H.264 Decode Acceleration - As Promised

One of the things that ATI had promised us was that by the end of the year, their Radeon X1000 series of GPUs would have hardware accelerated H.264 decode support; and with Catalyst 5.13, ATI is delivering on that promise.

Starting next Tuesday, Radeon X1000 owners will be able to download, for free, ATI's Catalyst 5.13 driver and a Cyberlink H.264 decoder that hooks into ATI's GPU and enables hardware acceleration of H.264.  More specifically, ATI's Radeon X1000 GPU in combination with the Cyberlink H.264 decoder will handle the in-loop deblocking, motion compensation and inverse transform that occur during H.264 decoding. Unfortunately, ATI only had a beta ready for us in time for this review, so there were some bugs. Right now, ATI is hoping to have the final version available on the 22nd.

The end result is that CPU utilization is reduced, making the playback of H.264 movies possible on lower end systems and have less of a performance impact on all systems.  ATI's work on H.264 decode acceleration today is extremely important because H.264 is the codec of choice for both Blu-ray and HD-DVD.

So how does it work?  It's all fairly simple. You just install the Cyberlink H.264 decoder, which then lets you play, with ATI GPU acceleration, H.264 content in Windows Media Player.  The bundle also includes an ATI skin for Windows Media Player, but thankfully, you can revert back to the original WMP skin.


Click to Enlarge

The decoder will let you play all H.264 encoded movies, including H.264 Quicktime movies in Windows Media Player, and of course, they are all GPU accelerated.  As you can guess, this only works on Radeon X1000 series GPUs. 

Because H.264 decoding is an extremely processor intensive task, the level of acceleration that you can get varies based on what type of GPU you have.  ATI tells us that the limitations are not artificial, and they are directly related to the number of functioning ALUs on the GPU (in other words, the more pixel pipes you have, the more processing power you have).  The breakdown is pretty simple:

Radeon X1300 owners will be able to get hardware acceleration at up to 480p, X1600 owners get it for 720p, and X1800 owners get full acceleration at up to 1080p.  ATI did mention that they are working on bringing those limits down, but that is a time intensive driver and algorithm optimization process that may or may not happen. 

For our tests, we used a Radeon X1600 XT and paired it with some 720p content from Apple's Quicktime HD gallery.  Unfortunately, due to the beta nature of the decoder, we couldn't get all of the content to work.  ATI has told us that there are bound to be issues with the decoder, thanks to its beta state, but it is at least functional in most cases and the final version should be available next week.

Our test of choice was the third Chronicles of Narnia trailer from Apple's HD gallery.  We used perfmon to record the CPU utilization on our testbed Athlon 64 3500+ and reported the minimun, average and maximum CPU utilization values during the playback of the trailer.  Our reference point is our test bed running the trailer in Quicktime 7, which isn't GPU accelerated, and comparing that to Windows Media Player 10 with the Cyberlink H.264 decoder offloading some tasks to the GPU.  While there are bound to be some differences between the two players, the majority of CPU time is spent in the decoder, so the variance between players is negligible. 

Decoder Min Avg Max
Quicktime (no Acceleration)
18.8% 53.1% 78.1%
Cyberlink H.264 (GPU Acceleration) 9.4% 32.2% 57.8%


The average CPU utilization without ATI's GPU acceleration is a staggering 65% higher, not to mention that the peak CPU usage with GPU acceleration manages to stay under 60% while it otherwise hovers just below 80%. 

While we didn't have a Radeon X1800 XT to test on hand, the benefits there should be even greater, since you can get GPU assisted decode at 1080p as well. 

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  • jpowell5 - Thursday, February 02, 2006 - link

    Is there anyone here actually using the latest version of Cyberlink's H.264 Decoder with Windows Media Player?

    I have yet to get it play an AVC H.264 Video clip. I've tried clips endoded with the MainConcept H.264 encoder, QuickTime and Nero H.264 encoder. None of these clips will invoke the Cyberlink decoder and play the clip.

    Please let me know if you've had some success with this and what your system configuration is.

    Thanks,

    Josh
    Reply
  • Bencoder - Thursday, March 09, 2006 - link

    Just get the CoreAVC h.264 decoder and the latest version of WMP Classic. Save yourself the 15 bucks. Works like a champ. See lots of good resources and comments about the decoder application at Doom9. Warning! The version released by the company is not open-source and is only a beta. Apparently the full release version of CoreAVC is not going to be a piece of shareware. Reply
  • Davebo - Thursday, December 22, 2005 - link

    http://www.ati.com/technology/h264.html">http://www.ati.com/technology/h264.html

    http://www.cyberlink.com/cinema/ati/h264_decoder/e...">http://www.cyberlink.com/cinema/ati/h264_decoder/e...

