Netflix Commits to HEVC for House of Cards

Multiple websites have reported that Netflix intends to use HEVC to distribute House of Cards in 4K. Even more significantly, they intend to reencode much of their SD and HD content to HEVC to save bandwidth costs and deliver higher quality video over existing connections. This is a significant win for HEVC, and will likely accelerate adoption by the content publishing community. Here are some snippets.

4K at 10 – 16 Mbps

In an interview with Stuff, “Netflix’s Neil Hunt explained that the company plans to use H.265, or HEVC, to deliver 4K content at a reasonable bitrate. “We’re pushing forward with new encoding technology – we’ll be using H.265, which is colloquially known as HEVC, instead of AVC H.264. We think with that we’re going to be delivering in the 10-16Mbps range – about 15Mbps is probably what we should think of,” Hunt told Stuff.”

Digital Digest extended Netflix’s comments, citing 2012 subjective tests, where “HEVC has proven to be incredibly efficient at delivering 4K content, even at bitrates as low as 5 Mbps, and under 1 Mbps for animated content.” While I haven’t tested animated footage, my real world testing indicates that HEVC does provide the same quality of H.264 at about half the bitrate, but it’s not magic.

Lower Bitrates for All

Since few consumers own 4K sets, or will own them in the next 24-36 months, HEVC at 4K has limited relevance, even if it is Netflix and House of Cards. However, it appears that Netflix plans to produce lower resolution content in HEVC to save bandwidth costs, and improve their ability to consistently serve HD content to current consumers. Here’s another quote from Stuff.

Even if you don’t have a 4K TV, you’ll see a benefit, Hunt claims. “The benefits trickle down; we’re pioneering HEVC, which is about twice as efficient as AVC. And so, when we start to see those HEVC decoders get real, and the encoders get more efficient, we’re going to be able to recode all the HD content – and the standard-def content, for that matter – in HEVC,” he explains. “So people with a 2 Mbps DSL will be able to receive a better picture than they do today.”

Note that as a subscription-based service, Netflix is paying royalties on their use of H.264, and almost certainly will with H.265. This makes sense, because without H.264 support, Netflix couldn’t reach iOS devices, and would have to encode into multiple formats to reach other platforms, which has its own costs. This underlies a key theme about standards; though they may have their royalty costs, these costs are almost always offset by the ability to reach additional customers, a reduction in production costs, or both. 

About Jan Ozer

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I help companies train new technical hires in streaming media-related positions; I also help companies optimize their codec selections and encoding stacks, and evaluate new encoders and codecs.

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