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Review: Wowza ClearCaster

If you absolutely, positively have to stream a successful live event on Facebook Live, ClearCaster is very definitely worth a very hard look.

[Editor's Note: The Clearcaster Event was postponed until January 24. You can watch that interview and read the transcript here.]

Wowza ClearCaster is a future-proof, industrial-strength hardware encoder with outstanding software robustness with its interface with Facebook Live, which is just what you need when venturing into the Wild, Wild, West that still is live-event production. Though the $6,495 price tag will discourage many potential buyers, those who can afford the unit will find the reliability and performance worthwhile. For the record, for $6,495, you also get three years of updates plus dedicated 24/7 technical support.

The best way to understand ClearCaster’s feature set is to realize that its purpose built for Facebook Live. Not just the service, but to serve as the encoder in Facebook’s own studios. This means that the feature set was customized for Facebook, not to compete with other live streaming hardware encoders. As an example, most encoding appliances support local storage of archived video, either internally on a hard drive or via an external drive connected via USB. At the moment, ClearCaster doesn’t offer this feature, but probably will down the road. Similarly, the unit currently only supports Facebook Live, though this will likely change in the future.

Because Wowza’s development schedule for these features wasn’t fixed at the time we wrote the review, let me briefly outline our plans for sharing what we know about the ClearCaster unit. First, this review will discuss the results of our tests with Facebook Live, and what we know about the current feature set. On Thursday, December 14, at 2:00 PM EST, I’ll be joined on the Streaming Media Facebook account by Wowza’s Anthony Lozaro, who will lay out the development schedule for ClearCaster for the next few months, and answer any questions that you may have.

OK, on with the review.

ClearCaster Hardware

ClearCaster is a bright orange 1RU rack-mountable computer with controls on the front and I/O on the back (Figure 1, below). The unit accepts HD-SDI and HDMI input, with HDMI outputs for a monitor and USB ports for a keyboard and mouse, though you likely won’t need the keyboard and mouse since you control most operation from Facebook directly, not ClearCaster. Though the unit is WiFi-capable, it currently only supports wired Ethernet connections, and there currently are no audio inputs other than the audio coming in with the video source.

Figure 1. ClearCaster front panel

The unit can’t mix the incoming signals; it’s either HD-SDI or HDMI. With this I/O and a noisy fan, the ClearCaster was clearly built to serve as an encoder in a computer or server room, fed by a TriCaster or other hardware or software video mixer.

Formats and Services

As tested, ClearCaster supports Facebook Live only with 1080p 60 H.264 encoded output, currently the only encoder that supports larger than 720p resolution to Facebook Live. ClearCaster can accept up to 4K inputs, however, which it will transmit to Facebook Live once the service supports it. ClearCaster is ready to stream VP9 and HEVC to Facebook Live, though the service doesn’t currently support these codecs for input.

Again, while today ClearCaster broadcasts only to Facebook Live, Wowza plans to add additional destinations to the unit, with the ability to transmit the same stream to multiple destinations simultaneously, bandwidth permitting. This functionality will be critical to companies and service providers who need to support multiple social media and other outputs.

Regarding the hardware itself, the front panel contains the power switch, a small LCD panel with button controls, plus connector indicator lights on the extreme left for network, Facebook pairing, camera input, and live streaming. The back panel (Figure 2, below) contains HDMI and HD-SDI input ports, two HDMI output ports for display, and USB and keyboard connectors. During operation, you’ll almost certainly want to connect an HDMI monitor, though keyboard and mouse are definitely optional, at least for most operations.

Figure 2. ClearCaster back panel

Connecting with Facebook Live

Wowza bills ClearCaster as “incredibly simple” and it certainly is that. You set up the unit by plugging it in, connecting a monitor, and plugging in Ethernet. Turn the unit on, and it directs you to, where you enter in a code to pair the device (Figure 3, below). Then you follow a few simple menu options to pair the unit with Facebook, which allows you start broadcasts from within the Facebook Live interface.

Figure 3. Pairing the hardware

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Jan Ozer and Wowza's Anthony Lazaro discuss the development, strategy, current features, and product roadmap for the Wowza ClearCaster, including support for professional 1080p streaming to Facebook Live.
If you're an accidental (or last-minute sub) videographer charged with a live production, have a seat, bring a notepad, and live and learn.