Software vs. Hardware Encoders for Live Video Streams

software vs. hardware encoders for live video streams

Not clear on the distinction between live broadcast software vs. hardware encoders for live video streams?

Well, today’s your lucky day!

When it comes to streaming solutions, it’s important to understand encoders to choose the right method for your broadcasts. In this post, we’ll discuss the ins and outs of encoders from the ground up. In particular, we’ll cover popular hardware and software encoders, as well as which scenarios work best for each encoding option.

First, however, let’s review the basics of encoders, before turning to software vs. hardware encoders for live video streams.

What is an encoder?

In essence, encoders are devices that convert data from one format to another. They can be either hardware or software-based. Either way, encoders are essential to converting the video feed from your camera to streamable data.

software vs. hardware encoders for live video streamsToday, the most popular format for converted data is RTMP (Real Time Messaging Protocol). Once set up, your encoder takes the necessary format and converts it into codecs through a compression/decompression process. For example, H.264 is the standard streaming protocol for internet sources. It is also the recommended video compression format for HD streaming. Why? The H.264 protocol can create what’s called ‘loss-less compression.’ For audio-only streaming, there are two popular choices: MP3 (MPEG Audio Layer III) and AAC (Advanced Audio Coding).

Key encoding takeaways:

To format live content, do secure video upload, and stream it properly, you need to convert that content into codecs with an encoder. Regardless of your streaming goals, this is true for all kinds of live streaming. For example, you need to compare software vs. hardware encoders for live video streams of sports, conferences, and everything in between!

Now that you know what an encoder does, let’s take a closer look at the two different types of encoders: hardware and software.

Software encoders

First up, software encoders are programs that run on a computing device. For example, this device could be your laptop or a desktop computer.

encoding softwareIn terms of software vs. hardware encoders for live streams, the quality of software encoders is great. In addition, you can tweak or change most aspects of the codecs (compressors/decompressors) to get the bitrate and video quality you desire. Unlike hardware encoders, you can easily update encoding software when a new version or upgrade is available.

Overall, software encoders can be appealing to broadcasters for their low cost and customization features. In fact, one popular open-source software encoders–OBS Studio–is free! Many Dacast broadcasters use OBS Studio, and it can be a great option for new broadcasters who want to learn more about encoding.

However, software encoders lack the overall latency speed that hardware encoders offer. In large part, that’s because a computer runs multiple programs at the same time, and therefore can’t devote all of its resources to encoding. With that in mind, let’s take a look at the hardware encoder alternative for more comparisons.

Hardware Encoders

Next up, hardware encoders are dedicated processors that use a designed algorithm to encode video and data into streamable content. Unlike encoding software, these encoders can come in smaller, portable boxes or larger permanent fixtures.

hardware encoderGiven their higher price-point, mainly professional broadcasters tend to use hardware encoders. They are specialized specifically for encoding, which gives them an advantage over software encoders.

That said, the video quality of hardware encoders is usually pretty fixed. In other words, there’s not a lot of room to adjust video quality with hardware encoders. Given that hardware, encoders take time to design, build, and manufacture, they are sometimes equipped with older codecs (compressors/decompressors). This renders hardware encoders very inflexible, compared to encoding software.

Overall, the higher price-point and lower latency between hardware and software encoders are one of the key differences between the two. You won’t find any free hardware encoders, though you can find some for as low as $100. Pro-grade encoders, however, are much more expensive. On the other hand, however, hardware encoders are a lot faster than their software counterparts.

Popular Software Encoders

First, note that Adobe Flash Media Live Encoder is no longer the standard when it comes to (free) encoding software. We’ve written about this in earlier blog posts, for example, this one.

software vs. hardware encoders for live video streamsAs mentioned above, OBS Studio is one popular option, particularly if you are seeking for a free software encoder. OBS offers encoding software for game recording and live streaming. It supports mixing between multiple sources and is accessible for new broadcasters. You can also check out this post about the best OBS Studio settings for broadcasting live, for more details.

