Once again we've come to the last page of a codec comparison and are asking the dreaded question "which is best?". I think we can rule out two codecs right away: mpegable AVI because it's currently unusable, and 3ivX because it returned clips with serious quality degradation. So we're left with 5 out of 7.
I cannot shake off the feeling that DivX5 hasn't made so much progress since the last comparison. It still has a tendency to smooth out details and the only major news is an application that allows you to manually adjust bitrate settings and multipass encoding (the benefits if this is still under dispute if you follow the discussions in the DivX5 forum). DivX5 is certainly a stable product and is rather easy to use and the fact that there are DivX certified hardware devices will certainly help to increase its proliferation, but it fails to claim first place in any scenario. It also didn't deliver a too impressive performance in the animated movie scenario.
RealVideo9 has not made any significant progress since the last test, either. I did never notice the bugs they were having during my last test, so the new release mostly came down to speed improvements for me, and the first test on animated materials. Personally I prefer codecs that retain more details than RV9 but that's just a personal preference. If "no blocks" is all you care about RV9 might just be your thing. Don't forget that it's proprietary (chances that any standalone player will eventually play it are extremely small), that it's not very editable and that your audio format choice is rather limited as well. Last but not least its rate control still leaves a lot of room for improvement.
SBC seems to finally have found its match. It has to share the "most details" throne with XviD while clearly being beaten when it comes to animated features.
With WMV9 Microsoft has finally managed what they've tried for almost 3 years (I still recall my first codec comparison... I tested WMV7 and found that it did not perform better - in fact rather worse - than plain DivX3 at the time), that is join the top league. With its financial power Microsoft might be able to get some hardware support, but I still think it's more likely that a real standard (MPEG-4) will make the race. In any case, WMV9 delivered a reasonable performance in all scenarios, except for rate control and speed.
Last but not least, XviD has made a big step forward. It was able to catch up with DivX3 on the detail level and the only things I can criticize are QPel effects (which really aren't that visible when you use the built-in postprocessing, which by the way requires that you get the best CPU available), the two glitches I found (and which I've already submitted to the developers, hoping that they will soon be fixed) and that fact that its new features have decimated encoding speed. XviD playback is also supported by most hardware DivX/MPEG4 players so you might be able to play your rips on a standalone device which is certainly a bonus (make sure not to use any modulated quantizers though, they are not specs compliant).
In conclusion: When encoding regular movies, if you look for a quick and dirty average solution DivX5 is your fix. If you're an SBC guru, want maximal details at high speed you can still stick to SBC, if you want details and are not worried about the alpha status and speed you should give XviD a shot. DivX5 and XviD also offer standalone playback capability on selected devices. If you don't worry about details too much and prefer to remain almost blockfree you should give RV9 a shot, or alternatively WMV9. Interestingly, the lead developer of XviD has offered to send me a build that would perform just like RV9.. I might take up that offer one day when I'm bored.
For animated features, the two proprietary solutions deliver good results with XviD pulling slightly ahead.
I don't expect Nandub to go anywhere anymore. Nandub was crucial in bringing out the best of DivX3, a codec which on its own would be vastly inferior to many other these days. There's now a solution that is on par with SBC on many levels so I expect SBC to start disappearing in the foreseeable future.
DivX6 has already been announced but only the future will tell if it's really going to be what was said, and in any case the release is still far off.
XviD is still under heavy development but we should see a 1.0 stable build sometime this year. Such a release should once again be optimized for speed and eliminate problems that still exist here and there.
VP6 is supposed to be released within the month and I hope that On2 will finally change their stance on letting independent entities test their work. Ogg Theora (based on VP3) has yet to be released. We'll see some more MPEG-4 codecs that year (most notably Nero Digital which is supposed to be released during the 2nd quarter of this year) and then there's a bunch of upcoming H.264 codecs.
The first standalone players capable of playing back MPEG-4 files have been released, and many have been announced at recent trade shows. Those devices usually play DivX4/5 and natively support any kind of MPEG-4 compatible codec (XviD and possibly also 3ivX and all mpegable products). Unfortunately, the hardware chip used has only limited features (most notably the Sigma chip doesn't support QPel, GMC and DivX3) but these features can be added via firmware updates. If standalone playback is a killer criteria for you, you should definitely use an MPEG-4 codec and not count on software emulation (used for DivX3/SBC playback).
This document was last updated on May 4, 2003