The New Codec That Will Replace H.264

Posted on by Larry

Codecs make most people’s eyes glaze over. But, in this case, you need to pay attention.

H.264 – the codec that is ubiquitous on the web – is about to be replaced. Why? Because data networks, and especially cell networks, are getting too crowded. With video files taking up the majority of network bandwidth, we need to reduce the size of video files or suffer increasing traffic jams on the web.

In April, 2013, a new codec was approved as a standard by the ITU-T. Called HEVC (High-Efficiency Video Coding) or H.265, this new codec has the goal of reducing the bit rate of compressed video by 50% with no apparent loss in quality, or provide higher image quality at the same bit rate as H.264.

In Oct. 2014, Microsoft announced that Windows 10 would support HEVC natively. June 5, 2017, Apple announced at WWDC that it would support HEVC in the upcoming releases of High Sierra (macOS 10.13), iOS 11, and tvOS; along with HTTP Live Streaming and Safari. Intel, QualComm, Nvidia and AMD have also announced support and created products to support it.

WHAT DOES THIS MEAN?

Short-term, not a lot. Long-term, this will change how we deliver files to the web and, potentially, broadcast.

According to Wikipedia, HEVC contains intellectual property covered by patents from 23 companies. The royalties charged to hardware and software developers which allow them to create HEVC products are more than double that of H.264. These fees, along with the process of creating H.265-enabled products, have delayed the roll-out of this technology.

But, all of that is about to change.

All current Mac computers support HEVC directly in hardware for both encode (recording) and decode (playback). This means that – once the new OS is released – we can work with H.265 files as easily as H.264, while using less storage space and still maintaining high image quality.

NOTE: HEVC hardware support requires a sixth-generation Intel processor or newer; these are also called “Skylake.” In general, that means a Mac released in late 2015 or newer. Any iOS device running iOS 11, or later, will be able to encode or decode HEVC.

According to Wikipedia, there are several big advantages to HEVC:

NOTE: Apple, in its WWDC announcement, said that HEVC enables video streaming and playback of 4K video files that are up to 40% smaller than those created by H.264.

However, encoding HEVC is more complex and requires beefier computers than H.264.

NOTE: HDR won’t be supported in the initial release, but Apple expects to add that in an up-coming update. Encoding and decoding HEVC will be supported in both macOS and iOS.

WHAT WE NEED TO KNOW NOW

In addition to operating system support, which means that any app that plays video can play H.265 media, Apple, at WWDC, spoke in general terms about forthcoming support for HEVC in Final Cut Pro, Motion, and Compressor. Apple hasn’t provided additional details since the updates are not yet available (or in public beta).

But there is a lot we can learn about the codec, which allows us to start making plans for the future.

First, while HEVC is built into all current Apple hardware, encoding using hardware is limited to 8-bit video. (Decoding supports 10-bit.) This means that if you are creating HDR material, you’ll need to use software encoding to take full advantage of the 10-bit architecture of HEVC. Software encoding will be slower than hardware; however the actual speed difference won’t be known until after Apple ships the new operating system and Final Cut software

At its core, HEVC is a codec:

INTERESTING GEEK STUFF

HEVC is specifically designed to improve streaming by reducing bandwidth requirements.

If you currently use HTTP Live Streaming to optimize your files for streaming, the new codec won’t change this. HTTP Live Streaming is deliberately designed to be codec-independent. Everything you do now using H.264 remains the same with H.265.

Unlike H.264, H.265 has more flexibility in choosing GOP size, eliminates propagation of error problems, and handles transitions – such as abrupt lighting changes or sudden movement – much more elegantly.

Essentially, when it comes to compression, H.265 is just like H.264 – except it is more flexible, creates smaller files and is designed for the future of media.

WHAT YOU NEED TO DO RIGHT NOW

Media today is:

We need to change and H.265 is part of the change.

To make the most of HEVC, getting a newer computer will help. What I’ve done in my office is dedicate one computer specifically to video compression. To make the most of HEVC, this computer needs to be fairly recent, with a fast CPU.

Remember, if you plan to encode HDR material, you’ll need to use software compression, which is slower than hardware. Since H.264 is currently compressed using hardware, this means that HEVC compression will take longer than H.264.

Also keep in mind that compression times slow down as frame size increases simply because there are so many more pixels that need to be processed.

For the next year, we’ll need to deliver both H.264 and H.265 projects. After that, the world will quickly shift to H.265.

I’m excited about the potential for H.265 and look forward to testing it when Apple releases products to support it. For now, I’m saving my pennies for a new compression computer.


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20 Responses to The New Codec That Will Replace H.264

  1. Kevin S says:

    Thanks for this, Larry. Do you know when the major video platforms (Vimeo, YouTube, Wistia) will support H.265-encoded video uploads?

    • Larry says:

      Kevin:

      Because of the higher royalty structures, some companies are working on a royalty-free version called AV1, which is scheduled to be finalized by the end of the year; according to Wikipedia. These companies include: Amazon, AMD, ARM, Cisco, Google, Intel, Microsoft, Mozilla, Netflix, Nvidia, and others.

      I suspect, like many new standards, that it will take a few months after the release of High Sierra, which makes H.265 available to a very large base of users, for this all to settle down.

      Larry

  2. Larry hi,

    “NOTE: HDR won’t be supported in the initial release, but Apple expects to add that in an up-coming update. Encoding and decoding HEVC will be supported in both macOS and iOS.”

    It will not be supported in hardware before update or at all?
    As you know there are several formats of HDR. Do you have any info which will Compressor/FCPX support?

    • Larry says:

      James:

      Currently, Apple has not announced any specifics on how they will be supporting H.265 in Final Cut, Compressor or Motion. All that they have said is that they will.