Finally, Telestream Wirecast is one of the best professional level (for pay) software encoders on the market. It has features that cannot be imitated elsewhere. For example, live switching, picture-in-picture, and transitions make this an appealing option for serious broadcasters. In addition, Wirecast offers some great sports features to enhance any live sports broadcast. For example, you can insert scoreboards, live replays, and even real-time scoreboards with Wirecast encoding software.

Popular Hardware Encoders

When it comes to hardware encoders, Teradek VidiU is one of the most popular options. It allows you to live stream via the web, which means you don’t actually need a PC. Other Teradek models include the Cube, Beam, Clip, and T-Rax which are all built for different uses and projects.

For example, the Teradek Beam is a long-range encoder that can transmit data from up to 2,500 ft. away. This feature makes it ideal for live broadcasts in the field.

Also, note that NewTek TriCaster has multiple encoding models to fit your every project and need. Some popular models include the TriCaster 40, 455, 855, 8000. One of the leading innovators in all-in-one live video encoders, you can’t go wrong using one of these to monetize and produce your content.

When to use software vs. hardware encoders for live video streams?

These are by no means be-all-end-all scenarios that you have to follow. That said, they do help to provide a guideline for broadcasters who aren’t sure which route to take. If you’re oscillating between software vs. hardware encoders for live video streams, these generic categories might make your decision a bit easier.

For using a software encoder:

  • software vs. hardware encoders for live video streamsBeginning Streamers: OBS Studio is free and will allow you to get familiar with the live streaming process. It still offers a good amount of features and thousands of broadcasters from novices to experts use this software.
  • Live sporting events: Since these events take place in either a gym or a field, less equipment is ideal. You won’t need to take up much space with just your computer and camera. As mentioned above, Wirecast, in particular, has some great sports-related features.
  • Live streaming from home: If you’re a broadcaster who occasionally wants to stream live video to viewers from home, for example, you’ll likely prefer something simple and free, like OBS Studio.

For using a hardware encoder:

  • Production Companies: When you are live streaming professionally, you likely need high-quality, crisp video streams for your viewers. In that case, hardware encoders are probably the option for you. As they are built specifically for encoding, they can transmit for days with minimal issues. That said, make sure you have the budget and technical know-how to use a hardware encoder effectively.

Questions to ask when comparing software vs. hardware encoders for live video streams

Finally, let’s cover some key questions to ask yourself when weighing software vs. hardware encoders for live video streams:

  • Am I using a Professional Streaming Service?

If you’re planning on using a streaming platform, like Dacast, check to see which encoders are compatible with that service. Most use a standard format such as RTMP. In rare cases, a platform may have its own encoder, For the most part, however, you’ll find format-based encoder recommendations from your chosen OVP.

  • Will I need a portable encoder?

software vs. hardware encoders for live video streamsDifferent events call for specific encoder requirements. Software encoders are preferable, in that they only require your laptop at the venue and are easy to set up.

For hardware encoders, it’s typical that broadcasters want the ability to transfer them easily between venues. The long-range of Teradek’s Beam encoder, for example, can give you added mobility.

If you don’t need portability, however, there are fixed encoders that you can set up and keep stationary. This might be the case in a studio, for example. With some of the bigger encoders available, it feasible to move them just once to the venue and then set them up on site.

  • Which features will I need for my video content?

Knowing how you want your final video project to look can be an important step in choosing the right encoder. Software vs. hardware encoders for live video streams differ in the features that they provide. Likewise, each company offers different services and advantages.

Closed caption and ads, to name only two, are key features to consider. With the Wirecast encoder, ads are done by broadcasters using pre-recorded content. These pre-recorded ads are then inserted manually during the live feed.

  • What functions do I need the encoder to have?

Software encoders can come with a lot of functions useful for producing higher quality content. The right software encoder can handle multi-camera switching, title insertion, and playback on a disc-based file.

Hardware encoders, on the other hand, can be used for any multiple-camera producing content you might want to create. For context, most live broadcasts nowadays involve at least two cameras recording live content.

Conclusion

And there you have it! Now that you know some details about software vs. hardware encoders for live video streams, the decision is up to you. To reiterate, hardware encoders are more reliable, as they are built just to encode and transmit. Software encoders can run well, but their speed can depend on the of the computing device on which they’re installed. With that in mind, we hope you can make an informed decision based on affordability, required features, function and size/portability.

