For years MP4 with H.264 has been a dominant force in video encoding, and the format that drives most online video streaming and delivery. It is getting on in age however, and its limitations make it unable to cope with the evolving future requirements of high quality videos.
Initially it was expected that HEVC (H.265) would take the place of its predecessor. As a format it is capable of far better compression, and was designed to make it possible to encode UHD and 4K videos for distribution.
More recently however another contender has emerged in the form of AV1. While it is still too early to judge its performance, it is reportedly able to compress videos more efficiently than HEVC – and on top of that is an open and royalty-free format.
Complex Licensing and Royalty Structure of HEVC
In theory HEVC should have the edge over AV1 seeing as it was released well in advance and is the natural successor to H.264. Unfortunately the adoption of HEVC has been slowed for several reasons, but the most notable is its complex licensing and royalty structure.
Suffice to say despite improvements being made, HEVC’s licensing structure is a bit of a maze and navigating it is extremely challenging. There are numerous stakeholders and each has their own royalty structure – making it difficult to figure out the exact cost of utilizing HEVC.
Due to the vague (and high) costs, HEVC has not gained the widespread use that would have been expected by this point. That opens the way for AV1 to pose a legitimate challenge to it.
AV1’s Unproven Potential
On paper AV1 seems like a much more attractive option to HEVC. It is open-source and royalty-free, provides better compression, and has the backing of the powerful AOMedia consortium that created it.
However much of AV1’s potential is still unproven, and there is still a lot of uncertainty surrounding it.
The royalty-free status of AV1 in particular has yet to be proven – possibly in court. It will only be known whether it is truly royalty-free once other companies have reviewed the code and filed challenges if they feel their patents have been infringed.
To add to that questions remain as to how efficient it is to encode and decode videos using AV1. Some answers are starting to surface, but others may require the presence of hardware support that is only expected in 2020.
Final Words: Which is Best?
As things stand AV1 is still the more promising of the two, but that promise will be vigorously tested over the next year. Its performance in practical situations is particularly important, especially for consumer encoders and decoders such as Movavi Video Converter for example that can currently be used as a WMV to MP4 converter for HEVC but not AV1.
It is still unknown if HEVC will take steps to react to the challenge by AV1, but it will not be easy for it to do so. The fact that there are so many stakeholders makes simplifying its licensing and royalty structure difficult, if not impossible.