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.
Live encoding software is the most popular encoder among our broadcasters here at Dacast. The top software encoders presented here is RTMP-enabled, which means they work with most video streaming platforms.
This article has been updated for 2021 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 live streaming needs.
Table of Contents:
- What is Encoding Software?
- Hardware vs. Software Encoders
- Various Use Cases for Video Encoding Software
- Key Software Encoding Features
- Comparison of the Best Encoding Software in 2021
- 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.
Software encoders are video conversion programs that run on a local computer. These software solutions have graphic interfaces to manage the conversion process and allow control over elements such as bitrate and stream quality.
Software encoders are appealing because of their low cost and ease of operation. They also support future performance enhancements as the software can be upgraded as new features or product versions are released.
However, the main drawback is that software encoders are not dedicated devices. Computers are designed for multitasking and perform multiple actions at once. They lack the robustness and speed of hardware devices since they cannot dedicate their full resources to the live stream encoding process.
The bottom line is that software encoding is a cheaper alternative to their hardware equivalents. 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 video encoding software on the market today, including for live video. They share many similarities in design and basic function. However, different users will prefer different applications.
For example, some of the types of live 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 software encoding. 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 program is the best fit for you.
Key Software Encoding Features
A great way to determine which is the best encoding software 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 software encoding 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 virtual live streaming conferences via external applications. For more information and options, check out our post comparing the top live streaming software for video conferencing.
Comparison of the Best Encoding Software in 2021
Now that we have outlined the specific encoding software features to look for, let’s take a look at a list of popular live streaming software. While this list isn’t exhaustive, it does include some of the most popular encoder options among our community of broadcasters.
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.
Previously known as Open Broadcaster Studio, is an open-source platform with encoding capabilities. This is a software encoder and this comparison is based on the latest version of the classic OBS Studio Version 26.1.1 released on January 11, 2021, for free download. This professional video streaming and broadcasting software are available for both macOS and Windows operating systems.
OBS Studio offers many great features for new broadcasters who are just getting the hang of live streaming. The software has a set of OBS specific settings and system requirements to ensure the most optimal live broadcasting experience.
Advanced features of this streaming encoder software include:
- Real-time video/audio capturing and mixing
- Unlimited number of scenes and custom transitions
- Intuitive audio mixer
- Modular “Dock” UI
- HLS Live streaming and recording functionality
- Audio and video mixing, filters, and transitions
- Support for hotkeys
- Chroma key / green screen support
- Scenes allow you to prepare overlays in advance for rapid switching
- Support for a wide range of video, audio, and image sources, as well as screenshots
- Expandable via plugins to add NDI functionality, remote control via WebSockets, advanced scene switching, and more
- One notable negative is that OBS Studio does not offer multi-bitrate streaming
- Detailed wiki and highly active user forum for support/help. Many YouTube tutorials are available as well.
- Free to use
- Works with most OVPs
- Works with Windows 8, 8.1, and 10; macOS 10.12+; as well as Linux
- Is open-source for ongoing development and crowdsourced improvements
- Great for beginners
- Lack of detailed guidance and support
- Very basic compatibility with macOS
- Very taxing on CPU and memory
OBS Studio is free to use for everyone and has a working integration with Dacast.
Best Use Case:
OBS Studio is best used as an encoding software along with a professional online video platform.
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.
vMix offers an array of video streaming tool plans. They offer a wide range of features at different price points, so there are options for broadcasters of every level of expertise. vMix offers powerful encoding services.
- Support for a wide range of inputs including webcams, cameras, capture cards, DVDs, soundcards, playlists, photos, PPT presentations, and more
- NDI support
- Chroma key and virtual sets
- Built-in titling tool that supports animation via XAML
- Live streaming platform integrations (including with the Dacast streaming platform)
- vMix Social allows you to pull and display content from popular social media platforms
- Instant replay, slow motion, and scoreboards
- Training videos available
- vMix “reference systems” ease difficulty around building a custom live production system
- Many powerful features
- Reliable customer support
- Professional platform
- Added speed for specialized codecs
- A high price point for most inclusive plans
- Only works with Windows
- A bit tricky to use
vMix is available for Windows computers only, and it comes in five different editions. Each purchase never expires, and all editions include free updates for a year. The versions are:
- Basic (free), which supports 4 (up to 2 camera/NDI) inputs and video up to 768 x 576 resolution
- Basic HD ($60), which supports 4 inputs (up to 3 camera/NDI) and video up to Full HD 1920×1080 resolution
- HD ($350), which supports 1,000 inputs, adds vMix call functionality, 4 overlay channels, and supports full HD video in 1920×1080 resolution
- 4K ($700), which supports 1,000 inputs, 4K resolution video (4096 x 2160), PTZ control, 2 recorders, instant replay, 4 SRT outputs, and much more
- Pro ($1200), which also supports 1,000 inputs, includes all 4K features and 2 records, plus up to 8 callers, up to 4 cameras for instant replay, and 4 SRT outputs
Best Use Case
vMix is best used as an encoding tool alongside a professional online video platform.
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.
Wirecast supports live video compositing via a “layers” architecture similar to many graphics programs. The encoder facilitates live switching, picture-in-picture composition, titles, audio delay, and many other fine-tuning compositional elements.
Wirecast’s video encoder software makes it easy to incorporate pre-recorded video content into your broadcast. It also supports the encoding of HD and SD sources for streams broadcast simultaneously to multiple servers and platforms.
The Wirecast Pro enhanced program adds several other specialized features, including:
- Live scoreboards
- Virtual 3D
- Use of IP cameras and web streams
- 8-track audio output
These advanced features of Wirecast Pro make it a better choice than the basic Wirecast program for most live-streamed events. With all those features, Wirecast’s biggest downside may be the price. To start, you can download a free trial version of the basic software.
