Buyers' Guide to Encoding 2017
With audio and video capture integrated into a device, the rest of the equation is a proper application (for desktops or laptops) or app (for mobile devices) to encode the primary audio and video feeds. Some operating systems even have the software built in, while others may choose to bundle a third-party app.
If the built-in or bundled app doesn’t suit your needs, there are plenty of encoding tools to choose from. GoCoder from Wowza is one example; it uses the Android or iOS device to encode and stream directly to a Wowza Streaming Engine (media server) with a single-click recording capability.
Even computers that don’t have built-in cameras and microphones have inexpensive options. The most ubiquitous of these hybrid encoding solutions—marrying commodity processing with specialized, external capture devices—uses the operating system’s built-in support for USB-based video and audio inputs. Whether it’s older DirectX or newer WebRTC or even foundational AV support in the OS, this hybrid approach is used for anything from simple, single-stream delivery to more complex streams that include video mixing and graphics insertion via a third-party application.
A number of add-on solutions for audio streaming have emerged for mobile devices, taking advantage of Apple’s Lightning connector or the universally available micro USB connector found on almost all non-Apple smartphones and tablets. The audio gear can range from simple plug-in microphones the size of a thumbtack to multichannel audio mixers designed for the multiple lavalier or handheld mics needed for a live roundtable or podcast.
If integrated solutions are software-driven streaming tools, and hybrid solutions are a combination of commodity computing and USB-based add-on capture devices, then the logical next step is dedicated streaming appliances.
The appliance section of the encoding marketplace comes in three different flavors: rack-mounted, portable, and wireless.
Rack-mounted streaming appliances range from server-sized devices, which often need more than one rack unit (e.g., 1.75") and can be 25" in depth. These devices are most often used for high-density encoding—where one appliance will encode multiple streams simultaneously so that the packaging and segmentation of adaptive bitrate (ABR) delivery can be done on the appliance—or as a way to combine the encoder and media server capabilities together.
An example of this latter type of device is the NewTek MediaDS line (such as the MDS 1) that is slightly deeper than an AV device but much shorter than a traditional server.
Portable appliances often contain a screen and one or more audio and video capture cards. Some have touch-sensitive screens, allowing for video mixing and simple switching between video inputs, and a few even allow for mixing of the multiple audio inputs in a virtual audio mixer that outputs the audio mix down as a mono or stereo stream.
There are also very small devices, about the size of a pack of playing cards, that have no screen but can be set up either beforehand or via the same Ethernet connection that the stream is delivered on. These “pico” devices often come without any internal fans, relying on passive ventilation and external heat sinks to dissipate energy created under load.
Wireless appliances often sit atop a camera or some other video capture device. An additional output from the video capture device is fed into the wireless streaming appliance, which either encodes the content in a standards-based streaming format—for delivery via a Wi-Fi or Bluetooth connection to a media server—or delivers an uncompressed video signal a short distance to a receiver, which itself then attaches to a traditional streaming encoder appliance.
There are a number of variations of these three flavors of appliances, but each serves a distinct purpose in the video acquisition and production environment. Some appliances are set up to receive already encoded streams—such as an MPEG-2 Transport Stream (M2TS)—for decoding and subsequent re-encoding into a consumer streaming format.
No discussion of encoders would be complete without a mention of the “infinite encoder” solutions that are available online.
Most of these cloud-based encoders actually function as transcoders, converting from a pre-existing AVI, MOV, or MP4 file into a streaming format. A few, though, capture pure IP streams, such as those generated by an IP-based surveillance camera, as well as decoding and re-encoding M2TS streams captured via satellite downlink from major broadcasters.
Cloud-based encoders are key to the TV Everywhere and over-the-top (OTT) revolution in live-linear TV viewing on the web. Without infinitely scalable encoders in the cloud, it would be almost impossible to customize advertising to particular geographic regions or demographic niches. The trend toward hyper-personalization of video advertising will most likely be led by the 1:1 scalability of cloud-based encoding, although it remains to be seen if the processing costs and overall codec licensing fees will accommodate this trend.
We covered several key parts of the encoder buying decision but have barely scratched the surface on any of them. Resources are available at StreamingMedia.com to better assist in making the key decision: Which encoder, which form factor, and which baseline criteria are most important for your particular need?
Finally, consider this: As video resolutions continue to increase to 4K and, soon, to 8K, it’s critical to think about how long your audience will expect to view your encoded content. Some content, such as breaking news, may not have a long shelf life. Many video clips live well beyond their expectations, though, whether that’s driven by social media, ongoing consumer interest, or some current event hearkens back to content the publisher may long ago have considered worthless. Encoding at the highest possible quality will help future-proof your valuable content for years to come.
This article appears in the March 2017 issue of Streaming Media magazine.
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