What are video codecs? The whole lot you have to find out about AV1, VP9, H.264, others

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Digital video has come a great distance for the reason that early 2000s. We’ve seen image high quality enhance leaps and bounds, in tandem with the introduction of recent display technologies like OLED. As customers too, we have now greater expectations than ever earlier than, each at residence and on transportable units resembling smartphones and tablets. Codecs allow all of this, compressing giant swathes of uncooked data right into a video file that’s far more manageable for storage, broadcast, and distribution.

Over time, main {industry} gamers like Google, Intel, and Apple have been curious about new methods to compress and bundle video. You might have heard of YouTube adopting the brand new AV1 customary, for instance, and newer iPhone fashions concentrating on skilled videographers with Apple’s ProRes codec. Certainly, there are no less than a handful of various requirements at the moment in use, every with their very own strengths and weaknesses.

With so many video codecs on supply then, it’s value discussing what they do, why the digital video {industry} continues to be fragmented, and the way a number of the hottest requirements differ from one another. Right here’s all the things you have to know.

What’s a video codec?

Huawei Matebook 14 2020 AMD watching a YouTube video

Ryan-Thomas Shaw / Android Authority

The time period codec itself gives a fairly large trace to understanding the way it all works — it’s merely shorthand for encoding and decoding. Why are movies encoded and decoded, you ask? In easy phrases, it’s as a result of they sometimes carry numerous uncooked information.

You might have heard that movies are primarily a sequence of nonetheless pictures. Previous-school film projectors are the most effective showcase of this precept. They’re bodily fed a reel of movie and present you 24 frames per second, tricking your mind into pondering it’s a movement image.

Whilst you may completely do the identical with digital pictures as an alternative, the storage wanted for a lot information is unfathomable. In accordance with Mozilla’s calculations, a single 30-minute video — saved within the type of uncooked pictures — would weigh properly over 1TB. For context, that’s ten instances the full storage capability of a typical 128GB smartphone.

A single 30-minute video — saved within the type of uncooked pictures – would weigh properly over 1TB.

To that finish, video storage and playback merely just isn’t possible with out utilizing advanced compression algorithms within the type of codecs. It’s additionally value noting that codecs exist for audio too, for lots of the identical causes. Uncooked and uncompressed video and audio can each shortly balloon in dimension, making them not possible to edit, retailer, and distribute.

Associated: 10 best video editor apps for Android

How do codecs work?


Whereas codecs make use of a number of advanced compression algorithms, a number of fundamental strategies are straightforward to visualise. For instance, what when you solely retailer the data associated to adjustments between one body and the subsequent, as an alternative of storing full-sized pictures? That method, a a number of minutes-long, principally static scene may be compressed considerably. An individual talking towards a set background, for instance, wouldn’t have a lot movement, and this can be a pretty widespread situation in most movies and flicks.

You may as well take this one step additional with movement vectors and compensation algorithms. These can obtain greater compression ranges by predicting the place a selected pixel results in a future body. If a digital camera is solely panning horizontally, for instance, the codec can inform {that a} specific pixel might be displaced to the left or proper after a number of frames.

Codecs goal to ship an acceptably correct picture at a fraction of the unique file dimension.

One other compression methodology includes grouping close by pixels with comparable colours. When taken to the acute, nevertheless, that is what causes the notorious “blocky” look in low-quality movies. On this occasion, the compressed file merely doesn’t maintain sufficient data for the decoder to reconstruct the unique picture.

Carefully, these compression strategies — alongside others — can put out an acceptably correct picture at a fraction of the unique dimension. Whilst you inevitably lose some data throughout compression, it’s a worthwhile tradeoff, to say the least.

Every video codec makes use of a barely totally different method or methodology to attain compression. And as you’d anticipate, newer codecs are designed to retain or enhance image high quality whereas additionally decreasing file dimension.

Why do video codecs matter?

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From chat functions like WhatsApp to streaming providers like Netflix and Disney+, codecs open the door to many smartphone use-cases we take without any consideration.

Sharing a media file on a service like Fb or Twitter, for instance, sometimes includes re-encoding the video to a smaller dimension. The identical is true for photographs and audio recordsdata too. Equally, streaming corporations like YouTube encode and retailer every bit of media in a number of qualities and codecs. They’ll then ship the precise model relying in your machine’s capabilities and connection pace.

From streaming providers to talk apps, video codecs are an integral a part of our linked lives. But, we hardly ever discover their impression.

Although web speeds have improved significantly over time, most of us nonetheless should take care of information caps and occasional slowness. Not forgetting that porting round high-resolution video shortly eats into our restricted cellular space for storing. Newer codecs are explicitly designed with these constraints in thoughts.

As such, video codecs come in useful whereas recording video too. Many trendy Android units will supply the choice to file in a extra environment friendly codec, permitting you to avoid wasting precious disk area.

To research this, I recorded two 20-second 4K clips on my smartphone — one within the default H.264 codec and the opposite within the extra environment friendly H.265 codec (extra on these in a bit). The primary clip’s file dimension totaled 125MB, whereas the second weighed 90MB.

