The new h.266 video codec is a pretty big deal. You can’t play with it yet — tempted as you might be to go install Handbrake and bask in video encodes that are half the size of your already-optimised h.265 videos — but its very existence will speed up the eventual transition to 8K HDR video. And that’s a good thing, right?
If you’re scratching your head, here’s why h.266 is going to soon change your multimedia world.
What the heck is h.266?
H.266 (also known as VVC) is a video codec. Codecs are software that compress and decompress video files so they can take up less space when stored on a hard drive and less bandwidth when transferred over a network, among other things.
According to BBC R&D (via Extreme Tech), h.266 can shrink files to 50 per cent smaller than what the current h.265 can achieve, without affecting video quality to a noticeable degree. In other words, a 10GB video encoded in h.264 shrinks to a mere 2.5GB — still a big chunk of space, but manageable — when you encode it with h.266.
This incredible reduction in file size will do a lot to help playback and streaming of 8K HDR video content on future TVs, smartphones, and other devices. After all, a typical 8K HDR movie could eat up anywhere from 6GB to 20GB per hour if you were watching it on Netflix today. Shrinking that figure down to one-half or one-fourth means more movies and fewer data caps to worry about.
When will h.266 and 8K be a thing?
H.266 will ultimately replace the h.265 codec, but here’s the thing: h.265 never fully replaced h.264. That means there could be an even bigger jump in storage efficiency for developers and hardware manufacturers who still rely on h.264. The only problem is, h.266 requires much more powerful hardware for the encoding process — and even with the right hardware, h.266 encoding takes a really long time (almost seven times as long as h.265).
That said, h.266 is poised for (potentially) better adoption rate because of its 8K possibilities.
8K TVs already exist, but there’s not much of a reason to own them. H.266 will likely change that, but the first apps and devices that support the codec are expected to launch within the next couple of years. 8K HDR streaming could follow shortly after. However, if consumer demand for 8K hardware and content is high enough, the turning point could come even sooner.
Expect to see the first software decoder and encoder for h.266 this fall.
Does this mean I need to upgrade?
Since VCC-supported apps and hardware are still a ways off, and 8K streaming is still a logistical pipedream, you won’t need to upgrade your devices any time soon. In fact, you may not have to for a really long time.
4K streaming and broadcasting only recently hit its stride, yet 4K HDR-compatible devices have been on the market for years. Part of that slower adoption rate was due to bandwidth and video codec bottlenecks, but also because 4K content was hard to come by for a long time (and still is on many popular streaming services).
Then there’s the issue of physical space — at a certain distance, 4K content does’t look all that much better than full HD content. Besides, HDR is arguably the bigger video quality upgrade, and you can experience it without needing a giant 4K (or 8K) TV.
The hurdles to widespread 8K adoption are just as high as those 4K TVs faced, if not higher. Some projections estimate that only three per cent of TVs purchased by 2023 will be 8K-ready (though h.266 and competing codecs like the royalty-free AV1 could make the transition much easier).
In other words, don’t worry about the 8K revolution just yet. The codecs — h.266, AV1, or whatever else comes along — are just the first steps. We’re just getting started; no need to be an early adopter on this one.