AVI, MOV, MPEG, FLV, MKV, MP4 - videos come in many different formats. Each of which can then vary in a raft of subtle ways.

Which would be just fine if every application and device could handle every possible format, but of course that isn't the case.

And so often you'll find you've downloaded a movie to your PC, phone or tablet, but either it has major playback problems - no picture or sound, say - or you can't watch the clip at all.

This doesn't have to hold you up for long, though. There are plenty of free video conversion tools which can quickly import movies in just about any format, perhaps tweak them in useful ways (change the resolution, maybe carry out basic editing operations), and export them in formats you can actually use.

And if you're aiming to view the clip on a mobile device then some of these programs can be incredibly easy to use. They'll often include a library of presets for common devices, so if you want to export a video to an iPhone 4, say, you won't have to manually tweak every possible setting.

Just choose the iPhone 4 preset and the program will automatically configure itself to produce the precise format you need.

The only real problem is that there are now so many free video conversion tools that you might be left wondering, which is the best free video converter? We're curious, too - so we decided to pitch 12 popular packages against each other in an effort to find out, and here are the results.

NOTE: While these tools are free, many now include browser toolbars and similar addons. If you'd rather not install these, don't just keep clicking Next during the setup process: read each screen carefully. Choose "Custom" installation options where they're offered, and clear the checkboxes next to any "bonus extras" which you'd rather not have on your system.

1. Any Video Converter Free 3.3.2

Download Any Video Converter Free 3.3.2

Video conversion tools can sometimes be scary, complex, intimidating - but not this one. If your needs are basic then you can just drag in your files, choose the output format you need from the wide selection on offer, click "Convert Now!", and the program will go to work. It's all very easy.

Best free video converter: 12 on test

There's also plenty of power here, though. Any Video Converter Free can download videos directly from YouTube, Google, MetaCafe and so on, for instance. Handy editing options include the ability to trim and crop footage, and apply useful special effects (sharpen, reduce noise, tweak brightness or contrast). And once you've chosen an output profile then you can customise a few of its settings, perhaps choosing a new resolution, frame rate, bit rate and so on.

Performance was a little disappointing, especially considering that Any Video Converter is (like many similar programs) mostly just a front end for the excellent FFMPEG conversion library. Only two programs were slower in the important MP4 conversion test, and the others weren't quick, either.

And there was another problem. The program includes a "Burning to DVD" profile which is supposed to burn your videos to DVD when the conversion is over, but just gave us an error message.

This is a pity, because Ant Video Converter is well designed and had lots of useful functionality. It only offers limited control over the conversion process, so video experts may want to look elsewhere, but if you're more interested in ease of use and can put up with the below-par performance then this could be an acceptable choice.

We liked

Easy to use, downloads from YouTube, useful video editing features, supports many input/ output formats

We disliked

Only limited control over the video conversion, DVD burning didn't work for us, disappointing performance

Score: 80%

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2. Free Studio 5.3.3

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Free Studio is a suite of 45 freeware tools to handle all kinds of video-related tasks: downloading, ripping, burning, and of course converting clips from one format to another.

Best free video converter: 12 on test

A front end menu tries to integrate all these, but it still takes some exploration to find what you need. Once discovered the relevant tools, though, they follow the usual route: import your chosen videos, choose the appropriate output format or device, and convert at a click.

If Free Studio doesn't provide a profile to suit your needs, then it's possible to configure a new one. So if you need to create 1024x768 AVIs, say, then in a click or two you can build a profile which uses that resolution, and in future you'll be able to simply select it from the list. Which is handy, although there are only very few tweaks available within a profile: video frame rate, bit rate, resolution, audio sample rate, bit rate, the number of audio channels, and, well, that's it. (You can't even choose the audio codec, typically - the program selects what's appropriate for the format.)

When it comes to performance, the story is mixed: Free Studio did very well in the important MP4 conversion tests, but was poor at creating FLVs, and couldn't produce an MPEG2 file at all.

And so if you're looking for real video conversion power this Free Studio probably won't be good enough. But if you only need to convert videos occasionally, maybe to MP4, then Free Studio may deliver exactly what you need (and its ease of use and host of extras are a welcome bonus.)

