The 2012 Encoding and Transcoding Buyers' Guide
Streaming video has become so pervasive that it’s impossible for any single encoding tool to meet all of a streaming producer’s needs. In this article, I’ll detail the most relevant categories that all producers need to consider -- with a focus on European-source solutions.
Whilst many providers from outside the EU do a great job producing and supporting products sold in the EU, there are several key reasons to prioritise buying an encoding product designed, developed, and supported in Europe. European distribution is the main focus, not of secondary or tertiary importance, so compatibility and support for European broadcast and closed-captioning standards, where applicable, is more assured.
In addition, multilanguage support is typically baked in during product development rather than bolted on afterward, and native-language telephone support during the hours you’re actually working is also more likely. In short, if you’re producing streaming media in Europe, you should consider a European manufacturer first.
So let’s get started, beginning with enterprise-level hardware and software encoders. To be clear, I discuss only those products that encode for streaming distribution, including mobile, desktop, and OTT devices that play back mobile or desktop standards, rather than encoding for broadcast or IPTV. Simply stated, if the product can’t sprechen sie HTTP live streaming (HLS), Flash, and/or Smooth Streaming, it’s not included herein. And remember: This is designed to be a representative, not comprehensive, list.
Enterprise Hardware and Software Encoders
In the enterprise space, hardware encoders are most often designed to quickly encode massive quantities of video into the most relevant distribution formats, while software encoders fall into two classes: workflow systems and software transcoders. Briefly, workflow systems incorporate quality control into the encoding workflow and control the process from ingest to distribution, while software transcoders are software encoders with broad input capabilities, so they can ingest exotic camera-based formats, ProRes and Avid DNxHD, which are quite foreign to most hardware encoders. I’ll detail each category in turn.
Note that most vendors are tight-lipped about system pricing, in part for competitive reasons and in part because most encoding tools have more options than a Chinese buffet, so pricing is configuration-specific. We apologise in advance for the lack of pricing information.
There are several European vendors offering hardware-based on-demand and live encoding, most notably Thomson Video Networks SAS (www.thomson-networks.com) and Envivio, Inc. (www.envivio.com), headquartered in France and the U.S., respectively. Central to Thomson’s streaming video offering is the ViBE VS7000 rack-mounted encoder. File-based input includes both MPEG-2 and H.264 input, with live input primarily single or multiple program transport streams.
On the output side, the VS7000 can encode to H.263 (for 3GP), H.264, MPEG-2, and MPEG-4 (for older mobile devices) codecs, along with audio support for AAC-LC, HE-AAC, and HE-AAC v2. Output formats include RTMP Flash, HLS, and Smooth Streaming, with support for AES scrambling, Apple HLS encryption, and Microsoft PlayReady DRM. In September, Thomson announced that it had partnered with VisualOn, Inc. to provide MPEG-DASH delivery to connected devices running VisualOn’s OnStream MediaPlayer+ multimedia player. Like most hardware encoders in this class, the unit is operated directly via a browser-based interface with a SOAP-based interface for integrating operation with content management and web publishing systems.
Envivio offers live and on-demand encoders, all with Envivio Muse, the company’s multiscreen video encoding software. Two hardware platforms offer various density and performance options, with the new 4Caster G4 providing Ethernet plus four HD/SD-SDI or ASI inputs in a multinode configuration, supporting up to 72 SD or 12 HD channels in 2RU. Envivio also offers a 1RU appliance, the 4Caster Gen III, and Muse can be installed on HP blade servers. When producing on-demand streams in a server farm environment, a 4Balancer manages job distribution and failover, while all hardware units come with dual hot swappable power supplies for reliable operation.
Depending upon the software package you buy, Muse can output H.263, H.264, MPEG-4, MPEG-2, and VC-1, with up to 15 streams in an adaptive group. Muse on 4Caster is a very efficient on-demand encoder/packager with the rare ability to encode once and deploy the encoded streams into multiple output packages. For example, after encoding a group of files to H.264 format, Muse can produce content and manifest files for HLS and Smooth Streaming output and supply multiple H.264 files for RTMP Dynamic Streaming. While encoding, you can also set up notification triggers if SSIM quality drops below specified levels. On the software side, Muse supports advertising insertion with SCTE 35 and EBIF triggers and AES encryption for Apple HLS and Microsoft PlayReady DRM technologies.
Workflow systems incorporate quality control (QC) at multiple levels of the pipeline to help ensure high-quality output and regulatory compliance. Of course, any encoding tool can integrate with any third-party QC tool, most simply via watch folder operation. What’s unique about AmberFin Ltd.’s Unified Quality Control (www.amberfin.com) is that it enables its customers to choose from multiple third-party quality control solutions in an integrated environment that combines the best of automated and manual control.
