As anyone could have predicted, Samsung’s Unpacked announcement this morning was for a new Galaxy S 4 smartphone. No-one is surprised that the Galaxy S4 is a high-end Android handset — 5-inch 1080p screen, 1.9GHz quad- or 1.6GHz octa-core CPU, 13-megapixel camera, Android 4.2.2 Jelly Bean, et cetera — that will be stiff competition for any other Android phone, as well as Apple’s current and future iPhones.
What interested us most about the Galaxy S 4’s spec sheet, though, was a four-letter acronym hidden away at the end of the video codec section: HEVC.
HEVC stands for High Efficiency Video Coding — it’s the recently-ratified successor to AVC, otherwise known as H.264. Being the next generation of codec onwards from H.264, HEVC is also referred to as H.265.
H.264 AVC is the bedrock of modern digital video, whether it’s high definition or otherwise. It’s the codec used for Blu-ray video, and it’s used for streaming from YouTube, Vimeo, iTunes, Netflix, and any other video service worth its salt. Some digital TV services around the world transmit in H.264 as well, although Australia uses an older, less efficient standard. Any Blu-ray player supports H.264, any modern computer has hardware decoding for it, and any half-decent tablet or smartphone can play or record video coded in H.264 as well.
H.264 was ratified in early 2003, and has been in widespread use since the middle of that year. HEVC is an entire decade newer, which means a swathe of improvements to video compression algorithms — video encoded in HEVC can be twice as detailed as video encoded in H.264, or can show the same detail as H.264 at half the file size.
The uptake of HEVC in mainstream consumer devices like the Galaxy S4 has huge implications for streaming video services.
The widespread availability of high-quality streaming video on the Internet is hamstrung at the moment by the comparative inefficiency of H.264, and the limited bandwidth available to viewers and streaming companies. HEVC means that high-quality Full HD video streaming of TV and movies to a mobile data connection like 3G or 4G is within the realms of possibility, and even more so for fixed-line connections like homes or businesses.
HEVC also opens up the door for Ultra HD video streaming. Where streaming services like Netflix or YouTube need a minimum connection speed of around 5Mbps for Full HD video over H.264 — which is a speed that much of Australia’s population is unable to access reliably, for what it's worth — HEVC would allow a reasonable quality Ultra HD video stream at the same speed.
Even for non-streaming downloads, the increased efficiency of HEVC means that any video file can be either twice as detailed, or half the file size. In an everyday sense, imagine watching a YouTube video on the train that’s not a blocky jagged mess, or downloading Blu-ray quality movies to watch on your phone and then watching the same file in excellent quality on your TV when you’re home.
At the moment, Samsung is the only consumer tech company with a firm grip on HEVC. Similarly to the Galaxy S4, the upcoming F8500 Series 8 plasma TV announced at CES 2013 supports HEVC video. With two of Samsung’s premium products — a Wi-Fi, Web-connected TV, and a Wi-Fi, Web-connected phone — supporting HEVC, it’s almost certain the Korean company will capitalise on this.
Perhaps Samsung will debut a high quality phone-to-TV streaming app, or will create its own movie and TV streaming service with an emphasis on much-improved quality versus competitors, restricted to owners of Samsung devices. Whatever it does, Samsung is demonstrating that not only is it leading the Android race in innovation in specs, in first-party apps, and in features — as well as in marketing hype — it has what may prove to be a very important ace up its sleeve.
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