Envisioning your end project is key in determining what features you need from the encoder. If you’re seeking professional-grade broadcasts–which we highly recommend!–then make sure you research compatible encoders. That way, you won’t waste any time or money on an encoder that doesn’t work with your setup.

Not yet live streaming over the Dacast online video platform? Interested to give it a try? All the encoding options described above work well with the Dacast platform. Why not take advantage of our 30-day free trial (no credit card required) to test out all our great features for yourself? Simply click the button below to sign up today!

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I hope this helped you out with live stream encoders and that you find the one that fits you best! For regular tips on streaming solutions and exclusive offers, you can also join our LinkedIn group.

31 thoughts on “Software vs. Hardware Encoders for Live Video Streams

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  3. DaCast says:

    You can try using an other encoder. We usually recommend Vmix, Wirecast & OBS. The later is free and open-source but they do not offer customer support.
    You can also open a support chat on http://www.dacast.com and one of our amazing support people will help you set this up.

  4. DaCast says:

    Thank you reading us James!

    The most important when trying to stream in HD quality is your internet connection. Be sure to use an hardwired one (Ethernet cable). Indeed, WIFI tends to be less stable and your viewers might face some buffering issues.

    Other than that, 12 Cores and 1GB of GraphicRAM will be way enough.

  5. DaCast says:

    No problem James 🙂

    The upload connexion is the one that matters when broadcasting video. 13 Mbps should be enough, even if it could be enhanced.
    It could be a CODEC problem, or a sync issue like you said.

    Have you tried to reproduce this issue with an other encoder? I personally use OBS on my mac, and I never faced such lags.

    Best,

    • James Stephens says:

      Just now getting around to updating on this issue. It is fixed. It was an issue with the encoder and could not be reproduced in another encoders setting. Had to leave adobe behind for OBS as you suggested and haven’t looked back.

      I just wanted to say thanks for the replies and help you have offered.

      Cheers.

  6. Alexander Voz says:

    You are aware that Tricaster relies on Adobe Flash Media Live Encoder to do its encoding, right? It’s not a hardware encoder, and FMLE’s encoding quality is sub-par at best.

    • DaCast says:

      Thank you reading us Alexander. It is true that FMLE does not fit everyone’s needs. I personally use OBS Studio, both on my Windows computer and my Mac.

  7. DaCast says:

    If they use the RTMP technology, any software encoder would do the job. Personally, I like to use OBS Studio (Open-source) or Wirecast 7 (paid) but since I am not 100% sure how they work, I wouldn’t want to advise you a wrong encoder. Safe bet would be to start with OBS Studio, and when you need more feature, start benchmarking paid solution as vMix, Wirecast or any other encoder.

  8. Manny S says:

    Very useful topic. I’m asked to build a platform that will offer live streaming to its clients. So Client A will be able to stream live say sitting in California and Client B will be able to do so sitting in London. What kind of encoder should be used for such a set up? I’m assuming a hardware encoder fits in more because of it’s reliability and performance. Also, can this hardware encoder be placed anywhere to accept encoding requests from all across and still perform?

    • DaCast says:

      Thank you reading us Manny! Generally, when people use hardware encoders, it means that this encoder is directly plugged into the cameras and/or the video capture cards. It wouldn’t be such a good idea to place an hardware encoder remotely and then struggle to transfer the inputs.

      I would recommend you to use software encoders (OBS Studio for the best of the open source world, or Wirecast / Vmix for the paid options) installed on each computer broadcasting. You would also need a live streaming platform that can allow you to create an unlimited amount of streaming channels, all that with no delay.

      Each time you would close a new customer, you will create his channel and provide him with the necessary information he could plug into his encoder (stream name & Url, login password) and would be able to stream in few seconds.

    • Jeff Hollis says:

      Well, you can’t just connect two streams to a publishing point and expect it to just “work” – you’re looking for video bridging, which is more Video Conference Unit/Webcam switch based than hardware encoder-based.

      This way, multiple people can connect (from different continents) to the same endpoint, and then the stream would be transmitted to an audience from a central server. The audience would see a presentation containing both presenters, either side-by-side, or voice-switched.

