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The 2008 Encoder Shootout

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For all the talk about codecs, CDNs, eyeballs, business models, and monetization, the actual rendering of your video file is where the rubber meets the road in the streaming video market. In this roundup, I first look at the compression capabilities for Adobe Creative Suite 3 and Apple Final Cut Studio 2. Then I review the primary multiformat batch compression tools: Grass Valley ProCoder, Sorenson Squeeze, and Telestream Episode Pro.

My primary focus is on the quality of the output produced by each tool. This includes the quality of the deinterlacing algorithms deployed by the tool and the quality of the Flash, Windows Media, and H.264 files produced by each tool.

Adobe Premiere Pro 3.1.1
Premiere Pro is the primary video production tool in the Adobe CS3 Production Premium suite, and the Adobe Media Encoder is the primary tool for producing streaming output from Premiere Pro. While the Adobe Media Encoder is certainly sufficient for casual, prototype work, the lack of automation features and several feature gaps—particularly relating to H.264 and Flash video production—make the tool less than optimal for serious streaming production.

One big gap in the Adobe offering is the total lack of automation, whether batch, droplets, or watch folders. You can encode one file at a time, and you can’t pause encoding—you have to cancel it. To be fair, most editors don’t offer encoding automation, but Apple does, with Compressor, as does Avid, by including Sorenson Squeeze 4.5 with Avid Xpress Pro. Unlike other encoding tools on the market, Adobe offers no upgrade path to a more powerful program, or hardware encoding support, or cluster encoding. It is what it is, and that’s it.

Format support is good on the Windows version of CS3, where you can produce Windows Media, Flash, QuickTime, and RealVideo files. On the Mac, however, you can output only Flash and QuickTime; RealVideo and particularly Windows Media users will need to seek a third-party solution.

Adobe’s workflow can be confusing to newbies, but most users should quickly be able to master what to do and where. The first challenge is which export function to use. After adding the Adobe Media Encoder, Adobe retained the File > Export > Movie function, which can produce AVI, QuickTime, and a few other file types. I use this as the preferred workflow when producing intermediate files for encoding elsewhere, but I use File > Export > Adobe Media Encoder for all streaming production.

Premiere Pro’s deinterlacing and scaling quality is generally good, but there are higher-quality solutions out there, including Compressor at its glacial "Best" deinterlacing setting and Telestream Episode Pro. Enabling deinterlacing can be a challenge, though things appear to be cleared up in Premiere Pro CS3.

Specifically, in previous versions, the deinterlace checkbox in the Adobe Media Encoder (and the Make Movie function) often didn’t work with video produced with progressive presets, and this seemed dependent upon the selected output format. Even in CS3, through version 3.1.1, deinterlacing doesn’t appear to be working in the preview, though the Encoder does actually deinterlace when producing all formats. For previous versions, often you had to deinterlace on the timeline by right-clicking the video, choosing Field Options, and then choosing the Always Deinterlace option.

Ironically, though Windows Media is clearly the least likely format that Adobe would want to push their users towards, it’s the best-supported format of the big three. The feature set is complete, including the ability to produce multiple-bitrate files, and the quality is competitive, though definitely a step behind the leaders in high-motion footage. As with all encoders, I analyzed Windows Media (and H.264 files) in Inlet Technologies Semaphore, a video analysis tool which revealed that Adobe inserted keyframes at 67% of scene changes that I checked, same as the Windows Media Encoder and second only to Compressor. The data rate peak was about 570Kbps, compared to 590Kbps for the Windows Media Encoder, indicating a relatively smooth file that should stream and play effectively.

In contrast, the Adobe Media Encoder has a number of issues with H.264 production, including some potential showstoppers. By way of background, in the Encoder, you can produce H.264 files using one of two "formats," with the H.264 format producing MP4 files, and the QuickTime format producing MOV files. The H.264 option provides more extensive encoding parameters, but can’t produce files that are hinted for streaming. Neither alternative lets you elect the Fast Start option, so files produced via the Adobe Media Encoder won’t progressively download; they’ll start playing only once fully downloaded.

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