Best Resolution for Live Streaming and Suggested H.264 Encoder Settings

best resolution for streaming h.264

H.264 is a next-generation protocol for high definition video compression. Most newer encoders today are compatible with this protocol and suitable for live streaming with compact files. 

In most cases, particularly if you want to stream the best, highest-quality video content, you will want to use this protocol.

Encoders allow for a fairly wide range of settings for video resolution quality, frame rate, audio bitrate and other variables, as well as protocol, bitrate encoding type, pixel aspect ratio and so on. 

With all of this in mind, you’re likely wondering what the best settings are for live streaming.

In this post, we will cover what an encoder is, how encoder settings relate to internet speed, the best resolution for live streaming and other suggested encoder settings for streaming with the H.264 codec.

Table of Contents:

  • What is an Encoder and What Does it Do?
  • Choosing Encoder Settings Based on Internet Speed
  • Best Video Resolution Settings for Live Streaming
  • Other Recommended Encoder Settings
  • Conclusion

What is an Encoder and What Does it Do?

What is an Encoder?
An encoder is absolutely essential for professional broadcasting.

An encoder is an essential tool for professional live streaming. It takes the RAW video files from your camera and converts them to files suitable for streaming over the internet.

There are both hardware and software encoders. Each of these options come with their own pros and cons. Generally, software encoders are much cheaper and easier to use. On the other hand, hardware encoders are dedicated devices, so they tend to be better at their job.

We recommend starting out with a free encoder, such as OBS Studio, to familiarize yourself with the different encoding features before making a larger investment in an encoder with advanced capabilities. 

As we mentioned, the settings that we review in this post are specifically for H.264 encoding. H.264 is the optimal codec for live video streaming, so we will be talking about encoders that are compatible with this protocol.

Choosing Encoder Settings Based on Internet Speed

The average download speed in the United States varies widely by state. Even within one state, individuals likely have different download speeds available depending on what service they are using for internet connection. 

It is important to keep in mind that many people will view your broadcast from free WiFi connections or over 4G and LTE smartphones. Those tend to be a bit slower than high-speed home connections. 

You should be streaming with the video resolution and other encoder settings that will work best for the internet speed that your viewers have access to. To determine which settings are best, you should identify where your viewers live and what kind of connection and hardware they’ll be using.

However, if you know that your audience has the technical ability to handle HD quality broadcasting, it’s also a good idea to know what settings will optimize that experience for them.

Best Video Resolution Settings for Live Streaming

Best Resolution for Live Streaming
Configuring your video resolution settings requires a bit of compromise.

When it comes to live streaming, it is typically believed that higher resolution equates to a better quality viewing experience on any given platform. However, this is not entirely true.

Live streaming requires a trade-off between video quality and speed. This has to do with the fact that a higher resolution also requires higher bandwidth to stream the video effectively.

Two common resolution settings for streaming are standard definition at 720 x 480 pixels (480p) and high definition at 1920 x 1080 pixels (1080p). In practice, this usually gets sampled down to a somewhat lower resolution, 640 x 360 pixels (360p), or smaller. 

Please keep in mind that most resolutions are communicated based on their height, which is why it’s common to see HD TVs billed as 1080p.

It’s always necessary to consider data rate and resolution together, as the one limits the other. Streaming at a higher data rate allows higher resolution. 

It’s also important to consider the download rate for viewers. For high definition streaming, all of your viewers should have an effective download rate of at least 5 Mbps. 

Higher bandwidth is a good idea. This is all possible with high-speed internet connections, which typically run at over 100 Mbps. 

Most encoders allow settings of 1080p, 720p, 480p, 360p and 240 pixels (height) and corresponding width. Setting this to the highest resolution that your internet can handle allows recipients to view the video in the best quality without buffering.

It’s possible to broadcast simultaneously in SD and HD, but this requires sending two streams to your host service. It does not affect the download bandwidth requirement but does require more upload speed than a single transmission.

Suggested H.264 Resolution and Bitrate for Different Streaming Qualities

h.264 encoder / codec
H.264, also known as MPEG-4 Part 10, is a video compression standard for high-definition digital video which defines multiple profiles.

Here are the suggested resolutions for streaming in ultra-low definition, low definition, standard definition, high definition, and full high definition. As you will see, we’ve also listed the video bitrate and H.246 profile that corresponds with each resolution.

