Video Encoding: The Definitive Guide [Updated for 2023]
Video technology has rapidly progressed in recent years. The way we use and view video content has changed for good. And it continues to simultaneously change as it adapts to how we use the internet. Coinciding with this rapid development was the need for video encoding.
Video encoding was created as a solution and aid in this technological transition. It’s because of video encoding that broadcasters, businesses and content creators can stream video over an internet connection.
In this article, we’re going to distil video encoding for live streaming. We’ll explain what encoding is and what it does. We’ll discuss the importance of each moving part, and help you understand the process. Further, we’ll go over video compression, encoding formats, transcoding and more.
Table of Contents:
- What is Video Encoding?
- What is Video Compression?
- What are Encoding Formats?
- What are Codecs?
- What are Containers?
- What is Transcoding?
- Video Encoding vs. Transcoding: What’s the Difference?
- Video Quality vs. Video Resolution (Size)
- What is Adaptive Bitrate Streaming?
- How to do Multi-Bitrate Video Encoding on Dacast
- Common Video Encoding Challenges
- Streaming Video Encoding Glossary
- Final Thoughts
What is Video Encoding?
Also called video conversion, video encoding converts a given video input into a digital format that is compatible with most types of Web players and mobile devices.
In the most basic sense of the term, video encoding is the process of converting RAW video files to digital files so that they are not saved as individual images but as fluid videos.
Encoding can also be used as an umbrella term to describe similar processes relating to altering the size of a video file. Both video encoding and encoding often refer to the same process.
Here’s a definition of video encoding that summarizes this well:
“In video editing and production, video encoding is the process of preparing the video for output, where the digital video is encoded to meet proper formats and specifications for recording and playback through the use of video encoder software.”
What Does Encoding a Video Mean?
It is easier to understand what encoding is when you think about it in terms of a more tangible comparison.
Imagine a basic flip book. Photos are put together in a way that seems to move when you flip through the page quickly. That’s similar to how RAW video files work.
In the early days of digital video, video files were all RAW video. This means that video files were a collection of still photos. For a video recorded at 30 frames per second, you had 30 photos per second of footage. That’s 1800 images per minute of video. As a result, video file sizes were massive.
The only sensible solution was to compress these videos, but the quality was lost through this process. Engineers developed video encoding which provided a way to compress these files without compromising the quality.
So what does encoding mean? It is a way of compressing large video files into more manageable chunks.
What is Decoding?
Decoding is an important part of encoding. Decoding is actually the opposite of encoding since it is the process of unpacking the data that has been compressed for transmission.
In the context of online video streaming, the video player serves as a video decoder. Box top sets and consoles are also considered decoders.
The efficiency of your decoder largely contributes to the latency of your stream. Video encoders need to work with video decoders to create your online video stream.
What is Video Compression?
Video compression is using encoding to reduce the size of a digital video file.
It analyzes the content of a full video frame to reduce the overall file size by determining which frames are essential and which can go. If two frames are basically identical, you can get rid of the data for one frame and replace it with a reference to the previous frame. In this simple example, you can reduce your video file size by about 50 percent.
All types of video compression use variations of this process to reduce file sizes. When we talk about video encoding, however, we’re referring to a specific type of video compression. Video encoding is a way of reducing video file sizes.
How Does Video Compression Work?
Video compression typically happens at the camera level. For example, smartphones, consumer-grade camcorders, and most professional camcorders record video in the H.264 video codec
This means that, as the camera is recording, the RAW images from the video sensor encode in real-time, typically using the H.264 codec. This compressed (or encoded) video is then recorded to the storage on the camera.
What are Encoding Formats?
An encoding format is a type of technology that is used to facilitate the encoding process. It is made up of codecs and containers. The format that you use dictates how the input video should be processed. It defines how it is stored, transmitted, and viewed. Video encoding basics happen behind the scenes.
Some of the most popular encoding formats include:
The encoding format that you use will depend on what’s compatible with both your online video platform and your chosen live stream encoderThe best video encoding format depends upon your needs.
What are Codecs?
The tools that are used for video file compression and playback are called “codecs.” Codec stands for coder and decoder (co/dec). Usually a hardware device or computer software, a codec is a video encoder that encodes or decodes a digital data stream or signal. They compress raw video and audio files between analog and digital formats and make them smaller.
Different devices have different types of support for various streaming codecs. Have you ever downloaded a video and then tried to play it to find that the playback failed? You might not have had streaming software capable of playing back video encoded with that codec.
Today, the most common and best video codec is H.264. Just about every device in existence supports this streaming protocol and it’s common for use with online video. However, there are several other codecs available, including MPEG-2, HEVC, VP9, Quicktime, and WMV.
