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Buyer’s Guide to Live Video Encoders 2015
A range of factors—from video formats needed to encoder portability—will impact the decision-making process for a live streaming solution.
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Congratulations, you’re buying a live encoder. In 2014, Ooyala released survey results showing that live videos are watched, on average, 11 times longer than VOD videos. So taking your presentation, webinar, or other production live is a great move, and if you’ve just started shopping for an encoder, you’re in the right place. After setting out some basics, I’ll run through the questions that you should ask when shopping for an encoder in 2015. Along the way, I’ll identify the major categories of products you should be considering and discuss some features you should use to differentiate products within each category.

The Basics

You probably already know the basics, but they always bear repeating. The first step is to identify the number of streams and formats you’ll need the encoder to produce. There are two basic live streaming paradigms: the first is to encode all streams onsite and push them out to your streaming server. The second is to produce a single high-quality stream onsite and push that to a cloud transcoding facility to create your adaptive streams. If you’re producing multiple streams onsite, you’ll need a very powerful encoder, particularly if you’ll be supporting multiple formats. That requirement limits your purchase options. If you’re producing a single stream, either for single file delivery to your viewers or for live transcoding, you’ll have more encoders to choose from.

Once you know the stream and format count, you should identify the ancillary requirements of your streams, including DRM, caption support, advertising insertion, Commercial Advertisement Loudness Mitigation Act support, and so on. For the most part, only high-end encoders offer these features, so if you need them, make them the first items you check for when considering an encoder.

Next, identify the required camera or mixer-related connectivity. This is usually HD-SDI or HDMI, but could also include DV or analogue. Most encoder manufacturers offer multiple models differentiated by their I/O, so pay close attention when choosing the specific model to order.

Also check the delivery side of the equation—make sure your encoding gear can connect to your streaming server. If you’re streaming to an RTMP server, make sure the encoder supports RTMP; surprisingly, not all do. If you’re using a third-party service, check the website or forums for any recommended encoders, or any that you should avoid. In particular, Livestream has developed a range of hardware and software products for deployment on its platform, so if you’re sold on Livestream as a platform, you should check out its live streaming encoding products first. In addition, if you’re using Wowza Media Engine, or a streaming server like it, check the company’s forums to see which, if any, encoders have caused problems, and which are recommended.

Buying a High-End Encoder

If you need an encoder that can produce multiple streams in multiple formats onsite, or need support for DRM, captions, and the like, you’ll need one or more high-end encoders that can cost $10,000 and higher. Most suppliers in this category are mature companies that have been serving the broadcast market for years, and you should have multiple options.

From a feature perspective, products in the category are fairly similar. One relevant difference is whether the system is software- or chip-based. Software-based systems run on industry-standard hardware and can be updated easily for new formats like H.265, which should start to become relevant as a delivery format in 2015. Chip-based systems run on dedicated (usually) codec-specific silicon that can’t be updated, but are usually cheaper than software-based systems because the application-specific silicon is more efficient. If you know you’ll be using H.264 for the next few years, cheaper may be better. If you think you might be moving to HEVC, software systems offer flexibility that might be worth the price.

You should also consider the availability of cloud encoding capabilities to supplement your on-premise encoder, if only for the occasional spike in production requirements. In this regard, the ability to use the same presets and workflows can save hours of testing and debugging over a third-party encoder.

If you don’t need these high-end features, you have much more flexibility in your purchase decision. So now let’s discuss the questions you should ask before writing the check.

Does Free Work for You?

If you’ve already got a computer and video capture card, one of several free solutions might work for you. One is the Adobe Flash Live Media Encoder, which has been used very widely over the years. As mentioned previously, if you’re broadcasting via a live streaming service provider such as Livestream, Ustream, or YouTube Live, check if the vendor offers a free encoding program. While some free programs might not be full-featured, they’re solid starting points, and many vendors offer an upgrade path to versions of the program that do more. Again, Livestream offers a free version of its highly competent video mixer/encoder Studio for all producers streaming through the Livestream platform, and all Livestream producers should check it out before buying a third-party video mixer or encoder.

Will There Be Ethernet or Wi-Fi?

If you’ll be broadcasting from a fixed location with connectivity, any encoder will do. On the other hand, if you’ll be broadcasting from different locations that might not have Ethernet or Wi-Fi, you’ll need an encoder with 4G capabilities, which come in multiple shapes and sizes.

For example, Panasonic has a range of cameras with USB ports that can host an Ethernet card, Wi-Fi, or 3G/4G modem. All of the cameras have two codecs and can encode a broadcast-quality stream saved on one SD card and produce another encoded stream for live transmission or storage to a second SD card. These cameras let you monitor encoding and transmission in the viewfinder, providing an integrated interface that enables one operator to shoot as well as manage the streaming operation.

If you don’t have 4G capabilities in your camcorder, multiple vendors offer on-camera encoders with USB ports for 3G/4G modems. Many vendors also offer bonding solutions that allow you to deploy multiple 3G/4G modems from one or more telecom providers. You can use these to aggregate the signal for higher bandwidth transmissions, provide carrier redundancy, or both.

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