Is H.265 the Future of Video Surveillance?

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Is H.265 the Future of Video Surveillance?

Chances are, the video codec you are using to display your captured and streaming surveillance video is H.264 (also known as AVC - short for Advanced Video Coding). If you are reading this on a browser, that browser may also use the H.264 video codec when displaying video. In fact, the same holds true for video across most platforms and devices: H.264 is the preferred choice in video codecs. But now two new competing codecs, HEVC and AV1, are vying for supremacy in the latest bid to become the predominant video coder and decoder. The outcome of the competition between these emerging technologies is still uncertain, so knowing what the industry standard is today and why it 's maintained as a standard for surveillance is important.

The H.264 codec was standardized back in 2003, and although it has since been improved on and currently has an enhanced version, new codecs are being developed for the purpose of anticipating the next advances in hardware. H.264 's successor, H.265 (or HEVC - High Efficiency Video Codec), was introduced in 2013, but hasn 't been adopted as quickly or widely due to having three different patent pools that increase and complicate the fee structures for licensees. The competing codec, AV1 (or AOMedia Video 1), first developed by the Alliance for Open Media in 2015, has the support of major companies, including Apple, Google and Microsoft, but has yet to be functionally implemented on current devices and platforms.

So why are H.265 and AV1 already considered the contenders to succeed H.264? H.265 has been proven to save bandwidth requirements by 50%, but at the cost of more CPU processing resources to decode the displayed video. AV1 is promising to be royalty-free while delivering even larger bandwidth savings than HEVC but is still not widely available to customers. While HEVC and AV1 wait on further developments and hardware, conjecture as to which one will win intensifies.

The uncertainty of the next standardized video codec has led to speculations that we are once again witnessing a format war, much like the ones between HD DVD vs. Blu-Ray or VHS vs. Betamax. The winner of this latest war is expected to be used across all platforms, eliminating the need for the other codec. Even though the speculations of a new format war create excitement and anticipation, such predictions are disruptive to the real-world requirements of companies that utilize video codecs across IP cameras, multi-channel recorders and video management software.

Next generation codecs, and H.265 in particular, have real-world impacts:

  • Not all devices and browsers support them - when video cannot be viewed on a mobile device or in a browser like Chrome (which does not support H.265 natively) the net result is a fragmented user experience, especially when compared against the experience of using a browser or device that supports H.264.
  • They tax system resources - decoding H.265 can consume twice the system resources as decoding H.264. For one video stream this isn 't a huge concern, but for 32 cameras on a single system, it can mean a lot of extra processing power. This results in fewer cameras displayed on a system, searched simultaneously, or otherwise processed. In addition, the potential storage savings of H.265 are offset because a more powerful CPU or additional RAM can increase hardware costs.
  • They require transcoding - transcoding is the process of changing one codec, such as H.265, to another codec, like H.264. This is done so that video can be displayed on devices which do not support the other codec or which require a lower resolution video stream. Transcoding can be extremely processor intensive and can cause "delay" in video, causing it not to display in real time.
  • They cause uncertainty - assuming one format gains dominance, support for the competing codec could significantly diminish as browsers, software, and devices are updated. This could leave a user with devices that must be transcoded or reconfigured back to H.264, which could further impact storage estimates or allocation.

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Because of these issues, many users are choosing to continue with H.264 until there is a clear, hassle-free roadmap for the next generation of video codecs. This holds even truer with the capabilities of H.264 plus, sometimes known as Smart Compression, which has additional storage savings over H.264. Many video platforms have also implemented multi-stream management to send lower resolution streams to remote clients among other bandwidth management techniques that can now mitigate the large file sizes of Ultra HD video.

With these new mobile-friendly and bandwidth conscious features in place, waiting for a clear winner and improved hardware to support the next generation of HD video codecs makes good sense.

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