Hardware vs. Software Encoders for Live Streaming: Your Options Explained [2021 Update]
Table of Contents
Encoders play an important role in maintaining a high-quality live stream. It’s important to understand the difference between software and hardware live streaming encoders so that you have the information you need to choose the best option for your streaming video broadcasts.
In this post, we’ll discuss the ins and outs of streaming encoders. We’ll also compare the most popular hardware and software encoders on the market, as well as which scenarios work best for each encoding option.
Table of Contents
- What is a Video Encoder?
- Software Encoders
- Hardware Encoders
- Comparison of the Best Encoders for Live Streaming in 2021
- Popular Software Encoders
- Popular Hardware Encoders
- Best Live Streaming Encoders for Broadcasters
- Questions to Consider When Comparing Streaming Encoders
What is a Video Encoder?
Video encoders are devices that convert video files from one format to another. They can be either hardware encoding or software encoding solutions. Encoders are essential for converting the RAW video files from your camera to streamable digital files.
Your video encoder takes the necessary format and converts it into codecs through a compression/decompression process. The standard streaming protocol for internet sources is H.264.
We also recommended the video compression format for HD streaming. The H.264 protocol can create what’s called “lossless compression.” For audio-only streaming, there are two popular choices: MP3 (MPEG Audio Layer III) and AAC (Advanced Audio Coding).
There are two important protocols for broadcasting to keep in mind: HLS streaming protocol and RTMP (real-time messaging protocol). This Transmission Control Protocol-based technology was originally developed by the predecessor of Adobe to work with the Adobe Flash player.
RTMP uses RTMP ingest to transmit the files from the encoder to the video hosting platform, and HLS transmits it from the video hosting platform to your audience. Since the RTMP protocol is so widely used, you’ll want to look into an RTMP encoder.
Now that you have a better understanding of the purpose of a video encoder and how it works, let’s take a closer look at the two different types of encoders: hardware and software.
Software encoders are programs that run on your laptop, desktop computer, or another computing device.
There are several perks to using a software encoder. They are typically very easy to set up, and you can tweak or change most aspects of the codecs to get the bitrate and video quality you desire. You can easily update encoding software when a new version or upgrade is available.
Software encoders are generally appealing to beginner broadcasters because of their low cost and customization features. In fact, one popular open-source software encoders, OBS Studio, is free. Many Dacast broadcasters use OBS Studio since Dacast has partnered with OBS to create a custom encoding platform.
However, software encoders lack the overall speed that hardware encoders for live streaming offer. This is because a computer runs multiple programs at the same time, and therefore can’t devote all of its resources to encoding.
Hardware encoders are dedicated processors that use a designed algorithm to encode video and data into streamable content. Hardware encoding solutions come in both smaller, portable boxes and larger permanent fixtures.
Given their higher price-point, mainly professional broadcasters tend to use hardware encoders for live streaming. They are specialized specifically for hardware 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. This makes hardware encoders very rigid, compared to flexible encoding software.
The higher price-point and lower latency that comes with hardware video encoders set them apart from their software counterparts. You won’t find any free hardware encoders. You may find some for as low as $100, but for the most part, they reach towards the thousands.
Comparison of the Best Encoders for Live Streaming in 2021
Since encoding technology is changing all the time, we have aggregated the latest and most up-to-date information as of February 2021. Here are the top software and hardware encoders for live streaming on the market.
Popular Software Encoders
We’ve gathered some information on a few of the top software encoders on the market. Here’s what you need to know.
1. OBS Studio
Since Dacast has created a custom platform on OBS Studio, the two platforms integrate perfectly. This makes OBS Studio a great software encoder for Dacast users, especially those who are still learning the ropes of live broadcasting.
OBS Studio offers a variety of video broadcasting tools, but we’re focusing on the encoding capabilities. The OBS Studio platform integrates seamlessly with most online video platforms.
OBS Studio is not a streaming solution, but it is a multi-faceted broadcasting tool. It provides real-time video mixing tools, camera transitions, audio tools, and more.
It is super easy to use, which makes it attractive to broadcasters who are new to the arena. Key features include:
- 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.
- Absolutely free
- Integrates with most professional streaming platforms
- No learning curve involved
- Perfect for new and experienced broadcasters
- Does not work with Windows XP
- Relatively limited functions and capabilities
OBS Studio is totally free to use and download. This open-source live streaming software is available for Windows, macOS, and Linux operating systems.