- Input sources from cameras, mics, webcams, IP cameras, capture cards, and desktops
- Ideal for sports: instant replay, scoreboards, clocks, and timers
- The free wireless camera app allows you to use any iOS device as a video source
- NDI support
- Graphics and titling tool
- Audio mixer and up to 8 audio tracks
- Built-in video conference tool
- Stream to more than one destination simultaneously
- Support for MIDI hardware controllers
- Stream and record simultaneously, with re-stream and live captions options
- Multiple bitrate streaming
- Integrates with Facebook Live and Twitter for sharing comments on-screen
- Includes instant replay, scoreboard, and timers for sports
- Free wireless camera app turns iOS devices into mobile live video sources
- Stream to multiple destinations simultaneously
- Integrated video chat via “Wirecast Rendezvous”
- Local program output
The latest version of Wirecast is 14.1. It is the newest full version and was released on January 25, 2021. It features several enhancements and fixes, including FBLive polling, re-written WebStream plugin, and Virtual Camera improvements. To know more about it, you can check out its tech specs here.
- Easy-to-use, user-friendly platform
- Compatible with most popular operating systems
- Fully loaded with valuable features
- High price point
- Many features locked in the “Studio” version
- Consumes a lot of computer memory
The software comes in two versions:
- Wirecast Studio for enhanced live production & streaming: pricing is $599 with a free trial
- Wirecast Pro for advanced live production and streaming: pricing is $799 which also comes with a free trial
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.
They offer three packages: VidblasterX Home, VidBlasterX Studio, and VidBlasterX Broadcast. The main difference between each version is the number of modules each supports. Each successive module also adds additional advanced features pro broadcasters will appreciate.
VidBlasterX Home is a basic product. It supports up to 7 modules. VidBlasterX Studio has several features for studio production of videos (hence the name) and allows for more versatile video. The Studio version supports HD and full-screen television-quality production, as well as community support. VidBlasterX Broadcast incorporates all the features of VidBlaster Studio, adds more module capacity, and is recommended for professional broadcast studios. With Broadcast, you get direct email support from the developer.
- Modular user interface; everything is customizable
- Includes macro and scripting functionality to automate or hot-key actions
- Supports overlays and lower thirds
- Chroma key support
- Live streaming and recording up to 4K resolution
- Compatible with social media platforms as well as most OVPs, including Dacast with a direct integration
- Audio mixer
- Multiview support
- Has plans for a wide range of budgets
- Easily customizable
- Not compatible with macOS
- Not well-suited for inexperienced live streamers
- Slightly complex
VidBlasterX is available in three versions. Each of the following options is priced with an annual subscription model:
- The Home version ($9/year) supports 7 modules.
- The Studio version ($99/year) supports 25 modules.
- The Broadcast version ($999/year) supports 100 modules. This version also supports multiple recorder & streamer modules in a single profile.
First, the difference between the versions is the number of simultaneously active modules you can have. The Home editions support up to seven modules, enough for basic live streaming. The Studio edition supports up to 25 modules, and the Broadcast edition supports 50 modules. These higher limits allow professional users with multiple monitors to set up and oversee complex workflows.
Additionally, the Broadcast edition also supports UDP streaming, multiple streaming sources, and recorder modules in a single profile, and includes priority support.
5. Dacast’s Live Streaming Software
While Dacast is not just encoding software, it supports live encoding and transcoding. Dacast is equipped with the tools you need to host and your video content. The unified live streaming platform integrates with all 4 of the software encoders above: OBS Studio, VidBlasterX, vMix, and Wirecast to provide the resources you need for a high-quality broadcast.
Dacast provides comprehensive live streaming and online video hosting services. Broadcasters who use this streaming solution maintain 100% ownership of their content.
Among other features, Dacast offers an integrated paywall, password protection, referrer restriction, and an analytics dashboard.
Dacast is compatible with both macOS and Windows.
Some of the key features include:
- Secure, global content delivery, including industry-best video hosting
- 24/7 tech support with all plans, including email and live chat
- Video security features, including password protection and encryption
- Live encoding support for the top video encoders
- Low latency HTML5 channels for video streaming
- RTMP Encoder for ingesting HLS streaming
- Player API access for 3rd party player integration
- Video API access on premium plans (event and scale)
- Multi-bitrate streaming
- Real-time analytics
- Ad-free streaming
- Unlimited concurrent viewers and live channels
- White-label video streaming solutions
- Unlimited live channels
- Embeddable HTML5 video player
- SVOD, AVOD, and TVOD monetization options
- Mobile device support
- Live stream recording
- China Video Hosting
- Plans for every budget
- Requires a bit of a learning curve
Dacast’s plans start at $39/month and come with all the features required for professional broadcasting. Plans include:
- Starter Plan: $39/month (includes 1,000 GB of bandwidth & 50 GB of storage)
- Event Plan: $63/month (includes 6 TB of bandwidth upfront and 50 GB of storage)
- Scale Plan: $188/month (includes 24 TB of bandwidth per year and 1 TB of storage)
- Custom plan: Contact us for custom pricing plans
You can try all of these features 100% risk-free for 30 days with the Dacast free trial.
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 live 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 programs. For regular tips on live streaming, you’re welcome to join our LinkedIn group.
Please note that this post was originally written by Max Wilbert. It was revised by Emily Krings to include the most up-to-date information. Emily is a strategic content writer and storyteller. She specializes in helping businesses create blog content that connects with their audience.