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Premiere Pro GPU Decoding for H.264 and HEVC media - is it faster?

Written on October 20, 2020 by Matt Bach
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Introduction

In the last 6 months, Adobe has made a number of terrific improvements to Premiere Pro for processing H.264 and HEVC (H.265) media. Although these are the most common codecs in use today, they can be extremely difficult to process due to the nature of intra-frame codecs. Normal playback can often be acceptable, but scrubbing, reverse playback, multicam, and a host of other tasks can be nearly unusable unless your computer has some very specific hardware.

In the latest update of Premiere Pro, Adobe has added GPU-accelerated hardware decoding for H.264/HEVC media (not to be confused with the GPU encoding we got back in April). In previous versions, hardware decoding was supported, but was only available if you had a CPU that included Intel Quick Sync. That implementation works very well, but Quick Sync is only available in Intel's consumer and mobile processor families. This meant that high-end Intel systems with X-series or Xeon processors - and all AMD systems - did not have an option for hardware decoding even though those systems are often significantly more powerful overall.

Quick Sync decoding is still available if your system supports it, but with the addition of GPU decoding using AMD and NVIDIA video cards, nearly everyone will have access to technology that will greatly improve performance when working with H.264 and HEVC media.

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Test Setup

Listed below are the specifications of the systems we will be using for our testing:

Intel Z490 Test Platform
CPU Intel Core i9 10900K
Video Card NVIDIA GeForce RTX 3080 10GB
CPU Cooler Noctua NH-U12S
Motherboard Gigabyte Z490 Vision D
RAM 4x DDR4-2933 16GB (64GB total)
Hard Drive Samsung 960 Pro 1TB
Software Windows 10 Pro 64-bit (Ver. 2004)
Premiere Pro (Ver. 14.3 & 14.5)
AMD X570 Test Platform
CPU AMD Ryzen 9 3900X
Video Card NVIDIA GeForce RTX 3080 10GB
CPU Cooler Noctua NH-U12S
Motherboard Gigabyte X570 AORUS ULTRA
RAM 4x DDR4-2933 16GB (64GB total)
Hard Drive Samsung 960 Pro 1TB
Software Windows 10 Pro 64-bit (Ver. 2004)
Premiere Pro (Ver. 14.3 & 14.5)

To see how well GPU-based hardware decoding works, we will be using two different test systems - one that supports Intel Quick Sync, and one that does not. This will let us see how well the new GPU decoding works, and how it compares to hardware decoding with Intel Quick Sync.

For the testing itself, we will look at 4K H.264 and HEVC media from a GoPro 7, iPhone 11, and DJI Mavic 2 drone. These are devices that are often the source of media that gives poor performance in editing programs and should give us a great look at how well GPU decoding works for scrubbing, J/K/L playback (forward and reverse), and multicam sequences. If you want to try out this footage yourself, our test clips are all available for download:

One big difference between this testing and our usual is that we do not have any charts or graphs. Many of the tasks we are testing are not easy to measure in terms of pure FPS, so what we decided to do instead was screen record each set of tests, and compile them into a series of videos showing the performance of each decoding mode side-by-side.

If you want a summary of our results, we recommend watching our Premiere Pro H.264/HEVC GPU Decoding Performance video embedded at the top of this post.

GoPro 7 - 4K 60mbps H.264/HEVC media

Intel Core i9 10900K
Software, Quick Sync, & GPU Decoding

AMD Ryzen 3900X
Software & GPU Decoding

For the GoPro Hero7, we decided to look at a number of 4K 60mbps test clips recorded in both H.264 and HEVC. In the videos above, we are showing the performance between software and GPU decoding, as well as Quick Sync decoding on the Intel system. The HEVC footage is shown first, followed by the H.264 footage.

Starting with scrubbing performance, the advantage of hardware decoding (whether it is GPU or Quick Sync) is immediately apparent. Where the source window is very choppy with software decoding, it is perfectly smooth with hardware decoding even when scrubbing at a fairly fast pace.

If you are a fan of using J/K/L (forward, pause, reverse) for editing, GPU decoding also has some great benefits. With the CPUs we are using, forward playback at up to 2x speed can be just fine with software decoding, but if you want to go any faster, you really need hardware decoding in order to do so. And if you want to be able to play this type of footage in reverse... hardware decoding is a must if you want your timeline to play smoothly.