    I thougt this was to be free? Not much different than PureVideo now, is it?
    Reply
  • apriest - Wednesday, January 18, 2006 - link

    Yeah, that bites... Reply
  • Tujan - Tuesday, December 20, 2005 - link

    ATI promised us H.264 decode acceleration

    ....of H.264 movies possible on lower end systems and have less of a performance impact on all systems. ATI's work on H.264 decode acceleration today is extremely important because H.264 is the codec of choice for both Blu-ray and HD-DVD.

    Gosh do you think that somebody could name H.264 decode acceleration something less cryptic sounding ? Just what IS H.264 decode , is it on my CD,my DVD,...does my camera make one.? Is it HDTV,or 'broadcast signaling,..or a 'format ? [ ]

    I had let AutoUpdates run on my computer here.So WMP 10 was installed.I have a DVD player/writer of wich I had taken for granted thinking in terms of usage of it w/o its software complements.I for a new configuration of software had uninstalled a proprieties DVD player. So when I plopped my DVD into the player so late at night,WMP (the only thing on the machine for 'media) 10 would not play the DVD w/o a 'codec.
    Blissfully wondering through Microsofts website,the MSN.com looking for DVD codecs,I found that 'sure,you can watch your DVD,but you will have to purchase a 15$ software codec.
    Well long story short,the DVD/Writer 'came with a DVD codec.Named to any other name than the DVD player itself though through its complementing 'lite'DVD movie player.Wich I had reinstalled.Think you purchase a DVD writer,that you can write gigs of information to,yet you have to have yet another component to look at a DVD.

    Annyway,Im involved in trying to figure out what the best approach would be to creating self designed media- movies,data etc for use between the different devices that 'create them,and play them back.Weird thing is some equipment will do a given format,so that it is not compatible to what your playback equipment/software my be compatible with. Mpeg,MPeg 1,Mpeg 2,AVI,.Mov etc.All considerations,now H.264 ? Think the information you create -the receiver (mom,dad,gramps,boss) must be handled by the the same sustanance of knowledge ,and equipment you used to create it.That is you may have a good codec,but your going to have to 'deck the users,and viewers of your work with the appropriate contributive compatible equipment.

    And I think that a device that does a single output is missing some screws if it is thought this is the only thing going.

    Happy Holidays.

    Reply
  • ViRGE - Sunday, December 18, 2005 - link

    It seems to be a good start from ATI, but I'd really like to see more options in their converter. Assuming the output quality is up to par with what DivX/XviD can offer, I'd like to see them enable users to select specific MPEG4 encoding options(B-Frames, Qpel, etc) that the current encoders offer, otherwise the program may not be of much use. Eventually a full-fledged Windows codec for all of this is also going to be something encoders will want, as the ideal situation will be to hook in VirtualDub, AVISynth, and other encoding apps in to the GPU accelerated encoder, in order to utilize their editing and remastering features. What they're offering right now is more like a reduced version of Dr. Divx, which is useful for some people, but not enough for others.

    Still, this is a good start, especially the H.264 decoding support. I only hope ATI can come through on GPU-assisted encoding like they've promissed, as that's been a holy grail that has escaped ATI and Nvidia for some time now.
    Reply
  • bloc - Saturday, December 17, 2005 - link

    When the x1600 line came out, the reviewers gave mediocre reviews as they thought the price was going to be $200+. Now that it's in the $140 US range, it's roughly the same price as the 6600 GT. This alters the $$ vs FPS ratio of the x1600's by a lot.

    I'd recommend the 6600 GT for agp, but the x1600 looks like a good option for pcix boards.
    Reply
  • PrinceGaz - Saturday, December 17, 2005 - link

    With ATI making available for free the video encoding/decoding software for their VPUs, do you think this might prompt nVidia to make the PureVideo software also available for free? The current situation where you have to either pay up to $50 or use a keygen to continue to use it after 30 days is stupid. Reply
  • ViRGE - Sunday, December 18, 2005 - link

    It's unlikely Nvidia will change, and I'm a bit surprised even ATI is. MPEG decoders cost money to properly license, and right now ATI is eating the cost for a H.264 license(but not a MPEG2 license it seems). I really doubt Nvidia is going to want to eat up the costs retroactively, but weirder things have happened before. Reply
  • deathwalker - Saturday, December 17, 2005 - link

    Surely you jest!! Not today, toworrow or ever! Reply

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