizes: Sometimes, MKV files can be greater in size compared to other formats. This can become an issue if your storage space or bandwidth are limited.
  • Audio quality: Although MKV provides superior video quality, the audio generally suffers when recorded on low-grade equipment and lower bitrates.
  • Limited compatibility: Due to the fact that MKV isn’t supported by many platforms and devices, users might need to update it more often.

Pros of MP4

  • Broad compatibility: MP4 is one of the most universally accepted video formats, with support for a large list of devices and platforms. Its ability to play on a variety of online and offline video players gives it an edge over MKV.
  • High compression efficiency: MP4 supports efficient video compression codecs, which help it provide high-definition content in a smaller size without interfering with quality.
  • Streaming-friendly: MP4 container files are preferred over MKV for streaming on the Internet.
  • Chapter support: Similar to MKV, MP4 files can have chapter markers that allow viewers to easily navigate lengthy videos or movies, enhancing the viewer experience.
  • Audio flexibility: MP4 is compatible with a number of audio codecs, including AAC, MP3, and others. Thanks to this versatility, you can integrate high-quality audio files in your videos.

Cons of MP4

Quality vs. compression trade-off: Even though MP4 excels in balancing quality and file size, compressing MP4 files may result in noticeable loss in quality due to loss of information from the original file.

Lack of codec support: Not all codecs are supported by MP4, so you would need to turn to third party providers to obtain them.

Copyright issues: MP4 files are copyright protected. Thus, if the content is used unauthorized, this may result in legal issues and copyright violations. Still, MP4 files are often shared illegally with their metadata removed.

Which audio and video formats does JW Player support?

JW Player is a versatile choice for self-hosted streaming and playback, with a variety of supported video and audio formats. Supported video files include MP4 videos using the H.264 video codec and the AAC audio codec.

If you wish to use the newer, H.265 codec, JW Player makes it possible. However, you’ll need newer hardware released after 2015, and either Windows 10+ or Mac’s High Sierra OS.

Moreover, you can play WebM files encoded with the VP8 or VP9 video codec and the Vorbis or Opus audio codec. JW Player is also capable of playing 4K video, although this will vary based on your computer and internet connection. Content at 60 frames per second is also supported, but at the expense of increased hardware and network requirements.

On the audio front, JW Player supports AAC, MP3, and Vorbis.

Final Thoughts

Ultimately, both MKV and MP4 have their strengths and weaknesses. On one hand, MKV is a top choice for video enthusiasts looking for uncompromised playback. On the other hand, MP4 is a no-brainer when it comes to universal compatibility.

Hopefully this comprehensive comparison helped you understand which format is suitable for your needs.



1. Which is better quality MP4 or MKV?

In terms of quality, there isn’t a clear winner when comparing MP4 and MKV. Namely, the quality of the file depends on the codecs used. This means that if you use the same codecs and settings to play MP4 and MKV files, the final quality will be the same.

2. Is MP4 faster than MKV?

Generally, MP4 files are smaller in size than their MKV equivalents. Therefore, they’re easier to download and stream.

3. Why is MKV better?

MKV is a better choice for users who are looking for a format containing multiple audio-visual files, as well as subtitles. It’s the optimal format for streaming HD TV shows and movies in foreign languages.

4. Is MP4 or MKV better for 4k?

MP4 and MKV are both compatible with the H.265 codec, which means they can use 4k and 8k UHD resolutions.