Best file formats for storing digital data
Digital data has brought about a revolution in data representation and storage. Most of the Generation Z won’t know of analog data unless they go looking for it. Since the 80s the digital umbrella is still going through advance technological advancements and now the buzz words are cloud technologies, artificial intelligence, big data, and the internet of things. However, let’s get back to the basics.
What is digital data?
Digital data stores complex texts, audio, and video information in a binary system i.e. ones and zeros or on and off. Binary characters create a machine language that’s interpreted by various technologies. The biggest win of digital data is that it represents all complicated analog inputs in binary. Government agencies, corporates, and businesses explore new data collection frontiers and use accurate simulations thanks to digital interfaces.
Digital data capture real-life events and not only converts them to digital form but also simulates them for technological consumption. For instance, physical scenery can be easily captured in a digital image. The visual data is recorded in a bitmap or rasterized map. In the same way, audio streams can be converted to digital audio forms.
Digital content types determine the file format to be used for storage. Different contents have their own files that accommodate their functionality and needs. The major content forms are texts, images, audio and video with new structure files for 3D models, programs, and archiving coming up.
What to consider when choosing a file format
File formats are continuously evolving with new formats and versions phasing out the old file formats. Developers and users identify new functionalities creating the need for their incorporation in file formats. Therefore, an older format becomes useless if it’s no longer compatible with the current software. Whether it’s commercial or open-source file formats, they are all susceptible to obsolescence. Vendors can also push for file obsolescence to push customers to upgrade their products. On the other hand, open-source communities can withdraw their support for a file that’s no longer used by the community.
This can be a bigger challenge than obsolescence in an organization. File formats should be normalized so that everyone involves used the same file version. You don’t want different versions of image formats, PDFs or Word files that require installation of various applications to view and edit them.
Ensure that there is a digital preservation strategy that checks obsolescence and proliferation. As a result, you track all the standard file formats, file migration, as well as those worth considering for your business.
Many businesses have publishing and sharing specifications for all their documents. Whether it’s following international standards, vendor stipulations, or a user community. Work with well-documented and widely implemented file formats such as PDF or DOCX. Files that are widely adopted give users more support options.
Open source and proprietary files
Open files are fully documented and available for public use without copyright restrictions. Anyone is allowed to write a program to read an open file. On the other hand, proprietary files are either undocumented or documented but they have copyright restrictions and protected by licenses, patents, or other intellectual property rights.
Currently, the big giants developing proprietary formats (like Microsoft Office) have made it difficult for open formats to catch up. Therefore, they are very well established and publicly standardized, hence, gathering huge public support.
Lossless and lossy
Lossy file formats lose data quality during compression while lossless files maintain high-quality data. This results in smaller lossy files compared to their lossless counterparts. The rule of thumb is to always use lossless formats for storage and creation of archival masters and use lossy formats for delivery and accessibility purposes. The rule always works well with still images or any digitization project.
Recommended file formats for storing digital data
Microsoft Word documents (.doc/.docx) are the established file formats for data that needs editing.
For texts that don’t need any modification, PDF files or plain text file (.txt) is the most established and open formats to use.
Microsoft PowerPoint (.ppt/.pptx) files are the standard established files. However, you can also save them in PDF presentations for information that’s already locked-in.
Microsoft Excel spreadsheets (.xls/.xlsx) are the best for storage.
FLAC is an established, lossless format for creating anything new that might be modified later.
MP3 files the most established lossy files for delivery and locked-in files.
MP4 is the default best file storage format.
SVG is the best for vector file formats. For anything else go with PNG file format.
ZIP is the most established file format for archiving and compression. 7Z comes as a close second.