What are video codecs? Everything you need to know about AV1, VP9, H.264, others

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Digital video has travel a agelong mode since the aboriginal 2000s. We’ve seen representation prime amended leaps and bounds, successful tandem with the instauration of caller display technologies similar OLED. As consumers too, we person higher expectations than ever before, some astatine location and connected portable devices specified arsenic smartphones and tablets. Codecs alteration each of this, compressing ample swathes of earthy accusation into a video record that’s overmuch much manageable for storage, broadcast, and distribution.

Over the years, large manufacture players similar Google, Intel, and Apple person been funny successful caller ways to compress and bundle video. You whitethorn person heard of YouTube adopting the caller AV1 standard, for example, and newer iPhone models targeting nonrecreational videographers with Apple’s ProRes codec. Indeed, determination are astatine slightest a fistful of antithetic standards presently successful use, each with their ain strengths and weaknesses.

With truthful galore video codecs connected connection then, it’s worthy discussing what they do, wherefore the integer video manufacture is inactive fragmented, and however immoderate of the astir fashionable standards disagree from each other. Here’s everything you request to know.

What is simply a video codec?

Huawei Matebook 14 2020 AMD watching a YouTube video

Ryan-Thomas Shaw / Android Authority

The word codec itself offers a beauteous large hint to knowing however it each works — it’s simply shorthand for encoding and decoding. Why are videos encoded and decoded, you ask? In elemental terms, it’s due to the fact that they typically transportation a batch of earthy data.

You whitethorn person heard that videos are fundamentally a bid of inactive images. Old-school movie projectors are the champion showcase of this principle. They are physically fed a reel of movie and amusement you 24 frames per second, tricking your encephalon into reasoning it’s a question picture.

While you could perfectly bash the aforesaid with integer images instead, the retention needed for truthful overmuch information is unfathomable. According to Mozilla’s calculations, a azygous 30-minute video — stored successful the signifier of earthy images — would measurement good implicit 1TB. For context, that’s 10 times the full retention capableness of a emblematic 128GB smartphone.

A azygous 30-minute video — stored successful the signifier of earthy images – would measurement good implicit 1TB.

To that end, video retention and playback simply is not feasible without utilizing analyzable compression algorithms successful the signifier of codecs. It’s besides worthy noting that codecs beryllium for audio too, for galore of the aforesaid reasons. Raw and uncompressed video and audio tin some rapidly balloon successful size, making them intolerable to edit, store, and distribute.

Related: 10 champion video exertion apps for Android

How bash codecs work?


While codecs employment respective analyzable compression algorithms, a fewer basal methods are casual to visualize. For example, what if you lone store the accusation related to changes betwixt 1 framework and the next, alternatively of storing full-sized images? That way, a respective minutes-long, mostly static country tin beryllium compressed significantly. A idiosyncratic speaking against a fixed background, for example, wouldn’t person overmuch motion, and this is simply a reasonably communal script successful astir videos and movies.

You tin besides instrumentality this 1 measurement further with question vectors and compensation algorithms. These tin execute higher compression levels by predicting wherever a peculiar pixel ends up successful a aboriginal frame. If a camera is simply panning horizontally, for example, the codec tin archer that a peculiar pixel volition beryllium displaced to the near oregon close aft a fewer frames.

Codecs purpose to present an acceptably close representation astatine a fraction of the archetypal record size.

Another compression method involves grouping adjacent pixels with akin colors. When taken to the extreme, however, this is what causes the infamous “blocky” look successful low-quality videos. In this instance, the compressed record simply doesn’t clasp capable accusation for the decoder to reconstruct the archetypal image.

In moderation, these compression techniques — alongside others — tin enactment retired an acceptably close representation astatine a fraction of the archetypal size. While you inevitably suffer immoderate accusation during compression, it’s a worthwhile tradeoff, to accidental the least.

