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A Buyer’s Guide to Field Encoders 2014

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In addition, as a much larger and better-established company, Telestream has the ability to form strategic relationships with companies such as Matrox and 1 Beyond to offer verified compatible turnkey systems. Still, both programs enjoy avid high-profile fans, so if you’re trying to choose between the two, check the respective features tables and product demonstrations, and consider downloading the trial version of both programs.

Choosing a Stand-Alone Encoder

If you’re looking for a stand-alone encoder, you’re faced with the same software/hardware decision, though the software decision is relatively simple because of the dearth of proven choices other than Adobe’s Flash Media Live Encoder (FMLE), which is free and reasonably functional. Basically, if you want to go software-only and your live streaming service doesn’t offer a desktop encoder, FMLE is the obvious choice.

Regarding hardware encoders, there are multiple categories to consider. If you need to move the encoder around during the shoot, you should consider an on-camera encoder, which as I said previously is addressed in a separate Buyer’s Guide.

Otherwise, hardware encoders come in two basic categories: specialized, portable computers that you can drive directly via a mouse, keyboard, or touchscreen, or access remotely via a web browser, or stand-alone, encoding-only appliances that you log in to and configure remotely via a browser. In the field, both categories enable one-button operation that’s simple enough for nontechnical users. So before the event, technical personnel can choose and configure presets and enter the credentials of the target server. On location, users plug the unit in, connect the A/V gear and an ethernet cable, and drive the unit with simple touchscreen or button controls. Should problems arise, technical staff from the home office can usually (firewalls permitting) access the unit to diagnose and resolve the issues.

Computer or Appliance?

Overall, computers in a box such as the Digital Rapids TouchStream are generally larger and more functional, but they are also more expensive and much louder, making them inappropriate for quiet environments. Many producers prefer units such as these because of the ability to preview the encoded stream on the box, which can help diagnose and resolve any problems. In contrast, with encoding-only devices, you can only diagnose from a separate computer on the same local area network (LAN), and usually you can only preview the stream from the streaming server, not from the unit itself. Computer-based encoders are usually more powerful, as well, and capable of producing multiple streams, while many low-cost appliance encoders can produce only one or two streams.

On the other hand, where computer-based encoders start in the $5,000 range, encoding appliances are much cheaper, with units such as the Matrox Monarch priced at $995. Since these units are typically solid state, with no fans or hard drives, operation is silent and ideal for environments where encoder noise is an issue.

Choosing a Computer-Based Encoder

When choosing between computer-based encoders, work through the objective criteria first. That is, identify which systems connect to your A/V gear and output the required number of streams. For example, the Cisco Digital Media Encoder 1000 is an analog-only, SD device that can output only a single 320x240 H.264 or Windows Media stream with a maximum data rate of 350Kbps. While useful for some broadcast applications, it’s also too anemic for many others.

Once you’ve sorted through this process, you may have only one or two available options. If the Digital Rapids TouchStream is still in the mix, consider the convenience of the embedded touchscreen control, which eliminates the need to bring a separate monitor, keyboard, and mouse.

Choosing an Encoding Appliance

When choosing an encoding appliance, you have to work through the same connectivity and stream count issues discussed previously. Once you’ve narrowed down your candidate list, you’ll discover that most encoding appliances are designed with one specific market or application in mind. If your use is consistent with that market, you’ve got a match; if not, the unit will either be too expensive or unsuitable.

For example, the unique selling proposition of the Matrox Monarch is its ability to create two streams, one for sending to the live streaming service, the other a high-quality copy for archiving, further editing, or creating a higher-quality video-on-demand stream. At $995, that’s a lot of functionality built into portable and silent form factor. However, since the unit only accepts HDMI input, you may have to factor in the cost of format converter.

In contrast, Vitec’s Optibase MGW Nano costs between $3,995 and $6,495, depending upon the supported input, so it is much more expensive. However, you can buy the unit with HDMI or HD/SD-SDI video inputs, and it has a serial port for input of Motion Imagery Standards Profile (MISP) metadata such as Cursor-On-Target and Key Length Value data, enabling a range of military-related applications. The Nano also has features such as multicast output and encryption, which provide lots of value in many enterprise applications.

This article appears in the 2014 Streaming Media Sourcebook.

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