Few people can resist uploading videos to YouTube, whether as a simple way to share their work with friends or to launch a production upon the unsuspecting world. The traditional downside, however, has been video quality that ranged from fair to, frankly, poor.
However, YouTube recently launched a new option that encodes some videos to both standard and high-quality parameters. The difference between standard and high-quality video is striking. Not all uploaded videos get encoded into the high-quality format, but if you follow a few simple rules, it’s likely that YouTube will produce yours in both formats. I say likely because YouTube is a bit of a black box, and no one knows for sure what goes on behind the curtain. Here’s what worked for me, however, and it should work for you, too.
Figure 1. Standard quality on the left, high quality on the right.
First, let’s examine the difference between the standard and high quality. When producing videos at standard quality, YouTube encodes at 320-by-240 resolution and a data rate of about 330 Kbps, with mono audio at 64 Kbps. At the new higher quality, YouTube produces 480-by-360-resolution videos with a data rate of 630 Kbps, and mono audio at 96 Kbps. I uploaded files at 29.97 frames per second on my tests, and YouTube produced both files at that rate. No matter whether YouTube encodes at standard or high quality, the site displays the video at 480-by-360 resolution, which means that it stretches the lower-resolution video to 480-by-360 during display, while the higher-quality file plays at native resolution.
To entice YouTube into rendering your video at the higher quality, you have to upload video at a resolution of 480-by-360 or higher. While maintaining the 10-minute duration limit for most uploaded videos, YouTube has increased the maximum allowable file size from 100MB to 1GB, so it’s pretty easy to upload the higher-resolution video without blowing the file size limit.
If you’re savvy with video-encoding controls, you should encode at 480-by-360 at 30 fps using the H.264 codec if available, or Windows Media or MPEG-4 if it’s not. To remain under the 1GB limit for a 10-minute file, you can encode at up to about 13 Mbps. But at the 480-by-320 resolution, you can safely encode at about 6 Mbps, still produce excellent quality, and cut your upload time in half. Oh, and produce your mono audio at the higher-quality 96-Kbps setting.
If you’re uncomfortable setting your own parameters, see if your editing tool has an iPod preset that produces 640-by-480 resolution, like the iPod preset from Premiere Elements 7.0, shown in Figure 2. Though the default data rate of 1 Mbps was probably fine, I went in and manually boosted it to 6 Mbps for maximum quality.
Figure 2. If you’re uncomfortable setting your own encoding parameters, find a 640-by-480 iPod preset and use that, bumping up the data rate to a max of about 6 Mbps.
Obviously, if the iPod preset encodes at 320-by-240, as most do, it won’t trigger the high quality encode on YouTube, which raises another point: Most editing programs that offer one-button upload to YouTube upload a 320-by-240 resolution file encoded at standard quality. If you want to access the new high quality, you’ll probably have to encode and upload by hand.
To view the high-quality videos, you can of course click the Watch in high quality link that appears underneath the video window. Or you can customize your playback parameters in YouTube to display the high-quality stream, whenever one is available, by clicking the Video Playback Quality option on your Account page, which displays the screen shown in Figure 3.
Figure 3. Set YouTube to display high-quality video whenever it’s available.