Video Encoding De-Mystified

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What’s an Encoder?

When you want to put video up on a web page, the video must be in a particular format. The procedure of getting the video in that format is called encoding. This article will examine the major video formats and encoders that are used to make those formats. The article will also look at live video encoding. Finally, we’ll look at a couple of free services on the web that will do encoding both on-demand and live.

Flash Video

On of the more popular formats on the web today is Flash video. The file extension of .FLV is associated with Flash video. Most cameras, camcorders, and video editing suites don’t output .FLV files natively. When making a choice to use an encoding software package consider what you get for the price. Adobe includes the Flash Video Encoder with CS3/CS4, it’s essentially free. It does a good job, but you are limited with options when using that encoder. Consider some other commercial software encoders. Look at Sorenson Squeeze, On2Flix Pro, and for the real professional, try Rhozet Carbon Coder). All of these packages offer greater flexibility and control of your media. The above mentioned packages also support outputting many other formats like AVI, MOV, WMV, and others. There are also countless shareware, independent, and free services available to encode video. These products will be fine for low resolution, low bit rate videos, but will have many limitations. For commercial web sites, I wouldn’t recommend using any of these simple products.

If you’re looking for an easy to use encoding solution, that won’t break the bank, try “Encoding Dot Com” I’ve spoken to the CTO of this company. He tells me this service uses different backend technologies to handle different types of encoding jobs. So depending on formats, you will have access to high end encoding technology. The service is easy to use. You can either upload your video to them, or they can come to you to get it. Either way, you get a quality product without having to shell out a lot of upfront capital.

H.264

H.264 is a codec, not exactly a format. It’s basically MPEG-4. So you will find many different formats that have H.264 encoded. You will find H.264 wrapped around .MOV, F4V, and even MP4 files. H.264 is a compression method which usually yields higher quality video at lower bit rates. Most people today are associating H.264 with HD video. This is for good reason since I can get better looking video in a smaller file. H.264 does have it’s disadvantages; it requires more computing power for encoding and de-coding and may not be as compatible as other formats. I wouldn’t let that stop you from experimenting with it however.

Windows Media Video

WMV has been around awhile. Some argue it’s a superior format over Flash. About a year or so ago, I would have agreed. WMV was more stable and could give you great picture quality. Microsoft supports the VC-1 Codec in WMV. VC-1 was the codec used in the HD-DVD format, thus you can expect great things out of WMV with VC-1 encoding. The biggest disadvantage of WMV over Flash is compatibility. You will be hard pressed to find a MAC or Linux box out of the gate which supports WMV video. Also, Flash allows you to make custom players to present your video in and WMV uses the Windows Media Player.

To combat these shortfalls, Microsoft has developed Silverlight. Silverlight is a platform independent product that allows you to create custom player applications. It also runs on MAC and Linux and will support playing of WMV files on those OS’s. See http://www.microsoft.com/silverlight , Microsoft may soon support H.264 encoded video in a Silverlight environment.

MS-Expressions Encoder

Just for your piece of mind, the 2008 Olympics were delivered in Silverlight. See www.nbcolympics.com Many will agree that the 2008 Games went off without a hitch. You can see that even though Silverlight is a newer format, it is road tested by over 70Million streams!

Hardware Encoding

Software is good, hardware is GREAT! When you want the best possible encoding with the least amount of hassles, consider a hardware encoding device. These devices are critical when you are talking about live encoding.

See these companies:

Vbrick, Digital Rapids, Newtek, Viewcast, Ripcode

These all compete in about the same space. You should compare features and prices. I can tell you that Digital Rapids is very prominent in the space. They supply encoding hardware for some of largest names in media and have powered some of the biggest online events ever. The RipCode device is unique since it will do On-the-fly encoding. So your video can change bit-rates, deminsions, or formats as needed. You would only need to have 1 master file and let the RipCode device change it for you as needed.

Live Encoding

Digital Rapids Touch Stream Appliance

If you plan to deliver Live video to more than a few viewers at a time you need to consider using a CDN. Think about your Internet connection in your office or studio. If you have have a 3Mbps up stream and you encode at about 500Kbps, then you will only really be able to support about 6 simultaneous viewers. Not exactly record breaking! Most CDNs that support live streaming can support hundreds to thousands of simultaneous viewers. The 2009 Inauguration of President Obamma drew about 6-9Million viewers online. The networks broadcasting those streams used a CDN.

For Flash Live Encoding you can use the Flash Live Encoder from Adobe and a high end computer. This product is OK for most consumer applications. You are really limited to the horsepower of your computer. There is no Mac version available so you must be on a Windows machine. A better option for Flash Live Encoding is the On2Flix Live encoding software or the Sorenson Squeeze Live product. Both of these will offer higher quality video and more flexibility. You are still at the mercy of your computer. So I suggest you get the biggest, baddest computer you can when using a software live encoder. Throw as much CPU, RAM, and Video Memory at it as possible. Use a SATA or Firewire harddrive which runs at least at 7200RMP.

You also need to consider how you connect your camera source to the computer. Don’t use a simple off the shelf Web Camera or an analog to USB device. These are OK for home movies, but for professional videos you should look at a Prosumer HD Video Camera or a high end encoding capture card like the Viewcast cards.

Ripcode Encoder

For a hardware live encoding solution, look at the Digital Rapids, Vbrick, or Newtek products. Digital Rapids has a cool new product called the TouchStream Appliance. It’s a portable standalone hardware encoder perfect for field productions

Free Encoding

There are several services out there that will convert videos for free. Do a Google search for “Free Encoding” or “convert to FLV” or “convert to WMV”. You can also download the Microsoft Video encoder and convert to WMV yourself. Most video editing packages will export to WMV, MOV, and MPG formats.

Free Live Encoding

To encode live there are only a few options for free.

  • Flash Media Live Encoder
  • Windows Media Encoder
  • For Silverlight Encoding, try the replacement to the Windows Media Encoder is Expression

Try it yourself

If you’d like to put on a live webcast, try these free services. They allow you to create your own channel, store and play on demand and live video. They’re really cool!

  • Mogulus
  • U-Stream
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