Each video codec uses a somewhat antithetic attack oregon method to execute compression. And arsenic you’d expect, newer codecs are designed to clasp oregon amended representation prime portion besides reducing record size.

Why bash video codecs matter?

Video Chatting Apps Stock Photo

From chat applications similar WhatsApp to streaming services similar Netflix and Disney+, codecs unfastened the doorway to galore smartphone use-cases we instrumentality for granted.

Sharing a media record connected a work similar Facebook oregon Twitter, for example, typically involves re-encoding the video to a smaller size. The aforesaid is existent for photos and audio files too. Similarly, streaming companies similar YouTube encode and store each portion of media successful aggregate qualities and codecs. They volition past present the close mentation depending connected your device’s capabilities and transportation speed.

From streaming services to chat apps, video codecs are an integral portion of our connected lives. Yet, we seldom announcement their impact.

Even though net speeds person improved considerably implicit the years, astir of america inactive person to woody with information caps and occasional slowness. Not forgetting that porting astir high-resolution video rapidly eats into our constricted mobile retention space. Newer codecs are explicitly designed with these constraints successful mind.

As such, video codecs travel successful useful portion signaling video too. Many modern Android devices volition connection the enactment to grounds successful a much businesslike codec, allowing you to prevention invaluable disk space.

To analyse this, I recorded 2 20-second 4K clips connected my smartphone — 1 successful the default H.264 codec and the different successful the much businesslike H.265 codec (more connected those successful a bit). The archetypal clip’s record size totaled 125MB, portion the 2nd weighed 90MB.

Those figures adjacent a 30% quality successful record size, conscionable from changing 1 setting! What’s more, it should beryllium imaginable to compress the record adjacent further, utilizing much almighty hardware than a smartphone SoC. For streaming companies similar Netflix oregon YouTube, moving to a much businesslike codec tin chopped retention and bandwidth requirements by astir fractional — redeeming staggering amounts of wealth successful the process.

How to archer which codecs your smartphone oregon instrumentality supports

Motorola Edge watching video successful  manus

The show of encoding and decoding videos tin beryllium greatly helped on with the beingness of dedicated hardware. To that end, the chips successful our televisions, mobile phones, computers, and adjacent crippled consoles each enactment a fixed acceptable of codecs astatine the hardware level. In different words, they’re susceptible of compressing and decompressing video files highly efficiently utilizing hardware acceleration. This is particularly important successful smartphones due to the fact that the little processing strain equals longer artillery life.

However, you whitethorn inactive travel crossed a video record that cannot beryllium played backmost oregon opened by immoderate app — chances are that it uses a codec your instrumentality either cannot grip oregon doesn’t recognize. To corroborate this, you tin usage an app similar MediaInfo to place the video’s format and encoding details. On Android, you tin usage escaped apps similar Codec Info oregon AIDA64 to cheque your device’s enactment for audio and video codecs. If a peculiar codec isn’t connected the list, it’s apt due to the fact that your device’s SoC doesn’t enactment it. The Android Developers website offers a database of mandatory codecs, successful lawsuit you’re curious.

That said, modern smartphones person plentifulness of brute-force CPU powerfulness to decode unsupported codecs. To that end, third-party video subordinate apps similar VLC volition connection to playback specified files done bundle decoding, without immoderate hardware acceleration. However, this has the imaginable to vigor up your instrumentality and drain your artillery implicit longer periods, truthful it’s champion to not trust connected it.

RelatedThe champion media streaming devices you tin bargain successful 2021

A little past of video codecs

Competing codecs and standards were erstwhile a large occupation for the video industry. Many fashionable codecs lone truly worked good with hardware from circumstantial manufacturers. Thankfully though, the past fewer years person seen instrumentality makers converge connected a fistful of codecs. While fragmentation is nary longer a problem, it’s inactive worthy knowing which codecs you’re apt to brushwood successful the existent satellite and however we got here.


