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Buyers' Guide to Essential Video Utilities

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You can't effectively perform as a compressionist without tools that reveal critical details about your encoded files, whether they are basics like codec, resolution, and data rate or are deep-level elements like group-of-pictures (GOP) structure and quality levels. This guide identifies the functions you need as well as the tools that can supply them, how much they cost, and where to get them. 

This guide is meant to be comprehensive but not exhaustive. If you're seeking to learn about tools that you should buy for your own use, please use it as a starting point. If you sell a tool that you think we should have considered but didn't, please let us know in a comment below. 

Free Tools

If a tool is free and serves a useful purpose, there's no reason not to have it on every computer that supports it. There are two in this category: MediaInfo and Bitrate Viewer.

MEDIAINFO

Mediainfo

What: A file-analysis tool that identifies key encoding configuration details like audio/video codec, profile, bitrate, resolution, frame rate, audio channels, and sampling rate. The tool is free and available for Windows, Mac, Ubuntu, iOS, Android, and many other operating systems. 

Where: bit.ly/SM_MI

How much: Free; donations accepted

Fun fact: Once installed, you can hover 
your pointer over any file in Windows Explorer and view basic audio/video 
codec and encoding info. 

See it in action: bit.ly/SM_MI_BV (YouTube video)

Verdict: This tool should be installed on every computer in your office and home. 

BITRATE VIEWER

Bitrate Viewer

What: A Windows-only tool that shows the per-frame or per-GOP size and average data rate for MPEG-2 and H.264 encoded files (but not for HEVC, AV1, or later codecs). It also displays file resolution; frame rate; and minimum, maximum, and average bitrate.

Where: bit.ly/brv_dl

How much: Free

Fun fact: You can zoom into the display with your mouse wheel to better view frame details.

See it in action: 
bit.ly/SM_MI_BV (YouTube video)

Verdict: The operating system and file compatibility limitations are frustrating, but you should install this programme on every Windows computer 
in your office. 

File-Analysis Tools

These tools allow you to ana­lyse files that Bitrate Viewer doesn't and provide much more detail. But they're not free. 

TELESTREAM SWITCH

Telestream Switch

What: A Windows/Mac tool that can play your video, show file details like GOP structure and data rate, and check loudness and caption details. Telestream offers three versions ($9.99, $199, and $499), and you'll need the $499 version to get the GOP view shown in Figure 3 and the data-rate view. It can inspect a ton of containers and codecs, including HEVC, but not AV1. 

Where: bit.ly/teleswitch

How much: $499

Fun fact: It can load two files at once and allow you to toggle between them or show them side by side. Figure 3 shows the file encoded with the Medium x264 preset on the left and Veryfast on the right. You can see the drag bar handle on Zoolander's face. 

Verdict: I wish Telestream offered a version with just the file visualisation tools and not the fancy production capabilities (captions, audio volume, export), which many streaming producers don't use. Still, it's the cheapest option for viewing GOP structure and data rate of files that Bitrate Viewer doesn't support. 

ZOND 265

ZOND 365

What: A deep file-analysis tool that runs on Windows, Mac, and Linux. There are two versions: Essential Edition, which supports HEVC but doesn't offer a command line ($391), and Full Edition, which supports HEVC, AVC, AV1, and MPEG-2 files via the GUI or command line ($1,390). Some functions benefit all users, including the ability to display both data-rate and GOP views and compute Video Multimethod Assessment Fusion (VMAF), Multi-Scale Structural Similarity (MS SSIM), and peak signal-to-noise ratio (PSNR) scores. Others are useful primarily for codec developers and encoding vendors, such as the ability to validate HEVC files and visualise details like the HRD buffer and prediction partitions . 

Where: bit.ly/SM_Zond

How much: Essential Edition, $391; Full Edition, $1,390

Fun fact: Zond 265 can provide frame details like the percentage of compression achieved via inter- and intra-frame encoding and can identify reference frames used for each frame encode and the percentage of reference pictures each provided. 

Verdict: The Telestream Switch is better if all you want are bitrate graphs and GOP structure views. But if you're looking for deep file analysis, Zond 265 is the better option. 

