Hardware or Software Live Encoders – Which Should I Use?

If you stream video, you’re probably familiar with live encoders to some degree. Encoders are either hardware or software devices that convert data from one format to another. They’re essential to converting the feed from your camera to streamable data you can share. So how do you choose between hardware and software encoders? Read on!

With software encoders, you simply download the software to your computer and stream. Examples of software live encoders are Wirecast, vMix, and OBS. Hardware encoders are dedicated processors that use a designed algorithm to encode video and data into streamable content. These encoders can come in smaller, portable boxes or larger permanent fixtures. Examples of hardware encoders are Tricaster, TeraDek, and Webcaster X2.

In the past I haven’t been too excited about using hardware encoders for several reasons:

  • Years ago, they were more expensive and you could – and still can – find software encoders for free.
  • Some hardware encoders, the parts become outdated and you can’t replace a part. Instead, you have to purchase a new device, causing downtime.
  • With a software encoder, you can do a simple update for the encoder on your computer.
  • Hardware encoders are usually difficult to upgrade, while software encoders are easier because all you need to do is download an upgrade.

However, I am slowly changing my mind about hardware encoders thanks to Epiphan’s Webcaster X2.

It is reasonably priced to software encoders, small so it does not take a lot of room in an area that usually has lots of other equipment, and their customer support is excellent. A couple of advantages to using a hardware encoder like the Webcaster X2 is the high-quality encoding, even up to 1080p resolution level. It is simple to use and the entire encoding process is automated. You don’t need to worry about CPU usage, network security issues, and computer memory.

The nice thing about streaming software is the high customization capabilities, in terms of both quality and content. Advanced streaming software is capable of streaming great, smooth, visually-enhanced, high-quality picture. However, the output quality of streaming software is largely limited by the computer it is running on. The higher the quality and the more enhanced a live stream you want to produce – the more computing power it will take. This means that to successfully stream a smooth high-resolution stream, you will need a computer with a powerful processor and a top-notch graphics card.

When choosing a live encoder one should consider desired features, specifications and budget range. Hardware encoders are considered as reliable option due to their dedicated operations whereas performance of software encoders is highly dependent upon the computer over which they are installed.

When it comes to deciding which kind of encoder to go with, the truth is that it really depends on each individual case. Each way has its pros and each has its cons, but the bottom line is if you want to start live streaming, you should pick whichever way seems the easiest and will get you streaming the fastest. As you get more and more into it, you will get a better feel for your true live streaming needs are and hopefully find your own perfect balance between video streaming hardware and software.

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