H.264 or MPEG-4 Part 10, Advanced Video Coding (MPEG-4 AVC) is a block-oriented motion-compensation-based video compression standard. As of 2014, it is one of the most commonly used formats for the recording, compression, and distribution of video content. It supports resolutions up to 8192×4320, including 8K UHD.
The intent of the H.264/AVC project was to create a standard capable of providing good video quality at substantially lower bit rates than previous standards (i.e., half or less the bit rate of MPEG-2, H.263, or MPEG-4 Part 2), without increasing the complexity of design so much that it would be impractical or excessively expensive to implement. An additional goal was to provide enough flexibility to allow the standard to be applied to a wide variety of applications on a wide variety of networks and systems, including low and high bit rates, low and high resolution video, broadcast, DVD storage, RTP/IP packet networks, and ITU-T multimedia telephony systems. The H.264 standard can be viewed as a "family of standards" composed of a number of different profiles. A specific decoder decodes at least one, but not necessarily all profiles. The decoder specification describes which profiles can be decoded. H.264 is typically used for lossy compression, although it is also possible to create truly lossless-coded regions within lossy-coded pictures or to support rare use cases for which the entire encoding is lossless.
H.264 was developed by the ITU-T Video Coding Experts Group (VCEG) together with the ISO/IEC JTC1 Moving Picture Experts Group (MPEG). The project partnership effort is known as the Joint Video Team (JVT). The ITU-T H.264 standard and the ISO/IEC MPEG-4 AVC standard (formally, ISO/IEC 14496-10 – MPEG-4 Part 10, Advanced Video Coding) are jointly maintained so that they have identical technical content. The final drafting work on the first version of the standard was completed in May 2003, and various extensions of its capabilities have been added in subsequent editions. High Efficiency Video Coding (HEVC), a.k.a. H.265 and MPEG-H Part 2 is a successor to H.264/MPEG-4 AVC developed by the same organizations, while earlier standards are still in common use.
H.264 is perhaps best known as being one of the video encoding standards for Blu-ray Discs; all Blu-ray Disc players must be able to decode H.264. It is also widely used by streaming Internet sources, such as videos from Vimeo, YouTube, and the iTunes Store, Web software such as the Adobe Flash Player and Microsoft Silverlight, and also various HDTV broadcasts over terrestrial (ATSC, ISDB-T, DVB-T or DVB-T2), cable (DVB-C), and satellite (DVB-S and DVB-S2).
H.264 is protected by patents owned by various parties. A license covering most (but not all) patents essential to H.264 is administered by patent pool MPEG LA. Commercial use of patented H.264 technologies requires the payment of royalties to MPEG LA and other patent owners. MPEG LA has allowed the free use of H.264 technologies for streaming Internet video that is free to end users, and Cisco Systems pays royalties to MPEG LA on behalf of the users of binaries for its open source H.264 encoder.
The H.264 video format has a very broad application range that covers all forms of digital compressed video from low bit-rate Internet streaming applications to HDTV broadcast and Digital Cinema applications with nearly lossless coding. With the use of H.264, bit rate savings of 50% or more compared to MPEG-2 Part 2 are reported. For example, H.264 has been reported to give the same Digital Satellite TV quality as current MPEG-2 implementations with less than half the bitrate, with current MPEG-2 implementations working at around 3.5 Mbit/s and H.264 at only 1.5 Mbit/s. Sony claims that 9 Mbit/s AVC recording mode is equivalent to the image quality of the HDV format, which uses approximately 18–25 Mbit/s.
To ensure compatibility and problem-free adoption of H.264/AVC, many standards bodies have amended or added to their video-related standards so that users of these standards can employ H.264/AVC. Both the Blu-ray Disc format and the now-discontinued HD DVD format include the H.264/AVC High Profile as one of three mandatory video compression formats. The Digital Video Broadcast project (DVB) approved the use of H.264/AVC for broadcast television in late 2004.
The Advanced Television Systems Committee (ATSC) standards body in the United States approved the use of H.264/AVC for broadcast television in July 2008, although the standard is not yet used for fixed ATSC broadcasts within the United States. It has also been approved for use with the more recent ATSC-M/H (Mobile/Handheld) standard, using the AVC and SVC portions of H.264.
The CCTV (Closed Circuit TV) and Video Surveillance markets have included the technology in many products.
Many common DSLRs use H.264 video wrapped in QuickTime MOV containers as the native recording format.