Struggling to open a document or photo? Here’s how to do it

Few things are more frustrating than a file you can’t open. Here’s how to convert files for any device.

.jpg, .mp3, .mp4 are format extensions many of us are pretty used to now – but who knew there were so many out there?

Finding a file in a format that’s incompatible with the device you want to use it on is a fairly common occurrence, whether it’s a video you want to watch on your tablet or just a text file you’re trying to open in a word processor.

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It’s a problem that annoys plenty of people, but thankfully there are a few solutions you can try which will convert the format for you. Here are some common ones you may stumble across:

Office documents

Microsoft extension screenshot

Productivity applications such as Microsoft Office are generally pretty good at opening files in formats other than their ‘native’ ones — in MS’s case that’s .docx, .xlsx and .pptx for Word, Excel and PowerPoint, respectively.

All you need to do is select Open from the application’s File menu, use the drop-down list to show all file types (or all file types that can be opened) and browse to the file you want. Microsoft Word, for example, can still open files that were created in WordPerfect 6, which was a word processor released in 1997.

But not all formats are supported – if someone’s sent you a document in a format you can’t open, ask the sender to save it in a different format via the File - Save as menu option. However, this does risk losing some of the formatting, but the information will still be there – it’s probably best that the original copy isn’t deleted right away.

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If formatting is important, ask for a PDF file. This will preserve the look and feel of a document at the expense of editability, but you can still copy and paste text into another document for that.

You could always do it yourself online too by using online converters such as or by searching the format extension. But be mindful with confidential documents.

Things are a bit trickier if you have a file from a productivity application you don’t have access to — such as a Word document and no Word application, either to open it or re-save it. The solution is still simple, though — download Libre Office. Libre Office is a free and fully functional office suite that’s more than a match for Microsoft Office, and it can open (and save in) Office file formats.

For even more free software alternatives like Libre Office, click here.

If you don’t want to install a free office suite just to open a file, then for Microsoft Office documents at least, there is another option. Microsoft offers a number of file viewers for free download, which means you can open and view a file, but not edit it — although you can still copy text and paste it elsewhere. These include: Word Viewer, Excel Viewer and PowerPoint Viewer 2007. Here’s a full list.

[Read more: Is my version of Microsoft Office still safe to use?]

If you're using Windows 10, you can download Microsoft's Office Online, which is free to use via a browser. For the full experience you’ll have to pay out for an Office 365 subscription.

Office Mobile


It’s rare to encounter an image format that can’t be opened, since the world has long since settled on a handful of standards for sharing images online — JPEG (.jpg), GIF (.gif) and PNG (.png). There are also a few others used by image editing applications, such as BMP (.bmp), TIFF (.tif) and PCX (.pcx), plus Adobe Photoshop (.psd).

There’s a difference between viewing and editing, of course, but if you are sent an image that you can’t open in your image editor of choice, try dragging and dropping it on to your web browser to see if it can make sense of it. Otherwise, the same advice applies as for office documents — ask the sender to supply it in a different format.

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Otherwise, the web will help for images in esoteric formats that can’t otherwise be viewed. Again, as long as you’re happy to upload it to a web site such as image, images in just about any format can be converted into just about anything else.

Image formats


The world has just about settled on MP3 (.mp3) as the file format for sharing audio, but some other formats are still popular, including AAC (.aac), WAV (.wav) and WMA (.wma). As with images, you’re unlikely to find an audio file that Windows can’t play, but that’s not to say you wouldn’t prefer it in a different format.

You can convert audio files between formats with audio or using an audio editing tool like the excellent (and free) Audacity.

Just remember that converting a compressed audio file in a format like WMA into another compressed audio file format (such as MP3) will worsen the quality, since you’re compressing an already compressed file.

Audacity screenshot



Of all file formats likely to cause problems, video must be top of the list. The problem is that a wide variety of video file formats is still in widespread use, but few applications can play all of them.

There are countless conversion solutions such as video, but the large file sizes typically associated with video can make this a very lengthy process. Rather than try to convert them all, however, we’ll simply point you at our favourite option — VLC.

VLC is a free video player that can play just about any available video file format and it’s available for Windows, Mac and Linux. It’s much easier to use than Windows Media Player, too, so is worth downloading even for playing more popular video file formats.

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What’s more, it has an app for iOS and Android too, so you can play just about anything on any device of your choosing.

VideoLAN screenshot


Zip or Rar

If you’ve been sent a Zip or Rar file, don’t worry if it’s not quite what you expected. These compressors put files into one folder together, making it easier to send.

Windows automatically supports Zip – so all you need to do to extract your files is right click and select Extract all.

Rar is similar, except you’ll have to download the relevant free WinRAR extractor to retrieve your files.

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