Mobile video. There’s a few different elements here to cover here so let’s look at each different area of concern one at a time and see if we can come to an informed overall opinion.
Video quality. Let’s face it, most of us gadget fans like our video to look as good as it can and if your anything like me you set your video encoder (I usually use Handbrake) up to maximize the quality of the file you are encoding to match the device you will be viewing on. This is great and all but when viewing on a small mobile device like a phone (in no way am I including any tablets in this as their bigger screens make them a very different story) is it worth it? Might SD video be just as enjoyable to view on the little screen?
Can the average human eye truly see the added detail a 720p video file provides on a 3.5 inch screen? I know when we look at it with a discerning eye the quality in a HD video is apparent and obvious but after watching the movie or whatever for 15 min or more is it still making that same impact? Are you still getting that HD thrill? Or are you just watching a movie? Let me put it this way, when I watch HD at home on the big TV and its something like Planet Earth BBC I am blown away by the video quality, the entire time I’m watching I find myself looking at the details, the background clarity and the depth of field you get with real HD.
After converting and watching The Dark Knight to watch in HD on my old iPhone 4 I was over the whole great video quality aspect in 5 minutes and from then on I was simply watching another movie on a small screen. Really, for how long can you really focus your eyes on a little screen to really see and enjoy the difference it makes? For me it was at most about 5 minutes for anything I watched, then my eyes would settle in and it was just another movie. Good contrast and pixel density do make a difference but true HD or even 720p on a 3″ish screen? I’m not at all convinced its worth the long encode time and storage hit (two things coming up in this post) at all.
Watch a classic like Caddyshack or The Godfather, did the extra bit of detail and clarity make the movie and better? Didn’t think so, well unless your arms are sore from holding the screen close to your face and you have an eye strain headache. So, is HD or SD the winner here? Well there’s no denying HD looks good on a screen that can handle it but is it that good in the mobile environment? Well yes, but in my opinion its only good for showing off.
So, what other points of interest should we consider when looking at HD video in the mobile space? How about bandwidth? Are you at present using any streaming services to serve video to your device? Are you using them over your phones data plan? If the video was lower in quality instead of higher would it make an episode of Cougar Town or Lost any worse to watch? Or would The Office or 24 be less enjoyable with a slightly less than HD picture? I think it would be just fine and if the average person tries with an open mind I think they will agree. So with all this bandwidth savings we now have let’s all share more video? Why not? But really, with mobile providers all killing their unlimited data plans and putting lower and lower caps on the plans instead, this point makes a lot of sense to me. When viewing lower quality video, and I don’t mean moving talking blurry scenes and jagged blocks, you get double your moneys worth or more when you look at the data hit on you monthly bill. I must say SD wins this one.
Storage space. Let’s be realistic, no matter what phone you have they all have a storage limit. Sure with some phones you can by lots of storage cards and swap them about but these cost money and it adds up fast. So file sizes matter to all of us and when you compare a movie converted to SD and the same movie in HD the HD file can take up three times the room or more. Again I have to ask, is it worth it? Maybe if you only have one movie but if your loading up for a long flight, drive, train ride or whatever, file size matters and the smaller the better. So, I say SD wins this one as well.
Encoding time. Most video does not come in the format we need so it must be converted and on my comp right now I can covert a 2 hour SD video about 3.5x faster than the same video in HD. If looked at over a full day I could encode maybe 6, 2 hour videos in HD or maybe 30 or more in SD. Well if your math is anything like mine, SD wins this round hands down.
Audio quality. Now you might think what has audio got to do with video? Well, most video encoding apps leave the audio at a lower bit rate and to me this sucks. I find when watching video on a mobile device the audio quality, more so than the video quality can have a profound affect on my enjoyment. When watching on a mobile device we mostly use headphones and who wants to listen to scratchy FM quality audio or worse? Nobody who knows the difference that’s who. Instead of jacking up the resolution and bit rate of the video you encode try cranking up the audio settings some. Instead of an audio track encoded at 160, try 256 or even 320. The difference is amazing and you will find yourself way more engrossed in what you are watching. Trust me, its worth it, give it a try. Winner, SD.
Battery life. All of our mobile phones run on a battery that can only give so much juice and video playback loves to suck on batteries and the higher res the movie is the more work the system must do to display it for you. More work equals more battery drain. Now you might be thinking “but no, see my phone does video decoding with the GPU not the CPU” and that’s fine. But no matter what part of your SoC is doing the decoding, the CPU or the GPU if its decoding HD video its drawing more power than it would decoding SD and drawing more juice means less battery life. Winner, SD.
So. Let’s regroup and see where we are at. We looked at the video quality itself, yes HD is better but only when you make the effort to enjoy it, otherwise its just another video on a small screen. We looked at bandwidth and clearly there’s a consumer benefit to SD video. HD may market and sound better when advertised but for my wallet, SD will do nicely. Storage space, well clearly SD saves way more room for more video than HD ever will. Encoding time is drastically better with SD and SD video leaves more room for a better and more engaging sound track along with helping to preserve more of your battery’s life. What’s not to love? One thing and one thing only. Showing of the beautiful screen your phone has, and that’s it.
If you’re still with me on this one it would seem that SD video is our winner. It delivers the entertainment we want on our mobile devices with only one compromise, its own quality?
In the not to distant future when mobile devices have massive laptop like storage, battery life that is measured in weeks and fast, truly unlimited data access we will have to revise this to say just one thing. We love HD video on our mobile devices. But for now, ill leave the HD on my HDTV.
So at this point you might be thinking, how does all this pertain to the main theme of this blog? The Apple tech switching to BlackBerry?
Well this is how. Device design. See if you follow the logic outlined in the article above there should be no panic or concern in the mobile market at all that the BlackBerry Bold’s, keyboard Curves and slider Torch have smaller screens with a slightly lower resolution when compared to there full screen brothers. Really, now that we put it all in perspective is it a big deal? While users of full screen touch phones lose almost everything they were looking at when they “call” for the keyboard, my real keyboard touting brethren know the truth as I do, we always see our full screen, keyboard in use or not, and man oh man that’s a damn good thing. So the next time someone makes a remark that your real keyboard BB phone is looking outdated remind them of a word I love, productivity. Its a great thing indeed.
Now, what about tablets……
That’s for another day.
This discussion has skipped over things like the videos bit rate and method of encoding to try and keep a complicated subject simple (or somewhat more so). But with this info omitted I feel the arguments and opinions presented here still hold true and valid.
Below are two sample videos. Both are from a 1080p source video I found online. One is encoded at 640×480 and the other one is encoded at 1280×720. Also included are download links from dropbox. If the dropbox link expires leave a note in the comments and ill fix it.
Dropbox links below: