You’re home from work, ready to kick back, relax and catch a new show or movie on Netflix – the service that streams over 90 million hours of content a day. With each hour of SD (standard definition) video taking up approximately 1 GB of data, and one hour of HD (high definition) video taking up almost 3 GB of data, it’s no wonder that videos start to buffer, bringing things to a screeching halt just when you find the perfect time to unwind.
We’ve come to expect more. We never ponder the fact that there’s this huge flow of data behind it and streaming Netflix in high definition shouldn’t be a problem. Streaming media quality is a critical factor for customer demand and here’s what could help change that experience:
The industry has developed a new video compression standard called HEVC (High Efficiency Video Coding), otherwise known as H.265. HEVC is meant to improve consumers’ viewing experience by delivering the same level of picture quality as Advanced Video Coding (AVC) or H.264, but with better compression, so there’s less data to deal with – and less buffering for the viewer. HEVC can bring the size of one hour of HD video down to 1.5 – 2 GB of data, so why has HEVC adoption been so slow?
It could be the classic chicken-and-egg problem, where companies are holding off on prioritizing H.265 video rollout until consumers have enough access to HEVC-compatible hardware and software. Another issue may be the scarcity of content or higher encoding costs. Recently there have been some uncertainties regarding the patent royalties for HEVC, which could also have a negative effect on the market. Regardless of the reasons, this Thanksgiving, before you hit the stores on Black Friday or shop Cyber Monday, let’s take a look at the current state of HEVC adoption.
HEVC playback is not widely supported on desktops and notebooks. None of the major players — Apple, Google or Microsoft — have announced HEVC playback support in their players, browsers or operating systems (mobile and desktop). HEVC was supposed to be included in Windows 10, but eventually support was pulled off, perhaps due to the patent issues related to the standard. So the situation today is that the media players on both major desktop platforms, Windows Media Player and QuickTime, don’t support HEVC. Due to lack of “official” support for HEVC playback on Mac and Windows, users that want to play HEVC files resort to using open-source or freeware solutions, such as DivX and VLC. HEVC encoding is also possible using 3rd-party solutions such as x265, Handbrake, Sorenson Squeeze and Pavtube.
Devices: TVs, Phones and Tablets
In high bandwidth environments, HEVC can deliver stunning 4K video to the home. Perhaps this is why TV manufacturers have been quicker to adopt than the rest of the industry. In fact, most of the newest 4K TVs now have a new decoder for HEVC. And if your TV doesn’t support HEVC, you can use the HEVC decoder on an external streaming device such as Amazon Fire TV and Roku 4, or get a compatible set-top box: The Comcast Xfinity X1 platform cable TV boxes comes equipped with HEVC, and Dish Network announced their 4K Joey Set Top Box at CES 2015.
Both major mobile platforms are making moves to enable HEVC. With Android 5.0 (Lollipop), Google added a software HEVC player, but due to lack of HEVC hardware decode, using it will drastically shorten the device’s battery life. iPhone 6 and 6 Plus leverage HEVC hardware for both encoding and decoding FaceTime video calls, enabling an overhead reduction on constrained mobile networks where bandwidth is at a premium. Unfortunately, it is currently not possible to record or playback HEVC video on the iPhone 6/6s outside of the FaceTime video calling application.
OTT video delivery is perhaps the biggest possible application for HEVC. While the majority of the cable industry’s discussion about HEVC has centered on its role in supporting Ultra HD, online video distributors and other broadband service providers are embracing HEVC as a means to lower their bandwidth costs.
The bandwidth savings achievable with HEVC allows telco service providers and mobile operators to deliver more content over existing infrastructure, and with video expected to represent more than 50 percent of Internet traffic by 2016, a reduction of 50 percent of the video bandwidth would have an indisputable impact on the industry.
YouTube has transcoded its entire library including 4K videos, into a competitive codec – VP9 – and has announced no plans to support HEVC. On the other hand, major cloud vendors such as Encoding.com and Zencoder support HEVC but not VP9, while Amazon ETS supports neither.
The uncertainty regarding HEVC licensing fees, triggered with the introduction of the HEVC Advanced patent pool and the publication of its fees, which many in the industry see as unreasonable, has driven some of the tech industry’s largest companies – Amazon, Cisco, Google, Intel, Microsoft, Mozilla and Netflix – to create a new, patent-free video compression technology via the formation of the new Alliance for Open Media.
Regardless of the codec technology, optimizing the compression to ensure maximum quality at the lowest bitrate continues to be the key to making better use of the networks that deliver video to smartphones, computers, streaming-media devices, video game consoles and TVs. Compression improvements can deliver videos that download faster and look better, paving the way for higher-resolution video.
Have a happy Thanksgiving day!