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Live Event Streaming: How to Choose an Encoder (Part 2)

Now that you know the characteristics of encoders from Part 1 of this series, let’s take a look at how hardware and software encoders stack up.

Hardware Encoders

Remember hardware encoders are devices specifically designed to perform encoding. The result is they are great at some things, and not so good at others.

  • Quality – The hardware will likely have only limited options for adjusting the quality of the output. There just isn’t enough room to include all the possibilities provided by a codec into the processing chip or device. In some cases it isn’t economical to include everything. So the quality a hardware encoder provides is usually fairly fixed, though the manufacturer may build in some ability to tweak it.
  • Flexibility – Hardware encoders are not flexible. Many of the parameters are built in, but also they are near impossible to upgrade. They often use older codecs due to the time it takes to design, build, and manufacture the hardware.
  • Price – You won’t find any free hardware video encoders. But they can be found relatively inexpensively starting around £200. The prices go up to thousands depending on features and manufacturer.
  • Latency – This is where hardware encoders excel. Because the hardware is designed for just one purpose, the engineers can optimise it to process as fast as possible. They are generally ten times faster than software encoders. Sometimes even faster.
  • Support – You should examine the warranties and support provided for hardware encoders like you would any other piece of equipment. A physical device can fail. Will the company be there to fix it if it does?

Software Encoders

In today’s world, the idea of software encoders is probably less intimidating than a piece of hardware. We all use software every day and understand what it is. While software encoders can be a familiar choice, it isn’t always the best.

  • Quality – Hardware encoders have speed, but software encoders reign in terms of quality. Most will offer the ability to tweak every possible aspect of the codec so you can get the exact quality of video you are looking to stream. reports that some online broadcasters hire special consultants to adjust the color and compression of the encoder to create the exact look a producer wants. While that isn’t necessary, using a software encoder gives you the most options.
  • Flexibility – Like most types of software, if there are changes or updates to a program (or in this case a codec) you have the ability just to download a new version or update of the software. This gives you the flexibility to make changes as you need to depending on what you’re streaming.
  • Price – Many of the major formats are now offered as open source. Google made the VP8 codec open source, and WebM also funded by Google, is open source as well. Open source of course means free, which can be a bonus if you’re operating on a limited budget. There are also full production software packages supporting multiple codecs available at various price ranges.
  • Latency – Since the software encoders run on general purpose hardware (like a laptop or desktop computer), they are slower than their hardware counterparts. Still, most people use software encoding as it is sufficient for many different uses.
  • Support – Software companies rise and fall at amazing rates these days. Buy a product today, and the company may have disappeared next month. Software updates are easy to install and keep up to date – provided the company is still in business. If you choose open source software, make sure the community has a good track record, financial support, and is actively providing updates and releases.

Which should you choose?

hardware or software encoders for live streaming

Many considerations go into the selection of an encoder:

What sort of events do you want to stream?

Is it just you, or are you an event manager, conference centre, or school?

Do you need a portable solution, or one that will stay fixed in one spot?

Do you require real-time video streaming with the fastest possible encoding?

These are just a small portion of the questions you should ask before selecting an encoder for your live event. Our streaming experts have helped all kinds of people, businesses and organisations produce successful streaming events. Give us a call today, or send an email using the form below, and we can help you figure out what you need to live stream.

Oliver Burt

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