We liked

Well designed, many extras (download, ripping, burning tools), good MP4 conversion speed

We disliked

Conversion functions are inconveniently split across several programs, only limited conversion tweaks, slow FLV export, failed to create MP2 file

Score: 70%

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3. Format Factory 2.80

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Format Factory offers a good balance between ease of use and video conversion power. It's easy to get started: you can choose the type of file you'd like to create, add some videos to be converted, and pick your required output settings. But you also just get a little more control over those settings than in some of the more basic tools here.

FormatFactory

When creating an MP4 movie, for instance, you can choose the encoding option (DivX, XviD, H264); the video resolution; frame rate, audio codec, sample rate, volume and more, even rotating the image, or adding subtitles or a watermark, if you like.

But if you're in a hurry, no problem, the program also provides multiple profiles which configure all your settings in a click. The MP4 conversion, for instance, has 27, with descriptive names like "Mobile Device Compatible 320x240 MPEG4", so it's easy to find what you need. (And if for some reason it isn't, then you can easily create new profiles to do whatever you want.)

Performance wasn't bad, either, with Format Factory scoring well on our HD to MP4 and WMV tests, although its inability to run our MP4 to FLV conversion dragged its mark down.

The programs mix of usability with plenty of advanced conversion tweaks does mean it's worth a look, though. And as a bonus, there are plenty of extra options, including the ability to create animated GIFs from movies, extract video soundtracks, convert audio and image files, rip DVDs and CDs, and more.

We liked

Advanced conversion options, plenty of built-in conversion presets, watermark and subtitling support, bonus audio/ image/ other conversion types, good MP4/ WMV output performance

We disliked

Failed to convert one of the test files

Score: 80%

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4. Freemake Video Converter 3.0.1

Download Freemake Video Converter 3.0.1

If you need your conversion tool to support the widest possible range of formats then Freemake Video Converter could be ideal: it supports a lengthy list of video types, as well as being able to import audio files, images, DVDs, even YouTube URLs.

Freemake video converter 3.0.1

Once your movies have been imported, you're able to remove sections you don't need via a simple video editor. There's a useful option to set a limit on the maximum size of your movie, or you might choose to import a series of files, but then join them together so they're saved as a single video.

Export support for files is a little more basic, being mostly limited to the essentials, and you can only tweak a few elements of your chosen format (codec, resolution, frame rate, audio and video bitrate, sample rate, channels).

Exporting to mobile devices is better, however, with support for many Apple, Nokia, Samsung, Blackberry and other device types (there are even pictures of many phones, rather than just the model names, to help you choose). Choose the appropriate device and the program will automatically configure itself to produce compatible videos: all you have to do is click Convert and watch it happen.

And you won't be watching long, as Freemake Video Converter delivers marginally above-average performance, not least because of its CUDA support.

A few more output formats would be welcome, then, as would some more advanced conversion tweaks. But that's really just nit-picking: Freemake Video Converter is an excellent tool which already has more than enough power to satisfy most people's transcoding needs.

We liked

Wide input file format support, lots of device export options, simple video editor, can limit converted video size, reasonable performance, easy to use

We disliked

Output file format support is limited, can only tweak a few aspects of the converted videos

Score: 90%

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5. Handbrake 0.9.5

Download Handbrake 0.9.5

HandBrake is probably the oldest of our crop of conversion tools, having been around since 2003. And it's also one of the more specialised, being best at transcoding videos to run on Apple devices. The program can only export MP4 and MKV files, for example, and its output presets are mostly Apple related (iPod, iPhone, iPad and so on).

Handbrake

As long as your target device plays MP4 files, though (and most do), this doesn't have to be a major problem. And HandBrake does enable you to customise the video conversion process in many different ways, which could be appealing if you find the competition a little too basic.

Once you've selected your source files, for instance, you can of course choose the output resolution, video and audio codecs, frame rates and so on. But there are also options to crop the source footage, add subtitles, or include extra audio tracks. You can include chapter markers, or apply some useful cleanup filters (Detelecine, Decomb, Deinterlace, Denoise, Deblock). And real experts can access many low-level encoding and analysis details via the Advanced tab.

