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The HEVC Holding Pattern: Will '16 Be the Year for H.265 Support?

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For the past two years, I’ve presented sessions at the Streaming Media East and West conferences comparing output from the x264 and x265 codecs to evaluate the health and readiness of HEVC/H.265 as the next-generation video codec. Slowly but surely, x265 made steady gains, offering equivalent quality while saving on file sizes and encoding speeds. For most of my test content, I’ve seen x265 content encode at half the file size (or average bitrate) of x264-processed content. From an encoding point of view, the technology is ready.

However, we’re far from ready to deploy HEVC/H.265 content over the internet, because there’s no ubiquitous H.265 decoder to use in desktop or mobile browsers. The Flash haters out there may be loath to admit it, but Flash was the H.264 Band-Aid for the web video revolution—H.264 playback was not available natively across all browsers. Because H.264 and now H.265 are not royalty-free codecs, companies such as Adobe, Microsoft, Google, and Apple have paid to use the codec in their products.

But there’s a problem: Adobe has not added HEVC/H.265 decoding capabilities to Flash, and there’s only one browser plug-in, the DivX Web Player, that advertises H.265 decoding capabilities. (Remember: HTML5 does not endorse specific video or audio codecs—it merely provides a mechanism by which to suggest various formats for playback on a given browser.) So we’re left in a holding pattern for web-based 4K video deployment. Ultra HD (UHD) playback with H.264 is possible over the internet in a web browser, but most content providers aren’t likely to dive into delivering at bitrates that could easily exceed 8Mbps.

In the world of OTT playback, we are starting to see HEVC decoding capabilities built into smart TVs. Everyone from Samsung to LG to Sony wants to maximize UHD content over the internet, and 4K resolution produces much larger file sizes than does 1080p. Any codec that can retain quality while reducing overall bitrate is going to keep the owner of a 4K TV happily viewing Netflix or Amazon content with greatly reduced risk of buffering or stalled playback.

Even with the pipeline in place, there is still the issue of subjective evaluation of Ultra HD and the best uses of that sharp resolution. I’m not alone in my “over definition” reaction to the hyper-real presentation of fictional narratives presented in Netflix and Amazon 4K series. I have to hand it to make-up artists who can hide their craft in the pore-magnifying close-ups of character’s faces. This past holiday season, I bought and then returned my first 4K television set for two reasons: LED light bleed emitting from corners of the display, and the unpleasant experience of watching the 4K content available on Netflix and Amazon. My wife found the sets and lighting in The Martian so stage-like and unreal when viewed with all that extra detail, that I ended up applying “softening” filters from the TV’s effect menu to make the movie appear more atmospheric and cinematic.

To date, the content that I find holds up best to higher resolution viewing experience is documentary or live events, such as sports, award shows, and maybe reality TV. There’s less need for suspension of disbelief when you’re not watching fictional characters in soundstage landscapes. It’s hard to imagine how traditional stagecraft will live up to 8K expectations.

The question now remains—will the hype around H.265 become reality in 2016? Will we see Microsoft, Google, and Apple rally around H.265 within their browser support? Or will Flash be resurrected, once again, if Adobe adds H.265 support? Only time will tell.

This article appears in the April/May 2016 issue of Streaming Media magazine as "HEVC and UHD: What We (Don’t) Need."

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