Akai portable video subordinate

Adamya Sharma / Android Authority

MPEG-2 is possibly the oldest video codec that’s inactive successful circulation today. It became highly fashionable successful the aboriginal 2000s, backmost erstwhile it was astir exclusively utilized to compress tv broadcasts and DVD movie releases. Some aboriginal Blu-Ray releases utilized MPEG-2 for high-definition contented arsenic well.

MPEG-2 was developed for the DVD era. It became the ascendant video codec successful the aboriginal 2000s.

Today, virtually nary caller contented is encoded successful MPEG-2. However, decode enactment for it is highly common, particularly since galore newer devices are backwards compatible with it. From basal DVD players to decade-old computers, it’s casual to find a instrumentality that tin playback MPEG-2 files these days.


Amazon Prime Video movies and shows connected  a telephone  screen.

Edgar Cervantes / Android Authority

Advanced Video Coding (AVC), oregon H.264 arsenic it’s much commonly known, is the caller king of video codecs successful presumption of compatibility and adoption. It grew successful popularity alongside the emergence of high-definition video due to the fact that of its improved ratio compared to erstwhile codecs. H.264 manages to present akin representation prime astatine astir 50% of the size of an MPEG-2 video.

H.264 was specified a monolithic leap successful ratio implicit erstwhile codecs that it rapidly became the de facto modular for HD videos. This was particularly existent for bandwidth-constrained applications, similar streaming video implicit the internet. In fact, the H.264 codec is what enabled YouTube to archetypal present enactment for 720p and 1080p resolutions each the mode backmost successful 2008 and 2009, respectively. Even a decennary later, you’ll find H.264 wide utilized for streaming video, HD Blu-Ray discs, and tv broadcasts.

Most contented connected the net is encoded successful the H.264 codec due to the fact that of its wide comaptibility.

As a effect of this wide adoption, astir each mainstream hardware and bundle supports the codec today. Unsurprisingly, galore smartphones and integer cameras besides grounds successful H.264 to guarantee maximum compatibility with different devices.

H.265 oregon HEVC

Codec enactment    connected  a smartphone

High Efficiency Video Coding, oregon HEVC, was the follow-up to the incredibly fashionable H.264 codec. As the rubric suggests, it offers a beauteous sizable leap successful ratio compared to erstwhile codecs, making it a no-brainer for bandwidth-sensitive applications and ultra-high-resolution content.

HEVC’s emergence coincided with the instauration of 4K displays and releases. To that end, the latest Blu-Ray modular — Ultra HD Blu-Ray — relies connected the H.265 codec. You’re besides apt to travel crossed H.265 portion trying to grounds 4K and 8K video connected smartphones, particularly if shooting successful an HDR format similar Dolby Vision.

See also: Everything you request to cognize astir HDR show technology

However, HEVC failed to summation arsenic overmuch traction arsenic H.264 successful different areas, contempt its advantages. For years, H.265 adoption was stunted by uncertainty implicit the codec’s licensing and royalty fees. With 3 antithetic stakeholders versus H.264’s azygous licensing group, it took years for players successful the content, hardware, and bundle industries to lukewarm up to HEVC. And adjacent now, large web browsers similar Google Chrome and Mozilla Firefox don’t enactment it astatine all.


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Hesitation implicit HEVC’s patent and royalty specifics prompted Google to instrumentality matters into its ain hands and make an open-source alternate called VP9. It offers a akin 30% ratio summation implicit H.264, making it the perfect prime for high-resolution video files. More importantly, VP9 is wholly royalty-free, meaning that companies don’t person to wage Google thing to adhd enactment for it.

Google developed VP9 arsenic a escaped and unfastened codec to debar dealing with H.265's confusing royalty situation.

Google bolstered VP9 adoption erstwhile it decided to usage it for 4K videos connected YouTube. Starting successful 2016, it besides required manufacturers of Android TV devices to enactment the codec. Both of these were capable to propel VP9 to success, astatine slightest to a greater grade than HEVC. Unsurprisingly, virtually each smartphones, browsers, and televisions released since 2017 tin grip VP9 encoded content.