What you don't get here are spectacular conversion speeds, unfortunately: Handbrake's MP4 output performance remained resolutely average in our tests (although perhaps it could be improved if you spend time tuning the program's more advanced settings). Still, if you need lots of encoding options, and can live with the meagre selection of output formats, then Handbrake may still be a reasonable transcoding choice.

We liked

Many useful editing options and video filters, advanced encoding and analysis tweaks

We disliked

Only exports MP4 and MKV files, average conversion speeds

Score: 60%

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6. Internet Video Converter HD

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If there were awards given for horrible interfaces then Internet Video Converter HD (IVC HD) would be an obvious candidate. It's a cluttered mess, confusing and poorly laid out, and will quickly have you wishing you'd downloaded a more conventional tool, instead. The program has received quite a few positive reviews, though, and once you get past the dubious design decisions then a few plus points do emerge.

IVC hd

IVC HD can download videos from YouTube and 12 other video sharing sites, for instance. It's able to create Flash files (FLV or SWF) from your videos, and can generate the HTML to host them. Editing options include the ability to trim, rotate, deinterlace or sharpen your source footage, and converting HD footage from one format to another is simplified by a convenient set of built-in presets: just choose the one which matches your needs and you'll be ready to go.

The basic conversion process isn't too difficult to follow, either, once you've tried it a few times. Choose your input video, pick an output format, customise a few settings and click Convert: even if the developer is entirely clueless about interface design, the core procedure is just the same as with more normal tools.

Performance isn't quite as good as you'll get elsewhere, however, with the program delivering marginally below average conversion speeds in our tests. And so, if you really need the video downloading feature, or you want to generate Flash files (SWF) with matching HTML then IVC HD might be worth a try, just about. But otherwise we'd recommend you ignore it entirely

We liked

Handy HD conversion presets, downloads online videos from many sites, can generate HTML for Flash files, some basic editing options

We disliked

Dreadful interface, below average performance

Score: 40%

7. KoyoteSoft Free Video Converter 3.1.0.0

Download KoyoteSoft Free Video Converter 3.1.0.0

At first glance, Free Video Converter doesn't look like the most impressive of transcoding tools. File format support is limited, for instance; you can only tweak the most basic aspects of the output video (codec, resolution, frame rate, bitrate and so on); and there's nothing like the bonus features you'll get with some of the more powerful competition.

FreeVideoConverter

Try a few conversions, though, and the program will soon seem more appealing. Importing videos is just a matter of dragging and dropping, for instance (and it supports all the formats most people will ever need). There are lots of presets available for various devices (Apple, Android, Sony, BlackBerry, Xbox and more). And while there's only one editing tool, it's perhaps the most important, allowing you to trim unwanted footage from the start and end of your clip.

There are also some issues, though. And the major one is performance. The program proved particularly slow in our HD conversion tests, and the other times weren't great, either. While elsewhere, minor irritations included the lack of a local help file, always an issue when you're dealing with such a complex topic. And an interface quick means you can't manually type the video bitrate you require into the program (you're bizarrely forced to use assorted buttons and a slider, instead).

Free Video Converter scores highly for its ease of use, then, and if you only occasionally need to run simple conversions of small files then it may be good enough. If you're after power or performance, though, the program will probably disappoint.

We liked

Easy to use, lots of device presets, video trimmer

We disliked

Relatively limited file format support, some interface quirks, poor HD transcoding performance

Score: 90%

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8. MediaCoder 2011 R10

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If your video conversion needs are complex, and only the most powerful tool will do, then start by downloading a copy of MediaCoder 2011 - it's packed with functions and features.

MediaCoder

The program doesn't just import all the main video formats, for instance: it can also download streaming videos, read CDs and DVDs, connect to video capture devices, and more.

In-depth editing options then allow you to trim and crop your footage; tweak levels, brightness, contrast, saturation, hue and gamma; and apply filters to deinterlace, denoise, deblock, dering and otherwise enhance your footage.

