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.
Today, 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.
First up, software encoders are programs that run on a computing device. For example, this device could be your laptop or a desktop computer.
In 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.
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.
Given 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
As 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:
- Beginning 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?
Different 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.
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!