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How to Choose an Encoding Solution

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Over the years, the choice of how to capture or encode streaming media content has vacillated back and forth between software and hardware solutions. Software has traditionally been less expensive and somewhat easier to implement since it doesn’t require the extra tweaking often needed with a hardware capture card’s multiple settings.

For on-demand scenarios, the extra processing cycles for software transcodes required to match hardware’s faster transcoding cycles didn’t really matter. On the other hand, for live content, hardware enabled a better quality image in real time, meaning that encoding of higher resolution content needed to be done with more than just an off-the-shelf central processing unit (CPU) used in software-based encoding and transcoding.

In short, the need to handle the heavy lifting of a robust encode or transcode in real time or near-real time was an important element of the choice between software and hardware solutions.

Welcome to 2009, where everything you know is changing. With the advent of two areas, virtualization and multiple cores, software transcodes (and even some encodes) can be done in real time for robust, higher resolution content.

More Choices Than Ever
The ability to throw multiple CPUs at a transcoding task means the heavy lifting is spread across multiple machines; for those who buy robust machines and transcoding software that takes advantage of newer multicore processors, the use of multiple cores from a single CPU (currently at four cores per processor and expected to grow in 2009 to eight or 16 cores for desktops) can also accomplish the same thing, although not quite at the scale of a virtualization solution.

On the hardware side, the advent of appliances—boxes dedicated to the task of encoding or transcoding, sometimes containing a digital signal processor (DSP), a CPU, or even a customized chip (an application-specific integrated circuit, or ASIC)—has also pushed the envelope toward real-time high-definition (HD) encoding and transcoding for 720p and even 1080i/p output.

The need for HD encoding and transcoding is growing, as H.264’s dominance and the expansion of devices that enable users to watch both higher resolution and lower bitrate content is mushrooming. With the mobile video infrastructure experiencing rapid growth rates over the next several years despite the overall global economic slowdown, the need to send content to digital cinemas, IPTVs, desktops, and mobile devices will require specialized solutions in both encoding and transcoding.

According to In-Stat’s Gerry Kaufhold, even out-of-band mobile content delivery will benefit from encoding and transcoding solutions.

"In spite of the present economic turmoil, consumer interest in mobile video is growing," says Kaufhold, "and service providers must build infrastructure to be in position when consumer demand recovers. Europe is the largest region for transmission revenue due to the number of countries that have launched, or plan to launch, mobile-specific out-of-band broadcast networks. Mobile video headends will drive growth for encoders and transcoders to support an increasing number of video channels and display sizes. When the Mobile Internet hits its stride, we’ll see online videos being repurposed for mobile devices."

With the U.S. expected to remain on track to begin deployments of ATSC mobile and hand-held services during 2009 and MediaFLO continuing to expand its market base via the addition of support for many new handsets, In-Stat suggests that mobile video infrastructure revenues alone will reach $291 million in 2012, with transmission network buildouts and mobile-video headends generating a significant share of the revenue increase.

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