350 MB

Back in the very early 2000s, “The Scene” (or people who captured TV shows) adopted an informal standard of targeting a ~45 minute episode to fit into 350 MB. This allowed two full-length episodes to fit on one CD-R, a pinnacle of economy that was previously unimaginable. CD-Rs were still quite expensive at the time, so one shouldn’t be wasteful. Price per GB on hard drives was still high enough that archiving anything on internal media was unimaginable for mere mortals like a student of modest means.

Before the 350 MB standard, episodes were generally written one per (pricey) disk, and distributed as VCDs. This was nice because they could be played in most consumer DVD players, but the quantity and ergonomics of one episode per disk weren’t great, and the video quality, encoded in MPEG-1, was awful.

The advancement that shrunk episodes to 350 MB was Xvid, and the increasing availability of DVD players that were smart enough to play Xvid. Aside from smaller size and fewer disks, resolution and quality were better than VCDs as well.

Xvid was eventually one-upped by the far superior again H264, but more importantly, hard disk storage prices fell through the floor.

Since then, we’ve experienced a renaissance of increasingly chip storage. Disk space has dropped from roughly $10/GB around 2000 to a little under $0.02/GB in 2020 – 500x cheaper over twenty years 1. It became less necessary to archive anything to plastic media, and the precision care that’d been applied to output file size relaxed completely. I all but stopped thinking about it years ago.

Recently, I was encoding some TV in H265 so that I could upload the smaller files from my obnoxiously bad home Comcast up-pipe to my obnoxiously bad hotel wi-fi down-pipe, and store them on my obnoxiously small laptop hard drive. Suddenly it hit me: 350 MB. I hadn’t picked a target size or bitrate, but that was the average file size ffmpeg was spitting out given inputs and quality settings. Except this time not for a pseudo-HD Xvid of dubious quality and ample encoding artifacts, but for a full 1080p video that my video-accelerated hardware handles without breaking a sweat.

I remember thinking when I first saw Xvid that surely video compression couldn’t get much better than this. It wasn’t just a mere improvement over MPEG-1, but a quantum leap. Then I thought the exact same thing when H264 came out (this must defy the laws of physics!). With H265 we’re back to files small enough to put two on a CD-R, if those are even sold anymore, but at improved quality and >4x the resolution.

350 MB. Those video engineers have done it again.

1This source does a good job of tracking storage costs from 1980 to 2010, Backblaze shows 2009 through 2017, and I used the price of an $140 8 TB Seagate Barracuda to get a rough price for 2020 (140 / (8 * 1000) = 0.0175).

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