Architecturally, AmberFin UQC operates as an optional module for many of AmberFin’s iCR file-based transcoding tools. Quality control options include Digimetrics Aurora, Snell Hyperion, Tektronix Cerify, Interra Baton, VidCheck VidChecker, and Metaglue MXFixer, enabling control over the QC functionality implemented and cost. Operations are managed in a unified timeline displaying all aspects of the encoding and quality control workflow. Operators can programme multiple pre-encode and post-encode QC checks into the system and receive notifications of any problems accompanied (where applicable) by visual displays of potential problems.
AmberFin’s iCR encoders are impressive in their own right; they have solid input and output format support and high-quality standards conversion. What sets them apart from other enterprise-class software encoders is the integrated quality control. AmberFin’s UQC tool is a flexible, innovative, and elegant product that should be on the shortlist for any streaming producer looking to integrate quality control into their ingest and encoding workflow.
Software transcoders are the workhorses for most streaming producers, and ATEME’s TITAN KFE is a very prominent example (www.ateme.com). The program runs on Windows 7 or Windows Server 2008 and accepts a wide variety of inputs, including AVI, MOV, TS, MXF, P2, LXF, and GFX containers with codec support for ProRes, Avid DNxHD, Cineform, H.264/MPEG-4, DV and DVCPRO 25/50/HD, AVC-Intra 50/100, and Sony XDCAM 50/IMX 30/40/50.
Outputs include MPEG-2 and H.264, with content and manifest file output for HLS and Smooth Streaming, and support for Apple AES encryption and Microsoft PlayReady. TITAN can output an unusually high data rate of up to 100Mbps, useful for those uploading to UGC sites or archiving in H.264 format. In contrast, many other encoders max out at much lower levels. Filtering capabilities are extensive, with denoising, 3:2 pulldown/inverse telecine, frame rate conversion and decimation, and file concatenation without re-encoding.
Like most software transcoders, you can drive encoding functionality via the program’s user interface or via watch folders. You can also integrate operation into your content management system or other program via a command line or REST API. You can also incorporate multiple encoders into a server farm with centralised management.
Live Software Encoders
Many organisations produce live events for promotion, training, communications, and other uses. If you have a production studio capable of functions such as switching between multiple cameras and inserting titles over your videos, you can use either of the live hardware encoders previously mentioned for live streaming. If you don’t have a production studio but want the ability to switch cameras, insert titles, and perform other actions, consider one of the four versions of VidBlaster produced by Netherlands-based CombiTech.
VidBlaster combines production and encoding features to provide an all-in-one live streaming solution, connecting to your camera at one end and sending a live stream (or streams) to one or more streaming servers. All versions of VidBlaster run on Windows XP, Vista, or Windows 7 and can switch between multiple camera inputs. All versions enable titling and chromakeying, as well as the ability to play disk-based files and to use a live screen capture as a virtual camera, which is ideal for software demonstrations. There’s also a module for streaming PowerPoint slides.
The most capable version, VidBlaster Broadcast, costs €1,330, with Studio at €665, Pro at €330, and Home at €130. All these are a fraction of the cost of a similarly featured video mixer appliance, and because the products are software-based, rather than hardware-based, they’re much more intuitive than hardware mixers. If live events are on the short-term horizon, www.vidblaster.com should be your first stop.
Live Mobile Encoder
Going live is one thing; going live while on location is quite another. To accomplish the latter affordably, you need a portable (and preferably on-camera), battery-powered encoder that can encode input from your camera and transmit it to your streaming server via Ethernet, Wi-Fi, or cellular. In short, you need something like miniCASTER, produced by TV1 GmbH out of Unterfoehring, Germany (www.minicaster.com).
The company offers multiple units with composite/S-Video, SD/HD/3G-SDI, or HDMI input; all have separate audio inputs if you don’t want to stream audio captured by the camera. All units encode to the Baseline, Main, or High H.264 profiles, with AAC-LC audio, encapsulated into either an MPEG-2 transport stream or RTMP format. The RTMP stream is ideal for connecting with CDNs, live streaming service providers such as Ustream, or your own Wowza or Adobe Media Server, both of which enable distribution to connected Apple and Android 3.0 devices.
The unit has an Ethernet connector for plugging in a cable where available, and a USB port that can accept a Wi-Fi or 3G/4G/LTE modem for these connections. The battery should provide between 35 and 50 minutes of operation, and the unit comes with an AC power connector for charging the battery and powering longer broadcasts.
You can configure and operate the unit via on-board controls and an integrated LCD panel, or via a browser-based interface. miniCASTER is one of the few mobile units that can produce and transmit two streams for adaptive delivery, plus encode another for local storage to an SD card, making it ideal for streaming on-location and quick turn edits to on-demand media back at the studio.
This article appears as "Buyer's Guide: Encoding and Transcoding" in the winter 2012 issue of Streaming Media European Edition.
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