OBS Studio is compatible with Windows 7 and later, OS X/Mac OS 10.8 and later, and Linux. The information above is based on the latest OBS 26.1.1 version, released on January 6th, 2021.
Additionally, Dacast offers a customized version of OBS Studio that easily connects to save our users time. We offer a customized version of OBS Studio live broadcasting software to our customers. This version makes it easier to directly connect to your Dacast live streaming service account.
With this option, you don’t need to manually enter details. Instead, simply login to your Dacast account via OBS to start streaming live in minutes.
Best Use Case
OBS Studio is meant to be used as an encoding and broadcasting tool that integrates with professional online video platforms.
Telestream’s Wirecast is another video streaming software with encoding features. This tool has been around since 1998 and was used privately until 2004 when Telestream publicly launched the software.
Wirecast has several functions that contribute to creating a professional live broadcast. The function we will focus most on is the encoding capability. The encoder is most well known for its real-time mixing and multi-camera switcher.
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.
Wirecast has recently had many feature updates, several enhancements, and fixes, including FBLive polling, re-written WebStream plugin, and Virtual Camera improvements.
- Camera switcher
- Support for unlimited sources, including cameras, mics, IP cams, capture cards, and NDI
- Multiple bitrate streaming
- Built-in graphics and titling tool
- 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
To learn more about the software, you can check out its tech specs here.
- Advanced features for advanced broadcasters
- Compatible with both Mac and Windows
- A responsive customer service team
- Consistent system updates to keep the software running effectively
- Very expensive for a software encoder
- The platform is tricky to used
Wirecast has two encoding plans, and the software comes in two versions:
- Wirecast Studio for enhanced live production & streaming: pricing is $599
- Wirecast Pro for advanced live production and streaming: pricing is $799
This is a bit expensive for encoding software, but it is geared towards advanced streamers. They offer a free 30-day trial if you want to try it before you buy.
Additional Wirecast upgrades are available, including:
- Premium support: $299/yr
- Firewire HDV camera input support (Studio users only need to purchase this feature; the Pro version includes it): $99
- NewBlueFX Titler Live (for creation of animated graphics and titles): $245 Standard version, $445 Advance version, $945 Ultimate version
- Virtualsetworks (pre-made virtual sets for green screen use): $329
Wirecast comes in a version for Windows and for macOS. The latest version of Wirecast is 14.2.1. It is the newest full version and was released on May 18, 2021.
Best Use Case
This encoding software is for advanced broadcasters with the goal of broadcasting elaborate streams.
VidBlaster is a streaming tool with encoding capabilities. It has options for all broadcasters from beginners to advanced. The software offers more than just encoding tools and focuses on video productions.
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
- Offers a free version
- Simulcasting capabilities
- Simple to use and set up
- Audio mixing and video perfecting tools
- The free version isn’t white-labeled
- Not compatible with iOS
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.
VidBlasterX is available for Windows PCs only.
Best Use Case
VidBlaster’s wide range of plans gives it multiple best use cases, but its encoding software is powerful and can be integrated with most professional streaming solutions. Additionally, the Broadcast edition also supports UDP streaming, multiple streaming sources, and recorder modules in a single profile, and includes priority support.
StudioCoast’s vMix is a live streaming tool with encoding capabilities. It offers an array of useful streaming tools. vMix comes in six different packages and can be used by broadcasters with different levels of expertise.
vMix is a feature-rich encoding software designed for Windows users. vMix comes in 5 versions, starting at the free Basic version and ending with the Pro version. Each version supports a different number of inputs. The Basic and Basic HD versions of vMix only support four total inputs. Each camera, image, animation, audio source, or other input counts against that limit.
Additionally, the Basic version limits you to two cameras/NDI inputs. The Basic HD version limits you to three.
However, the HD, 4K, and Pro versions of vMix each support up to 1000 total inputs, including cameras or NDI devices. That should be more than enough for even the most complex live presentation.
