Remember that Willy Wonka scene where the chocolate bar time travels from one side of the room to another after being broken apart? Well, that’s the basic (and gloriously oversimplified) function of a video encoder!
Video encoding generally refers to the process of converting a video input into digital format for playback on various devices. In other words, it’s the process of digitizing video and sending it somewhere online, like to a content delivery network (CDN) or a live streaming provider.
To encode and stream video, you can use either a dedicated hardware encoder or a computer that runs a software encoding program. We’ll explore some of our favorite software and hardware live video encoders below and walk through a few considerations before you purchase.
Software Vs. Hardware Live Media Encoders
Software encoders run on your laptop or desktop computer. But because your computer isn’t necessarily made for receiving video and audio from other sources, you may have to use a capture device—a small, affordable adapter that converts the video output into a digital format that’s recognized by the computer.
Keep in mind that the prices for the following software options vary greatly, and that price can be impacted depending on the video streaming provider you decide to go with.
- FMLE (Flash Media Live Encoder): This is a free encoder you can get online from Adobe. It’s very simple to use: You connect your capture device, choose your capture device from within the software, configure your output settings, hit start, and you’re done.
- Wowza Gocoder: This free encoder was created specifically for encoding video from a tablet or smartphone—so if you choose one of those devices for your live stream, this is the perfect app.
- Wirecast: This software allows you to add production-quality effects to your broadcast, like lower third graphics, multiple camera shots, and more. The price for Wirecast starts at $495 for the studio version and goes up to $995 for the professional version (which we recommend).
- vMix: This is an alternative to Wirecast with similar features. vMix offers a free version of its encoder and five paid options ranging from $60 to $1,200.
Hardware encoders are separate, dedicated devices made for video streaming, with all camera connectivity built right into it. This type of encoder uses its own internals to send the video to its destination.
- Teradek VidiU: This is a very simple option, ideal for a single-camera setup. There are no frills here—you simply plug the HDMI cable in, connect it to the internet, configure your destination (where you are sending your stream), and hit start. The price for the VidiU is $699.
- TriCaster: This is the most common hardware option for churches that utilize multiple cameras for live streaming. It allows you to show multiple video sources, gives you the option to show those watching the live stream something different than what’s being shown to those on-campus, and more. The cost of a TriCaster can vary significantly based on your needs and the model you choose, but will range from $5,000 to over $25,000.
- Sony Anycast: This is a simple-to-use, install-based touchscreen unit. It has a great user interface, but takes a lot of infrastructure to run properly. The price for Anycast is $16,475.
- LiveStream HD550 Video Switcher: This is a portable encoding unit that enables you to stream from multiple cameras and sources with ease. This makes it a great choice for churches without a permanent location. The price for LiveStream HD550 Video Switcher is $7,999.
Choosing A Video Encoder: 4 Pieces Of Advice
- If you’re a one-man-show or you’re just getting started with live streaming, we suggest the Teradek VidiU hardware or FMLE software. The Teradek VidiU is more expensive—around $600-$700—while FMLE is free. That being said, FMLE requires the use of a computer that meets basic requirements to handle live streaming—so as we mentioned previously, you’ll need to ensure your computer can meet those requirements.
- Choose an encoder that will work as your live streams become more sophisticated. If you’re choosing your first-ever live encoder—and are just beginning the live streaming process—it may be tempting to pick the easiest option. But we strongly suggest selecting an encoder that will still be useful to you a year or two down the line when you add more bells and whistles. In other words, consider where you want to be with your live stream in a few years, and select an encoder that will meet those future requirements. We rarely talk to individuals who are OK with their live stream being simple and straightforward forever. Most of the time, they want to increase sophistication down the road. If you fit into that second category, look at your encoder as an investment in future live streaming capabilities.
- Remember that your live encoder—like your video stream—can be as simple or as complex as you want it to be. Googling “the best video encoder” is sure to overwhelm you with thousands of opinions on how certain video encoders handle bitrate, color grading, signal noise, light grading, and much more. If you keep this in mind, you should be able to cut through the noise and focus on the elements that matter most to you.
- Find the right partner to guide and assist you through the live streaming process. This is critical! The guy at your neighborhood electronics store may have a bigger sale in mind—not your company’s needs. And your buddy who just started live streaming may have completely different wants and needs than you do. So what you need is someone who knows live streaming (and live video encoders!) inside and out. If you haven’t found this resource yet, let’s talk! At Stretch Internet, we stream more than 60,000 live events each year with an emphasis on providing outstanding support and memorable experiences.