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Buyer’s Guide to On-Demand Encoders 2015
In the market for a VOD encoder? Learn the important product categories, the top choices in each, and the right time to upgrade to a more powerful encoder.
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Choosing an encoding tool is a fundamental decision for anyone posting video to a website. In this video-on-demand (VOD) encoding buyer’s guide, I’ll run through the most relevant product categories, point out noteworthy examples, and identify the factors to consider when choosing among them. I’ll also talk about when you should upgrade from one category to another. I discussed VOD cloud encoding in another story, so I won’t address that category in detail in this guide.

Every encoder search should start with a requirements document, even if it’s only an informal one. Start by listing the inputs the encoder needs to support, plus the outputs necessary for your streaming operation, including codec support, packaging, and ancillary requirements such as digital rights management (DRM) and closed caption support. Then determine how many files you’ll need to encode, and how quickly you need to encode them. Identify your integration requirements, whether it’s integrated operation with a video editor, watch folder integration, or full programmatic integration via API or command line. You should also consider the degree of redundancy you’ll need. Armed with this information, you can quickly identify the products that meet your requirements and start focusing on price and other differentiating factors.

Let’s start with a look at free encoders and work our way up from there.

Free Encoders

FFMPEG is a free, open-source command-line encoder that’s exceptionally functional, and I’ll touch on it briefly later in this article. If you’re not the command-line type, I recommend HandBrake for simple, one-off encoding jobs and for quick-turn DVD to MP4 conversions. Essentially, HandBrake is a GUI for FF-MPEG, allowing you to access the most relevant x264- and x265-related FFMPEG functionality in an easy-to-use, engaging interface. If you need a simple tool for occasional x264 and x265 encodes, the cross-platform HandBrake should be your first choice.

Bundled Programs

Apple Compressor is a companion encoder to Apple Final Cut Pro X (it’s also available as a separate product costing $49.99), while Adobe Media Encoder (AME) comes bundled with Adobe Premiere Pro and the Creative Cloud. You can access both of these products from their sister video editors, eliminating the need to produce a mezzanine file, and they both output MPEG-2 and H.264 for most common applications in single file or batch mode. Neither program offers support for DRM packaging, though AME can output captions from Premiere in multiple sidecar formats. Neither program can output H.265 or VP8/VP9.

Compressor has several useful features that AME doesn’t, most notably the ability to create HTTP Live Streaming (HLS) output for streaming to iOS devices and the ability to share encoding chores over multiple Compressor installations. A complete interface overhaul in late 2013 cleaned up the interface, but from a performance and quality perspective, it raised more questions than it answered. For example, Compressor can accelerate encoding on all Macs running on an i5 or i7 processor, but only for single-pass encoding. There still are three different interfaces for creating H.264 files with completely different control sets, which makes operation confusing, and Apple’s codec is still a step behind x264 in quality. Though you can create encoding Droplets with Compressor for simple drag-and-drop encoding, there is no GUI-based watch folder operation. Overall, Compressor produces good output for casual users, but most encoding professionals would prefer another tool.

AME has a clean, consistent, and easy-to-use interface. It operates efficiently and includes watch folder input that makes it a worthy accessory to Adobe Premiere and other suite tools. The most glaring negatives are the lack of access to the x264 codec and the inability to output packages and metadata files for any HTTP adaptive streaming technology. For serious web producers, AME is best for creating mezzanine files for uploading and encoding elsewhere, rather than producing the final outputs.

Desktop Encoders

Desktop encoders such as Sorenson Squeeze and Telestream Episode provide access to a broader range of codecs and formats than bundled encoders along with scalability to higher-volume encoding. Both also offer much more granular control over your encoding—for example, by exposing a much wider range of H.264 configuration options than either Compressor or AME. You can access both encoders from within Adobe Media Encoder, or via watch folders. Let’s look at the individual encoders, starting with Episode.

There are three Episode versions: Episode ($594), Episode Pro ($1,194), and Episode Engine ($5,994), all available for Windows and Mac. All three products include the x264 codec, though the baseline version lacks some high-end input/output formats, and only Episode Engine supports HTTP Live Streaming and Microsoft Smooth Streaming output, and then only via the command line interface and not the GUI. Other product differences are performance-related. Specifically, Episode can only encode one file at a time and Episode Pro two files at a time. Episode Engine can encode multiple files simultaneously with the maximum number depending upon the cores in your system. Episode Engine also features split and stitch encoding, which accelerates the encoding of a single larger file.

As is the case with Compressor, you can cluster multiple Episode installations for shared encoding. You can also access all Episode versions via a command-line interface, a nice option for high-volume users. There’s also an XML-based RPC interface for integrating all Episode versions with media asset management or content management systems. On the downside, though Episode does support VP8, it can’t output HEVC or VP9, so users who need a UHD codec are out of luck. Without a major upgrade since 2010, Episode is also getting a bit long in the tooth from a features perspective, with no support for DRM or captions of any kind.

Squeeze comes in three versions: Lite ($199), Standard ($549), and Pro ($749), also available in Mac and Windows versions. All three versions feature unlimited parallel file encoding, but only the two higher-priced versions include divide and conquer operation, which speeds single file encoding much as Telestream’s split and stitch feature does.

Sorenson’s strength relates to codec and format support. Squeeze Standard and Pro can output packages for Apple HLS (with encryption), Adobe Dynamic Streaming (HDS), Microsoft Smooth Streaming, and MPEG DASH (Dynamic Adaptive Streaming over HTTP). The two higher-end versions also include VP9 support, though only Squeeze Pro includes HEVC and closed caption integration. All versions can create an HTML5 package that includes MP4 and WebM files, as well as the HTML code to implement HTML5 playback with Flash Fallback. Squeeze also offers a review and approval workflow via Squeeze Stream, Sorenson’s online video platform.

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