However, not galore contented providers person adopted VP9. Besides Google’s ain YouTube and Stadia platforms, lone Netflix adopted it for a little period.


Netflix Originals connected  a telephone  surface  adjacent  to popcorn

AV1 is the newest video codec connected this database and besides shaping up to go a existent successor to the fashionable H.264. Like VP9, it is open-source and royalty-free. More importantly, though, galore much companies enactment it than immoderate erstwhile codec. AV1’s improvement is led by the Alliance of Open Media — a cross-industry conjugation of giants similar Intel, Apple, Google, Adobe, Facebook, and Arm. With specified backing, it’s hard to ideate AV1 faltering similar HEVC and different codecs designed for the streaming era.

Facebook’s investigating successful 2018 found that AV1 offered 50% amended compression than H.264. Another trial concluded that AV1 offered a 10% and 15% simplification successful record size compared to HEVC and VP9 respectively. Those figures mean that a 25GB 1080p Blu-Ray movie encoded successful H.264 could beryllium compressed down to conscionable 12-13GB utilizing AV1 alternatively — each without immoderate degradation successful representation quality.

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

While AV1’s specification was finalized astir 2019, adoption has progressed slower than you’d expect. This is due to the fact that virtually nary hardware connected the marketplace offered hardware-accelerated encoding for the codec until comparatively recently. Without that, Moscow State University estimated that AV1 encoding is 2,500 to 3,000 times slower than its competitors.

Similarly, AV1 decoding capabilities weren’t wide either. In the Android ecosystem, Mediatek’s Dimensity 1200 was the archetypal chipset to see hardware acceleration for AV1 successful aboriginal 2021. However, its nonstop competitors — the Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 and 870 SoCs — didn’t enactment the codec astatine all. Qualcomm isn’t portion of the Alliance of Open Media and doesn’t enactment AV1 successful its latest Snapdragon 8 Gen 1 chipset either.

Once hardware-level enactment for AV1 is much commonplace, we’ll apt spot much and much services follow it. YouTube and Netflix already usage AV1 connected Android, arsenic does Google Duo. Furthermore, each large web browsers — but for Safari — enactment the codec.

Read more: A look astatine the interior workings of AV1

Apple ProRes

Apple iPhone 13 Pro Max Face ID cameras notch

Robert Triggs / Android Authority

Unlike the different codecs connected this list, ProRes is simply a comparatively niche video codec that is designed astir exclusively for video editors and professionals. Simply put, videos stored successful ProRes clasp much information, with little compression levels. This makes post-production enactment similar colour grading easier since the record inactive retains a just magnitude of earthy accusation from the camera.

See also: 10 champion filmmaker apps for Android

Of course, much accusation and a little compression ratio mean that ProRes files thin to beryllium rather a spot larger. According to Apple’s white paper detailing the codec, a azygous hr of 4K 30fps video encoded successful ProRes volition output a record size northbound of 280GB! This is wherefore ProRes is astir ne'er utilized for contented delivery, and lone during intermediate accumulation stages. In fact, Apple won’t adjacent fto you grounds 4K ProRes video connected the 128GB exemplary of the iPhone 13.

Apple ProRes is an intermediate codec that prioritizes prime implicit compression. It is meant for video editing and colour grading, not contented transportation similar the different codecs.

In 2021, Apple announced that the iPhone 13 would beryllium the archetypal smartphone to optionally sprout videos straight successful ProRes. Later successful the year, drone shaper DJI released the Mavic 3 Cine — its flagship user drone — with the quality to grounds successful ProRes. Over connected the encoding side, Apple included dedicated ProRes accelerators successful its M1 Pro and M1 Max SoCs’ media engines.

And with that, you’re present up to velocity connected each of the fashionable video codecs successful usage today. For further reading, cheque retired our comprehensive usher connected Bluetooth audio codecs.

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