Adobe has pre-released a new version of the Flash 9 Player which includes support for HD quality video including hardware acceleration. This is big news for video on the Web but how close are we really to HD in our browsers? The short answer is... not that close.
Before we go into the technical details and the problem we face on the web, let's look what HD will mean for the quality. Let's compare the main formats currently used:
I have used the best possible source for comparing HD content - Pixar's Ratatouille. It is a pure digital production and as such it offers much higher clarity and sharpness than what you get with a motion picture.
All the movies are compared when playing full screen using a HD capable monitor.
As you can see, HD quality video is really stunning. The differrence between Full HD and YouTube is no less than dramatic. Why should we accept watching pixilated low-quality "garbage" when we can get HD?
Just take a look of these side-by-side comparisons:
There is no question that HD quality video is coming. A quality of that level is going push itself on to the market. The only question is - who is going make it available first, and when will people actually able to see it.
But, the Web isn't really ready for HD. You see there are three obstacles we need to overcome before we can see HD in a browser. They are: Size, Bandwidth, and client software/hardware.
Just a note: When I say HD, I always mean Full HD. There two sizes of HD Video. Full HD which is technically referred to as 1080i/p and "crap" HD which is half the quality called 720p. I don't want low-quality HD - that is useless.
Let's look the obstacles that we need to conquer in order to bring HD to the browser.
The biggest obstacle for viewing HD quality video in a browser is the size of the video. HD has a resolution of 1920x1080px and even if you download an HD movie, you are not going to get HD quality unless you have a screen with that resolution.
Let me give some examples:
The new and beautiful 20" iMac has a built in resolution of 1680x1050px - and thus is not capable of displaying HD video. It has to scale it down thus affecting the sharpness and clarity of the image. It is still much better than DVD, but it is not HD. You need the bigger 24" iMac before you can watch HD on your computer.
Most corporate laptops have a resolution between 1024x768px and 1400x1050px and thus cannot display HD video either. And because most business people want their laptops to be compact, this not going change for a very long time. You don't really want to use a 14-15" screen with a resolution of 1920x1200px. It would be near impossible to read the text on the screen.
The iPhone has a resolution of 480x320px and is thus not even capable of displaying standard TV quality - HD on the iPhone is currently only a distant dream (if it is ever going to happen on small devices).
Actually, less than 4% of the internet population has a computer with a screen resolution of 1920x1200 or higher. The stats are going up, but not nearly as quickly as I would like (at this rate we are talking 2012 before we reach a 40%).
The second problem is the bandwidth needed to stream HD video over the internet. HD Quality video files are 30 times larger than those you can see on e.g. YouTube.
To compare you need a 256 Kbit/s DSL connection to watch a YouTube video, but you need a 9 Mbit/s connection to stream Full HD video. Most people do not have such high speeds.
High-speed Broadband penetration is growing strong, but while many people have a broadband connection in Europe and USA, few actually have "high-speed" broadband connections.
But, this is only half the problem. The other half is the server and bandwidth needed for video publishers. If you decide to put a HD video on your blog, and - say - 100 people decides to watch it at the same time you are going to need some serious hardware and a serious hosting plan.
In fact 100 HD quality videos are close to the physical limit that most servers can handle.
This is why the few companies that already publish HD quality use dedicated ISPs like Akamai to be able to deliver this much data in a reliable way.
A smaller problem is the software and hardware on the client computer. The software part is generally going to be solved with the new version of Flash 9 Player or technologies like Silverlight. DivX's web player is also entering the HD world, but so far only in the low 720p quality.
You can watch HD using either Quicktime or Windows Media Player, but I wouldn't recommend embedding HD content this way in a browser.
The hardware is a bit trickier. You actually need a pretty good graphic card to be able to display HD quality video fluidly. I have a Mac Mini, and it is sometimes struggling to display HD content. Older laptops and desktop computers will have the same problem.
Newer computers do not have this problem (unless it is one of those you buy insanely cheap).
So, there are a lot of practical issues about using HD on the Web. It is currently more for show, than for real. Most people will not be able to see HD in HD quality and only the biggest companies can currently afford to publish it.
HD is coming, and I do predict that it is going to come fast, and it is going to be fun for the early adopters. But, it is currently only available for the elites.
One thing I have not yet covered is TV connectivity, and that is really going to be an important element in HD on the Web.
We already see a huge transformation of our living rooms. HD TVs is outselling regular ones and the VCR and DVD players are being replaced by hard disk recorders.
This is going to go a lot further in the future. In a few years from now everyone will have a HD TV, but you will not have a DVD player or a hard disk recorder. You will instead stream TV shows and channels directly from the internet. You will save your videos on your computer, home server or mobile phone.
Not only that, but once the TV world is an integrated part of your computer (and vice versa) a zillion new possibilities emerges. Dynamic TV broadcasts, everything is on-demand, and TV gets mixed with online content.
We already see the start of this with products like Windows Vista Media Center, Apple TV, the iPhone (and iPod Touch) and the storage solutions like Windows Home Server. At the moment only Windows Media Center supports Full HD, but it is only a matter of time before the rest will follow.
HD Video is going to be a very important part of a digital-living-room, where the content will come from sources online.
We are talking Rich Media HD Experience.
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