YouTube custom chip transcodes videos, supports AV1 codec

You have to hand it to Google. It has made using YouTube on both ends an almost magical and painless experience. A YouTuber uploads a single video with nary a care in the world and everyone on the Internet will be able to watch that video in different formats, sizes, and resolutions on different devices. Of course, that magic is made possible only because of the work Google has put behind the scenes. That apparently includes a custom processor whose only job is to process videos uploaded to YouTube which, soon, will also use a relatively young codec that's being pushed as the codec for today's video streaming needs.

This new chip called Argos isn't actually Google's first chip dedicated to transcoding videos. It is actually the second and it is boasted to be up to 33 times faster than its predecessor. Its sole purpose is to provide dedicated power to process the single video that a creator uploads using different compression formats and optimize those for different screen sizes.

What makes this Argos VCU, short for Video (trans)Coding Unit, more notable is the addition of support for the AV1 codec. Developed by the Alliance for Open Media or AOMedia, which of course includes Google, AV1 is being pushed to replace the VP9 codec, also developed by Google, and compete with the newer HEVC (H.265). AV1 is advertised to have 30% better compression than VP9 without degrading the image quality too much.

AV1 is, of course, heavily used in Google services but it has begun to take center stage in the past months or so. Google is crediting the use of the codec in the performance improvements in its video call products, namely Meet and Duo, particularly in how they're able to reduce the amount of bandwidth used while still keeping the video quality at a decent level.

Google adding support for a codec that it has been pushing is not exactly surprising but the existence of a custom chip like Argos with AV1 transcoding capabilities could tip the scales in the codec's favor. Although it enjoys support from big names in the industry, including Netflix, Amazon, Mozilla, and even Apple, others, like Qualcomm, have been slower to get behind it. This revelation could provide hardware makers, particularly chip manufacturers, to start supporting the AV1 codec just as they have the older VP9.