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What is AV1? The 8K video codec coming soon to streaming services

What is AV1? The 8K video codec coming to a streaming service near you
(Image credit: Philips)

Move over H.264/AVC and HEVC, there's a new video streaming codec in town and it's got you in its sites. AV1 is here and it's going to be everywhere before you know it.

AV1 is an open, royalty-free video standard with an improved compression system that should allow huge data efficiency savings without reducing video quality – and that could be key going forward into a world of higher frame rates, 8K resolution, HDR standards and audio demands.

As such, AV1 brings implications for those who use services such as Netflix, Disney Plus and Prime Video; people looking to buy a new TV or media streamer; and anyone interested in 8K TV. And as a catch-all compression standard there are many uses beyond, including gaming, realtime applications such as video conferencing and anything else where video streams are required.

What is AV1?

AV1 (AOMedia Video 1) is the the next evolution of the defacto video streaming codec across the internet. It's planned as the successor to the HEVC (H.265) format that is currently used for 4K HDR video on platforms such as Prime Video, Apple TV+, Disney Plus and Netflix.

It was developed by the Alliance for Open Media, which counts Amazon, Apple, ARM, Facebook, Google, Intel, Microsoft, Mozilla, Netflix, Nvidia and Samsung among its members, and is designed to offer internet streaming efficiency upgrades without affecting quality. That makes it an important step in the uptake of streamed 8K video, given the more data-heavy demands of this higher-res format.

The other big advantage to the streaming giants is that AV1 is royalty-free. That means video platforms, device manufacturers and, by proxy, users can avoid the hefty licensing payments previously associated with codecs such as HEVC. With any luck, that should also grease the wheels of AV1's evolution and development by avoiding costly, time consuming and generally prohibitive law suits and patent claims.

At the time of writing, the AV1 video codec shows anywhere up to 30 per cent more efficient compression than HEVC, and those within the Alliance for Open Media will push for even bigger gains still. After all, it's always good to leave room to squeeze more audio and video standards into the bitstream as and when they arise.

But while all sounds good for efficiency of the compression, there is a catch – it takes much, much longer to encode videos in AV1 in the first place. Imagine capturing a video on your mobile then having to wait an age for the AV1 file to be created before you can share it.

The aim for AV1 is for significant improvement here. Realistically, it's a problem that needs to be solved before widespread adoption can happen. Until then, expect AV1 to be a more fringe player.

AV1 specs

What is AV1? The 8K video codec coming to a streaming service near you

(Image credit: AOAlliance)

AV1 decoders are available at different profile settings and levels, depending on each piece of hardware's capabilities. Theoretically, though, there's plenty of scope and the very upper limits of AV1 have not yet been defined.

For the time being, the codec can go as far as 8K at up to 120fps, involving bitrates at up to 800mbps. Bit depth for colour comes in 8-, 10- and 12-bit varieties and with colour sampling up to a 4:4:4 full pixel level.

Can I watch AV1 video now?

Google has already implemented some AV1 use onto YouTube and requires AV1 support to view its 8K videos on TV.

Netflix has also started streaming AV1 content on a few titles. In fact, the subscription giant first took on AV1 as a way of keeping costs down for Android customers. The Netflix 'Save Data' feature on Android devices prioritises the use of the less data-heavy AV1 streams where possible. The company has also committed to take AV1 use across the board going forward.

Vimeo has adopted AV1 for the streams of its 'Staff picks' channel. Facebook has promised a roll out of AV1 as browser support emerges, and Twitch has 2022 or 2023 targeted with universal support projected to arrive in 2024 or 2025.

To watch this AV1 content requires both hardware and software support, which mostly breaks down to which device you've got and what operating system it's using. At the time of writing, there's no AV1 support on MacOS or iOS.

Android (10 onwards), Chrome (70 onwards) and Linux can decode AV1 streams, as can Windows 10 devices (once updated) for certain Windows apps.

What devices support AV1?

Any device looking to support AV1 will need to have an AV1 decoder built-in at the chip level. Compatibility to the codec cannot be added as a firmware update for most devices. That means the very vast majority of devices out there at the time of writing aren't ready for it.

There are one or two that were future-proofed in 2020, though. Of  those, the Roku Ultra is probably your best bet to get going with AV1 content straight away, although it's only available in the US for now.

LG's 8K TVs from 2020 are also AV1 compatible with a decoder built into the α9 (Gen 3) processor. It's a similar story for Samsung's 8K sets from the same time – you can actually watch AV1-encoded 8K content from the YouTube app of those sets now.

The other notable AV1-enabled hardware is the Nvidia GeForce RTX 30 Series graphics cards, which would make a very handy video streaming addition to most PCs.

Otherwise, it's a list of AV1 promises but these include a particularly good one. Google recently announced that any device looking to use the Android TV 10 OS produced after the 31st March 2021 deadline will need to have an AV1 decoder built in.

So, expect plenty of set-top boxes and smart TVs launched in 2021 and beyond to be ready to go and, with Google putting its foot down, all sorts of other products and services should fall in line over the next 12 months, and that's good news for everyone. Higher quality video, here we come.

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