What are AV1 and HEVC Video Codecs
To explain what AV1 and HEVC codecs are, it is important to ground the understanding in a video codec that is more ubiquitous: Advanced Video Coding (AVC), aka H.264 ,aka MPEG-4 part 10. AVC video files typically appear as a video file with a mp4 format. It is by far the most common video format used for recording, compressing, and distributing video content.
Like all codecs, AVC uses mathematical algorithms and analysis to encode and decode video to provide good video quality at a low bit-rate. AVC is an advance over previous codecs, reducing file size by almost 50% over its predecessor, the older H.263 standard. Many streaming services use AVC as their default codec.
AVC is a relatively old codec at this stage. The first version of the AVC standard was completed in 2003. Since then, industry and mathematicians have worked continuously to arrive at newer, more efficient codecs.
High Efficiency Video Coding (HEVC) was designed as the successor to AVC. Like its predecessor, it offers 50% more data compression than AVC. Many patents from various holders needed to be coordinated to arrive at the standard and the royalty rates. Initial pushback from the industry over these royalty rates slowed adoption of the new codec.
In 2015, around the time of pushback from the industry about HEVC royalties, the Alliance for Open Media was founded to pursue an open, royalty-free video coding format. The Alliance included internet and streaming leaders: Amazon, Cisco, Google, Intel, Microsoft, Mozilla and Netflix . The result of this alliance was the AV1 video codec. It offers comparable file size savings to HEVC.
A technical obstacle for both AV1 and HEVC is the amount of computing power required to achieve both encoding and decoding. General use CPUs are not well-suited for video encode or decode. If a browser or app were to encounter a HEVC or AV1 file, then its software-level would invoke the CPU if a Graphical Processing Unit (GPU) with decode support for the codec were not available. The experience would likely involve buffering and a CPU running hot at high utilization. Therefore, most streaming companies prefer to offer an HEVC or AV1 codec only to devices with GPUs that specifically support HEVC or AV1.
Because GPU hardware support is so important to both HEVC and AV1, the WURFL device detection solution has deployed four codec-related device capabilities to determine whether a device has hardware-level support for either encode or decode of HEVC or AV1. These capabilities are:
Update: HEVC vs AV1 Hardware Support in 2023 Q2
HEVC continues to have a major lead over AV1 when it comes to hardware-decode support. In 2023 Q2, using a sampling of 1.6 billion device events, ScientiaMobile determined that 93.2% of smartphone events came from smartphones with HEVC hardware decode support. In comparison, AV1 had only 3.72% of smartphones had hardware decode support.
Over the last several years, the AV1 video codec has grown in popularity as many browsers and applications have started to support playback. The largest exception to this trend is Apple’s Safari browser does not yet support AV1.
This support for AV1 is primarily at the software level, relying on the CPU to perform the intensive job of decoding the video. So while technically AV1 is supported by most of the browsers, its playback takes a major toll on smartphone CPU utilization, will drain batteries, and is not a great experience.
What HEVC Decode Level Does Hardware Support?
Android’s HEVC decode hardware support ranges considerably in its level. Over 30% of devices only support below Level 5. Level 5 is where support for 4K video begins. Level 5 is the most common level of support with 22.88%.
What AV1 Decode Level Does Hardware Support?
AV1 hardware support is still in development, with only 3.74% of device usage include hardware to decode. So far, Android’s most common decode support is level 5.2 at 3.24%
Currently, while Apple is a governing member of the Aomedia alliance, Apple has yet to support AV1 in its iPhones. Therefore, no level information is available
What are the Most Popular Smartphones with HEVC Hardware Support?
Hardware-support for HEVC decode is available on most iPhones in use today. Given that iPhones are the most-used models of smartphones, HEVC has a high-level of support today.
The Apple iPhone 11 is the most used-device in the world today, representing 5.32% of all smartphone use, and its hardware supports HEVC decode.
Streaming and OTT Video Support for HEVC and AV1
A number of streaming platforms use HEVC for devices such as smart TVs and streaming boxes like Roku. However, many streaming platforms serve only AVC mobile devices. Since a growing percentage of users watch streaming video on their smartphones, platforms could save a huge amount of cost by encoding and delivering video in HEVC or AV1 to smartphones that have hardware decode support.
There is a tipping point at which streaming platforms need to track in order to effectively make the transition to AV1 or HEVC. An accurate device detection solution like ScientiaMobile’s WURFL can help track and classify devices ready for HEVC or AV1. Download our e-Book to see the use cases that a growing number of streaming platform have for device detection.