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H.264 Vs H.265 – Which Should You Use?

Intro

Delivering a project is a great stage in any production, knowing that the version that the clients have is hopefully the final version and that they are happy with your work. Now, most of us will deliver that final version in an H.264 codec within an MP4 wrapper, but the times they are Changing.

H.265 or H265, however you want to say it, is not new at this point, but many of us still don’t work with it. Why is that? This is why today we will talk about H.264 versus H.265. They sound similar. But which of these video editing codecs should you be using in your workflow? Let’s find out.

What is H.264/AVC

The most prevalent video codec in modern times, the name is synonymous with compression and delivery formats the worldwide. H.264, also known as Advanced Video Coding. Hence, AVC is an industry-standard video compression that has made it possible for video professionals content creators to record, compress, and distribute that content than ever before. It was born out of the need for a video codec that could deliver high quality, but with much lower bit rates than other codecs that are around at the same time, the result was so transformative that it was adopted in everything from camera recording modes, editing platforms, and streaming destinations.

I think it’s fair to say that the goal of creating a universally accepted standard was achieved. It’s so widely accepted that it’s supported in many wrapper formats like .MP4, .MOV, .3GP, .TS, .FOV.

How Does H.264/AVC Work

Now how does H264 or AVC work? H.264 uses what is known as macroblocks of 16 by 16 pixels. It uses these macroblocks to compress video content in multiple processes that analyze what’s known as motion composition. Essentially, what we’re saying is that the codec compresses video by determining what motion is happening what is needed to complete the picture, and what else can be thrown away. The macroblocks are subdivided into transform and prediction blocks to help determine this behavior. Now, to playback this block oriented codec you need something called a decoder to help prepare the file ahead of viewing, which is why it’s so difficult to edit with.

macroblocks

What is H.265/HEVC

Okay, so that’s H.264, but what is H.265? H.265, also known as High Efficiency Video coding, is the successor to H.264 coding. It has by no means surpassed its older brother, but it does have some considerable advantages over it. One of the biggest advantages that it has, and that will ultimately see it overtake H.264 in the years to come is that it’s been made for the next generation of video.

We’re talking 4K and above here up to 8K. That’s 8192 pixels by 4320 pixels. That’s a lot of pixels. See, whereas H.264 is capped at 4K in comparison. It just can’t compete with this new generation of high-resolution video. It can also save anywhere from 25 to 50% in data compression. When compared to H264, it basically offers a higher quality for the same bit rate that you would get with H.264. Now, H.265 is not as universally accepted as H.264 is right now, but it is still accepted in many different formats and wrappers such as .3GP, .TS, .MP4, and .MKV. All accept H.265 as a codec.

How Does H.265/HEVC Work

Okay, so we know what H.265 is, but how exactly does it work and how is it different from H.264? Whereas H.264 uses Macroblocks to compress video content, H.265 uses something a little bit more advanced than that to determine how to compress the video. It replaces those Macroblocks with what’s called coding tree units or CTUs for short, the CTUs are up to 64 by 64 pixels in size, and can be divided into different CTU sizes when going through this process. This means it can compress information more efficiently. As well as this, H.265 has better motion compensation and spatial prediction than H.264 does. Now, although it is a far more efficient codec than H.264, it is also far more intensive for computer hardware to use this new advanced compression technology. Older 8 bit hardware will have a hard time compressing in H.265 because it uses something called asymmetrical compression, meaning it takes a long time to compress so that playback can be viewed in real-time. The compression time for H.265 can be anywhere from 10 to 40% longer than H.264, and especially on older architecture, that was never meant for H.265. Cause it wasn’t invented at the time.

coding tree units

Why You Shouldn’t Edit With Either

When we’re talking about H.264 and H.265 here, we’re talking about them as delivery formats only. We’re not talking about them as being used as editing formats in your editing platforms, because we’re talking about compressed video codecs here. This is a lot of computational power that is needed to decode and play back these codecs in real-time, trying to decode and then ask your system to edit with it as well is a lot of pressure to put your computer under. And in most circumstances you will just end up with stutter and dropped frames when trying to edit with either of these two codecs. In order to have the most fluid editing experience, you need to be editing with what’s called intermediate codecs and definitely not delivery formats.

Bitrate Vs File Size Vs Quality

If you’ve tried to compress a video in H.265, your instant reaction is to probably go for a bit rate that you would have used in H.264, and hope for a reduction in file size of anywhere from 25 to 50%. But this isn’t actually going to be the case, and what you will find is that you will have a file size that is roughly the same as it would have been for an H.264. Why is that? Well, it’s because you’re basically asking your computer to do exactly the same thing encoding a two minute video at 20mbps in either H.264 or H.265. It’s processing the same amount of data. As we know, H.265 is a far more efficient compressor of video data, so we should really be looking at that efficiency for how we can reduce file size. And to take advantage of that, we can actually reduce the bit rate of H.265 to keep the same quality. But ending up with lower file sizes, because the compression savings with H.265 are anywhere around 25 to 50% good rule of thumb would be to reduce your bitrate by around 33%. If you’re exporting in an H.265 codec, take a look at this table.

ResolutionH.264H.265
480p25 Mbps1.6 Mbps
720p5 Mbps3.3 Mbps
1080p8 Mbps5.3 Mbps
UHD/4K35-42 Mbps23-28 Mbps

Different Codecs – Different Destinations

let’s have a look at H.264 and H2.65 and which codec is best for your video editing workflow. Both of these were made for being delivery format codecs, and as such both work absolutely fine for delivering your client’s finished project. However, that doesn’t mean that every client that you deliver to has the means and capabilities to playback H.265 in real-time.

Unfortunately, everybody’s houses and offices and workspaces haven’t caught up with H.265 and the computational power that is needed to play them back in real-time. If we were having this discussion in five years time, I have no doubt that H.264 will probably be obsolete by that point. And H.265 will have overtaken it and be the universally accepted standard for delivery.

But as of right now, H.264 still makes sense to deliver your finished projects to your clients. There is one exception to this, and that’s with streaming. If you’re streaming directly to a destination, I.e. Not through a streaming platform that will re-encode your stream for its own platform, then you could make efficiency savings by using H.265, because we know it needs a lower bit rate to achieve the same quality as H.264, so therefore you could reduce the bitrate when streaming, put your computer under less pressure, and still end up with the same amount of quality. The only issue here is that you need a PC capable of encoding H.265 in real time to be streamed out.

Final Thoughts

So what have we learned from all of this? Well, we know that modern media is moving into the realms of and beyond 4K footage and into 6K 8K. There are cameras that do 12 K that are consumer prosumer-level cameras. So we should expect that video is going to be delivered in 4K and above from now on, which means that H.264 ultimately will become obsolete at some point.

And as computers get more and more powerful every year, take the M1 Apple chips in their new Mac range. They are more than capable of accelerating H.265 encoding in 8-bit and 10-bit using these advanced chips. This vastly increases compression speeds when compared to using CPUs alone, and it’s ultimately only a matter of time before we say thank you to the legacy that is H.264, and usher in the new era of H.265.

For now, though, whether you are exporting from Premiere Pro, Media Encoder, Final Cut, AVID, DaVinci Resolve, or whatever it might be, H.264 still makes sense in most cases for delivering your projects to clients to whatever destination apart from streaming, because most people will be able to play back H.264 without any issues.

Darren

Filmmaking tips & tricks, camera gear reviews, cinematography breakdowns, and other training-based content to help you level up your filmmaking.

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