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H.265 vs VP9: 4K video codecs explained

Gordon Kelly by

H.265 vs VP9: 4K video codecs explained

What are H.265 and VP9?

bitrateThey are competing next generation video compression formats that claim to be twice as efficient as H.264, the current industry standard. They will be crucial in getting 4K ‘Ultra HD’ content to our televisions, PCs and tablets over the next few years. They also halve the file size of 720p and 1080p content making it far easier to download or stream HD video over slow connections.

H.265 and VP9 support 8K content as well and with physical media on the wane, this makes them quite frankly the future of television and video, which is why they're so important.

H.265 was originally developed as the ‘HEVC’ (High Efficiency Video Coding) format jointly by the Video Coding Experts Group (VCEG) and the Moving Picture Experts Group (MPEG). It was approved as the official successor to H.264 in April 2013. Like H.264, the codec must be licenced with hardware manufacturers and software developers paying a fee.

By contrast VP9 is open source and royalty free. It was developed by Google as a successor to VP8, the moderately successful alternative to H.264. During its development VP9 was dubbed ‘NGOV’ (Next Gen Open Video) and Google has already integrated support into the Chrome browser and YouTube.

How do they work?

By doing the opposite of what you might expect. While 4K video increases picture quality by making individual pixels smaller, effectively what H.265 does is make them bigger to reduce the bitrate (and therefore file size). It then performs a vast array of processing tricks on the video as it is played to get the detail back.


For context H.264 could grab a 16x16 ‘macroblock’ of pixels and perform nine ‘intra-prediction directions’ – aka educated guesses – that allowed the pixels to be rebuilt within each block. H.265 can grab 64x64 ‘superblocks’ and perform 35 infra-prediction directions to rebuild them. Like H.264, H.265 varies the size of blocks it takes. For example, it would take much smaller blocks (down to 4x4 pixels) around detailed areas like facial features and much bigger blocks of the sky or a relatively plain background.

complexityVP9 is similar on the surface. It can also take 64x64 superblocks, but unlike H.265 these don’t need to be square so it can sample 64x32 or 4x8 blocks for greater efficiency. On the flip side it only has 10 prediction modes to rebuild them. Cynics argue VP9 changes H.265 just enough for it to avoid copyright infringement.

Needless to say both standards require more computational power than H.264 and VP8 for all this rebuilding. But given the increase in computing power since those formats were launched in 2003 and 2008 respectively, this isn’t a great problem.

Which is better?

The first thing to say is we are greatly simplifying these formats, but – despite similar file sizes - initial reports suggest H.265 has higher image quality while VP9 is more reliable for streaming.

The greater prediction modes in H.265 are what give it the edge visually, while VP9 enforces stricter rules on decoding which appears to make streams more consistent and reliable. This would make sense given the focus of the standards’ respective creators, though officially both sides dispute there is any downside to their format.

Who is supporting what?

H.265 versus VP9 is a little like HDMI versus DisplayPort in that the latter’s royalty free approach should give it the edge, but the former’s ubiquitous legacy means it has widespread industry support. Previously this made H.264 an easy winner over VP8.

This time around things are closer. Google used CES 2014 to show VP9 has support from LG, Panasonic, Sony, Samsung, Toshiba, Philips, Sharp, ARM, Intel, Nvidia, Qualcomm, Realtek Semiconductor and Mozilla. As mentioned, Google has also built VP9 support into its Chrome browser and YouTube.

The flip side is all these companies have also backed H.265 and even Google will support it in Chrome and hasn’t ruled out YouTube support. In fact, this led to an amusing quote from Francisco Varela, YouTube global head of platform partnerships, that "We are not announcing that we will not support HEVC."

Consequently most companies look like they will support both formats, much like you’d be hard pressed to find an audio player that doesn’t support both MP3 and AAC.

Do I need to worry about format support?

With the decline of physical media and the rise of 4K Ultra HD, there has never been greater pressure on new video compression standards to deliver. Thankfully both do, if in slightly different ways, and – unlike past format wars – there is likely to be space for both as the industry seems reluctant to wholly commit to a) a future paying license fees, or b) being beholden to Google. That means it's very likely that most devices you buy will support both, which is great news for everyone.

Interestingly, a third format is also in the pipeline. The Xiph.Org Foundation is developing ‘Daala’ and, while it remains some way off, Xiph claims its performance will be ‘a generation beyond’ both H.265 and VP9. Nothing ever stays still in technology.

