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Review: Microsoft Expression Encoder 3
With outstanding VC-1 output and surprisingly good H.264 output, Expression Encoder 3 is an impressive update to the encoding component of Microsoft's Expression Studio.

Expression Encoder 3 is the encoding component of Microsoft’s Expression Studio, a five-product suite ($599 retail/$399 upgrade), and of Expression Web, a three-product suite that also contains Expression Web and Expression Design ($149/$79). Microsoft is also selling Expression Encoder 3 as a stand-alone product with a list price of $49. Seems like a good decision, because although there were some rough edges, Expression Encoder 3 proved very capable and functional in my tests.

Expression Encoder started as a limited-function encoder that output solely VC-1 files, primarily for publishing for Silverlight format. Expression Encoder 2 delivered the ability to tweak advanced VC-1 encoding parameters, and in Service Pack 1, H.264 fixed templates for devices. In Expression Encoder 3, Microsoft added more H.264 templates and made them fully editable, added templates that produce files for Smooth Streaming, Microsoft’s adaptive streaming technology, included a screen capture applet and enhanced editing features in the Encoder itself.

Figure 1
Figure 1. The main interface of Expression Encoder 3
Note that the free trial version of the Encoder no longer expires, but it doesn’t produce H.264 or Smooth Streaming output or capture screencams longer than 10 minutes. All retail versions will be officially titled Microsoft Expression Encoder 3 with IIS Smooth Streaming, so if you’re following along in your version of Expression Encoder 3 and don’t see a feature that I discuss, you probably have the trial version.

To keep this review short and sweet, I’ll just touch on the product’s workflow here and refer you to a more detailed description of Expression Encoder 1 that I wrote back in December 2007 (www.streamingmedia.com/article.asp?id=9888). At a high level, very little has changed since that review, and it’s a great primer on program operation.

Then I’ll detail the encoding quality and performance for both VC-1 and H.264, take a quick look at the Smooth Streaming templates, and review Expression Encoder’s new screencam and editing capabilities.

Figure 1 shows Expression Encoder 3, which has an attractive, flexible interface with three basic components. On top is the Viewer pane, where you can view your media and preview compression. Below that is the Media Content panel, which lists all imported videos and their current compressed status. Note that you can load multiple files into the Media Content panel to create a batch-encoding run and save the batch as a "job" that you can recall and run again. On the top right is the Presets panel; beneath that are multiple other panels where you’ll customize encoding and preprocessing parameters, add metadata, and choose output options such as a Silverlight template.

The basic workflow is to import videos in the Media Content panel, trim if necessary in the View panel, choose a preset on the upper right, customize it on the lower right, and then click the Encode button to produce your files. I should note that Expression Encoder can produce live events but that I did not test those features or that workflow.

With this as background, let’s jump into codec performance.

Figure 2
Figure 2. Expression Encoder 3’s VC-1 related tweaks
VC-1 Encoding
When producing VC-1 files, Expression Encoder enables normal options such as Main or Advanced codec, bitrate options such as constant and variable bitrate encoding and output controls for resolution, data rate, and the like (Figure 2). Unlike any other tool in its price range, Microsoft also does a nice job exposing the SDK 11 encoding tweaks, which give compressionists the ability to customize encoding based upon certain characteristics of their source footage. The manual does a nice job explaining when and how to use many of these parameters, which is also helpful.

In my quality tests, I set Video Complexity to Best, changed the default one-pass CBR to two-pass VBR, and generally left all other settings at their defaults, lest the testing hours expand to testing days or testing weeks. I compared the files produced by Expression Encoder 3 with Sorenson Squeeze (5.1), Rhozet Carbon Coder (3.13) and Telestream Episode Pro (5.2) in both SD (640x480 at 30 fps, 500Kbps total data rate) and HD (720p at 30 fps, 800Kbps total data rate).Overall, Expression Encoder ranked at the top of the class, though the difference with Squeeze and Carbon Coder was so small as to be commercially irrelevant. As with tests I’ve performed in the past, Episode Pro produced lower quality WMV files with significant dropped frames and took significantly longer to do so, making it less than ideal for Windows Media production. I understand that Telestream plans to revamp the WMV encoding engine in a near-term release, which will be very welcome.