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Where The Rubber Meets The Road: 2010 Encoder Comparison
Our annual look at the features and output of video encoding tools in four categories: free, standalone, enterprise-grade, and hardware co-processor.
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Encoders are where the rubber meets the road in the streaming video space. If you choose the right encoder, your video will look great and stream smoothly and affordably to your viewing audience; if you choose the wrong encoder, video quality will be sub-par unless you boost your data rate to maintain quality and, thereby, increase your distribution costs.

In this article, I’ll take a look at the streaming encoding tools that you’ll likely choose from to encode your videos in 2010 and perhaps beyond. I’ll detail format-specific encoding features, speed, and quality for both Windows and Mac platforms.

Beyond format-specific performance, all encoders offer a unique amalgam of features that should also weigh on your purchase decision. For example, Telestream Episode offers the best Compressor integration, while Sorenson Squeeze provides integration with Sorenson 360, Sorenson’s online video platform, as well as automated upload to several content delivery networks.

At one point or another, I’ve reviewed most of the stand-alone tools mentioned herein and have detailed their features; a link to those reviews can be found in the online version of this article. To make the most of the available space, this article will focus solely on taking a performance/quality snapshot of each encoding tool as of December 2009.

Categories of Encoders
Let’s start with a brief look at the four categories of encoding tools. The first category includes free encoding tools bundled with your editing suite, primarily Adobe Media Encoder and Apple Compressor. If the encoding tool from your editing suite produces the formats you need with reasonably good quality and performance, you may not need to look elsewhere.

On the other hand, since Compressor only natively supports H.264, if you’re producing VP6 or Windows Media Video (WMV) files, you’ll need either a third-party plug-in or a stand-alone encoding tool, which typically cost less than $1,000. It’s the same story if you’re an Adobe producer using a Mac and need WMV files. As we’ll see, Compressor’s comparably poor H.264 quality may also convince Mac producers to seek a third-party tool for that format. You might also consider a stand-alone encoder for faster, multicodec encoding, for superior usability, and for additional features such as Sorenson Squeeze 6 review and approval workflow.

If you’re currently using a stand-alone encoder, when should you consider an enterprise encoder? Generally, these tools are much faster at multiformat encoding, are server-farm capable for faster-than-real-time encoding, and offer advanced API’s and I/O features that enable a more automated workflow and superior integration with content management and web publishing systems. They range in price from $3,950 to about $8,500.