What are Containers?
A container is the part of the encoding format that holds together the audio and video codecs and the metadata for the video that is being encoded. The container stores all of this information in one file.
Different containers are compatible with different codecs and video players. That said, is important that broadcasters choose containers that are compatible with their entire streaming setup.
Typically, the names of the file formats correspond with the types of containers that they use. For example, the MOV encoding file format simply means that it is using a MOV container.
What is Transcoding?
Transcoding is another important technology related to encoding. In fact, it is often considered a type of encoding.
Video transcoding is the process of compressing a video to create multiple renditions of different sizes. Broadcasters create these renditions so that they deliver the one that makes the most sense based on viewers’ internet connections.
Another name for transcoding is “multi-bitrate encoding” because it refers to changing the bitrate of the video file.
Typically, transcoding tools are built into professional online video platforms. However, if your online video platform does not offer support for this process, you’ll need to use an encoder that supports transcoding.
Video Encoding vs. Transcoding: What’s the Difference?
It’s fairly common to hear the terms video encoding and transcoding used interchangeably. However, encoding and transcoding are not one and the same.
As a refresher:
- Transcoding is the process of creating copies of video files in different sizes.
- Encoding refers to either the initial process of compressing RAW video or to the process of re-encoding a video into a different format.
Transcoding is always encoding, but encoding is not always transcoding. There are a variety of reasons why you might want to transcode or encode a video:
- Reduce file size
- Reduce buffering for streaming video
- Change video resolution or aspect ratio
- Change audio format or quality
- Convert obsolete files to modern formats
- Meet a certain target bitrate
- Make a video compatible with a certain device (computer, tablet, smartphone, smartTV, legacy devices)
- Make a video compatible with certain streaming software or service
The common purpose of all of these reasons is generally to create the best experience for viewers or to make the video content more easily accessible. What is encoding? It can compromise everything in the list above.
Video Quality vs. Video Resolution (Size)
When it comes to streaming video, there is a trade-off between size and quality. High-quality video files are larger, take longer to upload, and require more bandwidth for viewers. Low-quality video files are smaller, take less time to upload, and require less bandwidth for viewers.
Imagine that your internet connection is a tube. The faster your connection, the larger the tube. Low-speed Internet connections have narrower pipes. Those large files need to squeeze through them. As a result, you run the risk of subjecting your clients to stuttering and buffering streams.
On the other hand, opting for lower-quality videos means they’re available immediately, no matter where your clients are watching them. However, the footage won’t look as good.
If you have your target bitrate in mind but are struggling to achieve desirable streaming video quality, you’ll need to cut back in some respect.
All else being equal—for example, the same codec—four main contributing factors determine video file size in relation to quality. These include:
- Time: longer = bigger files
- The number of pixels (resolution): larger = bigger files
- The frame rate: higher = bigger files
- The amount of motion present in the video: more = bigger files
What you cut back on will depend on what your audience needs and what you’re willing to cut back on.
What is Adaptive Bitrate Streaming?
Adaptive bitrate streaming, which is also known as “variable bitrate streaming,” refers to delivering an appropriate rendition of a video to the viewer based on the strength and speed of their internet connection.
If you’ve ever watched YouTube videos or Netflix on a smartphone in a moving vehicle, you’ve likely experienced adaptive bitrate streaming without realizing it. When the cellular signal is good, video quality is high. When signal strength drops, you’re automatically switched to lower video quality to avoid buffering. That is why the quality of the image changes as you move.
The underlying technology behind dynamic adaptive streaming is transparent to you and your users. Dacast simply delivers the best version of your video to your viewers based on the ingest recipe that you’ve created. This is known as multi-bitrate streaming, and it’s a very valuable feature in the online video industry.
How to do Multi-Bitrate Encoding on Dacast
Dacast’s VOD hosting solution includes all of the features you need to encode your videos.
Automatic transcoding, or multi-bitrate video encoding, is a feature of our . You simply have to indicate your preferred settings when uploading your video. Transcoding tools automatically resize your video into multiple renditions according to the preferences you’ve indicated.
Here is a more detailed look at how to encode video and how the multi-bitrate encoding process works with Dacast.
Step 1: Create an “Ingest Recipe”
The first step in transcoding your videos on the Dacast platform is to create an ingest recipe. For context, an ingest recipe is a group of encoding presets at which the platform will encode and deliver your videos.
Log into your online portal, and navigate to your encoding settings. Once you’re there, click the button labeled “Create New Recipe.”
When it takes you to the next screen, input a title at the top to name your recipe. Next, use the checklist to decide which renditions—or quality and size presets—you want to use for this ingest recipe.
Finally, check the box at the bottom if you want to use this as your default setting. Click the “Save and Close” button to finish.
