Blog Post

What About H.264?

So yesterday was quite a day. I for one am pretty jazzed about the whole Front Row deal. I think that’s gonna be some sweet action as it propagates throughout the Apple hardware line (Steve, please do this soon) in the coming months. And while the announcement of iTunes 6 (wow – a whole .x!!!) and Video iPods is neat, I’m a bit underwhelmed.

With all the hoopla in recent months from Apple about HD this and that, why on EARTH are the video downloads from iTunes not in H.264?? To me at least, that seemed like a given. I was shocked to find that the videos were not only non-HD, they weren’t even a proper TV resolution of 640 x 480! It’s just big enough for the iPod screen, and little more.

With 45 minute TV shows weighing in at almost 200megs, they’d be able to streamline that download (and the storage space – my gosh, the storage space!) significantly using the H.264 compression scheme. And then you could hook your iPod dock up to your TV, watch your photo slide shows and your iTunes Video downloads on your Television, instead of being tied to a tiny screen all the time.

My only hope is that Apple’s pulling one of their signature moves…
1. Announce a great new service and grab the hype.
2. Launch it with relatively sub par components.
3. Make lots of money.
4. Wait 3-6 months.
5. Announce the on or above par replacements for initial launch components.
6. Make even more money.

I’ve even considered that maybe they’ll take a dip into the subscription market, by offering H.264 video downloads on a subscription basis. Who knows. But they’d better get [back] on that HD bandwagon soon!!

21 Responses to “What About H.264?”

  1. PQ DVD to iPod Video Suite version 2.5.03 supports 640×480 H.264 and MPEG4. My PC is a P-D 2.8Ghz, 2.5G dual channel RAM, 3TB HD, basically, all of my movies have been stored in the HD for a home theater experience. With the 640×480 H.264, will re-convert all the videos in a few weeks.

    Because the H.264 encoding takes more time than the MPEG4 but requires less space. All of my previous mp4 files have been deleted and are gonna be replaced by these 640×480 H.264 videos.

  2. On a more conciliatory note, you make a good point about the high CPU usage of H.264 decoding, something which is not, of course, unexpected – at the outset, new video codecs always seem to have rather heavy computing requirements. I will add that it is unlikely to have anything to do with DRM.

    In any case, all of this means that it is extremely impressive that the iPod – small as it is – can play this kind of video – and at 30fps too. It is, though, expected that the battery life is (comparatively) poor, because it requires so much horsepower to decode the files.

    This is, of course, one of the reasons that the videos available through the iTMS are only 320×240 – much more (especially the HD-quality video for which you yearn) would require, say, a VCR-sized box to decode. Whilst not heavy, VCR-sized boxes are not, I think, what people have in mind vis-à-vis portability. You could fit a really big screen in one though.

    And as others have noted, the other issue is download size. If you want 1080i, fine, but be prepared to wait a day for that episode of Lost to download, and to suitably compensate Apple for the bandwidth used in supplying it to you. For, say, a 5Gb download, that’s quite a bit of money.

    Finally, and perhaps most obviously, what did you expect for $1.99?

  3. I’ve gotta agree with John here, and he’s only couching what Dogger said in nicer language. If you don’t know what you’re talking about, better not to post. And if you do, don’t go getting all irate when people take you to task for, well, posting a load of bollocks.

  4. The problem is one of perceived value. Desparate Housewives, Season 1 costs $38 on DVD on Amazon. It’s enhanced for widescreen which means it is encoded at 720×480 (some of which may not be used due to matting). The same content available from the Apple Music store is $35 for a 320×240 cropped version. Unless you desparately, need to watch the show right now, it’s a much, much better deal to just order the DVDs.
    If you wanted, there are ways to rip said DVDs into a format playable on the iPod.
    Even better, you could record the magnificent 1920×1080 interlaced MPEG-2 widescreen broadcast every Sunday going forward, it’ll take up 10GBs of space which at today’s hard drive prices is around $2.50 of space.

