Q&A – Which video codec is better – MPEG-2 or H.264?
A. I’m going to be controversial and actually say – MPEG-2.
H.264 might be the video codec of choice at the moment for everything web-based – and that’s fine – but actually making and using H.264 is a bit more difficult.
Firstly, H.264 is a very complex video codec that requires plenty of CPU horsepower to not only decode, but especially to encode.
You encode any video first with MPEG-2 and it will take roughly three times longer to encode it with H.264.
But when it comes to decoding – as in when you’re actually watching a video – it requires more CPU speed and if you’re watching something using battery power (your iPod or netbook), watching an H.264 video will drain the battery faster than watching an MPEG-2 video. If you’re using a netbook, just watch the CPU usage levels – they’ll be higher for H.264 than MPEG-2 – and that means more CPU speed which lessens battery life.
As for video quality, yep, H.264 can do a better job at lower bit rates but if you’re encoding video, the trade-off of 1/3rd encoding speed doesn’t translate to three-times better video quality.
If it’s a compromise between video size and encoding speed, MPEG-2 wins in my book.
The fact that MPEG-2 is supported on both DVD and Blu-ray is also important because you can easily transfer up to Blu-ray without having to reencode.
As for video quality, I think the difference at higher bit rates is much harder to see and I personally prefer MPEG-2 for its smoother transitions and being more tolerant to blocking than H.264.
Now, I’m sure there will be plenty of people ready to shoot me down. If you’re talking about video over the web, H.264 is likely the better option but for DVD or Blu-ray, the sort of bit rates being used (upwards of 20Mbps), you’re going to struggle to see the difference between MPEG-2 and H.264. And given MPEG-2 encodes so much faster than H.264, I’d give it to MPEG-2.
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