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What Is a Metafile?

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A metafile is simply a list of Windows drawing commands. The list may contain commands to draw objects such as lines, polygons and text. It may also contain commands to control the style of these objects such as what width pen to use when drawing the line, what brush pattern to use to fill the polygon and which font to pick when displaying the text.

Metafiles are the standard method of exchanging vector graphics (i.e. drawings composed of objects) among Windows programs. Windows can draw a metafile with a single command, so any Windows program can easily display a metafile.

Metafiles can also be scaled up or down in size with virtually no loss of image quality. This is what makes metafiles superior to bitmap graphics (i.e. images composed of dots) and why high-quality clipart is usually distributed as metafiles.

There are actually two kinds of metafiles used by Windows systems today. A Windows metafile (WMF file) is a 16-bit file from 16-bit Windows days that can still be read by more modern versions of Windows. An enhanced metafile (EMF file) is a 32-bit version of a WMF file that can only be used by modern (32- or 64-bit) versions of Windows. An enhanced metafile can contain a much wider range of commands than a regular Windows metafile.

The generic name for a metafile is a picture. The generic name for what most programs edit is a document. In this guide, we use the terms metafile, picture and document interchangeably.


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