Wow! Another year has passed. And so it’s time for another round of encoding tool updates. In this roundup, I’ll compare the output quality, speed, and codec-related feature set of the most prominent crop of sub-$1,000 encoders and provide the results in report-card form. For the most part, the best in each category rated an A, the worst a C, and the rest B’s. Though this will vary by the encoding tool and category, a C grade should be a concern if you’re currently using or plan to use the encoding tool. Where a feature is significantly limited in a particular encoder, I’ve noted it in the tables with asterisks and explained the issue in the text.
Briefly, for quality tests, I produced SD (640×480 at 30 fps at 468Kbps video/32Kbps audio) and HD (1280×720 at 29.97 fps at 800Kbps video/128Kbps audio) files using H.264, VP6, and VC-1 codecs; I compared output quality with other encoding tools using the same operating system. I produced all comparative quality tests from prescaled, predeinterlaced files to isolate the encoding quality rather than the scaling and deinterlacing quality of the respective tools. To test scaling and deinterlacing quality, I used a 1-minute DV file containing multiple scenes with sharp edges, diagonal lines, and other jaggy magnets; I then compared the output of the respective tools.
To test performance, I timed the encoding of a single 1-minute file and then timed how long it took to encode five 1-minute files, deploying all available techniques to speed encoding time, such as running multiple instances of On2 Flix Pro and Sorenson Squeeze on both the Mac and Windows platforms for the five-file encoding trials. For Windows, I tested using a 2.8-GHz Dual-Processor, Quad-Core HP xw6600 workstation running XP with 3MB of RAM. For the Mac encodes, I tested on a 3.2-GHz Dual-Processor, Quad-Core Mac Pro running Leopard with 8MB of RAM.
In terms of supported features, this varied by codec. For H.264, I looked at features such as access to the baseline, main, and high profiles; support for context-adaptive binary arithmetic coding (CABAC) entropy encoding; and the breadth of B-frame configuration options. For VP6, I looked at access to two-pass encoding and also the VP6-S and VP6-E options. For VC-1, I looked at access to the tweaking parameters enabled in WMV SDK 11 and support for Silverlight output.