You can then output to all the usual video formats. And not just using whatever settings the developer thought best. MediaCoder gives you access to an incredible number of options, probably more than you ever realised existed (the Advanced XviD section currently contains 39 settings all on its own).

And smart optimisations, along with support for CUDA and Intel video acceleration technologies, helps to ensure that MediaCoder delivers the best possible performance. It was the fastest in our tests by a large margin.

With all this power comes a degree of complexity, unsurprisingly. The author has tried to combat this by providing a wizard and some simplified device-specific interfaces to help configure MediaCoder's key settings, but it's still trickier to use than most of the competition.

If you'll use the program's extra power, though, don't let that put you off. It doesn't take too long to master the MediaCoder basics, and your efforts will be handsomely rewarded by its powerful features, extreme configurability and great performance.

And if you must have something simpler, check out the program's website: there are simpler, more specialised versions of MediaCoder (for Apple devices, say, or mobile phones) which deliver similar performance but are much easier to use.

We liked

Wide input format support, powerful editing, vast range of conversion settings and tweaks, excellent performance, straightforward configuration wizard

We disliked

Interface can be intimidating, relatively complex to use

Score: 100%

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9. Miro Video Converter 2.5

Download Miro Video Converter 2.5

Throughout these tests we've been giving extra marks to programs which allow us to tweak the video conversion process, change various advanced settings to produce the precise results we need. But if you don't care about any of that, and just want the easiest conversion tool you can find, then Miro could be interesting.

Miro

The program really is very simple to use. All you have to do is drag and drop a file onto it (all the major formats are supported), choose an output preset (Apple and Android devices are covered, along with the PSP and basic MP4/ WebM/ Theora options) click Convert, and that's it: Miro will begin converting your movie right away.

This simplicity does mean the program has plenty of limitations, though. You can't tweak the resolution or frame rate, for example. There's no talk of codecs here, no editor, no configurable sample or bit rates. You can't add additional presets for your own devices.

It's not even possible to process more than one file at a time, so if you've ten files to convert then you'll have to drag and drop them individually.

Still, conversion speeds proved acceptable, with the program ranking fourth out of twelve in our MP4 export test. And so, if you occasionally need to convert a single video to play on your iPad, say, then Miro will get the job done fairly quickly and with the absolute minimum of hassle.

If you'd like wider format support, more (or any) conversion tweaks and a few video editing options, though, then move along to the next program: you won't find any of those items here.

We liked

good input format support, drag and drop simplicity, above average MP4 export performance

We disliked

no configuration options at all, no editing tools, very few output formats, can't add new presets

Score: 60%

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10. Quick Media Converter HD 4.5.0.0

Download Quick Media Converter HD 4.5.0.0

Quick Media Converter HD does its best to create a good first impression by opening in an "Easy Mode", with minimal conversion options and plenty of bright, colourful icons. But it's not long before you realise that "Easy Mode" isn't really so easy, at all.

Quick

The program tells you to drag and drop your input videos, for instance, but that didn't work for us. Many of the presets are confusing, basic and inconsistent. And while "Easy Mode" includes resizing and "bit rate select" buttons, most of the time they don't work, either.

Switching to HD Mode is a little better, in that you can choose from some common target HD resolutions.

But then Expert Mode introduces new problems, in that it allows you to create all kinds of impossible combinations (like converting videos to GIF files using the H264 codec). Presumably they're hoping experts will choose more sensibly, but a little help from the interface would still be welcome.

And other interface irritations include the horribly basic integrated video player, which doesn't have a progress bar, so you can only play clips from the beginning - there's no option to jump ahead.

Still, at least Quick Media Converter HD uses FFmpeg to convert your files, so we thought conversion performance would be acceptable. But no, it turned out the program wasn't great here, either. It did reasonably well on our small file tests, but when converting HD files Quick Media Converter HD was clearly outperformed by most of the competition.

So whether you want simplicity, advanced controls or reliably speedy conversions, Quick Media Converter HD just doesn't deliver - give the program a miss.