Note that optimal visual quality (1080p) is best for HD video playback devices. Take into consideration that you’ll use more bandwidth this way and that viewers with slow internet connections might experience buffering issues.
Please select one of the following configurations and ensure your encoder is set up with these exact encoder settings to help prevent issues:
LDSDHDFHDNameLow DefinitionStandard DefinitionHigh Definition
Full High Definition
Video Bitrate (kbps)350 – 800800 – 12001200 – 19001900 – 4500Resolution Width (px)64085412801920Resolution Height (px)360p480p720p1080pH.264 ProfileMainHighHighHigh
Here are general guidelines based on resolution rates:
ResolutionBest Use Case360p
Good option if you want to save bandwidth and ensure smooth playback for viewers on slow Internet connections. Be aware that the visual quality will remain low.
High visual quality. Not recommended for full-screen playback.
Optimal visual quality, best for HD video playback. Beware that with higher quality video you’ll use more bandwidth, and viewers on slow Internet connections might experience buffering issues.
Ultra-high resolution 4k. The best possible quality, but most viewers don’t have sufficient internet speed to stream this content.
Step 2: Repeat as Necessary
For example, if you film most of your content at 1920 x 1080 resolution, 30 frames per second, and record using the H.264 video codec and AAC audio codec in the .MOV container format, you can create an ingest recipe for these preferences.
This recipe might transcode this video into three additional versions: one 720 pixels wide, one 480 pixels wide and one 240 pixels wide. You’ll also be able to maintain the original format. This will allow viewers to be served the optimal quality via adaptive bitrate streaming.
You likely will have times where you want to record footage with different settings. You can create a second ingest recipe for this preference. When you want to upload videos in a different format, just select the preferred recipe and your content will be automatically transcoded into your chosen formats.
Step 3: Upload Your Video Files
Dacast’s bulk uploader handles hundreds of video uploads at a time. Mix and match video file types and resolutions, and the system will expertly encode your videos to the highest quality possible using your chosen ingest recipes.
During this stage, you can choose to create audio-only versions of your video.
In addition to a variety of video qualities, you can also choose to add watermarks and generate thumbnails. Our tool also allows you to upload huge video files (50+ GB) with no interruption. The intelligent video uploader automatically pauses and resumes uploads when your network connection goes down, so you don’t have to worry about any data being lost.
The OVP platform also supports Dropbox upload. You can connect Dacast and your Dropbox account to set as many videos to upload as you desire. Once the Dropbox Uploader is active, a folder will appear for you in your Dropbox account where you can find all of your video files. Once they are there, the videos will automatically upload using your default ingest recipe.
There is one common misconception that we need to clear up. Encoding can do a lot of things, but it cannot retroactively improve the quality of a video. After you upload a video file to Dacast (or any other streaming platform), there isn’t much you can do to increase its quality.
Attempting to encode the video into a larger resolution than you started with will only result in a very bad quality video.
Of course, there are ways to upscale video to larger sizes. However, this is a complicated and intensive process. It’s best handled using a dedicated application like Final Cut XAdobe Premiere Pro, or another app.
Common Video Encoding Challenges
Here are a few problems and solutions to help you troubleshoot common encoding challenges.
There are seven common video encoding challenges that broadcasters find themselves facing. Here are a few solutions that may help you navigate encoding roadblocks that you may encounter.
1. My viewers tend to have slow Internet connections.
Video files tend to be larger files, so they require fast internet speed with great bandwidth to display the video properly. When the internet connection is slow, the video starts stuttering and often displays in very poor quality.
With Dacast, you can use the analytics feature to determine where most of your viewers live. Then, the software will match that information with average internet speeds to get a sense of the average connection speed of your customers.
You can set your overall bitrate to match their download speed in order to achieve a reliable playback. We recommend a short trial and error test to determine which settings to use. This will help you determine how low you can get the bitrate of a video while maintaining the appropriate quality.
To conduct the test, you can start with a high frame width (say 1280px, which is 720p at the 16:9 aspect ratio) and a relatively low bitrate (around 512kbps). See how the video looks when encoded with these settings. If you are not pleased with the image quality, try either lowering the frame width or increasing the bitrate.
Also, be sure to encode multiple versions of your video. Adaptive streaming will ensure viewers get the best quality they can stream smoothly.
2. I want to save bandwidth.
The more often your videos play and the higher their quality, the more bandwidth you will need. Every Dacast pricing plan comes with a particular video bandwidth limit. You can always enable Playback Protection to ensure you have enough bandwidth for your viewers to enjoy your content.
