Buyer’s Guide to Live Video Encoders 2015
If you’ll be integrating the live stream into a mixed production, make sure you can input the streaming video signal into your video mixer. For example, you can input video from several Teradek encoders directly into NewTek TriCaster or Telestream Wirecast, which isn’t always possible with other cameras or camera-back encoders from other manufacturers.
Streaming or Point-to-Point?
Most live encoding applications involve one-to-many streaming, but point-to-point applications are becoming more common. For example, the Matrox Maevex and PESA Xstream C22 ship in pairs—one encoder, one decoder. The encoder inputs HD-SDI, converts it to H.264, and transmits it to the decoder, which converts it back to HD-SDI or HDMI. This enables multiple uses, including remote monitoring, multiple campus viewing, or sending a live signal back to a studio for input into a video mixer for live production.
Similarly, the Teradek Beam can transmit 1080p video over the 5Ghz band up to 2,500' with only two frames of latency. This can be used for shared viewing and monitoring on a studio lot or for camera input into a video truck for broadcast use.
Will the Camera Be Moving?
If the camera will be moving continuously or even frequently during the production, you should prioritise encoder portability. Consider both size and battery life if you won’t be connected to AC power during the event. Camera-back units are great here, but often have limited battery life, which could mean shutting down to change batteries, or switching units if the encoder has an embedded rechargeable battery. Though slightly less portable, lunchpail encoder/transmitters offer some flexibility; the LiveGear Airstream 3G/4G LTE portable video transmitter, for instance, has multiple battery slots (plus a touchscreen for operation and confidence monitoring) so you can swap batteries for long-term operation.
Do You Have a Mixer (Or Are You Buying One)?
Most video mixers incorporate integrated encoders, which can save you the purchase price of a separate encoder. As an example, all NewTek TriCaster models can stream up to 720p video (or some multiple bitrate profiles), with built-in presets for popular services such as Livestream, Ustream, and YouTube Live. Telestream Wirecast offers very similar functionality, and can transmit multiple formats to multiple services simultaneously.
Roland takes a different approach, outputting a webcam-compatible signal from its mixers via USB. Plug the other end of the USB cable into a desktop or notebook and you can stream the fully mixed signal live with free software like the Adobe Flash Live Media Encoder.
Do You Need to Mix PowerPoint and Video?
If you buy a traditional video mixer, you can handle multiple inputs of many types. However, there are several systems custom-built for PowerPoint and video integration, such as the Epiphan Pearl and Winnov Cbox. While they’re not as functional as full-featured video mixers, their application-specific interfaces make them much easier to use in lecture-capture applications. This makes it simple to create side-by-side or picture-in-picture presentations of the video and PowerPoint, or of any content on two different cameras. Note that if you’re capturing for storage and distribution in Sonic Foundry’s Mediasite, Polycom’s Real Presence Media Management system, or a media management system like them, you should make sure that the encoder that you purchase is compatible with the system.
Will You Be Broadcasting From Different Locations?
If you’ll be broadcasting from multiple locations, you’ll want to consider a portable system. Fortunately, you’ll have lots of options. When choosing among them, keep several things in mind.
First, consider what you’ll have to carry to make the system work. For example, many systems are essentially self-contained computers that you can operate with or without a keyboard and monitor. That is, you can plug in a keyboard and monitor and drive the system directly or access the system remotely from any system on the same LAN. Nontechnical users might prefer to drive the system directly, which means they have to carry a keyboard, monitor, and mouse. Or you can buy a system with an embedded touchscreen, which offers portability and ease of use, though usually at a much higher price.
Speaking of ease of use, that’s another factor. Many novices prefer a system that they can operate by pressing a few buttons. For these users, an appliance may be a better option than a notebook and encoding software. You can choose the encoding presets and configure the streaming server connection in the office. Once on location, all your coworkers will need to do is turn the appliance on, connect the A/V cables, and press the magic Go button, which simplifies their lives and probably yours as well.
Finally, consider noise. If you’re encoding from the back of a noisy room, any system will do. However, if you’re broadcasting from a quiet conference room or deposition, you may need a system without a fan or other moving parts.
You’ll Be Live Streaming And ...?
Beyond the products discussed already, a number of other live encoders can send a signal to a streaming server while performing one or more essential functions. A great example is the Matrox Monarch, which can produce two streams—one for streaming, the other a higher-resolution version for broadcast, editing, and archiving.
The PESA Xstream C58 is a streaming encoder that can input video from up to five sources and audio from up to eight sources, and synchronize and mux any of these signals together. When combined with PESA’s Xstream Live viewing software, event producers can create a multiple camera interface that lets the user choose which stream to watch, a great value add.
Whichever encoder you buy, give yourself plenty of time to test and debug before your first live event. As any seasoned pro will say (and as you’ve probably learned yourself), few tools work perfectly the first time you try to use them.
This article appears in the 2015 Streaming Media Sourcebook as "Buyer’s Guide to Live Encoders."
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