Next, read What is 4K TV and Ultra HD? 10 reasons why you should care

Go to comments


January 13, 2014, 12:34 pm

Do you guys think these compression codecs can produce a picture that is indistinguishable to the original source? I am worried that streaming media is going to ruin quality in the long run...


January 13, 2014, 2:51 pm

That's a really good question and one I don't think anyone can reasonably answer yet. For Full HD content things should be fine, but the real question is whether 4K will loss some of its shine in an effort to force it down slow internet connections.


January 13, 2014, 3:16 pm

Exactly... My worry is, currently a Bluray streams about 25GB onto a screen in two hours. Now, if you presume 4K is 4x the size for a standard h.264 encode then you are looking at 100GB of data over two hours. Then say h.265 halves the file size, that's 50GB of data. 50GB of data over a two hour film is 7MB/s lossless. I had heard rumors of precaching films (which sounds hideous) that would help keep the quality up...

But are we basically saying our internet infrastructure isn't ready for 4k?


January 13, 2014, 5:31 pm

Any codec can if you throw enough bit-rate at it. But efficiency is the name of the game. And I dare say streaming services as-is are good enough for more than 95% of people, if they have a good enough connection to the internet.


January 13, 2014, 6:50 pm

Seems like a fairly objective as well as informative story.

I particularly like what I'm hearing with respect to VP9, especially given the comment:

"VP9...appears to make streams more consistent and reliable."

Considering I'm an investor in Nanotech Entertainment (Symbol: NTEK) and they are offering the "The Worlds First 4K UltraHD Media Player" in the Nuvola NP-1 and "It's the first (and only) 4K streaming media player that doesn't repurpose, upscale or muddy up your content. Absolutely no loss of quality or streaming performance - 6Mbit/s or better from a wide range of sources. And it works "beautifully with virtually any 4K UHD TV set." and "We are streaming native 4K. Not upscaling. Just to clear up confusion. This is the real deal."

Looking forward to "The Future of Television" via the Nuvola NP-1


January 13, 2014, 8:37 pm

HEVC hardware support at CES http://ngcodec.com/news/2014/1...

Actually HEVC has stricter compliance testing so will be better for streaming. That is why Netflicks is using HEVC and not VP9.

It is highly likely that VP9 is not free and use patented techniques, just like VP8.

John Willkie

January 14, 2014, 7:42 am

the conclusion that VP9 is royalty-free is about as valid a statement at this point as Google's previous statements that VP8 didn't infringe on the H.264 patents. Then, Google paid MPEG-LA for their infringing the h.264 patent pool with VP8. Just because Google doesn't ask for a royalty, doesn't mean that others don't have valid claims.
Also, there is no issue of "copyright infringement" in codecs; it is simply "patent infringement." This is to hoping that the writer knows the difference

Gordon Kelly

January 14, 2014, 1:39 pm

I know and point out the difference specifically in that Google is, arguably, just trying to get around the H.265 copyright.

It is a similar case to Android as well where it is 'royalty free', but comes with a number of conditions.

Thanks for your concern ;)

Gordon Kelly

January 14, 2014, 1:41 pm

Yes HEVC was not only supported at CES, but also in a few smart TVs at the end of last year.

As I point out, both sides argue their picture quality and streaming as superior and an argument can be made for both.

We'll have to see about whether VP9 is truly royalty free or not, but there's no point speculating beforehand.

Gordon Kelly

January 14, 2014, 1:43 pm

Thank you. And potentially all media players should be able to stream 4k with similar connection speeds as these codecs roll out. That said, if Nanotech isn't using either of these codecs to achieve such claims I'd be very wary of the amount of compression it is doing to the image to achieve it.

Gordon Kelly

January 14, 2014, 1:45 pm

Any compression format by definition loses something of the original - whether it is audio or video - but I think 4k has a chance because of limits in the human eye to detecting a huge amounts of difference between 1080p and 4k in any case (unless you sit close or have a very large screen).

Our internet infrastructure certainly isn't ready to stream uncompressed 4k, but with these codecs it shouldn't be much more demanding data-wise than streaming 1080p. Still we'll wait to see how it turns out in reality before making too many assumptions.


January 14, 2014, 6:34 pm

Hi Gordon, Many people is asking this question and I believe it deserves more research. The ITU have made a good one and conclude that H264 is better than VP9 and H.265 is better than H.264. (However people questioned if this test was bias towards the ITU)

Personally, I will like to see a serious commercial firm doing this study someone like THX Ltd who have the professional resources to do it. i.e. objective tools to measure and report the outcome in DMOS as well the well trained golden eyes and professional reference-display equipment to judge the image base on content that have been developed for this by the major studios.