We liked

Colourful interface, multiple operating modes, lots of device presets, reasonable SD encoding performance

We disliked

Poorly designed, often confusing and difficult to use, feeble video player, below average HD conversion speeds

Score: 40%

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11. SUPER 2011.49

Download SUPER 2011.49

While many video conversion tools try to hide their more involved settings, SUPER displays them up front, cramming its opening screen with more options than some of the competition have in total. And that can be a little intimidating, if you're a transcoding novice.

Super

In reality, though, the settings are sensibly grouped, leading you through the various options you need to take: choose an output file format, a video and audio codec, select a resolution, frame and bit rates, and so on. You're able to drag and drop a bunch of files onto the program, and with a single click SUPER will then try to process them all.

Whether it'll succeed is another matter. SUPER uses popular tools like FFmpeg to handle the conversions, so they really ought to be reliable, but it did give us errors on some conversions (and we've no idea why).

The real problem here is the horrible performance, though, particularly in the HD conversion tests, where SUPER trailed way behind everyone else. (Putting this into perspective, MediaCoder was more than 17 times faster in our MOV > MP4 benchmark.)

It's a shame, because SUPER does have lots of interesting features: it can import streaming videos (rtsp, mms, http), understands playlists (asx, m3u, pls, wmx), and includes many advanced configuration options. In our view that's not enough to make up for the dire performance, though, and so you'll be better off looking elsewhere.

We liked

Imports streaming videos, lots of advanced configuration options, supports plenty of input and output formats

We disliked

Interface isn't the best, poor performance, various quirks and irritations

Score: 40%

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12. Xmedia Recode 3.0.6.0

Download Xmedia Recode 3.0.6.0

XMedia Recode made a good impression from the moment we launched it, thanks to a clear and well-designed interface which for the most part works just as you'd expect.

XMedia

Here's a box for your input files, for instance, and of course you can drag and drop whatever videos you like there. If your needs are simple then you can get by with just choosing an output format or device profile from the huge selection on offer. And if you need more, then the program organises more advanced conversion tweaks under various tabs so they're easy to find.

It's true, some of these are, well a little obscure ("Offset between I and P-frame Quants"). But there are plenty of more accessible settings here, too, with options to help you resize, crop, colour correct, deblock, denoise, deinterlace, sharpen and otherwise improve your source footage. It's an impressive package.

One small issue is that your list of imported videos can't be converted directly. You must set up the output format you need, select the files and choose the "Add Job" option before the Encode button becomes available, which isn't immediately obvious. The program doesn't have any English language help, either, so if you don't understand something then you're out of luck. And HD encoding performance was below average.

Conversion speeds in our other tests proved more acceptable, though, and the mix of powerful functionality with an easy-to-use interface gives XMedia Recode a lot of appeal. If you're a mid-level user who needs access to advanced conversion tweaks, but only occasionally, then this could be the ideal solution.

We liked

clear interface, vast array of device profiles, wide file format support, many useful filters/ editing options/ advanced configuration tweaks

We disliked

No English language help, below average performance in our HD AVI > WMV test

Score: 90%

Conclusion

Which is the best video conversion tool, then? What our tests reveal is there's no one package which will suit every need, and the best program for you will depend very much on your requirements.

If you just want to convert the occasional video to play on a mobile device, for instance, and don't want any conversion complexities at all, then Miro should appeal. Drag and drop a file, choose your device, click a button and that's it: there's nothing quite as simple here, and its MP4 creation performance isn't bad, either.

Most people will want more power and configuration options, though, and the best all-round combination of power and ease of use is to be found in Freemake Video Converter, our pick for the novice and casual video conversion user. The interface is clean and well designed, it supports lots of input and output formats, there are useful extras, and while performance isn't the best, it's perfectly acceptable.

If you need more control over your output video, though, the next step up is XMedia Recode. Performance isn't so great, but the program makes a host of advanced settings available, while an excellent interface ensures it remains generally easy to use.

Our highest score has to go to MediaCoder, though. It's more complex than the other tools here, but if you're a confident PC user then you'll quickly master the basics. And what you'll get in return is access to more video conversion tweaks than you ever knew existed, and performance which effortlessly outstrips the competition in just about every department: it really is a staggeringly powerful tool.