Why Bigger Pictures Won't Make YouTube Any Better

Putting Quality at Risk, Larger Video Dimension Will Only Frustrate Viewers

By Published on .

Gannon Hall
Gannon Hall
YouTube recently announced support for "4k video," meaning video files with a dimensional size up to 4096 x 2304 pixels -- in other words, much larger than your computer can handle.

Online video is booming, and marketers are still trying to figure out how to create the optimal user experience and achieve the best results for their campaigns. While YouTube's announcement may spur some to jump to the shiny new format, the feature has no practical application and will serve only to frustrate viewers and confuse marketers looking to leverage online video for their campaigns.

YouTube purports to make videos "available in the highest quality possible, as creators intend." That sounds great. Video should be delivered at the highest quality possible for the best viewing experience. But what happens when the highest "quality" actually results in a poorer experience for viewers? Bigger is not necessarily better, or more accurately, there is a practical limitation to the gains in perceived quality from video files of a larger dimensional size. Going too big will likely introduce a number of performance and quality issues for the vast majority of users, breaking a cardinal rule of online video, which is not to frustrate your audience.

YouTube mentions that watching videos in 4k requires an "ultra-fast high-speed broadband connection," but this is actually the least-important requirement. While users on slower broadband connections can always wait for enough of the video to download and buffer before watching it (though why would a marketer force consumers to do that?), they can't suddenly increase their RAM, GPU performance or display resolution, and those are the source of the real issues.

Most of us use digital displays (LCDs, etc.) with native, fixed pixel dimensions -- I'm using an Apple Cinema display with a fixed pixel dimension of 1920 x 1200. This means that my MacBook Pro's graphics processor needs to scale any incoming format to the native dimension of my display. The bigger the difference between the incoming format and my display, the more work the GPU needs to do to scale the image.

In terms of YouTube's 4K videos, the end result is that my MacBook Pro can't smoothly handle the processing, resulting in dropped frames (jerky video playback) and a less than optimal video-watching experience. If I switch the stream to 720p or 1080p it looks great, with no perceived difference in image clarity. Actually, I see more compression and motion artifacts in the 4k stream from what I can only guess is non-optimal interpolation from the GPU.

The other issue with YouTube's announcement is that it makes no mention of bitrate or compression, which is far more important than pixel dimension when it comes to quality. As a video destination catering mostly to non-professionals, YouTube has always used high compression/low bitrates -- and their 4k video is no exception. This is why compression artifacts are so noticeable even when watching the 4k version.

Ultimately this begs the question -- what's the point of offering higher definition formats if it results in a lesser quality viewing experience?

Online video is hot right now and there's a natural temptation for marketers to flock to the latest developments as they look to put together new campaigns. However, YouTube's recent announcement is a prime example of when keeping up with the latest technologies doesn't always make sense. Beyond content, targeting and measurement, marketers need to be most concerned with the consumer's viewing experience.

Offering higher dimension video files is technically trivial. But by offering the option to publish ridiculously large video files, YouTube is confusing the industry about what constitutes good video quality and encouraging marketers and those responsible for online video ad campaigns to upload video files in a format that results in a poor experience for users. Savvy marketers will ignore 4k and continue to concentrate on delivering superior content and the most relevant, targeted experiences for viewers.

Kyte COO Gannon Hall leads overall product strategy, marketing, business development and operations for the mobile and online video start-up.
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