AV1 or HEVC: The Next Big Codec Decision

Codecs are tools we use to reach our viewers. So, when it comes to codecs, the best ability is play-ability, or the ability to play on the target platforms our viewers prefer to watch. For years, H.264 has remained dominant simply because it played everywhere; but as videos grow larger, faster, and deeper in color, the cost of distributing H.264 is growing too high.

AV1 has leap-frogged VP9 in the so-called “open-source” horse race, while HEVC is the clear successor to H.264 in standards-based codecs, at least for the next 3-4 years as VVC slowly matures. Both AV1 and HEVC have had their well-known Achilles heels; AV1 in the living room and on Apple devices, and HEVC in browsers. The last few months have seen critical movement and/or new data in all these platforms that will fundamentally change how we use them going forward.

AV1 in the Living Room

HEVC has dominated in SmartTVs and OTT dongles since 4K and HDR became must-haves for premium content producers. However, in late 2021, Netflix began distributing AV1 video to this market, and device support has burgeoned since then. As Bitmovin reported in this blog post, AV1 runs on smart TVs running Android TV and Google TV operating systems, including Sony Google TV models from 2021 and forward and many Amazon Fire TV models as far back as 2020. Starting in late 2020, most Samsung TVs have hardware AV1 decoders, with LG also extending support to some TVs as well.

AV1 is showing up on more smart TVs and OTT devices.

Figure 1. Netflix started the migration of living room content towards AV1. Image from https://www.audioholics.com/hdtv-formats/netflix-av1.

Regarding OTT dongles, the Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K Max and the Roku Streaming Stick 4K and other Roku models support AV1 playback, as does the PlayStation 4 Pro and Xbox One.

The one caveat is that AV1 support for dynamic metadata is nascent. The HDR10+ AV1 Metadata Handling Specification was finalized on December 7, 2022, so it will take a while for encoders and decoders to fully and reliably support it. Dolby Vision still only supports H.264 and HEVC, and may never support AV1, given that Google’s Project Caviar is proposing a royalty-free alternative to Dolby Vision.

To be clear, YouTube supports HDR with AV1, so it’s technically feasible today. But standards like the HDR10+ Metadata Handling Specification promote broad playback compatibility that’s necessary for most publishers to support it. For example, when Netflix first started streaming video to smart TV sets in 2021, it was SDR only, and that’s still the case. esides, if you’re already encoding your video to HEVC for living room delivery in HDR, it may not make economic sense to reencode to AV1 for slightly more efficient delivery to a market that you’re already serving.

HEVC Plays in Chrome

Browser playback has been a traditional strength of AV1 since it first launched, not surprising given that all major browser developers are members of the Alliance for Open Media. For the same reason, it’s also no surprise that browsers like Chrome and Firefox never supported HEVC, even when hardware or software on the computer or device did support HEVC playback.

This changed in September 2022, when Google “fixed a bug” and enabled HEVC support when the hardware HEVC playback was available on the system. As the story goes, the lack of HEVC playback was reported by Bitmovin as a bug in 2015. Six years later, on September 19, 2022, Google responded, “Enabled by default on all releases.” Within a matter of weeks, browser support for HEVC, as reported in CanIUse jumped from the low 20s to 86.49, well ahead of AV1 at around 73%.

This could be a massive benefit to streaming sites that deliver primarily to computers and mobile devices and had avoided HEVC in the past because of lack of Chrome playback. In one simple bugfix, Google enabled HEVC playback on all supported platforms, including Windows, Mac, iOS, and Android.

A caveat exists here, as well, specifically that “HEVC with Widevine DRM is not supported at this point.” This obviously limits the benefit of Chrome support for premium content producers.

Apple May Start Supporting AV1

Apple has a checkered history with the Alliance for Open Media. When Apple joined in 2018, they big footed their way in as a “founding member,” despite the organization having been formed over two years earlier. Despite this aggressive posturing, Apple has never supported AV1 playback in its operating systems or browsers and was a huge supporter of HEVC.

Apple may finally be adding AV1 support to its desktop, mobile, and OTT operating systems.

Figure 2. Apple is now supporting AV1 playback in Safari 16.4.

At least respecting AV1, this may be about to change. With Safari 16.4, Apple added AV1 support in the MediaCapabilities API, and WebRTC support for hardware AV1 decoding on supported device configurations. It turns out that the software AV1 decoder dav1d is already included in the updated WebKit engine used in Apple Safari Technology Preview 161.

Apple is clearly dipping its toes in the AV1 waters; this could mean that it intends to support AV1 playback via software in the short term, or that it may unlock previously unannounced hardware playback capabilities in existing CPUs. It could also mean that hardware AV1 support will be added in future CPUs. Whatever the strategy, it’s probably safe to assume that Safari will play AV1 at some point in the future, hopefully sooner than later.

That said, the major data point that recently surfaced was a Scientamobile report that indicated that while 86.60% of HEVC smartphones had HEVC hardware support, only 2.52% had AV1 support. Since hardware support guarantees full frame rate playback at minimal power draw, HEVC will likely remain the format of choice for mobile devices for the next 12-24 months.

HEVC support in mobile dwarfs that of AV1.

Figure 3. HEVC currently enjoys much greater hardware support in mobile devices than AV1.

Whether you decide to stay with H.264 for your live transcodes or transition to AV1 or HEVC, NETINT has you covered. Our G4-based line of products (T408, T432) transcode to H.264 and HEVC, while the G5-based Quadra line (T1, T1A, T2A) support H.264, HEVC, and AV1. All products deliver competitive video quality, a highly affordable cost per stream, and the lowest possible power consumption and OPEX.

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. I am a contributing editor to Streaming Media Magazine, writing about codecs and encoding tools. I have written multiple authoritative books on video encoding, including Video Encoding by the Numbers: Eliminate the Guesswork from your Streaming Video (https://amzn.to/3kV6R1j) and Learn to Produce Video with FFmpeg: In Thirty Minutes or Less (https://amzn.to/3ZJih7e). I have multiple courses relating to streaming media production, all available at https://bit.ly/slc_courses. I currently work as www.netint.com as a Senior Director in Marketing.

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