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MPEG-4, Advanced Video Coding (Part 10) (H.264)

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Format Description Properties Explanation of format description terms

Identification and description Explanation of format description terms

Full name ISO/IEC 14496-10:2003. Information technology -- Coding of audio-visual objects -- Part 10: Advanced Video Coding (formal name); MPEG-4, Advanced Video Coding (common name)

Compression encoding for video identical to ITU-T (International Telecommunications Union-Telecommunication Standardization Sector) recommendation ITU-T H.264. MPEG-4_V based on H.263 is a sibling that appears to be less widely adopted. In order to distinguish the two, technical writers sometimes call this encoding H.264 video and the other MPEG-4 video. An overview of AVC encoding is provided in Notes below.

This page is used in this website to represent encodings with no profile indicated. The established profiles for MPEG-4_AVC are listed (and linked) as subtypes below. They are defined in terms of bitstream characteristics and relate to the conformance of players. The Baseline, Main, and Extended profiles were specified in Annex A of the 2003 edition of the standard. Four High profiles, part of a group called FRExt (Fidelity Range Extensions) were approved in 2005. All profiles can be wrapped in MP4_FF_2. There is another coding variant: MPEG-4_AVC_EXT, a specialized subset of AVC that appears not to be a "profile," although it requires the use of its own wrapper: MP4_FF_AVCE. Comments welcome.

Production phase Generally a final-state (end-user delivery) format, although the FRExt additions will serve middle-state postproduction and archiving uses.
Relationship to other formats
    Used by MP4_FF_2_AVC, MPEG-4 File Format, Version 2, with Advanced Video Coding (No Profile Indicated)
    Used by QTV_MP4_AVC, QuickTime Video, MPEG-4 Advanced Video Coding
    Used by Matroska_AVC, Matroska File Format with MPEG-4, Advanced Video Coding (Part 10) (H.264)
    Used by HEIF, High Efficiency Image File (HEIF) Format
    Used by Other file wrappers, not documented here
    Has subtype MPEG-4_AVC_BP, MPEG-4 Advanced Video Coding, Baseline Profile
    Has subtype MPEG-4_AVC_MP, MPEG-4 Advanced Video Coding, Main Profile
    Has subtype MPEG-4_AVC_EP, MPEG-4 Advanced Video Coding, Extended Profile
    Has subtype MPEG-4_AVC_HP, MPEG-4 Advanced Video Coding, High Profile
    Has subtype MPEG-4_AVC_H10P, MPEG-4 Advanced Video Coding, High 10 Profile
    Has subtype MPEG-4_AVC_H422P, MPEG-4 Advanced Video Coding, High 4:2:2 Profile
    Has subtype MPEG-4_AVC_H444P, MPEG-4 Advanced Video Coding, High 4:4:4 Profile
    Has subtype MPEG-4_AVC_EXT, MPEG-4, Advanced Video Coding, Non-FRExt Extensions

Local use Explanation of format description terms

LC experience or existing holdings  
LC preference  

Sustainability factors Explanation of format description terms

Disclosure Open standard. Developed through ISO technical program JTC 1/SC 29 for coding of audio, picture, multimedia and hypermedia information by Working Group 11 (WG11) aka the Moving Picture Experts Group (MPEG).
    Documentation ISO/IEC 14496-10. Information technology -- Coding of audio-visual objects -- Part 10: Advanced Video Coding. Also published by ITU as ITU-T H.264.
Adoption The underlying encoding, sometimes under the name of ITU-T H.264, is being adopted in various sectors. In 2004, for example, a key group of Japanese broadcasters adopted the format for transmission to mobile telephones and other devices, and the format received provisional approval for use in DVD systems, where it will coexist with MPEG-2 and Microsoft's VC-9 video codec (see WMV9_PRO). In 2005, the ability of MPEG-4_AVC to support high definition contributed to further adoptions by direct broadcast satellite (DBS) services in the United States (DirecTV) and in Europe. The FRExt high-end profiles are being introduced in 2005; adoption not determined.

The specifications for the video-capable iPod introduced by Apple in late 2005 state that device will play H.264 video in the Baseline Profile, i.e., MPEG-4_AVC_BP. This was reinforced in early 2006, as Google began to offer downloadable videos, including files for the iPod that have the .mp4 extension and an encoding variously listed as "H.264" or "avc1" (MPEG-4_AVC_BP).

It is worth noting that adoptions of AVC/H.264 are generally in closed systems like satellite television or mobile phone delivery. In contrast, digital terrestrial broadcasting to homes in the United States and several other nations is governed by the ATSC (Advanced Television Systems Committee). The ATSC specifications require the use of MPEG-2 compression.
    Licensing and patents See MP4_FF_2.
Transparency Depends upon algorithms and tools to read; will require sophistication to build tools.
Self-documentation Pertains to the file format; see MP4_FF_2.
External dependencies None
Technical protection considerations Pertains to the file format; see MP4_FF_2.

