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The 2008 Encoder Shootout

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Surprisingly, given the poor Windows Media results experienced with Telestream Episode Pro, the Flip4Mac QuickTime Export Component that I rendered in Compressor produced very good results. Compressor found the highest percentage of keyframes in the scenes I analyzed (5 of 6, or 83%), and quality was nearly identical to the Windows Media Encoder. Semaphore revealed that the average data rate hovered nicely around the target, with the highest data spike at only 570Kbps, so the file should stream effectively.

Regarding Flash encoding, features vary by QuickTime Export Component. If you use the Adobe Flash Export Component, you’re limited to single-pass encoding, but you can produce files with an alpha channel. The Flix Exporter module also can produce an alpha channel, but it offers single- and dual-pass VBR and CBR. I checked the quality of the file produced by the Flix plug-in and found it equal to that produced by Flix Pro.

Grass Valley ProCoder 3
Grass Valley ProCoder ($499) is fast, offers extensive automation features, and it produces high-quality output in all tested formats. The only real negative is ease of use, which trails both Episode Pro and Sorenson Squeeze, plus the lack of a Macintosh version.

Though ProCoder is Windows-only, anyone with network access can encode with ProCoder by dropping a file in watch folder on a Windows computer. ProCoder can also create droplets for drag-and-drop encoding of files to multiple targets. Combined with batch operation in the main program itself, ProCoder offers the most flexible automation options in its class.

Grass Valley offers no direct upgrade paths for more industrial-strength encoding. However, ProCoder is developed by Rhozet, which also offers Carbon Coder, which essentially uses ProCoder as the front end for distributed encoding via server farms. You’ll have to pay full price for Carbon Coder, but you’ll know what you’re doing right away.

If ease of use is your most important buying criterion, ProCoder is probably not for you. Though the basic premise is simple—a 3-tab interface for choosing your source, targets, and converting—ProCoder sticks many encoding parameters in various nooks and crannies, and uses third-party interfaces for some codecs, including Flash, so you end up producing FLV files via a QuickTime Export Module, which is hardly intuitive. There are two encoding workflows, one in ProCoder, and a more efficient workflow using a separate program called the Queue Manager, with the latter being much more efficient with multiprocessor computers. Interestingly, you can batch encode multipass H.264 files in the latter but not the former, an undocumented fact of life I learned only by calling tech support. Finally, most previews show some form of letterboxing, even if they’re not in the final file, which is confusing and frustrating if you’re trying to convert from 16:9 to 4:3 or perform a similar operation.

All that said, learning how to use the program is tedious rather than daunting, and once you’ve figured out the basics you’re rewarded with a high-performance, high-quality experience. This starts with deinterlacing quality, which is superior to Squeeze, though clearly behind Episode Pro. While batch encoding with the Queue Manager, ProCoder is very efficient, encoding multiple jobs in parallel rather than serially like most other batch encoders. It’s the only Windows encoder that comes close to maxing out the Dual Processor, Quad Core HP xw8400 workstation I used for most testing.

Windows Media performance is very good, with quality that is on par with the Windows Media Encoder. According to Semaphore, the average data rate hovered nicely around the target, with a maximum spike up to 640Kbps (from the 468Kbps target), a bit more than the Windows Media Encoder, but probably not enough to interrupt playback in most environments. ProCoder did drop a few frames during encoding, but it wasn’t significant.

Note that the Flash encoder included with ProCoder uses the Flash 7 codec, while you’ll need VP6 for most applications. So you’ll need to purchase, install, and figure out the workflow for On2’s $199 Flix Exporter (think QuickTime Export), but once you do, you’ll produce a file that matches Flix Pro in quality and data rate.

ProCoder uses the Apple H.264 codec, which means five passes, but very good quality, though trailing Squeeze during scenes with high motion. As discussed above, you’ll have issues attempting to batch-encode multipass H.264 files within ProCoder, and even in the Queue Manager, it will probably take several tries to hit your data rate target.

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