computers gpu h.264 macintosh technology wintel

AnandTech – Testing OpenCL Accelerated Handbrake with AMD’s Trinity

Image representing AMD as depicted in CrunchBase
Image via CrunchBase

AMD, and NVIDIA before it, has been trying to convince us of the usefulness of its GPUs for general purpose applications for years now. For a while it seemed as if video transcoding would be the killer application for GPUs, that was until Intel’s Quick Sync showed up last year.

via AnandTech – What We’ve Been Waiting For: Testing OpenCL Accelerated Handbrake with AMD’s Trinity.

There’s a lot to talk about when it comes to accelerated video transcoding, really. Not the least of which is HandBrake’s dominance generally for anyone doing small scale size reductions of their DVD collections for transport on mobile devices. We owe it all to the open source x264 codec and all the programmers who have contributed to it over the years, standing on one another’s shoulders allowing us to effortlessly encode or transcode gigabytes of video to manageable sizes. But Intel has attempted to rock the boat by inserting itself into the fray by tooling its QuickSync technology for accelerating the compression and decompression of video frames. However it is a proprietary path pursued by a few small scale software vendors. And it prompts the question, when is open source going to benefit from the proprietary Intel QuickSync technology? Maybe its going to take a long time. Maybe it won’t happen at all. Lucky for the HandBrake users in the audience some attempt is being made now to re-engineer the x264 codec to take advantage of any OpenCL compliant hardware on a given computer.

Image representing NVidia as depicted in Crunc...
Image via CrunchBase
computers entertainment gpu h.264 media

AnandTech – AMD Radeon HD 7970 Review: 28nm And Graphics Core Next, Together As One

Image representing AMD as depicted in CrunchBase
Image via CrunchBase

Quick Sync made real-time H.264 encoding practical on even low-power devices, and made GPU encoding redundant at the time. AMD of course isn’t one to sit idle, and they have been hard at work at their own implementation of that technology: the Video Codec Engine VCE.

via AnandTech – AMD Radeon HD 7970 Review: 28nm And Graphics Core Next, Together As One.

Intel’s QuickSync helped speed up the realtime encoding of H.264 video. AMD is striking back and has Hybrid Mode VCE operations that will speed things up EVEN MORE! The key to having this hit the market and get widely adopted of course is the compatibility of the software with a wide range of video cards from AMD. The original CUDA software environment from nVidia took a while to disperse into the mainstream as it had a limited number of graphics cards it could support when it rolled out. Now it’s part of the infrastructure and more or less provided gratis whenever you buy ANY nVidia graphics card today. AMD has to follow this semi-forced adoption of this technology as fast as possible to deliver the benefit quickly. At the same time the User Interface to this VCE software had better be a great design and easy to use. Any type of configuration file dependencies and tweaking through preference files should be eliminated to the point where you merely move a slider up and down a scale (Slower->Faster). And that should be it.

And if need be AMD should commission an encoder App or a plug-in to an open source project like HandBrake to utilize the VCE capability upon detection of the graphics chip on the computer. Make it ‘just happen’ without the tempting early adopter approach of making a tool available and forcing people to ‘build’ a version of an open source encoder to utilize the hardware properly. Hands-off approaches that favor early adopters is going to consign this technology to the margins for a number of years if AMD doesn’t take a more activist role. QuickSync on Intel hasn’t been widely touted either so maybe it’s a moot point to urge anyone to treat their technology as an insanely great offering. But I think there’s definitely brand loyalty that could be brought into play if the performance gains to be had with a discreet graphics card far outpace the integrated graphics solution of QuickSync provided by Intel. If you can achieve a 10x order of magnitude boost, you should be pushing that to all the the potential computer purchasers from this announcement forward.

media technology

On the verge of H.264

It’s no secret Robert X. Cringely follows the strategic directions of Apple’s laptop/desktop design teams:

Ctrl-Alt-Del Oct. 20, 2008
The Eyes Have It Aug.1, 2008
Let the Chips Fall July 12, 2007
The Great Apple Video Encoder Attack of 2007 Mar 8, 2007

In Robert X. Cringley’s recent posting on brings up the topic of Apple’s attempt to incorporate H.264 into their product line. New buyers of the most recently introduced Mac laptops have rushed to measure the CPU load of their machines while playing back HD TV and Movie content downloaded from the iTunes store. CPU’s are now only idling along at 20% capacity versus the old 100%+ experienced in the previous generation of Mac desktops and laptops. Where is the secret sauce?

Cringley expected NTT of Japan to provide a special custom made encoder/decoder chip specifically geared for the H.264 codec. However nowhere in the current tear downs of the the MacBook and MacBook Pro has anyone identified a free standing chip doing the offloading of H.264 decoding. Now he’s speculating the chip might have been licensed as a ‘core’ by nVidia and incorporated into the new fully integrated chipset that drives all the I/O on the motherboard. Somewhere in there maybe even in the 16 cores of the video processor some kind of H.264 decoding acceleration is going on. But it’s not being touted very widely by the Apple marketing machine.

Cringely suspects there’s a reason to soft pedal H.264 acceleration on the new Macintoshes. While iTunes has been in the past nothing more than a means to an end (you want to sell iPods? Well get the content to play on them first!), the burgeoning field of online content distribution may be the next big end. Netflix has shown that even in a snail mail distribution  network, there is potential for a profit to be made. But as I’ve heard coworkers repeat in the past, where’s the profit of letting someone OWN the content. There is a feeling amongst a number of internet bloggers, consultants, and insiders that Hollywood wants to rent, not let you own the creative output of their studios. Whether it be music, TV or film you have to pay in order play. A one time ownership fee is a hard way to make a living. But future payments for each viewing, now that’s a guaranteed revenue stream.

What’s standing in the way of the stream is the series of tubes. The interwebs as they exist in the U.S. today make the Netflix distribution network far more workable and profitable than any attempt to push 5GB of HD versions of SpiderMan 3 into your Apple TV. The network will not allow for this to work on any scale right now. So the first step in the plan is to get H.264 decoding to work effortlessly on Mac products then sit back and wait and hope somehow the network will evolve to the level that Steve Jobs thinks it should.

What would lead Steve Jobs to think the network is going to rush in and save the day? How many articles do you read on Slashdot regularly about how far behind the U.S. is when it comes to Internet infrastructure? Why does anyone at Apple think this is going to work? It’s quite a stretch, and I don’t see it happening in my lifetime. Good Luck Apple.