h.265 (HEVC) Encoding and Decoding on Android

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I periodically give some attention Gallus1 (an awesome in every way stabilized hyperlapse app for Android, doing what many said was impossible), tonight enabling h.265 (HEVC) support for devices surfacing hardware encoding/decoding for that codec, still packaging it in a traditional MP4 container.

The Nexus 6p, for instance, has hardware HEVC encoding/decoding via the Snapdragon 810 (one of the benefits over the 808), however it was inaccessible for third-party developer use until the Android N (7.0) release. I had done trials of it through some of the 7.0 betas, however until recently it was seriously unstable. With the final release it seems pretty great.

h.265 is a pretty significant improvement over the h.264 (AVC) codec that we all know and love, promising about the same quality at half the bitrate. Alternately, much better quality at the same bitrate. It also features artifacts that are arguably less jarring when the compression is aggressive or breaks down. And on a small, mobile processor it’s encoded efficiently in real time at up to 4K resolutions.

One aspect of Android development that might surprise many is just how fragile some of the subsystems of the platform are. If you fail to utilize the camera API in specific patterns and sequence (I am not talking about documented behaviors, but rather rudely discovered quirks of operation, where some sequences of events require literal imperative pauses, discovered through trial and error, to avoid defects), the entire camera subsystem will crash and be unrecoverable by any means other than a full restart. The same is true of the h.265 encoder and decoder on the Nexus 6p, and in implementing the new functionality I had to restart the device a dozen+ times to recover from subsystem failures as I massaged the existing code to yield good behavior from the new codecs. Ultimately I find Android to be an incredible, amazing platform, but it remains surprising that so much of it is perilous native code houses of cards with a very thin API.

1 – I’ve never paid much attention to the Play Store listing, and it still features screenshots from a much the primitive (in UI, not in algorithmic awesomeness) initial version, and I’ve never made a tutorial or real demonstration (it is absolutely incredible on the Nexus 6p). It always seemed like there was one more thing I wanted to fix before I really made a deal out of it. But it is pretty awesome, and I finally started committing serious time to finishing what I think are the “worth it” features that put it over the top. By the end of October.

And to answer a question that no one has asked (okay, one or two have asked it, including recently a major manufacturer who I’m trying to entice into committing), yes, Gallus (the code, technology, git history, and optionally my participation in getting you to success with it) for a very reasonable price.