Our final test was to look at multicam performance with 4, 9, and 12 streams. Here, the main benefits of GPU decoding come into play once you have 9+ streams which is when software decoding really starts to struggle on these systems. Interestingly enough, which type of hardware decoding (GPU or Quick Sync) is better depending on whether we were using H.264 or HEVC media. GPU decoding is a bit better with HEVC media, and Quick Sync is better with H.264.

iPhone 11 - 4K VFR H.264/HEVC media

Intel Core i9 10900K
Software, Quick Sync, & GPU Decoding

AMD Ryzen 3900X
Software & GPU Decoding

Using phones to create video content is becoming more and more popular as the cameras improve, but there are a number of issues when using something like an iPhone 11. The first issue is that they record in H.264 or HEVC, but on top of that, they usually also record in variable frame rate (VFR). This makes it even harder for applications like Premiere Pro to process, so we were very interested to see what performance benefits there are to using the GPU to decode footage from an iPhone.

Once again starting with scrubbing, software decoding does better here than it did with the GoPro media, but it is still significantly worse than with GPU or Quick Sync decoding.

For J/K/L (forward, pause, reverse) editing, 2x forward playback is great with all the decoding options, but when we went up to 4x even hardware decoding struggles somewhat with this VFR media. With the HEVC media, GPU decoding does fairly well and is even better than Quick Sync decoding - although it does still drop a few frames. For H.264, however, neither GPU nor Quick Sync decoding is able to play the footage at what we would call an acceptable frame rate.

Playing in reverse, software decoding is once again unusable. Hardware decoding, on the other hand, can play at full FPS all the way up to 2x speed, although GPU decoding does drop a few more frames with the H.264 clips compared to Quick Sync.

Multicam performance with 4, 9, and 12 streams is very interesting. Hardware decoding is significantly better than software when you have 9 or more streams, but between the two hardware decoding methods, Quick Sync was a bit better with H.264 while GPU decoding was better with the HEVC clips.

DJI Mavic 2 - 4K 100mbps H.264/HEVC media

Intel Core i9 10900K
Software, Quick Sync, & GPU Decoding

AMD Ryzen 3900X
Software & GPU Decoding

Drone footage is notorious for how difficult it can be to process, yet as the price of high-quality drones continues to fall, it is more and more common to use in projects.

For scrubbing, the performance from GPU decoding is what we have come to expect and it is vastly smoother than software decoding.

J/K/L (forward, pause, reverse) editing is also very similar to the other tests, with hardware decoding being much smoother when we get up to 4x speed. Reverse playback is once again unusable with software decoding, but more than acceptable at up to 2x speed in reverse.

For multicam performance, we again see a bit better performance from GPU decoding with HEVC media, while Quick Sync is slightly better for H.264. Both drop far fewer frames than software decoding as we get up to 9 or 12 streams, but this does continue the trend of Quick Sync having a slight edge for H.264 and GPU decoding for HEVC.

How well does H.264/HEVC GPU Decoding work in Premiere Pro?

Overall, the new GPU-based hardware decoding for H.264/H.265 (HEVC) media in Premiere Pro works extremely well. Scrubbing is massively smoother, and the fact that you can actually play these codecs in reverse without it turning into a slideshow is terrific to see. Not to mention being able to work with more multicam streams than what is possible with software decoding.

As a part of our testing, one of the things we wanted to look at in particular was how GPU decoding compared to the Intel Quick Sync decoding that has been a part of Premiere Pro for a long time. While Quick Sync did appear to have a slight edge with H.264 media in some situations, GPU decoding had a similar edge for HEVC footage. In the end, our conclusion is that GPU and Quick Sync decoding are pretty much on par with each other.

Now, you might look at this and think "if it is no better than Quick Sync, why bother?" The reason why this is such a big deal is that Quick Sync is only available on certain Intel CPUs (primarily those with integrated graphics). If you wanted an Intel X-series or Xeon CPU, not to mention one of the terrific Ryzen and Threadripper processors from AMD, you pretty much had to accept the fact that you would be getting significantly worse performance when working with the most common codecs in use today.

With the addition of GPU decoding, you no longer are limited to the handful of mid-range Intel processors that include Quick Sync. You can get that AMD Threadripper CPU to improve performance when working with R3D footage, and still get the benefits of hardware decoding for H.264 and HEVC media.

If you want to try out this new feature, it is available in the latest version of Premiere Pro which you can update to in Creative Cloud. Feel free to download the test clips we used that are linked in the Test Setup section, and let us know what you think in the comments! How much faster was it for you, and how is it going to affect your workflow?

Computer System

Premiere Pro Workstations

Puget Systems offers a range of powerful and reliable systems that are tailor-made for your unique workflow.

Configure a System!

Labs technician talking with customer

Labs Consultation Service

Our Labs team is available to provide in-depth hardware recommendations based on your workflow.

Find Out More!
Tags: Premiere Pro, H.264, HEVC, Hardware Acceleration, H.265, hardware decoding
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