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Goodbye MP4? Meet the HEVC: Videos with better quality, half the size.

Qué es HEVC

HEVC – 4K videos in reasonable sizes

So much iOS 11 and MacOS High Sierra use the new HEVC and HEIC format for videos and photos, respectively.

This is extremely important, given the popularity of iPhones and Macs in the market, this strong push by Apple could help standardize these new formats. Several months after iOS 11 and MacOS High Sierra have been released, HEVC compatibility is complete, even in apps like iMovie and Final Cut Pro X.

In the world of Windows 10, the path in offering support to HEVC has been somewhat complicated. It was initially available to those who downloaded the Falls Creators Update, but was later removed. Apparently, Microsoft seems to want to charge to use this codec, which is being used by Netflix to stream 4K videos on computers.

But what is HEVC?

HEVC, or High Efficiency Video Coding, is the evolution of the h.264 (or mp4) format. The h.264 format is used in practically everywhere at present. This is because, for high definition videos (up to Full HD, or 1920 × 1080), h.264 achieved an excellent balance in terms of quality and weight. That is, we can get a video that looks good, but with a size small enough to be easily distributed.

However, In the era of 4K and 8K videos, which are slowly becoming the standard, h.264 is no longer enough. Videos end up being too heavy. This is where Enter HEVC – also known as h.265 – to replace it. And the improvements are superlative.

With this new format, it is possible to achieve up to 50% reduction in photo and video files, without any loss in image quality. Apple is not the only one that has implemented it: Huawei uses the HEVC format for its 4K videos from Mate 9 and continues to do so with the P10 and Mate 10 / Mate 10 Pro .

The difference in weight is remarkable: 4K videos shot with Mate 9 and iPhone 8 Plus on iOS 11 are much lighter; a 4K HEVC video is equivalent to approximately 200-220 MBs, compared to the 370 – 400 MBs that one weighs using 4K h.264. This very minute, in Full HD? Approximately 150 MBs.

This is because the HEVC format has been created with 4K / 8K and 10-bit color in mind. When h.264, these formats and the use of 10 bit color were not as common as now, so the inefficiency of this format in dealing with new resolutions and colors (video players are few – VLC is one of them – that they can play videos in 10 bit color, for example, which generates incompatibility in the same format)

What is HEVC? Lighter files, for better quality videos

This is summarized by the main advantage of the format HEVC: better quality videos, size, in much smaller files. Yes, there are few smartphones that offer support for this format – iPhones from iPhone 6S with iOS 11, and Huawei Mate 9, P10 and P10 Plus, Mate 10 and MAte 10 Pro- and this transition period, like everything transition period, bring a few discomforts. For example, some services like Dropbox or Google Photos did not offer full support for these formats, but it was remedied a couple of months ago.

And only from Skylake / Kaby Lake, on the Intel side, is compression / decompression acceleration offered in this format.

For those of us who edit video: what we can expect, then, is that the process of rendering the video will take longer if we compare it to h.264, but we will end up with better quality files, and less weight.

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For users of iPhones, iPads and smartphones? You will not notice the difference, because the encoding occurs in real time, while we are recording something. I mean, the video we are recording, already be in HEVC when iOS 11 is released to the general public, as it is the format chosen by default. The same goes for photos, that instead of using JPGs, the HEIC is used for photos. And when do we want to share them with an incompatible device? Well, iOS 11 does a format conversion instantly.

Format war. Winning HEVC over VP9?

All this leads us, once again, to a format war. On the one hand we have Google supporting its own format, VP9, which is open source and offers results very similar to those of HEVC. One format wins in some respects, the other wins in others, and both give us very similar results.

However, VP9, like the previous format, VP8, has not garnered much support from hardware manufacturers. Not having hardware-assisted decoding / encoding, specifically, makes the processor work harder, and therefore consume more resources. On smartphones, this is detrimental, as using a non-hardware-accelerated format ends up consuming much more battery. And on PCs or Laptops, this makes the whole process take much longer. VP9 has gotten support from the new Intel processors (since Skylake), but on the mobile side we haven't seen much support yet, and the issue is very confusing. Some offer support to decode (to be able to see it), but not to encode it.

HEVC, on the other hand, is being fully implemented in iOS 11 and with hardware decoding / encoding available on the iPhone 6S, SE, 7, 8, X – and future models. This is gigantic, taking into account that it will be the standard format for all iPhones sold for a couple of years ago and in the future. With this type of support, Apple will be able to get HEVC to become the standard of the 4K / 8K era, and so far, it seems to be doing so. Leaving this company aside, however, HEVC adoption / implementation has been higher. Major brands like Nvidia, for example, offer full support for HEVC on their video cards (in fact, they have since 2014, with the GTX 980 and 970). Intel supports the format from Skylake, and with Kaby Lake, we also have 10-bit color support from HEVC. Microsoft also offers support for HEVC in Windows 10, allowing devices with accelerated hardware to play video in this format with any app. And Huawei also makes use of this format in its Mate 9 / P10 / Mate 10

Everything seems to point, then, that HEVC will become the triumphant, despite Google's efforts to boost VP9 (YouTube uses it when we use Chrome, that's why YouTube consumes more resources than other browsers – like Edge or Safari – here how to disable it ) at all costs.

So there you have it! All the details of what HEVC is, why it's important, and why it's worth using!