Quality and functionality factors Explanation of format description terms

Moving Image
Normal rendering Good support.
Clarity (high image resolution)

For all profiles, MPEG-4_AVC (MPEG-4 Advanced Video Coding, part 10) is more efficient than the MPEG-4_V (MPEG-4 Visual Coding, part 2), i.e., MPEG-4_AVC provides better quality at the same data rate, or equal quality at a lower data rate.

Clarity is excellent for the profiles covered by the Fidelity Range Extensions (FRExt), which extend to lossless or near lossless levels, and support 4:4:4 chroma and bit depths as high as 12. See MPEG-4_AVC_HP, MPEG-4_AVC_H10P, MPEG-4_AVC_H422P, and MPEG-4_AVC_H444P.

Clarity in other profiles ranges from moderate to very good, given that chroma subsampling is limited to 4:2:0, and that these profiles will generally be implemented with significant amounts of lossy compression.See MPEG-4_AVC_BP, MPEG-4_AVC_MP, and MPEG-4_AVC_EP.

The outcome in all cases will depend on the extent of compression and the encoder used. All profiles support both progressive and interlaced video, at resolutions from sub-QCIF to HDTV.

[See Notes below for more detail on resolution terms.]

Functionality beyond normal rendering Not investigated at this time.
Normal rendering Not relevant; see MP4_FF_2.
Fidelity (high audio resolution) Not relevant; see MP4_FF_2.
Multiple channels Not relevant; see MP4_FF_2.
Functionality beyond normal rendering Not relevant; see MP4_FF_2.

File type signifiers and format identifiers Explanation of format description terms

Tag Value Note
Filename extension See related format. 

See MP4_FF_2

Internet Media Type See related format. 

See MP4_FF_2

Magic numbers See related format. 

See MP4_FF_2

File type brand (ISO Base Media File Format) See note.  Indicated in file wrapper and relates to "brands" defined in ISO_BMFF and registered in the MP4RA registry. Wrapping MPEG-4_V bitstreams in MP4_FF_1 would occasion the use of mp41; in MP4_FF_2, use of mp42. See also the 2004 version of Part 15 of the MPEG-4 standard (for an AVC-specific file format), pp. 2-9, 13. Note: the specification of the AVC-specific file format may have been updated as a more general specification for how to use encodings such as AVC in the ISO_BMFF format. Comments welcome.
Indicator for profile, level, version, etc. See note.  Codes for profile_idc are provided in Annex A of the MPEG-4 Part 10 standard (aka ITU-T H.264). As of the 2003 version this covered the Baseline, Main, and Extended Profiles. Four "high" profiles were added in the 2005 version for fidelity range extensions. Additional profiles have been added over the years.

Notes Explanation of format description terms


From the specification: "The coded representation specified in the syntax is designed to enable a high compression capability for a desired image quality. The algorithm is not lossless, as the exact source sample values are typically not preserved through the encoding and decoding processes. A number of techniques may be used to achieve highly efficient compression. Encoding algorithms (not specified in this Recommendation | International Standard) may select between inter and intra coding for block-shaped regions of each picture. Inter coding uses motion vectors for block-based inter prediction to exploit temporal statistical dependencies between different pictures. Intra coding uses various spatial prediction modes to exploit spatial statistical dependencies in the source signal for a single picture. Motion vectors and intra prediction modes may be specified for a variety of block sizes in the picture. The prediction residual is then further compressed using a transform to remove spatial correlation inside the transform block before it is quantised, producing an irreversible process that typically discards less important visual information while forming a close approximation to the source samples. Finally, the motion vectors or intra prediction modes are combined with the quantised transform coefficient information and encoded using either variable length codes or arithmetic coding." (p. ix) The specification also includes a number of additional elements.

The FRExt (Fidelity Range Extensions) as drafted in 2005 featured higher quality profiles, including one that is sometimes described as "lossless," which may mean that the second sentence in the preceding is no longer accurate. The four FRExt profiles are described on the following pages:

Terms used for spatial resolution: QCIF stands for Quarter Common Intermediate Format (176 pixels by 144 lines), CIF is Common Intermediate Format (352 pixels by 288 lines), while HDTV is High Definition Television (various, including 1920 pixels by 1080 lines).

See also MP4_FF_2.

History See MP4_FF_2.

Format specifications Explanation of format description terms

Useful references


Last Updated: 11/10/2020