A Large-Scale Comparison of x264, x265, and libvpx — a Sneak Peek

by Jan De Cock, Aditya Mavlankar, Anush Moorthy, and Anne Aaron

With 83+ million members watching billions of hours of TV shows and movies, Netflix sends a huge amount of video bits through the Internet. As we grow globally, more of these video bits will be streamed through bandwidth-constrained cellular networks. Our team works on improving our video compression efficiency to ensure that we are good stewards of the Internet while at the same time delivering the best video quality to our members. Part of the effort is to evaluate the state-of-the-art video codecs, and adopt them if they provide substantial compression gains.

H.264/AVC is a very widely-used video compression standard on the Internet, with ubiquitous decoder support on web browsers, TVs, mobile devices, and other consumer devices. x264 is the most established open-source software encoder for H.264/AVC. HEVC is the successor to H.264/AVC and results reported from standardization showed about 50% bitrate savings for the same quality compared to H.264/AVC. x265 is an open-source HEVC encoder, originally ported from the x264 codebase. Concurrent to HEVC, Google developed VP9 as a royalty-free video compression format and released libvpx as an open-source software library for encoding VP9. YouTube reported that by encoding with VP9, they can deliver video at half the bandwidth compared to legacy codecs.

We ran a large-scale comparison of x264, x265 and libvpx to see for ourselves whether this 50% bandwidth improvement is applicable to our use case. Most codec comparisons in the past focused on evaluating what can be achieved by the bitstream syntax (using the reference software), applied settings that do not fully reflect our encoding scenario, or only covered a limited set of videos. Our goal was to assess what can be achieved by encoding with practical codecs that can be deployed to a production pipeline, on the Netflix catalog of movies and TV shows, with encoding parameters that are useful to a streaming service. We sampled 5000 12-second clips from our catalog, covering a wide range of genres and signal characteristics. With 3 codecs, 2 configurations, 3 resolutions (480p, 720p and 1080p) and 8 quality levels per configuration-resolution pair, we generated more than 200 million encoded frames. We applied six quality metrics — PSNR, PSNR(MSE), SSIM, MS-SSIM, VIF and VMAF — resulting in more than half a million bitrate-quality curves. This encoding work required significant compute capacity. However, our cloud-based encoding infrastructure, which leverages unused Netflix-reserved AWS web servers dynamically, enabled us to complete the experiments in just a few weeks.

What did we learn?

Here’s a snapshot: x265 and libvpx demonstrate superior compression performance compared to x264, with bitrate savings reaching up to 50% especially at the higher resolutions. x265 outperforms libvpx for almost all resolutions and quality metrics, but the performance gap narrows (or even reverses) at 1080p.

Want to know more?

We will present our methodology and results this coming Wednesday, August 31, 8:00 am PDT at the SPIE Applications of Digital Image Processing conference, Session 7: Royalty-free Video. We will stream the whole session live on Periscope and YouTube: follow Anne for notifications or come back to this page for links to the live streams. This session will feature other interesting technical work from leaders in the field of Royalty-Free Video. We will also follow-up with a more detailed tech blog post and extend the results to include 4K encodes.

Links to video of SPIE Royalty-Free Video Session

Netflix talk starts around the 1-hour mark

Originally published at techblog.netflix.com on August 29, 2016.