  5. Nick:

    The high CPU usage has almost certainly nothing to do with DRM. H.264 is simply a very CPU-intensive codec; for example, have you tried watching any of Apple’s HD trailers on that 1gHz machine? I’d wager they won’t even run smoothly at all, certainly not at the highest resolutions.

    That’s another reason for the low resolutions, by the way: there’s no way the iPod could handle much more than 320×240, and even as it is the battery life while doing so is pretty atrocious. I do agree that Apple should provide higher-resolution video downloads for those who want them, but I have to assume that’s coming soon.

  6. Hey Daniel – thanks for the input.

    1 – I’m not disputing that it looks good at it’s native res. My complaint is that I don’t intend to have a video iPod (at least not in the near future) but may wish to view these on my powerbook. Watching a 320×240 tv show on my 17″ powerbook isn’t great fun. That was my beef.
    I think it’d be nice if the video section of the music store were aimed at everyone, not just video ipod owners. But I understand there are limitations, and whatnot. As Mort Blort said – Myabe offering a higher res for $1 more may be a viable option…

    2 – you’re right. Again, I was thinking of all of us who may not want to watch purchased videos on an iPod, but on a computer.

    3 – I guess that could be true – but if you’re buying it, and a chunk goes to Disney anyway, give the people what they want/pay for, right?

    I’m sure many hurdles remain, and a lot of growing is still to happen. It’ll be interesting to watch this next step in media distrib ution evolve.

  7. Thank you for the Valuable Comment John. The internet is better for it….

    I guess I missed where I indicated that I felt I was being picked on. I was wrong. I accepted that, and am appreciative of those who offered USEFUL comments with information to correct my incorrect statements.

    I suppose I should retitle and re-edit the story to reflect the true drive behind it – I was dissapointed in the result when I tried it out for myself. It did not live up to the expectations I had. I’ve had some excellent experiences with H.264 compressed video, and have witnessed some others. This was clearly not one of those.

  8. Nick: A few thoughts…
    1) I played around with the “Export to iPod” function in the new QT pro, and it does really look great at 320×240 (I’m a web guy and my video is all about getting it to look good and still download off the web.) Those m4p files won’t play on the web though…
    2) HD on a pocket device is not going to happen anytime soon. Have you tried those HD samples apple has on their web site? My 1.5g Powerbook can barely play the 480p versions without stuttering, the system requirements for the 1080p versions is a DUAL G5.
    3) I’m sure that limiting the size to 320×240 was one key factor to getting Disney onboard with the content.

  9. It seems like you don’t know much about video formats or the current offerings. I’m glad you’re getting educated, but it would have been nice if you’d done a little research before posting. I understand that you don’t like being picked on, but that’s the price you pay when you publish such a shrill, misinformed piece. As someone who writes articles it’s your role to inform you readers, not the other way around. Any flack that you get is because you, in this piece, failed in your role. Checks and balances, baby. One would hope that in the future you will only start writing once you have a better understanding of the topic. The internet will be a slightly better place for it.

  10. What I understand, Mr Dogger, is what I see. And what I see has less than impressed me. Forgive me for using improper terms, or misstating facts. When it boils down to it, The picture isn’t what I EXPECTED it would be. Too bad.

    Thanks to all for the educational comments where I was wrong. Anyone can point out a mistake. Those who actually have the knowledge to correct and teach are appreciated…

  11. Wow, a page full of complete nonsense.

    H.264 has nothing to do with HD. It’s just a compression algorithm, like any other. It’s good enough to make HD manageable for the first time, but there is nothing specifically HD about it.

    So congratulations for writing an article that is all up in arms about not including something that you don’t understand.

    Also, there is no such thing as a visual image that scales without quality loss. More detailed images experience less loss. That is all.

  12. macinfan

    Hmm, well, all I can say is if the video and CPU usage really is that bad, then those guys aren’t going to be legitimizing anytime soon the video downloading like they did with the music.

  13. Mort Blort

    The Apple iPod site says the following:

    Video capacity is based on 4 minutes per H.264 750-Kbps video combined with 128-Kbps audio.

