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A Buyer’s Guide to Live Encoders

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Some portable encoders are computers in a relatively small box, which typically require hefty fans, and the resultant noise, to keep the unit cool. On the other hand, the fact that it’s a computer also means that you can bring a monitor, keyboard, and mouse to the event, and configure and drive the unit locally.

If noise is a factor, however, consider solid state devices such as VITEC’s Optibase MGW Nano or the Matrox Monarch HD. Though you can’t drive these systems directly as you can the computer-based systems, you can log in to them from another computer on the same LAN to change or customize presets and control the encoding. While the Nano produces only a single output stream, the Monarch can produce two streams: One is for streaming, while the other is a higher resolution version saved to on-device USB or SD slots for broadcast, archiving, or editing.

Another factor to consider is interface paradigm. As previously mentioned, some portable units come with an LCD touchscreen that drives up the cost but provides a confidence preview that your on-site encoding team might favor over a simple green status light. While you can bring a monitor and keyboard to work with other computer-based portable units, you may not get the same video preview capabilities.

If you’re streaming a lecture or similar presentation, consider a system such as Winnov’s Cbox encoder series, which can accept multiple video and digital visual interface (DVI) input from another computer, which is often used to stream a PowerPoint presentation or software demonstration. Cbox can also configure the DVI input and video source into a webcast-like look and create streams for computer and mobile playback. Lecture capture service providers such as Sonic Foundry may also have portable encoders that provide similar capture functionality.

On-Camera Encoders

On-camera encoders typically either sit on your camera’s cold accessory shoe or mount beneath the camera via the tripod mount screw. These units input the signal from your camcorder and output a single stream to transmit to a streaming server via WiFi, Ethernet, or 4G. While a separate Buyer’s Guide will detail the factors to consider when choosing a unit in this category, let’s address some high-level considerations.

First, if you’re counting on 4G as a transmission mechanism, consider buying a 4G aggregation unit that can use multiple signals from different 4G connections and services. While this drives up the overall cost of the system, it dramatically increases the throughput, enabling a higher quality signal and vastly improving reliability, since you can leverage multiple 4G service providers. If 4G is your preferred distribution mechanism, you should also buy an encoding and link aggregation system from the same vendor, since that allows the units to handle issues such as bandwidth fluctuations more intelligently, or buy a combined encoding/aggregation unit.

When considering on-camera encoders, battery life is also a critical factor; obviously, if you’re shooting a 4-hour event, an on-camera system with an integrated 1-hour battery won’t get the job done. If you’re buying a system to stream long events away from AC power, consider a system such as LiveGear’s AirStream, which has two IDX battery mounts that you can hot-swap for continuous operation. Though the lunch-pail-sized AirStream isn’t strictly a camera-mounted system, it may be the only practical solution for long live events.

Software Encoders

Now let’s turn our attention to software encoders. Here, there are two classes: simple encoding programs and production encoders that enable functions such as multiple inputs, live camera switching, video-on-demand playback, and titling and transitions.

If you’re looking for a simple encoding program, note that most live streaming service providers such as LiveStream or Ustream offer their own live encoding tool that simplify connecting to the service and enable the full integration of all features of the service. When considering vendor-supplied encoders, eschew browser-based tools, since these typically encode using Adobe Flash Player and produce lower quality than application-based encoders. If you’re using a service, and it supplies a program you can download and install for encoding, you may not need a third-party program.

If you’re using your own live streaming server, or a service that doesn’t offer an encoding tool, your next option should be the free Adobe Flash Media Live Encoder (FMLE), which is free but can only produce three simultaneous streams. If this is sufficient for your planned broadcast, FMLE could be a great option.

Production Encoders

Production encoders come in two general classes: closed systems shipped in a dedicated hardware environment, such as NewTek’s TriCaster family, or software programs that you buy and install on your own system, such as Wirecast and VidBlaster. While dedicated systems are generally more expensive, they’re also more reliable, since the hardware and software components are more rigorously tested and the device is generally used only for live production, not for general-purpose computing.

On the other hand, one very strong allure of the Wirecast/VidBlaster class of products is that with a $500 software purchase, and a couple of $200 capture cards, you can convert an existing computer into a highly functional production station. While certainly acceptable for casual productions, however, producers of high-profile, mission-critical events may feel uncomfortable using such a homegrown system. This issue drives many producers to favor relatively closed systems, such as a TriCaster.

To deliver the same degree of reliability, Telestream is partnering with a range of hardware vendors to provide closed systems with guaranteed compatible components, although this obviously drives up the cost of the overall system. While you can certainly build a system around VidBlaster, there don’t appear to be third-party vendors offering a turnkey system.

Otherwise, if you decide to pursue the do-it-yourself approach, you’ll find the Wirecast and VidBlaster feature set relatively similar, with Wirecast dominating in the U.S. and VidBlaster enjoying increased share in Europe. One key difference is that Wirecast is available for Mac and Windows, while VidBlaster is Windows-only.

As with stand-alone encoders, some live streaming service providers offer their own production encoding software. For example, Livestream offers Livestream Studio, which can be purchased as a stand-alone software program or in a turnkey system. Ustream offers a free, feature-limited version of Wirecast as its baseline stand-alone live encoder, with low-cost upgrades for additional functionality such as HDV input. YouTube Live also offers a feature-limited version of Wirecast for free, with a similar upgrade path.

This article appears in the 2014 Streaming Media Sourcebook.

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