Please select one of the following live stream encoder configurations and ensure your encoder is set up with these exact settings to help prevent streaming issues:

ULD LD SD HD FHD
Name Ultra-Low Definition Low Definition Standard Definition High Definition Full High Definition
Video Bitrate (kbps) 350 350 – 800 800 – 1200 1200 – 1900 1900 – 4500
Resolution Width (px) 426 640 854 1280 1920
Resolution Height (px) 240 360 480 720 1080
H.264 Profile Main Main High High High

Other Recommended Encoder Settings

encoder for live streaming
Your encoder settings will determine the quality of your live stream.

Resolution is simply one of many encoder settings that you can use to control the quality of your live stream.

We’d like to point out that there’s no single set of best H.264 encoder settings for live streaming. However, your choices are limited not only by your own upload bandwidth but also by the connection speed available to your viewers. 

That said, here is an overview of some of the suggested settings for streaming with an H.264 encoder.

Bitrate Settings

Bitrate refers to the rate of data transmission. The main thing to keep in mind is that you need a higher bitrate setting to effectively broadcast at higher definition and frame rate. Transmitting HD video at a low bitrate is pointless since the transmission speed won’t allow the high quality you’re looking for.

For bitrates, you have to walk a tightrope between video quality and user experience. There is a hack to navigate this issue with grace. 

Multi-bitrate streaming allows you to stream at different bitrates so that users with different internet speeds

For example, you can stream in high definition at 2MB per second alongside a standard definition 500kbps feed. That way you can cater to both an optimal quality and optimal user experience, depending on their connection speed. 

However, please note that multi-bitrate streaming requires a very fast upload speed. You’ll want to make sure your upload speed is double the total bitrate you plan to stream at. Another general rule of thumb is to offer your bitrate at something lower than 1MB per second if you are only doing a single bitrate stream.

Frame Rate Settings

what is frame rate
Frame rate measures how many frames (or images) are transmitted per second.

The other main variable setting is the frame rate. This is the number of “frames,” or distinct images, that are transmitted each second. 

Videos may look like smooth moving images, but they are actually a whole lot of still shots that are presented to your eyes at a rapid speed, so as to create the illusion of motion. 

As with resolution, there’s a trade-off between higher frame rates, which improve video quality, and higher bandwidth requirements. Most streaming video today has a frame rate of 24 frames per second (fps) or higher, with video running at 60 fps is at the very high end and rarely used. Dropping it much below 24 fps results in significant choppiness especially when fast motion is shown. 

That said, 30 fps is the standard, which is often called a full frame. This is the general frame rate seen for a lot of televised content. Therefore 30 fps works as a good base, and if the motion does not look as smooth as desired, it can be slowly adjusted until the playback is optimal.

You can use a feature called “variable bitrate streaming” to adjust the rate automatically in order to have the best image even if there is a lot happening on the screen. 

A related setting is keyframe frequency or keyframe interval. This should be set to 2 or 3 seconds in every scenario.

Additional Settings

Besides resolution and frame rate, your encoding software allows you to set the streaming protocol, video codec (H.264), audio codec and other parameters for how the video and audio content is encoded and broadcast. 

Most of these other settings don’t affect video quality or bandwidth requirements in the same way as resolution and frame rate. Instead, they should be set to whatever your streaming platform requires.

Please check out our guide to live streaming encoder configurations for more information on encoder settings.

Conclusion

PHOTO: https://www.istockphoto.com/photo/camera-lens-gm502148212-81732227

CAPTION: Are you ready to set up your encoder?

 

Setting up your encoder may seem a little daunting at first, but it shouldn’t be. There are two main things to remember. 

One is the trade-off between video quality (as determined by resolution and frame rate) and required bandwidth for both upload and download streaming. The other thing to keep in mind is your streaming platform and any required protocols for that. 

Once you have the settings figured out and tested, you can leave them alone unless something significant changes.

As we mentioned, a free encoding software is your best bet if you are new to professional broadcasting. We recommend the OBS Studio version that is customized to integrate seamlessly with the Dacast streaming solution.

To try OBS Studio with Dacast free of charge, we recommend taking advantage of our 30 day risk-free trial.

All you have to do to get started is sign up today. No credit card required.

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