    I wouldn’t have been surprised to hear that it didn’t do h.264, since that codec requires a lot of horsepower to decode. I do think they should think about allowing a twin download, say for $2.99, of the 320×240 video as well as a 640×480 version for computer-screen playback.

  14. I expect the World.
    too much to ask?

    Thanks for the education Neo. I suppose I lost my head a bit….and mixed up my terms (2 things that drive me nuts when others do). thanks for calling me out there.

    1 thing that DOES seem ridiculous (I’m breathing evenly here) is that whether playing the downloaded video – in 320 x 240 format even – within iTunes (or just in QuickTime), my 1ghz G4 processor gets a hefty 50% draw off of it for the duration of the purchased video.
    I suspect it’s something to do with the DRM, but MAN! taxing my system like that just to watch a simple movie? pretty lame. I wonder if it heats the new iPods up while watching a 45 minute show…?

  15. I decided to download one of the Pixar shorts on iTunes to check out the video quality and was really disappointed. I’ve watched some of the HD trailers on the Apple trailer page and was amazed at the quality of H.264. Compared to the trailer, the quality of the short was just pathetic.

    Now on to the iMac. The coolest thing about it was the move to PCI Express. With the inclusion of PCI Express, the Radeon X600, and the built in iSight, the iMac goes from a really good consumer level machine to a really great consumer level machine. Why didn’t I mention Frontrow? It’s not finished yet. When you can record TV and then transfer it to your HD television it will be finished.

    Apple is really good at creating a lot of buzz with a product and then a few months later updating the product to make it a must have. That’s what is happening here. Next year the first Intel dual core iMacs will appear and it will be a true media center that will record TV programming. We will also see an all new iPod with a wide screen format that will do HD. At least those are my predictions.

  16. Um, H.264 is a subset of MPEG-4 ( H.263 was MPEG-2? ) So, since you need QT 7 PRO to encode Video for iPod, that is H.264…

    Now, I’m not sure where you get the idea it’s “supposed” to scale without quality loss ( who ever said that?) If you think 320 x 240 is so bad, it’s 640 x 480 on standard definition TV. Which is only twice as big.

    Oh, you think h.264 is supposed to be like the HD movie trailors?? Um, that would be HD which is 1920 x 1080i + Surround sound ( and would take 3 days to d/l )

    Think about it, and think about current Movies at 252 x 320 in MPG 1 or Divx bit torrents which fit 2 hours on 750MB CD’s I think….

    On your computer, you will always have a much higher rez screen than a TV. What did ya’ expect??

  17. macinfan – I didn’t watch the broadcast, so maybe he said that and I wasn’t aware. But it’s nowhere that I saw on Apple’s site.

    Plus, I downloaded the recent version of Lost and it’s GRAINY at full screen. H.264 is supposed to size up or down w/o clarity loss. Not happening here. So if it’s indeed HD quality, something’s fishy.

    EDIT – I’m thinking, if it was encoded at 320×240 as the target size, even in H.264, maybe that means it’s gonna degrade as it gets bigger. That may make sense. But it sucks if that is the case, for all the folks who’ll just want to watch episodes on their computers….

  18. macinfan

    Dude are you sure? I watched the “keynote” thing and could have sworn he said quite explicitly that it was all in H.264 format and in 320×240 resolution. I know for sure he admitted the resolution because his point seemed to be it was intended for watching it on the new iPod. Not that I agree that’s how it should be watched, just that I think that was his intention. And I’m almost positive he said it was ALL in H.264. But if you downloaded it and it wasn’t then I don’t know why he was going on and on about all the video being in H.264 if it’s really not. Maybe you should email that Steve guy and let him know what’s really going on.

  19. I totally agree, video is nice, but I paid (again) for the Quicktime Pro license and it only makes sense to exploit their iTunes market penetration to push the H.264 standard – it would be a great experience for the end user and as a podcaster, well a good user experience is what we are all looking for.

    Wake up Mr. Jobs.