If you want to save money, you can use the same approach as in the previous question to reduce the bitrate to the lowest acceptable level. This will reduce your bandwidth consumption, but it also might reduce the quality of your streams. You need to consider which is more important – providing high-quality content to your viewers, or sticking to your budget.
3. My encoded video has a larger file size than the original one.
While encoding can’t increase quality, it always changes file size. In other words, don’t worry too much about larger file sizes. Sometimes, this just means you’ve been overly generous with your video bitrate settings. Other times, it means you’ve changed from one codec to another.
If you really need to reduce file size to lower bandwidth consumption or serve users with slow internet connections, try reducing the bitrate.
4. After encoding, the audio is out of sync.
This could have something to do with the frame rate of your video. Use a free tool to check the frame rate of your original file. If the frame rate of your video is unusual, you may discover the audio is out of sync after encoding.
In that case, we recommend you try the Two-pass Encoding feature. This can solve many issues the encoder might have interpreting frame rates.
If it’s not the frame rate and the audio continues to play up, you will need to check the relative length of the audio and video streams. You can use the same tool mentioned above to get that information. In some cases, you may have created source files with different lengths for their audio and video streams.
When this happens, the encoder doesn’t always succeed in precisely matching up the streams as they were before. Again, try two-pass encoding. However, if the problem persists, you may need to ask your video editor to cut the original file.
5. My video is already encoded in a web-ready format.
If your video is already an H.264 encoded MP4, you can turn off Dacast’s encoding by selecting “no encoding” in your ingest recipe. However, one thing you need to keep in mind is the MOOV atom. MOOV atom is a bundle of metadata. Before saying no to this encoding solution, ensure the MOOV atom is positioned at the beginning of the file.
If this sounds complex, we recommend simply using Dacast’s built-in encoding to re-encode your MP4 file. As long as you choose the same frame size and bitrate as your original file, encoding the video with Dacast will not have any noticeable impact on its quality.
6. I don’t want my videos in an MP4 format.
The Dacast video hosting solution only encodes content to H.264 in an MP4 container. If you feel that you need your videos encoded in another format, have a chat with our Support Engineers and we’ll see what we can do for you.
7. I uploaded a video and the quality is really poor.
Generally, this means the frame size and bitrate of the target video are much lower than the original video. To get the maximum quality of your videos, be sure to use the “Original” profile in your ingest recipe in addition to any lower qualities you have selected.
This will match the source file’s frame size and ensure you have a high-quality version of your video available.
Streaming Video Encoding Glossary
Here are a few terms that will help you understand streaming video encoding a little better, including video resolution.
Frame rate is the number of frames that display per second in a video. The faster the frames flicker along, the more lifelike and immersive the video becomes. The rate at which these still images display is expressed in frames per second (fps). Common frame rates are 24, 25, 30, and 60 fps. Higher frame rates show action better. Lower frame rates give your video a more “cinematic” look.
Bitrate describes how much data a video file contains (measured on a per-second basis). In general, a higher bitrate means better video/audio quality. However, you can’t make the streaming video look better or improve sound quality by increasing the bitrate if it was low in the first place. Bitrates are usually measured in kilobits per second (kbps) or megabits per second (Mbps).
Video aspect ratio refers to the proportional relationship between the width and height of the video. This is usually expressed in the width to height format. For example, most modern television and computer monitors have an aspect ratio of 16:9, but this will vary. Remember the old television sets? That’s a 4:3 aspect ratio.
Video resolution describes the number of pixels in a video file. It’s the width and height of the projected image, measured in pixels. For example, a video might have a resolution of 1280 (horizontal pixels) × 720 (vertical pixels). This is usually written as simply 1280×720, or abbreviated to 720p.
Codec stands for “coder/decoder”. It’s a piece of software that compresses raw video and audio files when encoding and encodes or decodes the playback files. Codecs are necessary because video and audio files are very large.
Therefore, they become difficult to transfer across the Internet quickly. There are hundreds of different codecs out there. Common video codecs are H.264, MPEG-2, DivX, XviD, Theora, VP8, and the WMV family. Common audio codecs are MP3, AAC, Vorbis, and the WMA family.
Remember, codecs do not determine the file’s extension. Rather, that’s the container format. Some of the most popular container formats include MOV (Quicktime), P4, OGG, and AVI.
It’s due to video encoding that live streaming media is possible. Without most people realizing it, if we didn’t have video encoding technology, we’d still be in the age of VHS tapes and DVDs. Consequently, it goes without saying that the video encoding process is extremely important today.
Dacast offer a powerful, streamlined and easy-to-use video streaming encoder. It’s built right into the online video platform. Using Dacast, you’ll get an optimized and scalable video hosting solution with live streaming delivery.
Why not try it for free today? Access the 14-day risk-free trial. No commitment. No credit card required.
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