Buyers' Guide to Live Encoders 2018
You're new to live event streaming, but you know how to use a camcorder, so the event planner put you in charge of streaming the event to Facebook Live, YouTube Live, or a similar service. You’re wondering, “What the heck do I need to get the stream to the service?” Fortunately for you, you’ve got a lot of options, which we’ll cover in this article.
There are many ways to segment these options, but we’re focusing on three scenarios. In the first, you have Ethernet and power and are shooting with a single camera; in the second, you have Ethernet and power and are shooting with multiple cameras; and in the third you have neither Ethernet nor power and are shooting with a single camera.
The Basics of Connecting
Before we get started, there’s one techie thing you need to know. That is, excepting encoders purpose-built for a single service, any encoder should be able to communicate with any service. How easy it is to connect to that service will vary from encoder to encoder.
Specifically, to connect to any service, you’ll need to provide the server URL and a stream name to your encoder. With some encoders, you’ll have to manually type in the server URL and stream name, and perhaps even a login name and password. It’s not rocket science, but it can be a pain when adding letters, numbers, and symbols via a device joystick and buttons, which never seems to go right the first time. You may also have to manually configure parameters like resolution and data rate of the encoded stream.
Encoders that you can access via a computer or mobile device will usually let you log in to the service and then manage credentials automatically in the background. During this process, the encoder will also select an encoding template that’s customized for the service, simplifying the process. Again, the high-level message is that almost all encoders can connect to all services, but some encoders make it easier than others.
This is the most common scenario—a simple shoot from within a conference or meeting room, or perhaps at an off-site location. Either way, you’re shooting with a single camera, with access to power, connectivity, and space to set up your gear. Here’s an overview of your options.
CHECK THE CAMCORDER
Many camcorders now include Wi-Fi connectivity and the ability to encode and stream directly to a service. These devices can work well, but there are several caveats.
First, most live event producers prefer wired connections over Wi-Fi, which is often is shared with other users. Outbound bandwidth is absolutely critical to your streaming video, so if you can’t guarantee unshared access to the Wi-Fi, you may be better off with a wired device. Note that some camcorders have USB ports that can support either a Wi-Fi or Ethernet dongle; if you have a choice, go for the latter.
Second, note that some cameras may limit the resolution and/or data rate of the encoded video streamed to the service, so check the specs of your camera and make sure the output meets your goals. Finally, check whether you can access the camera via a computer or app to enter server credentials. If you can’t, then enter, test, and save the credentials well before the day of the event to ensure a crisp on-time start.
ON-CAMERA DEVICES ($700+)
If your camcorder can’t stream to a service, or doesn’t meet your resolution or data rate goals, consider an on-camera encoder. These start at around $700 and can sit atop your camcorder, minimizing your space requirements and allowing you to more easily move the camera during the shoot. You can control most of these devices with an app or from a browser, simplifying operation, and many feature SD card slots for recording the compressed stream, which you can pop into a computer and upload after the event.
For those seeking absolute top quality, concerns include limited resolution and/or output bandwidth. When shopping in this range (and for all subsequent external encoders), make sure you buy a device that your camcorder can feed—that means HDMI for most consumer camcorders, and HD-SDI for most professional models.
The Teradek VidiU Pro is a popular and inexpensive on-camera encoder.
CONSUMER ENCODERS ($295+)
Next up are AC-powered devices that come in a range of sizes and capabilities. If you’re a novice and you’ll be streaming to Facebook Live or YouTube Live, consider the Epiphan Video Webcaster X2, which can stream to either service. You’ll connect to the service via a simple pairing code, and operation is one-button-simple from then on. Since the unit only connects with these two services, however, if you need to broadcast to another service, you’re out of luck.
You can drive most other standalone encoders via browser-based configuration screens from devices running on the same network. Common features include separate audio inputs and the ability to record your event to an SD card or external drive connected via USB. Some units, like the Matrox Monarch HDX, include two separate encoders that allow you to stream to two services simultaneously, or to stream at 720p to one service and record locally at 1080p for archives or uploading.
As with other categories, check the maximum resolution and data rate of these units, and skim reviews to identify problems with specific services, particularly if you’ll be streaming to smaller services or streaming servers that the vendor may not have tested.
INDUSTRIAL-STRENGTH ENCODERS ($5,000+)
This category includes features that aren’t available in the previous category, including more advanced codecs like HEVC. For example, Wowza’s ClearCaster is a dedicated Facebook Live appliance that can encode in H.264, HEVC, and VP9. The unit is the only encoder that can send 1080p video to Facebook Live, and features an HDMI output port for a monitor that shows a Talent View with comments and other responses in real time. ClearCaster can automatically restart the stream should you temporarily lose power or connectivity.
If you’ll be streaming more than a single event at a time, consider a unit like the Teradek T-RAX, which can input up to eight separate encoders. Products in this category come with much bigger price tags and often larger sizes, which could mean noisy fans that hinder usage in quiet environments. Check for a rack-mountable form factor if you’ll be installing the unit in a server room.
COMPUTER WITH SOFTWARE MIXER ($100+)
You can use your computer to capture and stream video, but you’ll need a capture device to input your video into the computer and software to encode and deliver it to the service. Although there are cheaper, game-oriented capture devices available, a device like the Magewell USB Capture HDMI Gen 2 HD capture dongle (right) will give you high-speed, low-overhead input.
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