One essential element for live streaming is functional live stream encoding software (or hardware). Encoding software is a tool that transcodes video from one format to another. An encoder allows you to capture video content coming from a source you previously selected (your webcam, a camera, or your phone). Then the encoder allows you to send this content to your online video platform to stream to all your viewers via its CDN network.
Encoding software is the most popular encoder among our broadcasters here at Dacast. The encoding software presented here is RTMP-compatible, which means they work with most video streaming platforms.
This article has been updated for 2020 and will guide you through what exactly encoding software is, and walk you through the process of selecting the right software encoder based on your streaming needs.
Table of Contents:
- What is Encoding Software?
- Hardware vs. Software Encoders
- Various Use Cases for Video Encoding Software
- Popular Encoding Software Comparison
- Key Encoding Software Features
- Fitting Your Budget
What is Encoding Software?
Encoding software is a tool that converts video files from one format to another. An encoder takes the RAW video files and converts them to digital files.
Software encoders work in real-time to send your stream from your recording device to your content delivery network for live broadcasting.
Hardware vs. Software Encoders
Before we get into it, we should highlight the distinction between hardware and software encoders.
Hardware encoders are dedicated devices, built for the singular purpose of live streaming. They come in various sizes ranging from rack mounts and mobile units.
Hardware encoders generally have more reliable operation. They can also include some cool functionality. For example, TeraDek’s line of mobile encoders allows you to use cellular bonding technology. This enables live streaming on-the-go. That’s ideal for breaking news, outdoor sports, and more.
The bottom line is that encoding software is a cheaper alternative to encoding hardware. Software encoders are considered slightly less efficient than their hardware counterpart, but they provide great value for their price.
Various Use Cases for Video Encoding Software
There is a wide variety of encoding software on the market today, including for video. They share many similarities in design and basic function. However, different users will prefer different applications.
For example, some of the types of encoding software we’ll examine here are studio products. These are designed for demanding users with powerful hardware, multiple monitors, and professional video.
Other encoding software is designed for new broadcasters and small businesses getting started with live video streaming.
Part of the challenge involves figuring out exactly what your needs are and then matching those needs with the appropriate product. For experienced streamers, that process may be fairly easy, but for those new to live streaming, it can be a challenge.
For that reason, we recommend taking advantage of the free trials offered for most encoding software. These trials usually include most of the features, though they often include a digital watermark on output live channels.
Nonetheless, running through test streams using these products while comparing several unique options can help you get a real-world feel for which encoding software is the best fit for you.
Popular Encoding Software Comparison
Before we move further, let’s take a look at a list of popular encoding software. While this list isn’t exhaustive, it does include some of the most popular options among our community of broadcasters.
The types of encoding software we’re going to talk about are all RTMP-compatible, which means they work with most video streaming platforms.
1. OBS Studio
OBS Studio is a free and open-source option that’s excellent for beginning live streamers. It’s expandable with a variety of plugins and has a robust community for support and questions. It is supported on Mac, Windows, and Linux PCs.
vMix is a professional-grade switching and streaming application. It’s constantly being updated with new features and is widely used across the industry. It’s available on Windows PCs. The prices range from free up to $1200 for a “Pro” version.
Wirecast is an accessible, capable encoding software from the company Telestream. It’s available on Windows PCs and Mac. Wirecast includes regular updates and a wide range of features, from instant replay to integrated video conferencing. Wirecast is available in two versions: Studio and Pro, which includes additional functionality.
VidBlasterX is another live video encoding software and mixer. It’s a highly capable, expandable, and customizable product. VidBlasterX is organized into a series of modules, which can be added, removed, and rearranged on multiple screens as needed.
Key Encoding Software Features
A great way to determine which encoding software is right for you is to look at specific features. If you have invested already in specific equipment such as cameras, computers, and capture cards, you should check compatibility.
Most encoding software websites contain information related to compatibility. Otherwise, you can contact the provider and ask directly.
Here are some of the more common features that you may require. This list also includes whether or not each feature is available on the live streaming software we’re considering here.
1. Instant Replay and Scoreboards
These features are absolutely essential for sports streaming of any kind. For each encoder specifically:
- OBS Studio supports instant replay via a plugin. A scoreboard plugin is also available.
- vMix Pro includes built-in support for instant replay. All versions include several scoreboard templates. You can also create your own.
- Wirecast supports instant replay and includes scoreboard templates that you can customize yourself.
- VidBlasterX supports this functionality via dedicated Replay and Scoreboard modules.
2. NDI Support
NDI, or Network Device Interface, is a NewTek technology designed specifically for broadcasting.
It allows you to easily pass video feeds and other data between multiple computers on the same network. This allows you to offload tasks like generating graphics to external computers.
3. Multi-Bitrate Streaming
When streaming, the internet speed of your viewers is always a consideration. The best way to provide a great viewing experience to everyone is by streaming in multiple bitrates at once.
All the products here are capable of multi-bitrate streaming. However, OBS Studio’s support for this is limited and involves complex configuration. For more information on how to get the best live video streaming experience, check out this post on getting started with video software for multi-bitrate streaming.
4. Operating Systems Compatibility
Another important consideration is compatibility with operating systems.
VidBlasterX and vMix are Windows-only applications. Wirecast is compatible with both Mac and Windows. OBS Studio is the only program here that works on Mac, Windows, and Linux.
5. Video Conferencing
One common situation for live broadcasting is sharing a conversation between multiple people. If they’re in remote locations, the best way to do this is via video conferencing software or virtual events. Think Zoom, Skype, or Facetime, but for broadcasting.
vMix and Wirecast both have robust, integrated tools for video conferencing in a live stream.
Unfortunately, VidBlasterX and OBS Studio don’t have native support for video conferencing. However, both of these tools allow you to bring in video conferences via external applications. For more information and options, check out our post comparing the top live streaming software for video conferencing.
Fitting Your Budget
Cost is always a consideration when making a decision for your business. You want to invest in an encoding tool that gives you the most value for what you pay.
Thankfully, free offerings like OBS Studio allow users to test out basic functionality. From there you can determine what additional features you may need.
If plugins can’t provide this, professional-grade encoding software is now quite affordable.
As we’ve discussed, encoding software is more capable and versatile than ever. This technology is rapidly developing and we’re in a great customer-centric market.
Features are improving and prices are stable or dropping. Most people can now purchase and operate a professional-quality and easy-to-use broadcasting software application.
If you are a Dacast user, we highly recommend checking out our custom OBS Studio portal that was designed to work hand-in-hand with our streaming solution.
Not yet streaming with Dacast, and ready to give our video streaming software a try? Click the button below to take advantage of our 30-day free trial (no credit card required) and start streaming live today!
We hope this article has helped you to both better understand and to distinguish between encoding software. For regular tips on live streaming, you’re welcome to join our LinkedIn group. Any questions or comments? Let us know! We love to hear from you, our readers. Sound off in the comments section, below. We’ll get back to you as soon as we can. Thanks for reading, and, as always, good luck with your live streams!