These figures equal a 30% distinction in file dimension, simply from altering one setting! What’s extra, it must be attainable to compress the file even additional, utilizing extra highly effective {hardware} than a smartphone SoC. For streaming corporations like Netflix or YouTube, shifting to a extra environment friendly codec can minimize storage and bandwidth necessities by practically half — saving staggering quantities of cash within the course of.

Find out how to inform which codecs your smartphone or machine helps

Motorola Edge watching video in hand

The efficiency of encoding and decoding movies may be enormously helped together with the presence of devoted {hardware}. To that finish, the chips in our televisions, cellphones, computer systems, and even sport consoles all assist a set set of codecs on the {hardware} stage. In different phrases, they’re able to compressing and decompressing video recordsdata extraordinarily effectively utilizing {hardware} acceleration. That is particularly vital in smartphones as a result of the decrease processing pressure equals longer battery life.

Nevertheless, you should still come throughout a video file that can’t be performed again or opened by any app — likelihood is that it makes use of a codec your machine both can’t deal with or doesn’t acknowledge. To substantiate this, you need to use an app like MediaInfo to establish the video’s format and encoding particulars. On Android, you need to use free apps like Codec Info or AIDA64 to test your machine’s assist for audio and video codecs. If a selected codec isn’t on the listing, it’s doubtless as a result of your machine’s SoC doesn’t assist it. The Android Builders website gives an inventory of obligatory codecs, in case you’re curious.

That stated, trendy smartphones have loads of brute-force CPU energy to decode unsupported codecs. To that finish, third-party video player apps like VLC will supply to playback such recordsdata by way of software program decoding, with none {hardware} acceleration. Nevertheless, this has the potential to warmth up your machine and drain your battery over longer intervals, so it’s greatest to not depend on it.

AssociatedThe best media streaming devices you can buy in 2021

A quick historical past of video codecs

Competing codecs and requirements had been as soon as a significant downside for the video {industry}. Many well-liked codecs solely actually labored properly with {hardware} from particular producers. Fortunately although, the previous few years have seen machine makers converge on a handful of codecs. Whereas fragmentation is now not an issue, it’s nonetheless value realizing which codecs you’re prone to encounter in the actual world and the way we bought right here.


Akai portable video player

Adamya Sharma / Android Authority

MPEG-2 is maybe the oldest video codec that’s nonetheless in circulation in the present day. It turned extraordinarily well-liked within the early 2000s, again when it was nearly solely used to compress tv broadcasts and DVD film releases. Some early Blu-Ray releases used MPEG-2 for high-definition content material as properly.

MPEG-2 was developed for the DVD period. It turned the dominant video codec within the early 2000s.

At this time, nearly no new content material is encoded in MPEG-2. Nevertheless, decode assist for this can be very widespread, particularly since many more moderen units are backwards suitable with it. From fundamental DVD gamers to decade-old computer systems, it’s straightforward to discover a machine that may playback MPEG-2 recordsdata lately.


Amazon Prime Video movies and shows on a phone screen.

Edgar Cervantes / Android Authority

Superior Video Coding (AVC), or H.264 because it’s extra generally recognized, is the brand new king of video codecs when it comes to compatibility and adoption. It grew in recognition alongside the rise of high-definition video due to its improved effectivity in comparison with earlier codecs. H.264 manages to ship comparable image high quality at roughly 50% of the dimensions of an MPEG-2 video.

H.264 was such a large leap in effectivity over earlier codecs that it shortly turned the de facto customary for HD movies. This was very true for bandwidth-constrained functions, like streaming video over the web. The truth is, the H.264 codec is what enabled YouTube to first introduce assist for 720p and 1080p resolutions all the way in which again in 2008 and 2009, respectively. Even a decade later, you’ll discover H.264 extensively used for streaming video, HD Blu-Ray discs, and tv broadcasts.

Most content material on the web is encoded within the H.264 codec due to its large comaptibility.

On account of this widespread adoption, nearly all mainstream {hardware} and software program helps the codec in the present day. Unsurprisingly, many smartphones and digital cameras additionally file in H.264 to make sure most compatibility with different units.

H.265 or HEVC

Codec selection on a smartphone

Excessive Effectivity Video Coding, or HEVC, was the follow-up to the extremely well-liked H.264 codec. Because the title suggests, it gives a fairly sizable leap in effectivity in comparison with earlier codecs, making it a no brainer for bandwidth-sensitive functions and ultra-high-resolution content material.

HEVC’s rise coincided with the introduction of 4K shows and releases. To that finish, the most recent Blu-Ray customary — Extremely HD Blu-Ray — depends on the H.265 codec. You’re additionally prone to come throughout H.265 whereas making an attempt to file 4K and 8K video on smartphones, particularly if capturing in an HDR format like Dolby Imaginative and prescient.

