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2009 Encoder Shootout

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Apple Compressor 3
The past year brought no major revisions of Compressor, so the workflow and features haven’t changed since the last time we looked. You can export Final Cut Pro projects directly to Compressor or encode stand-alone files on disk. Unlike the Adobe Media Encoder CS3, you can’t continue to edit in Final Cut while a Final Cut project is rendering in Compressor, though with simple projects, the easy workaround is to export a QuickTime Reference Movie from Final Cut Pro and encode that. With more complex projects, this isn’t so useful, because it will likely take Final Cut Pro a while to render the QuickTime Reference Movie, and you’d have to be around to insert that into Compressor and start encoding. The advantage goes to Adobe on the workflow.

Table 2

On the other hand, with Qmaster, it’s advantage Apple on multicore utilization. If you don’t know about Qmaster, it’s like a Hanukkah present just waiting to be opened and enjoyed. For example, in our five-file VP6 encoding trials, Qmaster dropped overall encoding time from 32:20 to 6:48, just 20 seconds longer than it took to encode a single VP6 file. With Windows Media video files, encoding time dropped from 8:30 to 3:34. If you have even a dual-core system and you’re not using Qmaster, Google Qmaster and Compressor, find a tutorial, and take the time to learn how.

Deinterlacing quality has an asterisk for several reasons. First, to access Compressor’s highest quality deinterlacing technique, Optical Flow, you must be using a codec supported natively by Compressor, not via a plug-in. Though most plug-ins do a good job with deinterlacing, few match the quality produced by Compressor when Optical Flow is enabled. That said, you can’t use Optical Flow if you’re in a hurry since it will literally extend rendering time by 20–30 times, which is probably why most of Apple’s presets don’t use it.

Unfortunately, much of Compressor’s stellar performance and deinterlacing quality is wasted with H.264 encoding, an area in which Apple used to be the breakaway quality leader. It’s hard to tell whether Apple lost ground, the other codecs advanced, or both, but Apple is now last in H.264 quality. At high bandwidths, of course, quality is quite good, but if you’re paying for your H.264 bandwidth, you’ll want to choose a different encoder. Access to H.264 encoding features is also quite limited.

The picture is brighter with WMV encoding, which Compressor accomplishes via Flip4Mac’s Windows Media Components for QuickTime, which costs $179 for two-pass encoding and HD support. Via the Flip4Mac plug-in, Compressor is the only tool other than Expression Encoder that can produce a Silverlight player. And though quality trailed that produced by Sorenson Squeeze, it’s certainly adequate for most casual encoding, and encoding speed is competitive.

With VP6, you’ll need either the Adobe Flash QuickTime Export Component, which is free, or On2’s Flix Exporter, which costs $199. I tested Flix Exporter, which produced very good quality only seconds behind On2’s stand-alone program, Flix Pro. The only potential caveat is that Flix Exporter doesn’t currently support VP6-S output, so if you’re producing high-definition VP6 output, you probably should encode with a separate tool.

Sorenson Squeeze 5
Sorenson Squeeze is a perennial fan favorite and is installed on most of the computers in my office, Mac and Windows. It does a decent job at least with most types of encoding, and though single-app multiprocessor efficiency is only fair, you can load as many instances as you’d like on both platforms to encode multiple files. The only noteworthy downside is deinterlacing quality, which looks good most of the time but throws obvious jaggies at you just enough times to make you wary. You can work around this by scaling and deinterlacing when creating intermediate files from your editor.

Table 3

Squeeze’s interface and feature set is identical on both Mac and Windows platforms. From an automation perspective, you can set up multiple batch-encoding runs and watch folders and, as described, run multiple instances on both Mac and Windows platforms.

Since Squeeze is competing against a different set of products on each platform, I’ll cover each codec-specific performance separately.

In Windows, Squeeze’s MainConcept-fueled H.264 quality was the best of the bunch, though Squeeze was almost six times slower than CS4 in our five-file encoding trial, 17:23 to 3:15, even when running five simultaneous instances of Squeeze. The program provides the broadest range of H.264 encoding parameters, including all three profiles, your choice of entropy encoding technique, and the ability to control the number of sequential B-frames (up to three).

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