Try HLS for Adaptive Delivery to Smart TVs

As I’ve observed previously, one of the benefits I get speaking before technical audiences is to hear their insites and experiences. I learned two very valuable nuggets of information from my most recent talk with the VideoTLV group in Tel Aviv. 

The first related to the benefit of encoding H.264 and WebM files when creating a single file experience to deliver via HTML5. My view, as shown in Figure 1, was that you could produce a single H.264 file for delivery to IE, Chrome, and Safari via HTML5, and fallback to Flash for Firefox and Opera using the same file (and yes, I know that some versions of Firefox can play H.264 natively, but some can’t). 

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Figure 1. My recomendation; pre-discussion. Encode in H.264, but not WebM, send Flash experience to browsers that didn’t support H.264 playback. 

What I heard from developers at the VideoTLV group was that on some older Android devices, WebM played more reliably and more robustly than H.264. So even if there’s no advantage on the desktop, there is for mobile delivery. While writing this article, I scanned around on the Internet for some third-party confirmation, but could find none. Still, as encoding.com reported here, 9% of the videos they encoded were in WebM format; perhaps this is why.

DASH for Smart TVs

The other, much more valuable nugget, relates to distributing to Smart TVs. I was aware that most Smart TVs and OEM set top boxes were starting to adapt DASH. What I didn’t know (and the fault is all mine) is that many Smart TVs also support HTTP Live Streaming (HLS) and Smooth Streaming, the latter of which, one developer advised, was the best adaptive format for delivery to Samsung Smart TVs. 

Getting confirmation on Samsung Smart TVs was simple. Click here and you’ll find all supported formats for TVs manufactured from 2010 – 2014. Most include support for HLS going back to 2010, with Smooth Streaming and DASH support starting in 2012. Interestingly, all TV sets included support for both Flash and AIR applications, and RTMP and RTMPe (encryption) are both supported, though there’s no mention on Dynamic Streaming. In 2015, Samsung transitioned to the Linux-based Tizen platform. The specs and features of Tizen-based Smart TVs are here; for adaptive streaming, the platform supports DASH, HLS, HLS Audio, Smooth Streaming, and Divx Plus Streaming, a nice design win for DivX.  

According to BI Intelligence, Samsung owns a 34% share of the US Smart TV market (here, slide 37), with Vizio next at 26%. While I’m sure somewhere Vizio does a great job detailing which media formats its Smart TV’s support, Google and I couldn’t find that somewhere, so I have nothing to share regarding Vizio. I had a depressingly similar failure with Sharp (15% share), who apparently was going to be a charter member of the Smart TV Alliance, but either decided not to or later backed out. Sigh. Anyone with information on the media formats supported by Sharp or Vizio, please let me know. 

The Smart TV Alliance includes Panasonic (10% share) and LG (9% share) and has multiple published specifications you can find here. The most recent spec makes support for HLS, Smooth Streaming and DASH all mandatory (3.4.2). Overall, for those platforms I could define, native support makes HLS much more palatable as a single format for simple, inexpensive delivery to multiple platforms. This is shown in an updated Figure 2 which originally showed a caution sign in the arrow pointing towards the Smart TV. 

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Figure 2. HLS Plays natively or inexpensively (JW Player) on all relevant multiple screeens. 

DASH’s time is coming; 2015 may be the year where off-the-shelf tools like Bitdash and DASH Everywhere (and a DASH-capable JW Player) make DASH as accessible as HLS. As I stand here freezing in February 2015, if I had to choose a single format to work with, it would still be HLS. 

What about Smooth Streaming? As encoding.com reported, 25% of the adaptive streaming files produced by their clients are in Smooth Streaming format. I’m guessing most of that is legacy, rather than new implementations. Smooth is facing multiple end-of-life issues, including the dropping of Silverlight support in Chrome, and doesn’t play natively on iOS or Android, which means you’ll need an app. None of these issues are insurmountable, but HLS is simply easier, with DASH close behind as the second best option.

Loved my time in Israel (as always); appreciate the contribution of the group to my knowledge base. Click here to download my presentation handout to the group, updated for this new information.

About Jan Ozer

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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