For my fellow video nerds, the ITU announced today that its members had agreed upon the format for the successor to H.264 video — H.265, also known as “High-Efficiency Video Coding”.
H.264 and HDTV
Today, most TVs support 1080p, although most content (TV shows, most video games) are only 720p. Blu-ray movies and a handful of video games are “Full HD” (aka, 1080p). This is all thanks to a video codec called H.264 (aka, “Advanced Video Coding”, or AVC for short).
CES 2013 and “4K” Ultra HDTV
At the CES 2013 trade show this month, companies like Sony, Toshiba, Panasonic and others were showing-off prototypes of their new 70+ inch TVs that support a new resolution called 4K — otherwise known as the small version of Ultra HDTV). (Kinda like how 720p is the small version of HDTV.)
The approval of H.265 makes 4K television content possible. H.265 (or possibly the future H.266, depending on how long Blu-ray sticks around) will be the basis of whatever format replaces Blu-ray discs. DVD had a good 12-year run as the disc format du jour (1998–2010). Blu-ray debuted in 2006, so if we give it the same 12-year run as DVD had (circa 2018), Blu-ray has about 5 years left before its successor overtakes it in popularity.
(As much as I would love to see Blu-ray be the final disc format, falling by the wayside in favor of all-digital streaming and downloads, I don’t think it’s going to happen just yet. The content industry needs something to sell and the average consumer needs something to buy. God forbid the general public is forced to figure out the epic clusterf**k known as UltraViolet DRM. But I digress…)
Higher quality, smaller size
For the forward-thinking folks who have already moved to all-digital, H.265 takes up half the drive space for the same quality file compared to H.264. All of my movies encoded with H.264 that take up 8–10 GB each, would only take 4–5 GB each. Alternatively, I can keep them at 8–10 GB each, and get resolutions of 3840x2160 (which would require a 4K TV to appreciate).
Then again, if your TV is bigger than about 40–46 inches, 1080p starts to lose clarity as the pixels become more noticeable. A 55–60 inch 4K TV would be equivalent to your iPhones, iPads, and other devices with a Retina Display — pixels so small that you can’t see them unless you get really close. Of course, an 80-inch “8K” Ultra HDTV with matching H.265-encoded movies would be freaking epic! Goodbye IMAX, hello my living room!)
This also means that watching video on-the-go on your smartphone or iPad will be faster, the picture will be clearer, and video will eat-up less of your monthly data plan.
There are still some important pieces missing from this equation — notably hardware decoders and video content.
Decoding the video’s format into something that you can watch is a very intensive process. Doing the decoding in software requires much more processing power than decoding in hardware. Hardware decoding is what allows your iPhone, iPad or other device to play movies smoothly.
Contrast that with Android devices that support Flash. Animation and FLV playback tends to be stuttered, jarring, and chews through your battery because all of the decoding happens in software. Over the next 12–18 months, expect to start seeing H.265 decoders being shipped in new devices — especially mobile devices.
The other major piece of this equation is having H.265-encoded content. What’s the point of having all of this fancy H.265 hardware if there’s nothing to watch?
The first content will come from the hacker communities as Blu-ray movies encoded at 1080p with H.265 will start showing up on torrent sites. (These are what I call the super-alphas.) Over the next 3–5 years, the rest of the world will catch up as H.265 makes its way into the streaming content market (e.g., Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Instant Video, iTunes, Verizon, Comcast). Finally, H.265 will hit the mainstream in whatever disc format replaces Blu-ray — just a couple of years before H.265’s successor (presumably H.266) is approved, and the whole process starts over.
Not that nerdy… no, really
I said all of that to say this: H.265 may sound esoteric, but it unlocks a very bright future for video content (movies, TV shows, video games, web video, etc.) moving forward.