AV1: A new Generation Video Codec

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AV1 is touted as the new video format for the Web to replace the well-known and proven MPEG format. The AV1 codec is a clever mix of the VP10 codecs from GoogleDaala from Mozilla, and Thor from Cisco; the three companies have thus developed a free high-performance video codec.

In recent years, MPEG codecs like MPEG-1MPEG-2, but also the variants MPEG-4ASP (DivX / XviD)AVC (H.264), and HEVC (H.265) have really been used. of reference points on the web. Streaming providers, for example, prefer to use the HEVC codec to stream their content in 4K. MPEG formats also serve as the standard for highly compressed video files used in DVDs, Blu-rays, and digital television.

If the performance of MPEG formats has long remained unmatched, it is not only because of their superior technology: many of their algorithms are protected by patents, which always makes it difficult for third-party vendors to launch a similar codec. 

This problem is also felt in the commercial use of the HEVC codec: streaming providers need a MPEG license, but also those of other partners in this license pool. They, therefore, have to go through individual patent holders. AV1 should make it possible to avoid these complications while surpassing the technical level of the previous formats.

The AV1 codec: what is it?

AV1 is an open video codec designed to help businesses and individuals deliver high-quality video to the web efficiently. Mozilla, Google, and Cisco are at the origin of this project. They hope in this way to sweep away the technological and financial obstacles currently encountered by all users. The goal is to enable them to access powerful multimedia formats and ultimately use them to share and stream video files on their open web platforms, such as the Firefox browser or the YouTube video platform.

Together, the creators of the AV1 codec created the Alliance for Open Media (AOMedia). Since 2015, they have combined their efforts to develop codecs, formats, and technologies for the public web. 

The AOMedia Video 1, abbreviated AV1, is in fact the first of their projects made available to the general public. The open and free AV1 codec can be used to compress videos. You can choose to save the video files encoded with it in MP4 or MKV format. As for the WebM format, AV1 can even be combined with the Opus audio format to embed videos in HTML5.

Why is AV1 essential?

According to a Cisco study, video content today represents 70% of Internet traffic. In 2021, this proportion should even exceed 80%. As a result, even the smallest improvements in file sizeimage quality, and transfer times can make a big difference for video creators and users alike. 

AV1 is made available free of charge and allows small businesses and individuals to position themselves in the market because they would not be able to afford the high license fees associated with the other available formats.

Note: License fees apply for the compression and decoding of video files with the older AVC encoding standard (H264). For large companies that manage streaming platforms, these license fees can, for example, reach several million euros. Due to the many patents associated with it, the new HEVC (H.265) codec could cost ten times more.

AV1 codec: its little story

The problem of these high license fees is not new. For six years, almost all of the major players have been working on their own projects aimed at developing viable alternatives to these patented video codecs: Google released VP9Mozilla unveiled its Daala project and Cisco introduced Thor, a codec particularly suitable for video conferencing. 

They all shared the same goal: to create a next-generation video codec to make online video sharing faster, easier, and most importantly, more economical.

In 2015, everyone decided to join forces under the AOMedia banner and it didn’t take long for other streaming and IT champions like AmazonNetflixIntelAMD, or even NVIDIA to join them. The AV1 codec is the product of this alliance. It relies in particular on the VP9 codec from Google but also uses the tools and technologies of the Daala, Thor, and VP10 codecs. 

As of 2018, Google Chrome and Mozilla Firefox, two of the most widely used browsers in the world, support AV1.

How does the AV1 codec work?

AV1 is a multimedia codec. It is therefore a computer program capable of encoding and decoding digital video, photo, and audio files. Encoding allows users to compress their files and efficiently edit, store and share them. Then they can open or play their content through decoding, usually through an application or a media player. 

For such an interaction to be possible, the encoding and decoding processes must be based on the same format, here AV1.

However, this is not as simple as it seems: the interactions between different types of media, applications, and hardware equipment are very complex, which is why codecs in turn must be highly specialized. Today, users rely on countless numbers of codecs: some are open source and free, while others are licensed and therefore paid.

AV1 as a new standard

In the near future, the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) intends to standardize AV1 under the name NetVC (Internet Video Codec). Of course, YouTube already supports the AV1 codec and even offers some 8K streaming videos for compatible displays. In doing so, AOMedia intends to prove the effectiveness of its AV1 codec compared to competing formats.

Beyond videos

With AVIF, the Alliance for Open Media provides an image format based on the AV1 video codec. In the long term, this image format should enjoy a stranglehold just as strong as that of the JPEG format on the market, the ambition of its creators being to supplant it. 

Its file extension is .avif (for AV Image File ) and its image sequences end in .avifs . This new image format aims to offer high image quality at high compression rates, but also to support animation as a modern alternative to the rather outdated GIF format.

The AV1 codec compared to other formats

In many ways, the AV1 codec is different from the category champion AVC created in 2003 by the Moving Picture Experts Group (MPEG). The avowed goal of the AV1 project is therefore to appropriate this supremacy in terms of video format for the Web. It should be possible to freely and efficiently exchange high-quality videos on the web.

Here are the main advantages offered by AV1:

  • AV1 uses compression technology that is nearly twice as fast.
  • It allows faster streaming of better quality videos .
  • AV1 is free . No cost is expected for encoding, decoding and compressing video files.
  • End users get a high quality video experience even with limited internet bandwidth .

AV1’s performance target is very ambitious: AOMedia aspires to deliver 25% more efficiency than the HEVC codec. Regarding the complexity, it is especially software decoding that remains at the heart of the concerns today, because adequate hardware support has not yet been developed. 

On all popular web browsers, AV1 is already used with the Opus audio format in WebM container files. Only the Safari browser currently only supports Opus.

AV1 support

Chrome and Firefox browsers began to use the AV1 codec on a daily basis, followed by Microsoft and Apple browsers. But the list of AV1 followers does not end there. Multimedia content distributors ( NetflixAmazonHuluApple, and Google ) are also members of AOMedia, as are computer equipment suppliers: Intel, AMD, ARM, and NVIDIA

YouTube deserves special attention: in 2017, the video streaming platform was one of the first to test and adopt AV1. Since 2018, the AV1 codec is also freely available on Googlesource.

Hardware support

Here is a list of hardware devices that already support AV1:

  • The company  Allegro DVT unveiled a multiformat video encoder taking care of AV1.
  • Samsung Q950TS TV supports 8K streaming with AV1.
  • LG’s ZX OLED series can also deliver 8K streaming thanks to its support for AV1.
  • The Intel  Xe graphics  processor has a decoder that supports AV1.
  • NVIDIA’s RTX 30 series supports content up to 8K, 10-bit and 60 FPS with the AV1 codec.

Software support

The list of software that supports AV1 is quite long. Here is a selection of the most famous of them:

  • Google chrome
  • Mozilla Firefox
  • Microsoft Edge
  • Opera
  • Vivaldi
  • Pale Moon
  • VLC media player
  • Android 10

What media is the AV1 codec used on?

AOMedia released its AV1 codec in June 2018. Today, its bitstream is stable and available to any interested user, and no license is required. The patent license fully complies with the W3C Patent Directive, so the AV1 license is completely free. All browser makers can use the AV1 codec as an open web standard.

It is already possible to use the AV1 codec on compatible devices via Android TV. These devices include televisions equipped with the BCM72190 and 72180 chips from Broadcom and RTD1311 or RTD1319 from Realtek.

As soon as 8K streaming is definitively established, it is certain that AV1 will also be used more and more frequently.