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Digital Media Core 2011 - One True Video Format: H.264

Digital Media Core 2011
One True Video Format: H.264

When I wrote the first version of this article way back in 2007, Windows Vista was still new, and while I did recommend H.264 as the "one true video format," it wasn't necessarily the obvious pick because of lingering compatibility concerns. That is no longer the case. I now recommend H.264 without reservation, and it is the obvious pick for the one true video format.

Of course, digital video, unlike music and pictures, is still fraught with problems. Video files are themselves humongous, so the very notion of copying digital versions of your favorite DVDs to a PC hard drive, for example, aside from being legally questionable, is still technically difficult and can be expensive. Encoding times are lengthy and painful unless you have a very new multi-core CPU-based PC, making that process tedious as well. (Moving forward to HD video is even worse, of course, given that a typical HD film is many times the size of a DVD version, and the available tools are difficult to use.) File size constraints will limit the quality of the resulting videos, since users need to find a happy middle ground between performance, quality, and file size.

Until fairly recently, there was no easy way to choose a single video format because the market was in flux. That is no longer the case. Anyone who wishes to maintain a digital collection of videos, perhaps ripped from DVD, will want to choose H.264 over competing formats like Windows Media Video/VC-1, DivX, and Xvid. Yes, each has various strengths and limitations. But H.264 is now the clear winner.

Given my preference for Microsoft-oriented technologies, you might be surprised to discover me picking a video format that was designed by the software giant's competitors and is essentially the technical byproduct of a cabal of companies seeking to charge others exorbitant licensing fees. (In business-speak, this means that H.264 is "an international standard.") H.264 is essentially a version of MPEG-4 that's been fine-tuned for portable devices, though it supports HD resolutions as well. It is sometimes called MPEG-4 Part 10, in keeping with the strange naming convention used by the Moving Picture Experts Group (MPEG).

Like most MPEG-4 formats, H.264 offers high quality video at relatively low bit-rates and reasonable file sizes. More important, perhaps, it is compatible with a wide range of software and hardware products that exist both in and outside the Microsoft ecosystem, including such things as Windows 7 (including in Windows Media Player and Windows Media Center), the Sony PlayStation 3, the Xbox 360, the Apple TV and Apple iPods, iPhone, and iPad, Apple's QuickTime and iTunes software, Microsoft Zune (hardware and software), and much more.

Other formats of note

H.264 isn't the only video format vying for your acceptance. Microsoft's Windows Media Video (WMV) format offers high quality at relatively low bit rates, comes in HD variants, and, best of all, works natively with the company's Windows-based media tools like Windows Movie Maker, Windows DVD Maker, and Windows Media Player, as well as free add-ons like Photo Gallery. It's also widely compatible with non-Apple portable devices, Media Center Extenders, and other set-top boxes.

Microsoft has successfully pushed the latest WMV version, WMV 9, as part of an SMPTE standard called VC-1. Support for this standard is included in all Blu-Ray and HD DVD hardware. Because the WMV-derived VC-1 is a standard, like H.264, it's possible that it could achieve more widespread use in the future, both via PC software and other hardware devices. But it certainly hasn't happened yet.

Beyond its integrated support in Windows, WMV is most often found on video rental services such as MovieLink, CinemaNow, and, most recently, Amazon Unbox. Home users, typically, will use tools like Windows Movie Maker to convert home video tape into a more manageably-sized digital format. Quality WMV-based DVD ripping tools, however, are rare. And WMV has been passed over by the movie pirates in favor of formats like DivX and Xvid.

An MPEG-4 derivative, DivX offers excellent compression and reasonable file sizes, making it at least passingly competitive with H.264. But DivX is most commonly associated with DVD rippers and torrent-based video piracy, and has thus not found widespread acceptance outside these enthusiast markets.

Essentially an open source version of DivX, Xvid (formerly "XviD") is also based on MPEG-4 and offers comparable quality and file sizes to its proprietary competitor. (Some have found Xvid to be somewhat superior to DivX, actually.) Because they are so similar from functional and quality perspectives, DivX and Xvid are often lumped together (DivX/Xvid). There are some complicating factors with Xvid. Like DivX, the format is most often associated with video pirates and DVD rippers.

Final thoughts

While each of the alternatives offers some interesting technological advantages, none offers the broad compatibility of H.264. And as you'll see in subsequent articles in this series, H.264 is the obvious choice for those looking to rip their DVD collection to the PC so that they can be enjoyed on portable devices (like Apple's iPods/iPhones and Microsoft's Zune HD/Windows Phone) and in the living room on Apple TVs or the Xbox 360. Is there one true video format? You bet there is. And it's H.264.

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