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Google punts royalty-free hardware WebM encoder

The team behind Google's WebM video codec has announced the finalisation of a hardware codec capable of encoding video with a fraction of the power draw of a software codec - and they're releasing it free of charge.

The 'Anthill' H1 design is the world's first hardware encoder for the VP8 codec. The codec was acquired by Google and turned into the WebM project back in 2009 as part of the purchase of video compression specialist On2 Technology.

While hardware-based VP8 decoders already exist, such as that integerated into RockChip's RK2918 system-on-chip design, hardware offload for the encoding process is new - and the fact that Google is making the design available under a royalty-free licence is the icing on the cake.

The name 'Anthill' is the first in an alphabetical series - much like the dessert-themed Android version codenames - inspired by things that can be found in the woodlands around the hardware team's Oulu, Finland headquarters.

Aiming the H1 codec at smartphone and tablet manufacturers, in particular for video conferencing applications, the team claims some impressive power savings for the dedicated chip.

For Nvidia's popular Tegra 2 system-on-chip design to reach performance of 30 frames per second during a VP8-encoded VGA-resolution video chat via software, the team claims the CPU would need to run at 1,064MHz and draw 1,025mW of power using the best-performance 'Bali' software codec.

By comparison, the team claims that a reference design H1 encoder manufactured by TSMC on a 65nm process size draws a mere 12mW of power to perform the same task - and at an allegedly higher quality.

The team's claims are certainly impressive - and doubly so when you learn that the H1 can encode 1080p high-definition video at 30 frames per second at a clock speed of under 270MHz and with a power draw of less than 80mW.

While the performance claims are nothing short of amazing, there's still a catch: compared to standards such as H.264, WebM is still relatively unpopular - and while it has received support from various web browser manufacturers, its use in mobile devices is still very much unproven.

Should Google add the H1 'Anthill' chip to its next-generation Nexus smartphone - as it has done with Near-Field Communications Technology with the Samsung-manufactured Nexus S - that could, however, rapidly change.

More information on the design of the H1 codec, plus a link to request licensing details and source code access, is available on the official WebM site.