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By Joel Lombardo
For those looking to start streaming, deciding which gear to purchase can be a daunting decision. A question often asked when preparing to stream is, “Are software encoders good enough, or should I invest in hardware?”
An encoder takes a video signal from your camera, switcher, or other video infrastructure and converts it into a form suitable for online streaming platforms. An encoder is the most critical piece of equipment in your video path that will determine the ultimate quality and resiliency of your stream, so picking the right option is essential.
There are two different roads you can take when it comes to choosing what encoder works best for you. There is software, a cheaper option that relies on your current computer to operate, or hardware, which is a standalone unit with an exclusive focus on encoding.
We created this helpful graphic to better illustrate pros and cons of both options.
Software encoders include many popular options like ProPresenter, Wirecast, or VMix. These options have a starting price tag that can’t be beat. They also include many features built in like the ability to switch between multiple video sources, add overlaid text and graphics, and more. Because it is using equipment that you already own, it’s an obvious starting place for those wanting to get into the streaming game.
However, choosing software will likely come with unforeseen challenges and expenses. Software encoders rely on the computer’s processing power, usually requiring a beefy processor and GPU in order to process multiple inputs, compress into multiple bitrates, etc. Because it is also relying on the computer’s operating system, along with multitasking with other applications on the computer, stability can be unpredictable, leading to interruptions or quality loss. Support can also be tricky, as the program may be running in thousands of configurations on fragmented device setups.
Hardware encoder choices can be equally daunting, if not for the dollar signs alone as they typically start at a higher cost. Some examples include Resi Server-Grade encoders, Resi RAY, or Wowza Clearcaster. While they come at a higher starting price, it is worth investigating if the advantages outweigh the cost. Additionally, after considering expenses of upgrading computers for software encoders, the cost difference may not be as dramatic.
Hardware encoders are built specific to the task of video streaming and provide an additional level of quality unmatched by any software alternative. Because hardware encoders are typically used for a single purpose, (without multitasking of the operating system or other software) they are best for streaming effectively without skipping or packet loss and are maximized for the highest quality video and audio.
Support for hardware encoders is also typically easier (depending on the provider), because they are built in a single configuration that can be easily diagnosed in the case of an issue. Hardware encoders provide a higher level of comfort to know exactly what you are getting and how it will perform.
So to review, software has a lower bar of entry, but a much higher bar of excellence. There can be many variables of involvement that need to be considered before making a final decision. If you have any further questions, feel free to sign up for a demo. We will happily walk you through what makes the most sense based on your budget and current gear.
Joel is an Online Pastor, Web Developer, and Digital Marketer. Joel has been helping churches and organizations live stream important moments for almost 10 years.
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