This task implies that to test each codec, the tester needs to use several implementations of each codec (No only Opensource but professional codecs) and adjust the configuration and profiles to match each maximum efficiency.

John Willkie

January 14, 2014, 6:55 pm

Once again, there is no "copyright" infringement nexus in this discussion: it's PATENT INFRINGEMENT. The only thing that Google can copyright is their actual code and the term "VP9." But, they make both open source, so that's orthogonal.
The implementing code when loaded into a device, however, is just as likely to infringe someone's patents as does VP8. What is important to keep in mind is that Google values its own patents highly and tends to disregard the patent rights of others.
As for Android being "royalty free" of course it's true, at least in the case of the android base code -- which is open source and at least several generations behind what is being offered in licensed Android implementations. To get those bits, phone makers have to agree to licensing terms (not necessarily money) but include support for Google Play, Chrome, etc.


January 14, 2014, 8:27 pm

Hi Halkirk,

The first 4K media player was release and available at the stores last year by Sony. --FMP-X1 4K Ultra HD Media Player-- (which BTW won the Home AV Component innovations award at CES 2014.)


January 14, 2014, 8:33 pm

@Halkirk: Do you know by any chance if the Nuvola NP-1 player is available for shipping now (i.e. Can I get one tomorrow) and if it supports HDMI 2.0 and UltraHD colorspaces (i.e. xvYCC/REC.2020/10bit video/4:2:2). Can it play professional native content from 4K cameras (i.e. H.264 @ 400/800Mbps)?

Gordon Kelly

January 15, 2014, 7:02 am

I think that's a good idea. I've heard arguments from both sides and based on the industrial level of testing your suggesting it may well be beyond most technology review sites. I suspect H.265 will win out, but the licence fee behind it means there will always be open competitors. Also Daala looks very interesting.


January 16, 2014, 9:39 am


Another factor of 4K is the kind of lenses used during the shoot and the quality of the camera (i.e. True 4K 4:2:2 sensor (17Mpx) or "4K" from a monochromatic sensor bayed to 2K 4:2:0 (8Mpx) and "interpolated" to "4K")

On top is the quality of the shoot, production (i.e. focus and video processing). In other words: How much of the picture is real 4K data.

On our Lab we analyzed a 30m 4Kp60 "Live" Soccer video sample, and measured the amount of "4K" data. The result was than less than 1% was considered 4K value. (It happens that the Camera man was unable to focus to the level that can be considered 4K, in addition the panning produce blur that smooth the data to 1K video).

Ramesh Devaraj

February 14, 2014, 4:07 am

Any free HEVC encoders available yet ?


February 15, 2014, 10:28 am

The take on Google licensing H.264 from MPEG-LA is different in free software codec development community. Basically, MPEG-LA made a fuss about how they are going to assemble a patent pool on VP8 and then extort patent license fees from everyone...and then made a deal with Google, where Google paid a certain sum, and MPEG-LA, basically, agreed to not to press any patent claims against anyone using VP8 (i'm sure i'm oversimplifying this...).
The reception of this was: "they've got nothing". If MPEG-LA had any patents applicable to VP8, they would have used those to extort license fees. But they, apparently, didn't have anything worth mentioning, so they settled instead for a deal with Google only - that way they at least got _something_ out of it.


February 15, 2014, 10:31 am

MSU did some very good comparisons on H.264, and evaluated VP8 (when it came out) as well. I'm sure they'll rise to the challenge.

John Willkie

February 20, 2014, 12:07 am

Don't be verbose and foolish. Google has licensed MPEG-LA's MPEG-4 patent pool, specifically for their use of VP-8. They may have confused you, but they didn't confuse themselves.

John Willkie

February 20, 2014, 12:08 am

Not lawfully, since at least three significant (bit-saving) patent holders aren't yet "on-board"

Gath Gealaich

February 23, 2014, 12:46 pm

Somehow I don't think that patents change the availability of FLOSS source code. What you do with it is up to you.


February 24, 2014, 10:12 pm

found this study comparing all 3 codecs... has hevc/h.265 as a distant 1st place (performance & speed). avc/h.264 is much faster than vp9 - but as you stated HW is much faster nowadays - so because vp9 is better performance than avc it is a better option, plus 'free' (yes, we'll see but i have no doubts)

Jarrett Vance

March 26, 2014, 3:00 pm

Zip is compression that doesn't lose anything. Same goes for FLAC, DTS-HD, Dolby TrueHD. They are all compressed but lossless. Although lossless compression of video for consumer use will always remain rare.

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