      You could direct streams to be ingested by a central wirecast server, and then use wirecast to transmit said streams to a delivery service, but that gets complicated, and bandwidth would be a problem. You’re probably best off going with a company that does this already, so you don’t have to spend the money on infrastructure and staff to run something like that.

      I work with these systems directly, let me know if you need more info.

      • DaCast says:

        I totally agree with you. A webinar platform might be a better fit but the pricing are often much more expensive.

        The second solution you mention is the one being use by some broadcasters here at DaCast. They would use a P2P communication service, or even using Skype or Google Hangout to handle the interviews, and then everything goes through a Wirecast where each speaker (each skype call for instance) is a new Input source and then the broadcaster is managing the transitions as if it was a genuine TV show.

  9. Michael Manke says:

    Hi Carlos, I don’t know if you already figured this out, but Periscope Producer allows you to use an encoder to stream an “advanced source” in your periscope account in the settings. You can send an RTMP stream with super rigid specs to them and it will allow you to preview and then publish the stream from your alternate source. The thing that might hold you up with the drone in particular is you would need to have some sort of encoding app on your phone that could ingest the drone footage or send it to some other external encoder somehow. As I said the specs are very rigid and some software encoders really don’t get along with it. Hope this is helpful.

  10. Sami Wilberforce says:

    Hey guys is there any other software that you can add scenes like obs and xsplit softwares and adjust video bitrate to have a small size file but still maintain better quality? Please email me

    • Etienne Noualhat says:

      Hey Sami! That is a great question, I will suggest you give us a call in order to get exactly what you need. I am not sure there are software that can do that, but our sales rep might know better!

      • Sami Wilberforce says:

        Have called but no one was available to pick. Have you used OBS and Xsplit to understand what am asking?

        • Etienne Noualhat says:

          I have! And I understood your concerns, only (and I have verified that with the team) I reckon it is not possible to do what you ask, with any software:
          Choosing the bitrate will change the quality of the video, you mechanically can’t have both at the same time. High bitrate means heavy file but high quality, low bitrate means low quality and light file, this is the reason bitrate is a parameter of any encoder.
          If you would like, you can contact me on the following: etienne.noualhat@dacast.com and explain what exactly you want to accomplish there!

          • Sami Wilberforce says:

            Thanks you have answered me maybe the best thing is to record with the high bitrate and use minimizer software to minimize the size

          • Etienne Noualhat says:

            It will depend on what is your need exactly: are you aiming for more people to download your video, or more people to just watch it on VoD?

  11. Sami Wilberforces says:

    Download and watch on VoD. I somehow managed a few tricks with OBS, these are the settings i did
    Video bitrate: 200
    Encoder: Software {(x264)
    Audio bitrate: 128
    Recording and streaming quality: High quality medium size file
    Recording format: .mp4
    Base and output resolution: 1920×1080

    It gave me double quality of what i was getting and reduced the file size by 1/4 that to me was impressive considering how bad the video were and with a big size yet also blurred. Learning few tricks still. I make make live webcam small on top of powerpoint and so the viewers still have me and the powerpoint slides at the same time

    • Etienne Noualhat says:

      I would say that is the only thing you can do: playing with your OBS settings and how you will record the video.
      I found the following video that sums up which settings you should go for: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AkPhzxyVarY

      Apart from that, you should be able to stream in a quality that is different to the quality you’re recording with.

  12. Sami Wilberforce says:

    Thats a timely help you provided there by the video. I chose flv cause i dont need multiple audio track its smaller size but quality too. Thanks

  13. Joseph Otieno Adamson says:

    I find it very interesting in this article you only mention hardware encoders such as TeraDek VidiU which is aimed at amateurs I have the VidiU every time I tried to stream it failed plus the software is buggy in the end I ended getting a LiveU solo+ prior to that I was hiring a LiveU 400 for serious jobs. I am not sure who your readers are on this topic.

    • Etienne Noualhat says:

      Well! You probably had a worse experience than ours! We have tested the products for a while and nothing was buggy. You definitively should contact their support team, they could have fixed your problem?

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