What is a Video Codec?: The Ultimate Guide to Streaming Codecs

By Emily KringsOct 27, 2022

Video codecs play an important role in the video streaming process. They make it possible to transfer bulky video files over the internet.

In this article, we will cover the ins and outs of video codecs for live streaming. We’ll start by discussing what a video codec is and why it is important for streaming before we dive into a quick comparison of lossless codecs and lossy codecs. From there, we’ll review five common codecs for video streaming.

Table of Contents

What is a Video Codec?

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A video codec is a type of streaming technology that facilitates the transport of video signals through a process of encoding and decoding. The term “codec” is a shorthand for “coder/decoder,” and it powers both encoding tools and decoding tools.

Codecs come in the form of hardware and software. They compress video files to make them easy to transport over the internet, then they decompress the files once they’ve reached their destination.

The video codec that a streaming workflow uses affects both the speed of delivery and the quality of the video rendered. The results depend on the type of video codec that is used.

Lossless Codecs vs. Lossy Codecs

There are two main categories of codecs: lossless codecs and lossy codecs. The main difference between these two types of codecs is how much data is lost in the transmission of the file.

Lossless video codecs recover all of the data when they are decoded. Lossy video codecs, on the other hand, do not recover all of the data when they are decoded.

Although lossless might seem like the best choice since it preserves all of the data, this is not always the case. Lossy codecs can be valuable in situations where there are particularly large files since it has a much larger carrying capacity than lossless codecs.

5 Common Codecs for Video Streaming

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There are several unique video codecs on the market, including H.264, AV1, and more. Let’s take a moment to review some of the most common codecs for video streaming.

1. H.264

H.264, which is also known as Advanced Video Coding (AVC), is one of the most popular video codecs. This codec became so popular because it is widely compatible with different streaming tools. It is also capable of low-latency streaming, which is very valuable for many streamers.

There are multiple profiles of H.264, some lossless and some lossy. The lossy H.264 profiles are the most popular, but lossy H.264 profiles are appropriate for some use cases.

Unfortunately, H.264 is not suitable for 4K streaming. This is one of the biggest downfalls of this video codec.

2. H.265

H.265, which is also known as High-Efficiency Video Coding (HEVC), is a slightly newer iteration of H.264. It was designed to support higher quality streams than its predecessor, including 4K streaming.

The downside of H.265 is that there are some compatibility issues that cause inconsistency in playback. This is tied to some questions about royalties to developers. Since this technology is patented, it likely won’t ever be adopted as widely as H.264. Nonetheless, it is still valuable in some streaming workflows.

3. H.266

H.266, which is also knowns as Versatile Video Coding (VVC), is a video codec that was designed for maxim performance and compatibility. It is a newer iteration of H.264 and H.265, and it is exponentially more efficient than its predecessors.

This codec uses lossy compression. It is suitable for transporting larger files, making it ideal for video streaming. VVC is also great for streaming over 5G networks, which is a plus.

4. VP9

VP9 is a lossless codec for streaming that is known for its great compatibility. It grew in popularity due to its role in different Google streaming projects, including YouTube.

Another notable characteristic of VP9 is that it supports variable bitrate (VBR) streaming, which is valuable for ensuring high-quality streaming experiences for users with different internet connections.

5. AV1

AOMedia Video 1 (AV1) is an open video codec that is a successor to VP9. It is highly compatible since it is open-source and royalty-free, and it is widely used across a variety of streaming tech companies.

AV1 also is capable of delivering high-quality streams, achieving up to 8K resolution in some use cases.

What is the Best Video Codec?

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Identifying the best video codec for streaming is a little bit difficult. Currently, the most optimal codec and the most powerful codec are two different things. In a perfect world, there would be overlap between the most optimal and most powerful, but since the streaming industry is constantly evolving, this is not a reality.

Currently, H.264 codec is considered to be amongst the most optimal codecs for video streaming since it is powerful yet compatible with a lot of the current technology in the streaming space. 

There are a few video codecs that are more powerful than H.264, but they are not yet widely compatible with other streaming technologies. 

Since H.266/VVC was designed to improve the quality from the other base standards while simultaneously expanding the compatibility, this could be the best video codec in the future. AV1 is also in the running for the best video protocol of the future.

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