Who'll win the consumer video codec battles?

February 25, 2013

Bernard Cole-February 25, 2013

For most of its life (since the late 1990s), the H.264 video coder specification (aka MPEG 4, class 10 ) has been the video codec compression/decompression algorithm of choice in most consumer embedded and mobile devices. At last count, there are about 50 companies who supply the H.264 hardware/software building blocks necessary for building video-capable devices and systems. 

A few years ago, that domination appeared to be threatened by Google’s introduction of it’s open source WebM video coder it was recommending to hardware and software developers building Android-based mobile and consumer video platforms. That domination seemed all the more tenuous with the availability of several other open source video coder alternatives, among them: Dirac, FFMpeg and Theora

But at the 2013 Consumer Electronics Show last month, while I might have missed them in the 100s of exhibits and demos, I could not find any video-enabled mobile, desktop or embedded consumer device or system using those open source alternatives.

What I did notice were the many devices and systems using the current H.264 codec with a number of proprietary enhancements and a smaller, but not insignificant, number of demonstrations from the likes of Allegro, Broadcom, Samsung, and ViXS among others, using the new and improved H.265 spec, also known as the High Efficiency Video Coder (HVEC)

And video was being made to jump through hoops and do tricks I had never seen before - displays in amazingly high definition in supersized flat-screen and Internet TVs, dedicated media players, nextgen mobile smartphones with high resolution video, and infotainment-laden automobile platforms.

What was even more breath-taking was the widespread use of video place-shifting, the topic of “ Using the H.264 spec to do anywhere, anytime placeshifted video,” a new design article feature in this week’s Tech Focus newsletter on “Codec designfor nextgen Internet Video.” At the show, high resolution video was scaled and transcoded in real time from big screen TV to dedicated media players and back, between smartphones and to and from TVs, from the TV or mobile into the infotainment system in an automobile.

Obviously the MPEG 4, class 10 video specifications are alive and well and are the place to be for any embedded developer who wants to participate in the exploding market for a wide variety of video-enabled devices and systems.

To provide you with a good start in that direction, this week’s Tech Focus Newsletter contains a collection of design articles, blogs, white papers, webinars and product/news stories on designing the H.264/H.265 codec into a variety of embedded and mobile platforms. In addition, here are the links to a number of other design articles that I think will be useful:

Making mobile video apps more energy efficient
A tutorial on the H.264 scalable video codec
Introduction to video transcoding for consumer electronics
A low power implementation of the H.264 codec for consumer apps
Trade-offs with H.264 and other video codecs
Wireless HDMI with a low latency, lossless H.264 video codec
Zero latency time-critical video encode/decode with H.264 

Counting in favor of H.264/265’s continued use is Apple’s continued support for the standards in all of its platforms - Mac, iPod and iPhone. But their use still presents a quagmire of patent controversies may make alternatives such as Google’s WebM a better alternative. 

Despite the fact that H.264/H.265 is still the video codec of choice, I do not expect that the marketplace to make a decision anytime soon. This will be an exciting area of embedded consumer electronics development and design in the next few years and on Embedded.com we'll be following it closely. I look forward to hearing from you about your experiences with the various approaches and how you applied them to your video based designs.

Embedded.com Site Editor Bernard Cole is also editor of the twice-a-week Embedded.com newsletters as well as a partner in the TechRite Associates editorial services consultancy. He welcomes your feedback. Send an email to bccole@acm.org, or call 928-525-9087.

See more articles and column like this one on Embedded.com. Sign up for the Embedded.com newsletters. Copyright © 2013 UBM--All rights reserved.

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