The 4K War is Brewing, but Don't Expect a Crowned Winner

August 27, 2015
By: Special Guest
Charlie Good, Co-Founder and CTO, Wowza Media Systems

The hype around 4K Ultra HD video is growing and we’re seeing it gain traction in real ways. From the NFL Network and CBS using 4K cameras to capture sideline footage for sharper enlarged replays, to Sony’s sensors that have the capability to bring 4K video to its point-and-shoot cameras, this new video resolution is making its mark. 

Also known as Ultra HD, UHD, 4K packs in four-times as many pixels per screen as the standard 1080p formats. With this level of detail, it’s no surprise that those in the media industry are getting hyped about this growing trend including TV manufacturers such as Panasonic (News - Alert), Toshiba, Sony and Samsung that all have plans to or have already rolled out models with support for 4K. But where will the 4K content come from? Feature-length 4K content doesn’t fit on a Blu-ray disc, so video streaming will be a key part of the answer.

While the promise of ultra-sharp content is appealing, it creates more complexity, extended delivery issues and higher costs over streaming HD video—all aspects which providers must tackle. As the industry moves toward a 4K future (with mainstream 8K and Full Ultra HD only a few years behind), there is a need for more efficient video codecs.

Image via Shutterstock

While AVC/H.264 has historically been the predominant codec, it has fallen wayside to HEVC/H.26. HEVC/H.265, which represents many individual improvements over AVC/H.264, and can deliver the same quality as H.264 and at a lower bitrate, but requires more processing resources to encode and decode. At this time, two HEVC/H.265 patent pools exist to collect royalties. Meanwhile, Google (News - Alert) developed the VP9 codec, an open-source standard that is free to use and currently used by video giants like Netflix.

Although companies are finding new ways to improve H.264 compression and lower costs, the primary fight for 4K codecs is brewing between VP9, Google’s royalty-free codec, and the old-school and well-established HEVC/H.265, an international standard and the successor to the popular AVC/H.264 codec. 

VP9 and H.265’s Grudge Match

The heated debate is centered on whether VP9 is better or equivalent to HEVC/H.265, and whether or not it’s important to have a royalty-free codec. Although both VP9 and H.265 continue to show improvements in side-by-side testing (with VP9 pulling ahead in a recent codec shootout), there may not be a clear-cut winner in this duel. Before streaming providers jump on either bandwagon, they should take into consideration which audiences they are targeting with their services and potential pros and cons of each codec.

There’s no doubt VP9 has made significant improvements. Yet the biggest reason to switch is a question of cost. Certainly, if you are doing video encoding, the licensing fees add up to high costs that may be detrimental to smaller players. On the opposite corner, larger organizations generally cover this expense with one-time fees. As such, VP9 may win with YouTube (News - Alert), desktop Internet browsers and open-source users who don’t want to worry about royalties.

On the other hand, H.265, like H.264, may be the strong choice for Microsoft (News - Alert), Apple and device manufacturers, as it’s hard to ignore the commercial momentum surrounding it. With many manufactures and developers backing it and a serious head start, this codec isn’t going away any time soon. It’s likely that this will remain the codec of choice due to its strong impetus, while VP9 will make strides in niche markets due to its accessibility. Either way, for most viewers, 4K playbacks will require buying new hardware.

With growing use cases and improving efficiency for both codecs, VP9 and H.265 will keep battling it out for 4K-market supremacy. In the meantime, H.264 will remain the predominant codec for everyday use. As a result, streaming providers should be ready to support all three, as they will coexist for the foreseeable future. This shifts the conversation from debating who will win to discussing how providers can support all three while allowing their customers to decide what’s best for them.

How the battle plays out in the long term is what presents the challenge and the opportunity. In the meantime, providers need to sit tight, support all contenders and watch as the video streaming playing field continues to level out. 

About the Author: Charlie Good is a streaming industry visionary and an accomplished software architect with more than 25 years of experience in software product conceptualization, design and implementation in the education, consumer and business imaging and graphics, and computer-aided design industries. He co-founded Wowza Media Systems with David Stubenvoll to provide a disruptive product that would fill the gaps in the streaming server market and deliver a streaming server solution that was accessible, yet flexible, to fill a wide range of needs. Prior to his work at Wowza, Charlie successfully architected and built products for Digital Equipment Corporation, Structural Dynamics Research Corporation, Claris, several small start-ups and Adobe Systems (News - Alert), where he spent 8 years as Director of Engineering. He earned a BSEE from University of Cincinnati.

Edited by Dominick Sorrentino