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Could the AV1 Codec Crush HEVC?

Alan Breznick
4/17/2018
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While one new video codec, High Efficiency Video Coding (HEVC), is still working to gain mass adoption by video providers and equipment makers, an even more advanced next-gen codec, AOMedia Video 1 (AV1), is already being lined up to take its place a few years down the line.

Unlike HEVC, AV1 is an open, royalty-free video codec that, according to its promoters, is 30% to 40% more bit-rate efficient than such predecessors as HEVC and VP9, another royalty-free codec that Google (Nasdaq: GOOG) pushed forward five years ago. Although some industry executives view AV1 as another emerging rival to HEVC, others see it as the natural successor to HEVC as video delivery technology continues to evolve and become more efficient. (See Why Video Providers Should Adopt HEVC Now .)

AV1 is starting to make its move toward center stage. Speaking at the NAB Show's Streaming Summit in Las Vegas last week, Matt Frost, head of strategy and partnerships for Chrome Media at Google, spelled out the timeline for the new video codec's debut as the next big thing in video compression technology.

The most recent point on that timeline came earlier this month, when Alliance for Open Media (AOM) the industry group of video and web heavyweights backing AV1, released its initial AV1 spec, or AV1 1.0. "We have the code, it's frozen," said Frost, who appeared on AOM's behalf.

With that initial spec in place, Frost said support for AV1 will soon be available in several popular web browsers, including Google's Chrome and Mozilla's Firefox. "We will see AV1 in browsers in a matter of months," he said.

In addition, Frost said, support for AV1 will shortly be available in some popular web content, most notably on Google cousin YouTube, Netflix and Facebook. In fact, he noted, YouTube is already running a few videos in the AV1 format, mainly to conduct tests right now. "YouTube will be streaming AV1 probably in significant volumes," he predicted.

After that, Frost said AV1's integration into video equipment should begin sometime in 2020 as silicon vendors start developing the critical chipsets to support it. He pointed out that it typically takes two to three years for chipmakers to craft the silicon for a new technology.

Frost said AOM aims to optimize the new codec so that hardware adoption can go as easily and smoothly as possible. He said he expects AV1's development path to mirror the one taken by VP9, which first appeared on such popular web browsers as Chrome and Firefox before it was adopted by such web content giants as YouTube and Netflix.

Dan Rayburn, a principal analyst at Frost & Sullivan , who chaired the Streaming Summit and held the fireside chat with Frost, said he views AV1 as a next-gen successor to HEVC, rather than a competing codec. "To me, AV1 is the codec after HEVC," he noted.

Agreeing with Rayburn's view, Frost stated that AV1 is "not competitive" with HEVC. But he acknowledged that it will be a "pain" for industry players to upgrade to the new codec and that it will be costly for them to support multiple formats during that transition.

He also contended, though, that AV1 should make up for these drawbacks by delivering substantially greater bit-rate efficiencies than HEVC or VP9. He noted that YouTube's adoption of AV1 has already led to faster start times and smoother streaming for videos on the site and, in some cases, has enabled YouTube to boost the resolution that consumers receive on their video devices. "And to do all of that while saving money," he raved.


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In addition, Frost cited the fact that the APIs and tools for VP9 and AV1 share some features, which could help ease the painful transition for those adopting the next-gen codec. Plus, he boasted about AV1's bandwidth-saving potential, noting that Netflix showed off 720p streaming at a mere 207 Kbit/s at the AVI 1.0 launch party earlier this month.

As with any new codec or other video technology, one major question looming over AV1 is whether it might become the target of intellectual property lawsuits. Frost said one of AOM's key goals is to steer away from such nasty legal battles with other patent holders and patent pools. So, as a precaution, AV1 plans to only tap into patents developed by AOM members, which include Microsoft, Amazon, Netflix and Facebook along with Google. Frost also emphasized that AOM has conducted its due diligence and put "a lot of rigor" into the intellectual review of AV1.

But, just in case they do run into any legal trouble along the way, AOM and its members have established a fund to defend AV1 against any possible lawsuits over alleged patent infringements.

— Alan Breznick, Cable/Video Practice Leader, Light Reading

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