Facebook slashes the quality of “HD” videos
If you perceived a decline in the quality of recent 720P videos on Facebook, you were not imagining things. Facebook has slashed the bitrate of their videos in half when bitrate is a crucial factor in the quality of video and every bit as important as the resolution. Worst yet, Facebook slashes the quality even more when you letterbox the video. I’ve criticized Google for their misleading claims on “4096P” video in the past, but Facebook is taking online video quality to new lows.
Bitrates for online video is already too low in general. Broadcast and stored media quality hovers at around 75:1 compression which means 1.33% of the necessary bandwidth must render 100% of the video to the best of its ability. That’s already a tall stretch by any standard and video detail is inevitably lost in the process. YouTube for example allocates 2.11 Megabits per second (Mbps) to its 720P video streams which means they’re compressing the video 316 times to 1. That means the quality of “HD” video on YouTube can often look worst than standard definition DVDs which store video at 4 to 8 Mbps whenever there is a lot of action in the scene. The fact that YouTube is using a more advanced version of MPEG4 (H.264) compared to the more primitive MPEG2 video compression found on DVDs can’t offset the extreme compression levels found in online video.
Facebook is now lowering the bar for online videos even more by slashing the bitrate of its 720P videos that its users post online. I analyzed a 2009 video clip I posted and the video bitrate was 2.5 Mbps. Now the bitrates have dropped to somewhere between 1.174 to 1.403 Mbps with noticeably worst quality. If the video is cropped to cinematic aspect ratios (e.g., 2.35 to 1 super widescreen), Facebook drops the quality down to 1.174 Mbps. Full frame 16×9 videos are dropped to 1.403 Mbps. A lot of independent movie makers crop to super widescreen because it not only offers that “film look”, but it affords higher bitrate per pixel. Anyone hoping to employ the crop trick on Facebook is out of luck, and that’s a shame because those of us who care enough to employ the trick are probably posting good content.
Now whenever I point these problems out with online services, I inevitably get someone responding with snarky comments that these services are “free” and that if I don’t like it then I can find the door. But these services aren’t free because we pay for them with our eyeballs, our attention, and our personal data. The only reason these online services are worth astronomical valuations that are completely irrational is because they have millions of eyeballs looking at them. While this latest move isn’t likely to sway people from using Facebook, it diminishes the value of Facebook. It wasn’t long ago that Myspace was the king of social networking, and Facebook would be wise to remember that.