Windows 8 Media Playback to be Less Draining than Ever

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by Andy Patrizio

Just weeks after announcing it would trim some of the multimedia format support, feature sets and playback codecs in Windows 8. The new playback engines will be considerably less taxing on the system hardware while doing more work.

In a recent post on the Building Windows 8 blog, Microsoft Windows division President Steven Sinofsky noted that that video playback has changed considerably just since Windows 7 was released in 2009, with an increased focus on streaming and content owners wanting to play back their content on a broad array of devices. All of this had to be done while reducing the battery power required for playback.

Sinofsky then handed off the blog to Scott Manchester, group program manager for our Media Platform and Technologies team, who wrote the actual posting. He said Microsoft targeted three goals with Windows 8 media playback: maximizing performance; simplifying development and extensibility and enabling a breadth of scenarios.

To improve video decoding, Microsoft is optimizing GPU utilization and reducing CPU overhead for high definition video playback by up to two-thirds when compared to Windows 7. 

The audio engine in Windows 8 buffers a much higher amount of content when in steady playback mode, allowing the CPU to spend up to 100x more time in sleep mode while handling audio. Both of these improvements will aid in longer battery life.

The improvements in audio and video also extend to audio communications, and Skype in particular (which Microsoft now owns). Manchester noted that Skype-to-Skype calls, including video calls, grew 48 percent in 2011 to 145 billion minutes. To improve the Skype experience, Microsoft focused on built-in low-latency media capture and rendering to improve camera performance and support HD cameras to enhance the video communication experience. 

Manchester notes that since Windows 7 shipped, the environment around codecs has consistently moved towards a smaller set of well-defined and broadly-supported formats, like h.264 for video. This is why Microsoft consolidated its number of codecs supported in Windows 8.

However, it will be possible to add new codecs through Microsoft’s new DRM, called “PlayReady.” Microsoft will offer a client SDK for making premium content services that can bundle in custom third-party content, like codecs and DRM. However, there won’t be any more downloading the codec and installing it before you can view the content. Windows 8 will do that for you.

According to Jon Peddie, president of Jon Peddie Research, said this is basically adding hardware transcoding accelerators, something Windows 7 didn’t have, and it will improve performance. “All those tedious hours of waiting for your content to convert from one format to another will now be reduced to minutes,” he said.

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