      And, the implementation of hardware-acceleration for H.265 encoding inside High Sierra will be 8-bit. The only way to create HDR-type video will be using software encoding.

      Larry

  3. I am very excited for h.265 compression in cameras. Very excited indeed!

    • Larry says:

      Noble Man:

      Keep in mind that H.265 will best be used for distribution. And, in the future, for cameras.

      It won’t be an efficient editing format.

      Larry

  4. Dave says:

    So I guess that means the 2013 Mac Pro is out…

  5. Mike Tesh says:

    Thanks for the information, but you focus a lot on Apple in this article. As someone moving from Mac OS to Windows, I’m curious about support regarding that.
    Will Windows machines hardware encode 10bit H.265?
    How is software/hardware support on Windows and Android machines in general?
    More info on this would be appreciated.

    • Larry says:

      Mike:

      I don’t know much about Windows, it is not an environment in which I work.

      Microsoft has announced that Windows 10 supports H.265. As for the rest of your questions, I don’t yet know the answer.

      Larry

    • bluedove says:

      Adobe Media Encoder CC 2017 (Mac & Win both) and Pegasys TMPGenc Materingworks 6(Win only) can encode 10bit H.265(High 10 Profile).

  6. Boeman says:

    This is unfortunate for consumers who are still are using older hardware – such as core 2 duos where H.265 is not supported.

    Definitely something to keep in mind if your audience falls into that category.

  7. Davin Jeayes says:

    Does H.265 support transparency ?

    Since FLV’s were ditched with the demise of Flash there hasn’t been a video codec that supports transparency good enough for streaming to my knowledge. Its essential for more creative use of video…

    • Larry says:

      Davin:

      Since H.265 is designed to create really small files, I don’t see it supporting an alpha channel anytime soon. Adding transparency data to a clip requires it to be MUCH larger, which flies in the face of why H.265 was invented in the first place.

      Nothing I read about the codec so far indicates transparency is in its future. On the other hand, the codec itself is evolving, so this could change.

      Larry

  8. Elliot says:

    Thanks Larry. Do you know what this means for filmmakers that both shoot and edit, using DSLR/mirrorless cameras, such as Sony’s new A6500 or the classic Canon T3i? Will manufacturers be able to release firmware that will record in H265? There’s only the discontinued Samsung DSLR I know of that currently records in that codec. Do you think 2018 will see a whole load of H265 replacement camera models? Cheers!

    • Larry says:

      Eliott:

      H.265 is currently more focused on distribution than recording source images. While I expect cameras to support it over time, I don’t expect to see a large number of cameras supporting it in the short term.

      In fact, the torrid pace of change in camera technology is slowing down – thankfully – which means that the gear we buy today won’t be obsolete by next week. The only big advantage, that I see, to H.265 from a camera manufacturer point of view is its support for 10-bit media, which we can currently record using any of the RAW, Log or ProRes codecs.

      Larry

      • Lee says:

        First, thank you for your insight with h.265 as a lot of us out here are finally seeing this format come to light and the iPhone/iPad are finally able to provide value by giving us this new medium. Apple has a lot of flexibility in that they can use as much memory, internal storage, cpu power, and proper programming (that can be updated over time) and this is where we are going to see the biggest benefit first. Normal, every day video being uploaded to YouTube that will be space saving. For current camera systems, now that I have more education on this, I seriously doubt that there would be support for the new format. First, Nikon, Sony, etc. aren’t going to go pay someone royalties for cameras already sold to consumers and trying to support a format that requires a lot of processing may not be viable since a lot of the cameras barely have enough resources to do what they currently do. The good news is… now that Apple has released their product and support and a lot of people are aware of two things “Possibly higher quality and Drastically smaller file size” then new cameras will be rolling out with this new codec I predict early as March of 2018. I think that will be the “next big thing” that all cameras will be moving towards, which will pave the way for 6k video and in about 4-5 years, 8k video. My biggest beef in all of this is… how can any of us economically convert our h.264 files to h.265? Obviously, quality won’t be better, but the file size will free up a lot of hard drive space! I am in the experimenting phase and I did one conversion of a 4.45gb video (created from Sony a6500) and it took nearly 7 hours on a mac mini bought in 2015 that has a 5400rpm drive in it. The end result was a 600k file. The quality remained the same (stunning) but the frame rate seemed to be less. Still looking for a rendering solution.

        • Larry says:

          Lee:

          First, there is no reason for an existing camera to convert to support H.265. It would require reengineering the electronics of the camera itself.

          Rather, H.265 will start to appear in new devices over the medium term.

          Keep in mind that H.265 is a distribution format, not an editing format. It will become even more important to convert H.265 shot by the camera into something easier to edit – such as ProRes. The process of optimization, especially for frame sizes greater than 1080 HD, become critical.

          Finally, I would strongly (STRONGLY!) recommend against re-compressing any H.264 movie into H.265. It will only look really, really bad. We will need H.264 for years to come, the conversion to H.265 will not happen overnight, just as the conversion to H.264 took many years. So all your H.264 assets are still good and will remain so for the foreseeable future.

          In fact, you’ll actually need to create two versions: H.264 for older systems and H.265 for newer systems. (Older computers – say, before 2015 – will have a hard time playing H.265 files smoothly because the compression is so complex and those computers won’t have hardware acceleration.)

          We are in the very beginning stages of a major codec conversion. It will take time and legacy assets don’t need to be changed.

          Larry

  9. Phillip Todd says:

    The Samsung NX1 DSLR and the Panasonic GH5 DSLM in it’s highest 6k photo (for video) mode record in H.265! Samsung ditched the camera business, but, I suspect we will see more H.265 in cameras sooner rather than later. Note: In all other modes the GH5 records in H.264

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