When evaluating the MP4 and 3GP formats, the question is not which one stores superior digital video, but rather, which one is best suited to the task at hand. While both contain multiple tracks of media and have similar encoding methods, their differences are most pronounced when it comes to use on portable devices.
When digital videos are created, they are published by a process that is referred to as compression. During this process, digital scripts called codecs encode media tracks and make them readable. Thereafter, the assorted video, audio, subtitle and animation tracks are merged into a single file through a multimedia container. The MP4 and 3GP formats are closely related because their files are written by some version of MPEG-4 compression.
The 3GP format was developed by the 3rd Generation Partnership Project as an implementation of MPEG-4 compression. While this encoding profile is commonly used for digital video, telecommunications specialists engineered it especially for performance on 3G network mobile phones. Conversely, MP4 is a generic format for any digital video that was published with MPEG-4 compression. The formats are so highly similar, some 3GP files can be opened if their extension is changed to MP4.
Since MPEG-4 compression is so efficient, any digital video that is encoded with this standard can stream high quality media on relatively low bandwidth. As a result, these files are relatively small, and they are less likely to consume storage space and processing speed. Because of this efficiency, the MP4 format is almost universally supported by portable media players and smart phones. Despite this wide compatibility, MP4 files are not optimized for playback on 3G network mobile phones as 3GP files are.
While 3GP files are specialized for 3G network mobile phones, they can also be opened in certain media players. These applications include QuickTime, VLC and RealPlayer. However, since MP4 files are widely shared and more generalized, support for the format is practically standard in media software. In addition to QuickTime, VLC and RealPlayer, MP4 files can be streamed in iTunes and Windows Media Player. MP4 files can also be uploaded to the Apple iPod, Apple iPhone and Sony PSP.
When it comes to streaming video on your computer desktop or portable media player, MP4 is the better format because it can support higher resolution video. However, the 3GP should be used exclusively on 3G network phones since it is specifically formulated for the device.