- Video support up to 4K resolution
- Supports NDI
- Source from video, audio, or image files as well as DVD, playlists, and websites
- Stream, record, and output video to professional decks and monitors simultaneously
- Video transitions and other effects built-in
- Support for 3D acceleration reduces the need for a top-end CPU
- Virtual sets
- PC and Mac desktop source (including audio) via computers on your network
- vMix Call teleconference support for up to 8 remote guests
- Titling support and four overlay channels
- Instant replay support
- Touch screen web interface
- Free version available
- Speedy and reliable
- Low latency streaming
- Great customer service
- Highly professional look
- Not compatible with iOS
- Difficult to use
vMix is available in five different versions, ranging from Basic to Pro. Each version supports a different number of inputs, your purchase never expires, and includes the following versions:
- 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
vMix also offers a 60-day free trial and has all the features of vMix Pro including the ability to use resolutions greater than HD such as 4K, particularly to ensure vMix supports your computer hardware works with it before purchasing. This is a great perk, as most encoding software offers only up to a 30-day free trial.
vMix is only available for Windows PCs. Learn more about how to use it here.
Best Use Case
vMix is best used in collaboration with a professional hosting platform.
Software Encoder Takeaways
OBS Studio is one of the most popular options, particularly if you are looking 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.
Telestream’s Wirecast is one of the best paid professional-grade software encoders on the market. 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
There are three popular hardware encoding brands that are worth noting. These include Tricaster, TeraDek, and Niagara.
Here’s a breakdown of some of the features, pros, and cons, prices and best case uses for these three hardware encoders.
TriCaster is high-ticket encoding hardware designed for advanced streamers. Its capabilities extend beyond encoding.
TriCaster’s hardware encoding solutions are designed to connect to video capturing devices to encode video content in real-time.
- Real-time hardware encoding for live streaming
- Recording functions
- Video and audio mixing tools
- On the spot moving graphic processing
- Recording for video on demand (VOD) playback
- Mixing tools
- Real-time encoding for live streaming
- Requires expensive accessories to use
- Steep learning curve
- Bulky hardware
The cost of TriCaster encoders ranges from roughly $5,000 to $18,000.
NewTek offers several different products in the TriCaster line, including:
- TriCaster 2 Elite: Encoding device for advanced, television-grade broadcasting
- TriCaster 4k Mini: Portable desktop encoder
- TriCaster TC410 Plus: Encoding tool for mid-sized productions
- TriCaster TC1: Everything broadcasters need for end-to-end video production
TriCaster hardware encoders support HD-SDI inputs and a wide range of professional hardware and accessories.
You can also access Tricaster documentation here.
Best Use Case
The TriCaster encoders are best suited for professional broadcasters due to their high price points and complex features.
TeraDek offers compact encoding hardware that is perfect for live streaming on the move. Unlike many other hardware encoders on the market, their products are light and sleek. Some are built with portable chassis for exceptional remote location streaming experiences.
TeraDek’s hardware encoding products are designed for portability and streaming on the move.
- Sleek design
- Top tier video quality
- Designed to live stream on the go
- High-quality video
- Compact and portable
- Very expensive
Pricing for Teradek’s encoding devices ranges from $700 to $4000.
Teradek offers a wide range of encoding devices for professional broadcasting. Some of their top products include:
- Bolt: A very powerful compact solution for on the go 4K HD cinema-quality video with zero latency
- Vidiu Go: Live streaming encoder that can be used for broadcasting on the go
- Bond: Backpack encoder for broadcasting on the go
- Prism: 4K encoding and decoding device
- Cube: Designed to support IP video
- Ranger: Encoder for wireless connection to OVP from television-grade capture equipment
The different Teradek encoder lines support HDMI and SDI video inputs and a wide variety of consumer and professional-grade hardware.
Best Use Case
TeraDek hardware encoders are best suited for professional broadcasters who require some mobility.
3. Niagara Video
Niagara Video is an encoding brand through and through. They offer nearly 20 different encoding hardware options, in addition to a few different software solutions.
Niagara Video has been around for nearly two decades. They have been at the forefront of encoding, and are often considered trailblazers in the industry.
These tools are built for both encoding and transcoding. Most of their tools are hardware encoders designed for professional podcasting.
- Many hardware encoding options
- Wide variety of encoding tools to choose from
- No Pricing transparency
Niagara has many products, and it would be best to please contact Niagara directly for pricing on their products and solutions as their pricing is not transparent. However, to give you a better idea of their price points we were able to find a price of $1,299 for the GoStream Mini 150 posted online.
Niagara’s encoders currently include several model lines, each of which is available in a variety of configurations. Each model also includes a 1-year limited warranty.
- The new Niagara 9300 Series is a 1U rack-mount unit that supports HD and/or SD SDI inputs with up to 8 stereo pairs (16 channels) of embedded audio. The 9300 allows you to deliver multiple simultaneous streams. It also includes a web SDK to enable customizations and integrations. Additionally, it supports the new SCX Linux software or SCX+ software.
