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Live Event Streaming: How to Choose an Encoder (Part 1)

Lights, camera, action, encode! There are many steps to ensuring a live streaming event’s success.  In addition to the logistics of the event itself, you have to consider how to provide the best streaming experience for your online viewers. One of the most critical decisions is what you will use for an encoder.

In part one of this post, I’ll cover the basics of what you’ll need to know about choosing an encoder for your event. In part two, I’ll go more into the specifics of each type of encoder.

Types of encoders

There are two types of encoders:

  • Hardware
  • Software

hardware and software encoderWhile both types essentially perform the same task, how they do it is different.

Hardware encoders consist of dedicated processors designed to use a particular encoding algorithm (as defined by the encoding format or standard). These processors are called digital signal processors (DSPs), Application-Specific Integrated Circuits (ASICs), or even Field-Programmable Gate Arrays (FPGAs). Devices that contain these processors are sometimes just small portable boxes, or larger more permanent boxes, or even a video camera with encoding “built-in”. To use a hardware encoder you hook up your video and audio feeds to the box via a wireless or wired connection. Or in the case of a video camera with built-in encoding, the feed is automatically encoded as the video is captured.

Software encoders are programs that can be run on any computing device that meets the software requirements. Usually this means a laptop or desktop. You can also find encoding offered as a service via the cloud so all you need is an Internet connected device capable of sending the video and audio information to the service. There are many software encoders available. Most of them support more than one encoding standard or format. In recent years there has been a push for open source encoding programs, though proprietary options still exist.

The most important features of an encoder

Whether you use a software or hardware encoder there are certain features that matter more than others. The following list is a good guideline for comparing your options for encoders:

  • Quality – This generally refers to how “good” the video looks at different bit rates and sizes. This is often a subjective assessment, though it doesn’t have to be.
  • Flexibility – Each video standard and related codecs offer many parameters that can be changed to get the best output for a given situation. How many of those parameters are made available to the user determines how flexible an encoder is.
  • Price – Encoders vary in price from free to many thousands of pounds.
  • Latency – The time it takes for an encoder to complete the encoding process from input to output is called the latency. The faster an encoder works the better the latency (lower numbers are better).
  • Support – It is worth investigating the company of any encoder you choose to see how long they’ve been in business, how frequently they provide updates, their track record for support, and if they are likely to be around long enough to support your projects.

Which of these five things is most important will depend on what your project is, what you know and are comfortable using, your budget and plan for the future. Resist the temptation though, to choose just one and make your decision based on that factor. For instance, if you are on a shoestring budget and the primary factor is price, be sure to balance the other features against the price. You’d be surprised to see the variety that exists even among the free encoder choices.

So there you have the very basics of encoding for live events. In the next post I’ll cover more detail on hardware and software encoders including pros and cons of each, and how they stack up against the five features listed above.

If you just can’t wait though, give us a call to discuss your project and encoding choices. Our streaming experts are available in the UK from 8:30 to 5:30 Monday-Friday.

Oliver Burt

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