ELECARD VIDEO QUALITY ESTIMATOR

Elecard Video Quality Estimator

What: This resource sits between the analysis tools previously mentioned and the metrics tools that will follow, providing deep file analysis, GOP and data-rate views, and the ability to compute metrics like PSNR, Media Source Extension (MSE), SSIM, and VMAF. It is compatible with H.264, HEVC, VP9, and AV1. It offers excellent file-visualisation tools but is clunky; e.g., in the version we tested, we had to convert the source file to YUV before comparing it to the compressed files. Also, the programme doesn't support drag and drop, which is frustrating during high-volume usage. The command-line option works via an XML configuration file rather than a simpler and more traditional command-line syntax. It runs on Windows, Mac, Ubuntu, CentOS, and Fedora. 

Where: bit.ly/SM_VQE

How much: Not cited on the website. When we reviewed it, the GUI mode cost $850, and the command-line version cost an additional $400. 

Our review: bit.ly/SM_VQ_rev

Verdict: A good option if you need both file analysis and metrics, but download and test the trial version first. 

HONORABLE MENTION

Beamr View: This free tool allows side-by-side comparisons of two files to assist in GoldenEye testing and shows the bitrate, resolution, frame rate, frame type, and PSNR value for each frame. Beamr View is offered by Beamr to assist in evaluating the company's products, but you have to request a trial version that expires after either 3 or 6 months. If you'd like to continue using Beamr View, it's available under a paid plan for multi-seat licences (bit.ly/SM_VU). 

Vooya: Like Beamr View, Vooya enables side-by-side comparisons but provides less data per frame. It's primarily useful for projects that involve YUV or other raw formats that most players won't load but Vooya can. Vooya costs $20 for Mac and Windows but is free for Linux (bit.ly/SM_Vooya). 

Video Quality Metric-Related Tools

The primary function for the following tools is to compute and visualise video quality metric scores. 

MOSCOW STATE UNIVERSITY VIDEO QUALITY MEASUREMENT TOOL (MSU VQMT)

Moscow State VQMT

What: This tool computes a range of video quality metrics, including VMAF, PSNR, SSIM, MS SSIM, and many others. It can compare two files in the GUI simultaneously so you can compare codecs or encoding techniques. It displays the comparative metric score over the duration of the file so you can identify quality drops and where the compared files differ and then view the frames themselves. Command-line operation is straightforward and flexible and can output in JSON and CSV. Metric scores now include harmonic mean, lowest-quality frame, highest-quality frame, standard deviation, and variance, which all add context to the arithmetic mean. GUI runs only on Windows; the command-line version runs on Linux DEB 
and Linux RPM. 

Where: bit.ly/SM_VQMT

How much: $299–$999, depending on volume 

Fun fact: Moscow State University is the author of the most comprehensive HEVC and H.264 codec comparisons, for which VQMT was developed, and also created Subjectify.us, a website for crowdsourcing subjective evaluations for images and videos. 

See it in action: bit.ly/MSU_V12 (YouTube video)

Verdict: The MSU VQMT provides the perfect blend of ease of use, performance, and data to help make informed decisions about codecs and encoding parameters. 

SSIMPLUS VOD MONITOR

SSIMWAVE PLUS

What: A browser-based tool for computing SSIMPLUS (SSIMWAVE's video quality metric) and displaying the results graphically with the ability to view the actual frames at any location in the file. Another view produces rate-distortion curves and BD-Rate computations to visualise and quantify the performance differences between codecs. It can compare multiple files simultaneously, so it is very useful when comparing more than two encoding alternatives. It supports a wide range of codecs, including H.264, HEVC, VP8, VP9, and AVI, and it also supports High Dynamic Range (HDR). SSIMPLUS is one of the few metrics that can compute scores from files of different frame rates, like a 720p30 file encoded from a 1080p60 source. 

The software runs on CentOS (any supported file system), VirtualBox, and VMware and is cloud-enabled for AWS and the Google Cloud Platform.

Where: bit.ly/SM_VODMon

How much: Not disclosed

Fun fact: SSIMPLUS was created by a team led by Zhou Wang, the developer of the SSIM algorithm, who won an Engineering Emmy Award in 2015. 

Verdict: The only way to access SSIMPLUS ratings. It's very fast in operation, and GUI adds a lot of value. 

HONORABLE MENTION

FFmpeg: A free open source command-line utility that can compute PSNR, SSIM, and VMAF. There are no simple ways to visualise the associated frames, however, which is critical when comparing codecs or evaluating encoding techniques. This makes FFmpeg good for integrating into a production workflow but not optimal for research and analysis.

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