- The GoStream Digital and Analog encoders are powerful, compact two-channel streaming encoders with integrated solid-state drives. They’re available in SDI or DVI-I versions, as well as versions that support Component/Composite/S-Video and HDMI/DVI VGA. Additionally, they support Transport Stream (UDP/RTP), Adobe Flash (RTMP), Windows Media, and Apple’s HLS protocol.
- The GoStream B264 encoder is designed for hard use in broadcast and streaming applications. This small unit (3 fits in 1 RU) features two SDI inputs, two ASI outputs, four Gigabit Ethernet ports, and a variety of other connectivity options.
- Finally, the GoStream Mini 200 is a flexible, affordable encoder with low power consumption and support for common consumer and prosumer video formats such as AVC / HEVC, H.264 / H.265. The device includes inputs for SDI, HDMI, component, composite, DVI/VGA, and unbalanced audio. Additionally, it also has the ability to record a file as MP4 while streaming live.
Best Use Case
The primary function of Niagara Video’s products is to encode and transcode live video content. Since they have a variety of products and solutions, they offer a wide range of specific tools and features.
Hardware Encoder Takeaways
When it comes to hardware encoders, Teradek VidiU is one of the most popular options. It allows you to live stream over the top with just the encoder and video capturing equipment, so you don’t actually need a computer.
Other Teradek models include the Cube, Beam, Clip, and T-Rax which are all designed for different uses and projects. 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 on the field for sporting events.
TriCaster also has multiple encoding models to fit every project and need. Some popular models include the TriCaster 40, 455, 855, and 8000. As one of the leading innovators in all-in-one live video encoders, you can’t go wrong using one of these to produce your content.
Best Live Streaming Encoders for Broadcasters
If you’re oscillating between software and hardware encoders for live video streams, these suggestions might make your decision a bit easier.
Here are some suggestions based on encoders that work best for different types of broadcasts.
- Beginning Streamers: OBS Studio is free and allows you to familiarize yourself with the live streaming process. It offers a decent amount of features. Thousands of broadcasters, from beginners 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 or in more casual settings, you’ll likely prefer something simple and free, like OBS Studio.
- Production Companies: When you are live streaming professionally, you likely need high-quality, crisp video streams for your viewers. In that case, live streaming hardware encoders are the best option for you. They are built specifically for live stream encoding and can transmit for days with minimal issues. That said, it requires a bit of a steeper budget and technical know-how to use a hardware encoder effectively.
Please keep in mind that your final decision should be based on the specific features you need to reach your live streaming goals.
Questions to Consider When Comparing Live Streaming Encoders
Here are a few key questions to ask yourself when considering whether a software or hardware encoder will work best for your live streaming needs.
Will I use a professional streaming service?
If you’re planning on using a professional live streaming platform, like Dacast, check to see which encoders are compatible with that service. Most use a standard format such as RTMP (real-time messaging protocol).
In rare cases, a platform may have its own encoder. However, for the most part, you’ll find format-based encoder recommendations from your chosen OVP.
Will I need a portable encoder for live streaming on the go?
Different events call for specific encoder requirements. Software encoders are typically preferable for streaming on the go since they only require your laptop 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, will give you added mobility.
If you don’t need portability, however, there are fixed encoders that you can set up and keep in your recording space. Some of the hardware encoders are pretty heavy, weighing upwards of 20 pounds. If you feel that a heavy-duty encoder is best suited for an event, you can bring it to the venue and set it up once.
Which features will I need for my video content?
Knowing how you want your final video project to look when it is done, can play an important part in choosing the right encoder. Software and hardware encoders for live video streams differ in the features that they provide. Likewise, each company offers different services and advantages.
Closed captioning and ads, to name only a couple, 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?
Which features and functions you need will be one of your deciding factors for which encoder to choose.
Software encoders can come with a lot of functions useful for producing high-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.
Now you know what an encoder is and why you might choose hardware over a software live stream encoder (or vice versa).
To recap, hardware encoders are more reliable, as they are built with the sole purpose of encoding and transmitting.
Software encoders usually run well, but their speed can depend on the computing device on which they’re installed.
Envisioning your end project is key in determining what features you need from the encoder. Ultimately, you should choose one that has the features that you need to reach your goals and is compatible with your broadcasting setup.
The most important thing is that you find an encoder that works for you and is within your budget.
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