The Windows 10 Fall Creators Update (FCU) came with a host of welcome changes. One of the aspects that didn't get much coverage in the tech press was the change in Microsoft's approach to the bundled video decoders. There had been complaints regarding the missing HEVC decoder when the FCU was in the Insider Preview stage. It turned out to be even more puzzling when FCU was released to the stable ring. This has led to plenty of erroneous speculation in the user community. We reached out to Microsoft to clear things up.

The missing HEVC decoder is not a factor for users playing back media through open source applications such as Kodi, MPC-HC, or VLC. However, users of the Movies and TV app built into Windows 10 FCU or software relying on the OS decoders such as Plex will find HEVC videos playing back with a blank screen. While this is a minor inconvenience at best, a more irritating issue is the one for users with systems capable of Netflix 4K playback. Instead of 4K, FCU restricts them to 1080p streams at 5.8 Mbps (as those are encoded in AVC).

Netflix Stream Capped at 1080p / 5.8 Mbps on the ASRock Beebox-S 7200U with the Windows 10 FCU

We initially believed patent licensing to be the issue. While the exact royalty terms for the HEVC playback capability in Windows 10 remain a closely guarded secret, MultiCoreWare's Tom Vaughan believes that the licensing for systems with a hardware decoder available is handled by the device OEM. However, the onus shifts to Microsoft for a pure software decoder bundled with the OS.

On reaching out to Microsoft, a spokesperson gave us the following quote: “With the Fall Creators Update, we changed our approach to media codecs to enable us to get more codecs to consumers faster and give device makers more flexibility via a new approach called Codec Packs. The HEVC hardware codec has been converted to a Codec Pack and will be soon available to all devices running the FCU.”

We then explicitly asked them if the decision to go the codec pack route was dictated by patent royalty issues. The exact quote we received was: “Customers who upgrade to the FCU on compatible hardware will get HEVC. For new devices that do not include HEVC, it will be available soon through the Microsoft Store. It may take a day or two after the upgrade to FCU for the codec to get installed.”

Based on these comments, we believe that there are no changes to the user in terms of the cost of the Windows 10 HEVC decoder (particularly given the automatic rollout indicated by the Microsoft spokesperson). We do note that Microsoft refused to comment on the royalty issue outright, but, almost all modern systems come with a hardware decoder and the Windows 10 HEVC codec is going to remain free for those systems.

Users who do not want to wait for the update to rollout into their system can install the HEVC Video Extension app from the Microsoft store.

The HEVC Video Extension App in the Microsoft Store

After upgrading to the FCU on our ASRock Beebox-S 7200U sample, we found that the Netflix 4K capability went missing (see earlier screenshot). However, after installing the HEVC Video Extension, we were able to stream the 4K versions of various titles.

Netflix 4K Stream (2160p / 16 Mbps) on the ASRock Beebox-S 7200U with the Windows 10 FCU and HEVC Video Extension App Installed

Note that any Win 10 FCU system with a hardware HEVC decoder is affected by this issue. This includes systems making use of a NVIDIA GPU for Netflix 4K capabilities also.

The change in approach slightly changes Microsoft's current tightly coupled approach to video decoders. As new video codecs like AV1 become stable and mainstream, the new architecture allows Microsoft to bring it to their customers in a quick and efficient manner.

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  • npz - Friday, December 01, 2017 - link

    Thanks for the update. Reading between the lines, it seems like they don't want to pay for licenses they don't need. Specifically:
    - if your device supports HEVC in hardware, then you're covered by the h/w license and the upcoming codec pack for FCU will just use that
    - if your device does not support HEVC, then you have the option of getting the s/w license in the MS store
    Reply
  • iwod - Friday, December 01, 2017 - link

    It doesn't make a difference though. You will still have to paid for your software license. Even though one of the HEVC group declare Software decoding to be free, you still have to paid the 25M to MPEG Group.

    So this isn;t really about saving some money, it is something else entirely. I believe it has something to do with AV1 and the Open Alliance.
    Reply
  • edzieba - Friday, December 01, 2017 - link

    "It doesn't make a difference though. You will still have to paid for your software license. Even though one of the HEVC group declare Software decoding to be free, you still have to paid the 25M to MPEG Group."

    Isn't there a per-install component to the license too? IIRC $0.2/unit with the $25m cap (at 125 million units). If Microsoft think that there will be less than 125 million users on Windows 10 who need the software decoder (i.e. are somehow running Windows 10 on hardware that lacks any HEVC acceleration) then removing the software-encoder-by-default means a cost saving.
    Reply
  • CaedenV - Friday, December 01, 2017 - link

    Difference being that right now MS is paying for EVERY computer to have a liscence. Now they can cut out the fees for those who do not need it, and those who already have hardware. In the future if you really REALLY want a fancy new codec you will just be able to purchase it... MS Microtransactions... Reply
  • Alexvrb - Friday, December 01, 2017 - link

    That sounds accurate and makes perfect sense. Reply
  • Hurr Durr - Friday, December 01, 2017 - link

    So that's what it was downloading regularly for a week. Reply
  • leo_sk - Friday, December 01, 2017 - link

    Is there any chance if an open source standard (looking at av1) can become mainstream? Reply
  • Ryan Smith - Friday, December 01, 2017 - link

    Given all of the licensing difficulties of HEVC, yes, there's a good possibility. The membership roster of the AV1 org is a who's who of tech companies. Reply
  • brucethemoose - Friday, December 01, 2017 - link

    I'd say it's almost certain.

    Apparently, MPEG is so bad that MANY big tech companies decided it's cheaper to engineer around patents than pay for them. Some of them did so independently, noticed other efforts, then came together, hence AV1 was born as a giant "screw you MPEG!".

    Point is, unlike other efforts you may have seen fizzle out, there's alot of money behind AV1.
    Reply
  • saratoga4 - Friday, December 01, 2017 - link

    Very possible that AV1 will succeed in replacing HEVC. The patent situation has made HEVC radioactive, and the industry is already looking at successors. By the time HEVC is sorted out (if it ever is), it may already be obsolete. Reply

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