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What is H.264? [A Full Breakdown for Video Creators]

7 minutes read
What is H.264? [A Full Breakdown for Video Creators]

Whenever you're learning about a technical concept like H.264, it's pretty easy to get overwhelmed by all the jargon!

That's why we're going to take a different approach in this post: explaining the concept of video compression for non-experts who want to understand H.264 at a high level, including how to use it optimally in your videos as a creator, media company, or enterprise.

What really matters is being able to provide a great experience to your viewing audience using the best technology out there for video hosting and playing.

We're here to dive into everything you need to know! Ready for our full answer to the question, "What is H.264?"

Read on!

What is H.264? And Why Does It Matter?

Let's start off with a quick definition of H.264:

H.264 is a video compression standard (also referred to as Advanced Video Coding, or AVC) used as the basis for recording, compressing, and transmitting high-definition digital video on the web. 

Basically, whenever you want to transfer data from one place to another over the web, you need a way to move it there more efficiently. Video compression allows you to shrink the size of the video file you're transmitting, whether for on-demand video or for live streaming.

The H.264 video compression format (or codec) originated in 2003, developed by the ITU-T Video Coding Experts Group (VCEG) and the JTC1 Moving Picture Experts Group (MPEG). It quickly came to dominate the video landscape with its block-oriented compression standard, including online video, broadcast television, and physical disc formats like Blu-ray.

In fact, it's estimated that more than 91% of video industry developers rely on H.264, due to its success at providing good quality at lower bit rates!

A Quick H.264 Analogy

If you're having a tough time wrapping your head around the idea of compression in video, here's a simple analogy that most of us can relate to: You're about to drive up to a campsite for the weekend, and you have a fully assembled tent that you're trying to take with you on the road.

Obviously, this isn't the ideal way to move the tent from place to place, because it takes up too much space – this configuration may cause delays on the way to your destination.

As an alternative to packing a full-size tent, you could pack a folded tent that takes up a lot less space. This should help you get to your destination faster and more efficiently. Then, you can easily unfold the tent and assemble it when you're ready to access it at the campsite.


Sound helpful?

Well, when it comes to the H.264 codec, you're doing something similar: you start by "encoding" a huge video file so that you can transmit it at a smaller file size, then the video player at the destination gets to work "decoding" the video so that it can be viewed.

Of course, the trick is for it to remain as close to the original video quality as possible!

How Does Video Compression Affect Quality?

Using compression has enabled all of today's internet users to share video files (and live streams) with each other online, which makes it an amazing and revolutionary technology. 

But that doesn't mean compression is perfect. The biggest problem with compression is that it's literally removing data from a file – this means a reduction in quality by definition, because there's just less data contained in the video and audio of the file.

That's why it's so important to use a "smart" codec that can reduce the bitrate by removing data that won't sacrifice quality. 

As we cover in our in-depth article on the best bitrate for live streaming, the simple formula for how much data is transmitted looks like this:

The bit (a unit of data) X the rate (speed of transmission)

For example, a bitrate of 3 megabits per second (Mbps) means that you can move 3 megabits of data every second from your video host to a viewer's device. 

The bitrate is key because your viewers may not have the bandwidth to accommodate a massive video file. If they have slow or spotty internet, they probably won't be able to view your content without the help of compression.

Thankfully, a video player like Flowplayer can combine the power of H.264 video compression and adaptive bitrate streaming (ABR), which optimises the viewing experience for every user based on their own device, bandwidth, and preferences.

Video Encoding Settings in H.264

If you know what you're doing, there are all kinds of ways you can customise and configure your H.264 compression settings to suit your project. But the key here is that you know what you're doing!

Many of our clients here at Flowplayer don't know all the ins and outs of these video technologies, and that's by design – why bother learning all of these technical concepts in detail if you can work with presets that give you the video quality and speed that you need for a quality customer experience?

H.264 supports different encoding profiles. At Flowplayer, here are the settings we recommend: 

  • Progressive scan (no interlacing)
  • High Profile
  • 1080p source files: 10Mbps
  • 720p source files: 7Mbps
  • 480p source files: 4Mbps

Find out more about the ideal settings for your video files.

4 Big Benefits of H.264

So, with all that in mind, should you compress your video with H.264?

At least for now, we'd say it's still the ideal choice.

Here are some of the biggest benefits of H.264: 

  • Widespread compatibility. As the dominant video compression standard, H.264/AVC is widely supported on virtually every device, operating system, internet browser, and video player.  
  • Lower bitrate required. In comparison to previous standards like MPEG-2 or H.263, H.264 cuts the file size in half for a lower required bitrate. 
  • Efficiency with RTMP. H.264 works well with the real-time messaging protocol (RTMP) ingest to deliver data from encoder to online video host for live streaming.
  • Usable up to 4k resolution. Until 8K UHD becomes common, H.264 is more than sufficient as a compression standard for resolutions up to 4K.

Is H.264 the Best Codec for Streaming?

There are many video codecs out there, not just H.264. Some of the other prominent codecs include:

  • H.265/HEVC
  • AV1
  • VP9
  • H.266/VVC

While choosing video codecs may seem confusing, it's still H.264's race to lose. Only H.265 appears to be any kind of looming threat to H.264's dominance as the compression standard!

H.264 vs H.265

You may have heard of H.265, a newer compression standard from 2013 that's also known as High Efficiency Video Coding, or HEVC. Here's the question: if H.264 is good, then is H.265 better?

In comparison to H.264, H.265 uses a different encoding method called coding tree units, or CTUs. This allows H.265 to retain the same video quality with up to 2x the data compression! It is also the first codec to support resolutions up to 8K UHD.

So, if that's all true, then why is H.264 still so popular?

Well, for one thing, H.264 has been the standard for nearly two decades, which means it's widely compatible with today's devices and performs well for live streaming.

It's also true that many users don't even have high-resolution (4K or better) devices, or the bandwidth to stream UHD – so one of the biggest benefits of H.265 isn't really in demand yet.

For now, H.264 is probably the best standard for video compression, but this may change with increased adoption of H.265, H.266, and other codecs over time.

What is H.264 Wrap-up

As complicated as it might sound, H.264 is just a compression standard popular for encoding on-demand video and live streaming. It's been around since 2003, and it will probably be around for many more years to come. 

At this point, if your head is spinning with all these acronyms, numbers, and definitions, let's break it down with a simple set of rules.

If you need to upload or stream a new video, chances are good you'll want: 

  • MP4 for video container.
  • H.264 for video codec.
  • AAC for audio codec.
  • Standard frame rate of 24, 25, 30, 48, 50, or 60 fps.

Ultimately, no matter your needs as a video creator or broadcaster, Flowplayer has the flexibility to provide the best possible viewing experience for your audience.

And with so many premade settings and profiles, it's never been easier to start live streaming and serving quality on-demand video that you control 100%.

If you want to learn more about how Flowplayer supports quality H.264 video and live streams, contact us here. Or to see all of the features in our Enterprise plan, please visit our Plans and Pricing page!