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.
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 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 an 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 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. 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 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.
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 on the market.
We’ve gathered some information on a few of the top software encoders on the market. Here’s what you need to know.
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:
OBS Studio is totally free to use and to 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.
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:
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.
To learn more about the software, you can check out its tech specs here.
Wirecast has two encoding plans, and the software comes in two versions:
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 before you buy.
Additional Wirecast upgrades are available, including:
Wirecast comes in a version for Windows and for macOS. The latest version of Wirecast is 14.1. It is the newest full version and was released on January 25, 2021.
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.
VidBlasterX is available in three versions. Each of the following options is priced with an annual subscription model:
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.
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.
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:
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.
vMix is best used in collaboration with a professional hosting platform.
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.
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. It’s capabilities extend beyond encoding.
TriCaster’s hardware encoding solutions are designed to connect to video capturing devices to encode video content in real-time.
The cost of TriCaster encoders ranges from roughly $5,000 to $18,000.
NewTek offers several different products in the TriCaster line, including:
TriCaster hardware encoders support HD-SDI inputs and a wide range of professional hardware and accessories.
You can also access Tricaster documentation here.
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.
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:
The different Teradek encoder lines support HDMI and SDI video inputs and a wide variety of consumer and professional-grade hardware.
TeraDek hardware encoders are best suited for professional broadcasters who require some mobility.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
Please keep in mind that your final decision should be based on the specific features you need to reach your live streaming goals.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
If you are in search of a unified video hosting platform look no further. Dacast offers both a live streaming solution and advanced VOD hosting, so you can broadcast the content that works best for you on a white-label video player.
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