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6 December 2022

Will Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 make AV1 into the dominant video codec?

Qualcomm has unveiled its Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 system-on-chip (SoC), for flagship smartphones, and the silicon finally supports the AV1 video decoder in hardware, which will help to make the standard mainstream in smartphones and other consumer devices.

The SoC runs on an octo-core CPU, using the Cortex v9 instruction set, which Qualcomm says is 35% more powerful while 40% more power-efficient than its predecessor. The graphics processing unit is a new Adreno design, with support for Vulkan 1.3. The image signal processor (ISP) can capture 8K HDR video at 30 frames per second, and the display output supports 4K at 60 Hz and QHD+ (1440p) at 144 Hz. The SoC is built by TSMC, using a 4-nanometer design.

The AV1 support is interesting in the light of recent patents spats. Qualcomm had pulled out of its agreement with Velos Media, a company that licences patents for the rival HEVC codec. But although the Qualcomm design had been leaked earlier in the year, there was still puzzlement over the licensing issues surrounding its adoption of AV1.

These are complex in video codecs, in which AV1 was set up to be a royalty-free alternative to HEVC (governed by MPEG LA). Access Advance has patent pools for HEVC and another option, VVC, while Sisvel has an AV1 pool. Qualcomm had not joined any of these pools.

Earlier this year, Google signed up to Access Advance’s HEVC pool, which was taken by some as a quiet admission of AV1 defeat. But with the new Snapdragon system-on-chip, AV1’s fortunes may revive. While MediaTek has beaten Qualcomm to the punch with this codec, it still lacks a presence in flagship smartphone designs, which is not great news for AV1 adoption at scale.

Also worth stressing is Apple’s continued lack of support for hardware-based decoding for AV1, despite its complete control over its smartphone SoC designs. There have been signs that AV1 support is on the Apple horizon, via some additions to SDKs and the AVFoundation framework, but progress has been slow, given that Apple is a founding member of the Alliance for Open Media (AOMedia), the open source home of AV1.

We have speculated that, amid all these rival patent pools and codecs, the debut of the first flagship AV1 smartphone might trigger the first big legal showdown for AV1. There are some signs of movement already. Last week, Dolby saw its EP 3678097 patent revoked by the European Patent Office. This patent is deemed essential for both Access Advance’s HEVC pool and Sisvel’s AV1 pool, and is used to simulate film grain effects, as a bandwidth-saving tool. Notably, InterDigital has said that an older Dolby patent, EP 1627359, is essential to AV1 too.

Access Advance (formerly HEVC Advance) is believed to be ‘owned’ by Dolby, GE, Mitsubishi and Philips, although the organization presents itself as an independent licensing administrator. The pool houses patents from Arris, Canon, Google, Huawei, IP Bridge, JVC, Microsoft, Panasonic, Samsung, Sony and Toshiba, as well as its four leading members.

Access Advance has been caught up in a number of cases where accusations of double-dipping have been levelled against it. To simplify a lot of history, MPEG LA licensees have seen patents that they ‘used’ to have licences for migrate to the Access Advance pool, leading to allegations of double-dipping. Germany’s Dusseldorf has been the host for many of these legal cases, and a recent court decision sided with Xiaomi and Vestel, which had complained that the HEVC terms from Access Advance do not comply with FRAND (fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory) rules for essential IPR.

The revocation of the Dolby patent was spearheaded by Unified Patents, an industry lobbying group that ostensibly wants to deter standards essential patents and FRAND abuse in standards.