Sunday, May 11, 2008

Is HQ YouTube Right for You?

Note: this entry is now outdated.

In a perfect world, it would be great to have undiluted top quality video and audio with no compression to throw away details. And we could throw in 3D while we're at it. And free money too. And flying cars. It wouldn't hurt to have flying cars – as long as they have perfect drivers.

But it isn't a perfect world so compromise is a reality of life. If you want the most people to be able to watch your videos, quality has to be sacrificed. The art of encoding is that you have the power to make wise decisions. You don't have to leave quality to random chance. For example, if you have bills to pay, you could make out checks for random amounts and send them to the utility companies, but it probably wouldn't give the best result. Looking through the bills and strategically paying the proper amounts puts you in control. You're still losing money, but you minimize the damage. In the same way, you can decide the balance you want between picture quality, sound quality, file size, and compatible audience size.

Many of you know YouTube is starting to offer the “Watch this in high quality”option. I have a video describing how to make the most of the low quality option here, but you may decide to go for the high quality option. Like anything, there are pros and cons to picking one over the other.

Edit: YouTube will now reencode everything so the customized LQ is no longer an option.

Low Quality
A strength of the LQ videos is: most people on YouTube watch in LQ. So in the short term you will reach more viewers. It likely isn't going to stay that way forever, so as the HQ videos are phased in, your LQ video may be reconverted and end up looking WORSE in “high quality.” Plus, the bitrate of LQ YouTube is limited to 350kbits/second.

However, the biggest benefit to LQ I see today is – if you do it right you can slip the video through without YouTube reconverting it at all (watch this to see a fantastic example). The same video you upload is the same LQ compatible video viewers will watch. This means your upload is faster because you don't send an extra byte of video/audio data that won't be used. You can also include high quality audio (at the expense of video), or very large frame sizes (with highly compressible video). To my knowledge, no one has found a way to do that in HQ.

High Quality
Yes, even HQ has its drawbacks. For one, the default “Watch this in high quality” isn't as impressive as you'd think. It still uses the same dinosaur Sorenson flash codec as LQ. You will get better sound (unless you uploaded a LQ video with >= 96k audio), but due to the limitations of the technology, the video isn't much more stunning (in most cases in my opinion).

Also, as I pointed out before, an HQ video will be reencoded no matter what you do. If you go for the high option, the LQ and HQ will both be reconverted by YouTube, and they usually don't do a good job at it. And to get the “Watch this in high quality option” you have to upload a larger file, which could be a problem on slower connections.

A long term issue here is: we don't know for sure when and what format will end up being the future standard for YouTube. Presently there are at least two HQ versions on their servers: a flash video (now the default HQ) which can be accessed by adding &fmt=6 to the end of the URL, and an mp4 (not officially being used) which can be accessed by adding &fmt=18. The mp4 deals with pixelization better than HQ flash, but people have observed an audio issue. The AAC audio in the mp4 version doesn't seem to deal with changes in volume well, making an undesirable clipping problem at loud parts. There may also be compatibility issues with people who don't have the latest version of flash player. I will discuss the two HQ versions in more detail in an upcoming post.

So what's the good news? Long term, YouTube may get this stuff worked out, and it will become available to more viewers in time. If you're future minded, HQ may be the way to go.

Bottom line: you must make the decision on what is best for your video. No matter what, you should have quality in mind as you process and encode your video. Stay tuned for more on optimizing your video's quality.


r0cket said...

Now that Youtube encodes all videos, have you figured out what format gives the best results in low quality?

I don't think many will bother to click on the high quality links.

PartlyAwesome said...

Haha, nice, Thank god for youtube, the site which has the users in mind =P

Anonymous said...

Nerdwithnolife, we need your guidance and testing for determining what is the current best method for getting standard quality videos on YouTube.

Size, encoding, etc?

Are you actually a nerd with a life now?

David Bergeron said...

I read somewhere youtube said Mpeg 320x240 video is best for low quality..What do you think?

Chris said...


Thanks for all your research and your tutorials on YouTube. You've definitely made the potential for my videos too look sharp and clear, a reality!!

For those people reading, who are on a Mac, you can use (Google these) FFmpegX or VisualHub (maybe even iSquint) to achieve the HQ video on YouTube using DerekForPresident's settings that he explains on YouTube.