Why H.264 is the most popular video compression standard

In a nutshell

  • H.264, or MPEG-4 Part 10, is a video compression standard
  • H.264 is the most used codec in the field
  • As a video codec, H.264 works with multiple container formats such as .MP4 and .3GPP

H.264 is an advanced video coding (AVC) compression standard developed jointly by the Video Coding Experts Group and the Moving Picture Experts Group. It was created to provide good video quality at lower bit rates. It’s, by far, the most commonly used format for recording, compressing and distributing video content, used by 90 percent of video industry developers. In addition to video recording, it’s also used on Blu-ray discs, streaming internet sources such as Netflix, Vimeo, YouTube and cable and satellite systems.

How is H.264 used?

The good thing about the H.264 codec is that it is flexible, and you can apply it to various applications, networks and systems. Because it can be incorporated into multiple container formats, it can handle low and high bit rates, low and high-resolution video, broadcast and the internet. Common container formats include MPEG-4 using the .MP4 extension and .3GPP for mobile phones. When encoding the video in H.264, the audio is usually compressed with the AAC (Advanced Audio Coding) codec.

Understanding video encoding and decoding

We’ll explain the encoding and decoding process to help you understand why H.264 is a flexible video codec. Video encoding converts RAW video files to digital files, so they’re not saved as individual images but as fluid video. Video encoding is essential because it helps reduce the massive video file sizes of RAW video formats, which are compiled from a collection of several thousand still photos per minute of video. The best codecs allow us to compress these large files without compromising quality. Besides reducing the file size, video encoding reduces buffering for streaming videos and helps change video resolution or aspect ratio and the audio format. Another handy feature of video encoding is that it makes the videos compatible with various devices such as computers, tablets, smartphones and smart TVs.

As for decoding, it converts compressed video back into an uncompressed format. The video decoder receives the compressed file and decodes it, recreating a sequence of video images. After the video coding and decoding happen, the original video sources will become a final video output in a container format such as .MP4 or .3GPP.

H.264 profiles and levels

Different H.264 codecs use different profiles to encode the video, and profiles ensure compatibility between devices with additional decoding capabilities. Some of the most common profiles are Baseline (targets old mobile devices), Main (for modern devices and web streaming), and High profile (for long-term storage, HD and Blu-ray discs).

Difference between MP4 and H.264

H.264 is the video codec, while .MP4 is the container format. This means that H.264 is the video compression code that requires a video container to host the encoded video. MP4 is the most common container type. 

The advantages of H.264

The most significant advantage of H.264 over other video codecs is how much you can compress a video while maintaining excellent quality. Because of this, you will be able to:

  • Reduce bandwidth usage, but with higher resolution
  • Lower bitrates: Provides a better image quality at a much lower bitrate
  • Reduce video storage: Uses less storage to store video than other video formats
  • Efficient and small: More efficient than others, and it still has a smaller file size with incredible video quality

The disadvantages

Although there are many advantages to the compression performance of H.264, it comes at the price of greater computer processing power. You may have to wait longer to render an H.264 video.

Should you use H.264?

If you deliver video to online platforms such as YouTube or Vimeo, H.264 is a good option. The great thing about using H.264 is that your editing software may come with built-in presets that you can use for each specific platform. For example, Adobe Media Encoder gives you premade presets for popular platforms, such as Facebook, Youtube and Vimeo.

Another helpful way is to use H.264 to reduce the file size of larger video files. You can compress those files and save storage space on your computer or external hard drive.

How does H.264 differ from other compression formats?

Compared to other compression formats such as MPEG-2, H.264 has a much better video quality at the same compressed bitrate, uses less bandwidth, and is adequate for online platforms.

Another crucial difference is the high compression rate, which makes video files considerably smaller. For example, with an original 80 GB file, you can compress it to MPEG-2 to around 3.5 GB, but with H.264, the file compresses to about 800 MB. You will be saving a considerable amount of storage space in comparison to other video formats while at the same time keeping high-quality video.

H.264 on camera equipment

Many video cameras use H.264 as their recording format, and Sony and Panasonic have AVCHD. There is also AVC-Intra, developed by Panasonic and XAVC, which uses the highest levels of H.264 codec, supporting 4K resolutions and 60 fps. After you import the version of H.264 provided by your camera to your editing software, you can convert it to .MP4 to distribute while maintaining good video quality and reducing the video file size from the original footage of your camera. Play around with the settings to get the best possible quality and file size outcome. 

The updated version: H.265

There’s a new video codec called H.265, a more recent and improved version of H.264. Compared to H.264, H.265’s even smaller, quicker and capable of jamming more information while maintaining excellent video quality. Also, H.265 will support future resolutions up to 8K compared to the 4K that H.264 supports. That is why H.265 may become the new standard soon

So should you use H.265 instead?

As we mention, H.265 is becoming the new standard. It does not mean H.264 is obsolete. It first came out in 2003, and it is widely used today. Still, if your editing software has H.265 and the platform you are publishing allows that format, then you can experiment with both H.264 and H.265 to see which works best for you. The important thing is you have options to choose from.

H.264 is still important

Undoubtedly, selecting a video code is a crucial decision for media producers. To make the right decision, consider each technology’s pros and cons and choose what’s best. Remember, though, that H.264 can reach many devices and is the predominant codec used in iTunes and across all major mobile device brands. 

Luis Maymi Lopez
Luis Maymi Lopezhttps://lomaymi.com
Luis Maymi is a video producer and a Adobe Certified Professional.

Related Content