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WTF is... H.265 aka HEVC?

Ultra-efficient vid codec paves way for MONSTER-res TVs, decent mobe streaming

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H.265... everywhere

An alternative option available to the encoder is Wavefront Parallel Processing, which cuts each slice into rows of CTUs. Work can begin on processing any given row once just two CTUs have been decoded from the preceding row (once decoding clues have been recovered from them). The exception, of course, is the very first row in the sequence. This approach, say HEVC boffins, makes for fewer artefacts than tiling and may yield a higher compression ratio, but its processing power requirements are greater than tiling. For now, the choice is tiles, WPP or neither, though the use of both may be permitted in future HEVC revisions.

H.265 makes jumping around within the video a smoother process by allowing complete frames - pictures that can be decoded without information from any preceding frame - to be more logically marked as such for the decoder. Don’t forget, the decoding order of information within a stream isn’t necessarily the same as the order in which the frames are displayed. Jump into a stream part-way and some upcoming complete frames that are needed for decode pre-entry point frames but not for those that will now be displayed can - if correctly labelled - be safely ignored by the decoder.

HEVC vs AVC

HEVC vs AVC: for the same bit-rate get a better picture - or comparable image quality for at least half the bit rate
Source: Ericsson

Since a video stream of necessity must incorporate at least one complete frame, it’s no surprise that H.265 has a still-image profile, Main Still Picture. Like the basic, Main profile, MSP is capped at eight bits per sample. If you want more, you’ll be needing the Main 10 profile, which, as its name suggests, used 10-bit samples. So far 13 HEVC levels have been defined, essentially based on the picture size and running from 176 x 144 to 7680 x 4320. The levels yield maximum bitrates of 128Kbps to 240Mbps in the mainstream applications tier, and 30-800Mbps in the high performance tier, which might be used for broadcast quality pre-production work and storage, for instance.

This, then, is the version of HEVC enshrined on the first final drafts of H.265. Work is already underway on extensions to the specification to equip the standard with the technology needed for 3D and multi-view coding, to support greater colour depths (12-bit initially) and better colour component sampling options such as 4:2:2 and 4:4:4, and to enable scalable coding, which allows a high quality stream to deliver a lower quality sub-stream by dropping packets.

The H.265 extensions are all some way off. First we all need H.265 to be supported by our preferred operating systems, applications and - in the case of low-power mobile devices - in the chips they use. With H.264 now the de facto standard for video downloads and streaming, there’s a motivation to move up to the next version, especially if it means buyers can download comparable quality videos in half the time. It seems certain to be a part of "Blu-ray 2.0" whenever that emerges, and probably future ATSC TV standards, but the ability to get high quality video down off the internet is surely a stronger unique selling point than delivering 4K or 8K video on optical disc to an ever-declining number of consumers.

Not yet ready for primetime

Videophiles will demand 4K and perhaps 8K screens, but for most of us there’s little visible benefit in moving beyond 1080p - unless we also move our sofas very much closer to our TVs. Even if broadcasters migrate quickly to 4K, perhaps in time to show 2014’s World Cup tournament in the format, they can do so with H.264. But if you’re going to have to get a new, bigger screen, you may as well get one with a new, better codec on board. Still, H.265 in the living room looks set to be of limited interest for some years yet.

4K streaming may be equally far off, but more efficient 1080p streaming is something many folks would like to have now. Given the competition among IPTV services, it’s not hard to imaging many providers hopping upon H.265 to improve their offerings, once the standard becomes supported by the web browsers and apps they use. Greater compression of SD and HD video content than H.264 can provide is what will drive adoption of H.265 in the near-term.

And of course, it’s going to require greater processing power than previous codecs needed - 10 times as much for encoding, some specialists reckon, with two-to-three times as much for decoding. Producing H.265 video requires the encoder to evaluate many more encoding options at many more decision points that is the case with H.264, and that takes time. Likewise regenerating complete frames from the many more hints that the encoder provides. Encoding and decoding HVEC doesn’t necessarily favour chips with higher clock speeds, though. H.265’s emphasis on parallelisation favours CPUs and GPUs equipped with lots of cores that can crunch numbers simultaneously.

“HEVC/H.265 is an ideal fit for GPU encoding,” say staffers at Elemental Technologies, a maker of video encoding hardware. “HEVC/H.265 encoding presents computational complexities up to ten times that of H.264 encoding, for which the massively parallel GPU architecture is well-suited. With 500 different ways to encode each macroblock, the demanding processing requirements of H.265 will strain many existing hardware platforms.”

Easy to say, harder to deal with. We won’t know how well encoders and decoders work - be they implemented in software or hardware - until they actually arrive. Software support will come first. Market-watcher Multimedia Research Group reckons there are around 1.4 billion gadgets already on the market that, given a suitable software upgrade, will be able to play H.265 video. A billion more are coming out this year. But being able to decode H.265 is one thing - being able to do so smoothly and with an efficient use of energy is something else.

This kind of uncertainty will hold H.265 back in the short term, at least as far as its mainstream adoption goes. That’s no great surprise, perhaps. Even today, the majority of Britain’s broadcast digital TV channels used MPEG-2 - aka H.262 - with H.264 used only for HD content. H.265-specific chippery is expected this year, but not in shipping product until Q4 at the earliest - Q1 2014 is a more practical estimate. ®

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