See additionally: Everything you need to know about HDR display technology

Nevertheless, HEVC failed to realize as a lot traction as H.264 in different areas, regardless of its benefits. For years, H.265 adoption was stunted by uncertainty over the codec’s licensing and royalty charges. With three totally different stakeholders versus H.264’s single licensing group, it took years for gamers within the content material, {hardware}, and software program industries to heat as much as HEVC. And even now, main internet browsers like Google Chrome and Mozilla Firefox don’t assist it in any respect.


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Hesitation over HEVC’s patent and royalty specifics prompted Google to take issues into its personal palms and develop an open-source different referred to as VP9. It gives an analogous 30% effectivity achieve over H.264, making it the perfect alternative for high-resolution video recordsdata. Extra importantly, VP9 is totally royalty-free, which means that corporations don’t should pay Google something so as to add assist for it.

Google developed VP9 as a free and open codec to keep away from coping with H.265’s complicated royalty state of affairs.

Google bolstered VP9 adoption when it determined to make use of it for 4K movies on YouTube. Beginning in 2016, it additionally required producers of Android TV units to assist the codec. Each of those had been sufficient to propel VP9 to success, no less than to a higher diploma than HEVC. Unsurprisingly, nearly all smartphones, browsers, and televisions launched since 2017 can deal with VP9 encoded content material.

Nevertheless, not many content material suppliers have adopted VP9. In addition to Google’s personal YouTube and Stadia platforms, solely Netflix adopted it for a quick interval.


Netflix Originals on a phone screen next to popcorn

AV1 is the latest video codec on this listing and likewise shaping as much as turn into a real successor to the favored H.264. Like VP9, it’s open-source and royalty-free. Extra importantly, although, many extra corporations assist it than any earlier codec. AV1’s growth is led by the Alliance of Open Media — a cross-industry coalition of giants like Intel, Apple, Google, Adobe, Fb, and Arm. With such backing, it’s laborious to think about AV1 faltering like HEVC and different codecs designed for the streaming period.

Fb’s testing in 2018 found that AV1 provided 50% higher compression than H.264. One other check concluded that AV1 provided a ten% and 15% discount in file dimension in comparison with HEVC and VP9 respectively. These figures imply {that a} 25GB 1080p Blu-Ray film encoded in H.264 may very well be compressed down to only 12-13GB utilizing AV1 as an alternative — all with none degradation in picture high quality.

The AV1 codec is backed by the Alliance of Open Media — a cross-industry coalition of giants like Intel, Apple, Google, Adobe, Fb, and Arm.

Whereas AV1’s specification was finalized round 2019, adoption has progressed slower than you’d anticipate. It is because nearly no {hardware} available on the market provided hardware-accelerated encoding for the codec till comparatively not too long ago. With out that, Moscow State College estimated that AV1 encoding is 2,500 to three,000 instances slower than its rivals.

Equally, AV1 decoding capabilities weren’t widespread both. Within the Android ecosystem, Mediatek’s Dimensity 1200 was the primary chipset to incorporate {hardware} acceleration for AV1 in early 2021. Nevertheless, its direct rivals — the Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 and 870 SoCs — didn’t assist the codec in any respect. Qualcomm isn’t a part of the Alliance of Open Media and doesn’t assist AV1 in its newest Snapdragon 8 Gen 1 chipset both.

As soon as hardware-level assist for AV1 is extra commonplace, we’ll doubtless see an increasing number of providers undertake it. YouTube and Netflix already use AV1 on Android, as does Google Duo. Moreover, all main internet browsers — aside from Safari — assist the codec.

Learn extra: A look at the inner workings of AV1

Apple ProRes

Apple iPhone 13 Pro Max Face ID cameras notch

Robert Triggs / Android Authority

In contrast to the opposite codecs on this listing, ProRes is a comparatively area of interest video codec that’s designed nearly solely for video editors and professionals. Merely put, movies saved in ProRes retain extra data, with decrease compression ranges. This makes post-production work like colour grading simpler for the reason that file nonetheless retains a good quantity of uncooked data from the digital camera.

See additionally: 10 best filmmaker apps for Android

After all, extra data and a decrease compression ratio imply that ProRes recordsdata are typically fairly a bit bigger. In accordance with Apple’s white paper detailing the codec, a single hour of 4K 30fps video encoded in ProRes will yield a file dimension north of 280GB! This is the reason ProRes is nearly by no means used for content material supply, and solely throughout intermediate manufacturing phases. The truth is, Apple gained’t even allow you to file 4K ProRes video on the 128GB mannequin of the iPhone 13.

Apple ProRes is an intermediate codec that prioritizes high quality over compression. It’s meant for video enhancing and colour grading, not content material supply like the opposite codecs.

In 2021, Apple introduced that the iPhone 13 can be the primary smartphone to optionally shoot movies instantly in ProRes. Later within the 12 months, drone maker DJI launched the Mavic 3 Cine — its flagship client drone — with the power to file in ProRes. Over on the encoding aspect, Apple included devoted ProRes accelerators in its M1 Professional and M1 Max SoCs’ media engines.

And with that, you’re now on top of things on the entire well-liked video codecs in use in the present day. For additional studying, take a look at our comprehensive guide on Bluetooth audio codecs.

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