A Buyer's Guide to Portable Encoders

Live event streaming while on the road requires an encoder that's as powerful as it is portable. In this Buyer's Guide, I'll detail the categories to consider when buying a portable encoder, along with factors to consider to help identify the best product for your needs. Specially, I'll discuss software encoders, portable hardware encoders, and on-camera encoders, though exclusively for Ethernet or Wi-Fi transmission, as cellular models are covered in another Buyer's Guide.

Let's start with the two things you need to consider before buying any encoder.

Service Provider

If you're using a live streaming service provider such as Ustream or Livestream, your first stop should be their list of compatible hardware and software programs. Most of these providers supply free software encoders that simplify connecting to the service and ensure the full use of all features, such as adaptive streaming. If you decide to go the hardware route and your hardware encoder isn't listed, it may not work, or you may not be able to access all streaming-related features offered by that live streaming service provider.

WORKFLOW

Most live event producers want to reach multiple platforms, such as computer and mobile devices, optimally with adaptive streams that match the bandwidth and playback capabilities of their viewers. To accomplish multiple-format adaptive streaming, you'll have to encode your source into multiple files, package these files in the proper format, and create any necessary metadata files.

Relax; you don't have to do all this on your portable encoder. But you do need to plot the various stops along the way to work back to the format and quality that you do need to produce on-site. So mind the second habit of highly successful people and begin with the end in mind.

Beyond these two considerations, each of the three types of portable encoders brings with it its own set of questions. So, rather than offer a bullet-point list of questions, we'll cover those within each of the following sections.

Software Encoders

Most live event producers are drawn to software encoders because they're inexpensive (or free) and can be very powerful, with multiple programs that offer production functions such as multiple camera switching or title creation. If you already own a sufficiently powerful notebook computer and budget is your most pressing consideration, this is the class for you. Unless you're running older DV or HDV gear that you can connect to your computer via FireWire, don't forget to factor in the cost of the adapter you'll need to connect your camera gear to your notebook.

If you're streaming into the Flash infrastructure, the free Adobe Flash Live Media Encoder (FMLE), which is available for both Mac and Windows, is a natural first stop. Note that FMLE has a three-stream limit, so if your encoding tool needs to create more than three, you'll have to look elsewhere. FMLE is also devoid of any production-oriented features such as multiple-camera switching.

If you're streaming into the Silverlight or IIS infrastructure, check out Microsoft Expression Encoder 4 ($199), which can create as many streams as your notebook can support and offers rudimentary camera switching. The product is Windows-only, however; so it's a no-go if you're encoding on a Mac.

There are two product families that combine encoding with production features: Telestream Wirecast, which is cross-platform and starts at $495, and VidBlaster, which is Windows-only and starts at $195. Both families offer versions with a dizzying array of features that can dramatically enhance a live broadcast, from the aforementioned multiple camera switching and titles to adding disk-based files and screen-based or PowerPoint presentations to the live feed.

While software encoders are very popular for many producers, there are three general concerns. First, while operating these programs should be well within the capabilities of most computer literate video or streaming professionals, they're probably beyond the capabilities of your average marketing or personnel administrator. Second, performance is obviously hardware-dependent, so if the program is installed on a substandard computer, or if performance is degraded on a particular computer by a background task, streaming may come to an abrupt halt.

Finally, because these programs are installed on general-purpose computers, operations as innocent as installing another program can degrade performance or even cause the program to crash or become unstable. For these reasons, many streaming professionals prefer portable streaming appliances over software encoders.

Portable Hardware Encoders

Portable hardware encoders come in an array of shapes, sizes, and price points, and most operate very similarly. Specifically, you can configure encoding profiles and server connection points in your office so that users in the field just need to power the unit up, achieve network connectivity, connect the camera, and press the encode button.

If there are problems, typically you can log into the unit remotely via its IP address, assuming there are no firewalls in the way. Many of these systems are actual computers running Windows or Linux, with graphics and USB ports. If you bring a keyboard and monitor along, you can configure the unit directly on-site. Since these systems are not used for general-purpose computing, they're more reliable and consistent (though they're much more expensive than your software-only options).

How to choose between the many options? A few simple rules will help narrow your selection. First, if you're working within a certain environment, such as Sonic Foundry's Mediasite, or VBrick Systems' VEMS Mystro, you should buy an encoder from that vendor. General-purpose encoders either won't work or won't offer the same level of integration.

One environmental factor to consider is noise. Because many of these systems are fully functioning computers in a small metal box, they need robust cooling systems that make the units too noisy to place anywhere near the action. If you're broadcasting a basketball game, system noise probably doesn't matter, but if you're streaming a quiet meeting from a small conference room, noise may be a problem.

Another factor is the availability of a touchscreen for monitoring and control. Keyboard and monitor connections are nice, as is the ability to configure the system remotely, but embedded touchscreens are just as good, though typically they carry a significant price premium.

Beyond this, focus on the connectivity and functionality you need the unit to provide. Most vendors in this space offer multiple options with varying video connections (SD analog, component, HDMI, HD-SDI), format support (Flash, Windows Media, HLS), resolutions (HD, SD) and stream count. By the time you identify and price all the units that meet your unique requirements, there probably won't be more than two or three candidates to choose from.

On-Camera Systems

One capability you can't get from either software programs or portable hardware encoders is true portability; if you're moving the camera to follow the action, you need an on-camera encoder or a portable encoder with a handle that makes it easy to carry. Such systems really came into their own over the last few years, and this market should grow rapidly over the next few years.

At a high level, there are two types of on-camera encoders: stand-alone encoders that support Wi-Fi and Ethernet connections on-board, most with a USB port available for 4G modems, and integrated devices that enable both H.264 encoding and 4G cellular connectivity, usually via multiple 3G/4G modems. In addition, many stand-alone H.264 encoders have sister products solely for 4G connectivity. I'll confine my discussion to the encoding only class, but I will say that if you're looking for encoding and 4G connectivity, either buy an integrated encoder/4G connectivity product or purchase sister encoder/connectivity products from the same vendor.

As with hardware encoders, most on-camera encoder vendors offer multiple products differentiated by camera connection. As you'd expect, you'll pay more for HD-SDI connectivity than simple analog in. Virtually all on-camera products are single-stream-only, so there's little difference there.

Battery configuration and life is probably the most important configuration option. If your events are relatively short, any battery configuration will do, but if they're longer, units with internal lithium ion batteries tend to last longer than those that use external batteries. Of course, for really long events, it's nice to be able to switch external batteries even if it does require a stream switch. There are some larger encoder/4G modem products with external batteries that are hot-swappable, so you won't have to shut down to switch batteries. However, these are generally much larger than on-camera products.


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