h.264 looks like crap for high definition motion pictures

I’d heard this from several sources but I was hesitant to write anything about it until I’d seen it myself.  Now that I have, I can firmly make the claim:

h.264 looks like crap for hi-def movies

No really.  It does.  h.264 really looks bad for high definition movies making it irrelevant for either Blu-ray or HD-DVD.  This explains a lot and I mean a LOT.

For those of you just tuning in, h.264 is a video compression standard that was created for the purposes of real time video conferencing.  Folks that do video conferences over IP connections usually use H.264 when the converse over Polycom video conferencing cameras.  Or if you’ve ever used the video conferencing capability of Microsoft NetMeeting or Office Communicator or Windows Live Messenger, you’ve use H.264.

The problem is that H.264 was one of 3 video compression codec standards used by both Blu-Ray DVD and HD-DVD.  While it provides excellent compression for high definition (1080i, 1080p signals) it results in a pixelated image, one in which "blocky patches" or "artifacts" are clearly noticable – particularly when you freeze the image.

Contrast this with VC1, one of the other 3 video compression codec standards that both high definition DVD standards adopted.  VC1, also known as the standardized version of Windows Media Video 9, produces a fantastic picture:  One that looks gorgeous, unpixelated and clear even when frozen.

The 3rd video compression codec adopted by both camps is good ol’ MPEG2.  This is the same compression technology used by standard definition DVD today – the movies you watch on convention DVD players.  This is pretty good for today’s 9.1GB dual layer DVDs today but when used for high definition content, the resulting content usually requires 40GB of storage or more, making it difficult to use without a large capacity disc format.

Enter Blu-Ray DVD.  Blu-Ray was supposed to have dual layer 50GB discs available by now but they haven’t, making only the 25GB discs available.  This has forced Sony’s production studios and their partners to make a choice:  Use VC1, use H.264, or use MPEG2 and create less-than optimal high definition Blu-Ray discs.

They apparently chose the latter.  It turns out that the authoring software for BluRay DVD creation ONLY supports MPEG2.  They completely side stepped using VC1 or h.264 for some reason.  Speculation ranges from:

  • h.264 had poor image quality
  • VC1 required paying a royalty to Microsoft and h.264 required paying a license to MPEG-LA.
  • MPEG2 was cheap for Sony being that they already held a license for the codec
  • 1st generation of Blu-Ray player’s had decoding chips that were too buggy to create discs with more advanced codecs

Man, this stuff’s fascinating.

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