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Hardware vs. software encoding: Which is best for your project?

January 12th, 2022 Michael Monette

Hardware vs. software encoding: Which is best for your project? image

You’ve run into the inevitable question of hardware vs. software encoding: whether you should use a software application or a dedicated appliance for video encoding. It’s a question with big implications for your workflows, your budget, your prospects of success. So it’s no surprise if it’s a question you face with some trepidation.

A good understanding of the pros and cons of each encoding method is key to making the best choice for you, your team, and your clients. This blog will give you that understanding so you can confidently decide between hardware encoding and software encoding for any project.

Contents

    Video encoding 101

    “Software encoder” and “hardware encoder” can mean different things to different people. For that reason, let’s clarify what we mean here to better understand the question of hardware vs. software encoding:

    • A software encoder is a streaming or recording application that works on a general-purpose computer running an operating system like Windows or macOS. Streaming software like OBS Studio, vMix, and Streamlabs are a few popular examples.
    • A hardware encoder is a standalone appliance that’s purpose-built for live streaming and video recording. Epiphan Pearl-2, Pearl Mini, and Pearl Nano are a few such devices on the market.

    With that cleared up, let’s dive into the differences between these two types of encoders.

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    Option 1: Software encoding

    Probably the biggest plus in favor of software encoding is availability. Chances are you already have most of what you need to record or stream out video via software: a laptop or desktop computer, a webcam, and a built-in or external microphone. All that’s missing from that list is the application. In the case of an open-source software solution like OBS, that comes at no cost.

    Speaking of cost, that’s another advantage of software encoding – some of the time. It’s often the more frugal option for casual, low-pressure productions (and if you’re producing one of those, be sure to check out or blog on the best webcams for streaming). But if we’re talking about a professional production where video quality is paramount and multiple cameras are involved, that’s where this point gets a little muddy. To match the performance of a hardware encoder out of the box, you could easily spend as much or more in upgrades and add-ons to your software streaming rig (like HDMI to USB adapters).

    Option 2: Hardware encoding

    Hardware encoders set the bar pretty high over software-based setups. The advantages they bring are often essential for professional-level productions, or if your goal is to create broadcast-quality videos or live streams that are sure to impress and engage.

    Where exactly do hardware encoders have an edge? In four key areas:

    • Performance
    • Flexibility
    • Reliability
    • Serviceability

    Hardware encoders offer better performance

    A hardware encoder will generally run more smoothly than a computer built with general-purpose parts. This is especially true when it comes to handling multiple high-end sources or when you’re sending content to multiple streaming platforms (e.g., YouTube, Facebook Live, and LinkedIn Live all at once). That’s because hardware encoders are tailor-made for streaming and recording. Every component inside was handpicked or designed specifically for the task, and every bit of processing power is dedicated to it.

    Likewise, the underlying software is fine-tuned for live streaming and recording, which is possible because there’s no need for a hardware encoder to do anything else.

    Hardware encoders are more flexible out of the box

    Most hardware encoders sport multiple video inputs that let you directly connect mirrorless cameras, camcorders, and other high-end equipment. The same goes for audio: on some appliances, you’ll even find inputs for professional audio devices (i.e., XLR, TRS).

    With inputs built right into your video encoder, it’s far easier to create professional-quality video. On the other hand, software-encoder setups tend to be limited to USB. That means you’re stuck using webcams and microphones that just aren’t suitable for professional contexts.

    Of course, you can purchase capture cards to bring non-USB signals into your computer and a front-end audio interface to use professional audio gear. But this adds more components and cables, and each one is a potential point of failure. It also complicates setup and teardown, and it means more things to keep track of and possibly lose during travel.

    Hardware vs. software encoding Hardware vs. software encoding

    Hardware encoders are more reliable

    Imagine this: you’re at the helm of a major production. Everything is humming along when, suddenly, the screen turns a deep blue and you’re faced with a horrifying message: “A problem has been detected and Windows has been shut down to prevent damage to your computer.”

    This isn’t an event reserved for an AV pro’s nightmares. It’s a very real possibility when using a software encoder. That’s because there’s a host of other processes and programs running alongside your streaming application, driving up your CPU usage and sporting agendas of their own. The dreaded message that interrupts your production could just as well be an OS update or an anti-virus pop-up.

    Compare this to a hardware encoder, which is built from the ground up for streaming and recording. The same goes for the underlying software, which means there are no competing or extraneous processes. That’s not to say hardware encoders never experience hiccups, but it’s far less likely.

    Hardware encoders are easier to service

    Have you ever had this experience? You run into a glitch with some computer software, so you pick up the phone and dial the vendor’s customer support line. The vendor says the culprit is a part in your computer, Component A. You call up the manufacturer of Component A, and they say the problem is actually Component B. You phone the maker of Component B, and, of course, they point the finger at Component A.

    It’s a frustrating circle to be stuck in, and you can avoid it completely with a hardware encoder. Reason being, hardware encoders are designed and assembled by a single manufacturer who acts as your one point of contact. This makes getting your system repaired or replaced a relatively pain-free process.

    Hardware vs. software encoding: Which is better?

    To sum up: software encoders are only suitable for low-pressure productions. For professional broadcasts, or if your goal is to wow your audience with high-quality video and audio, you’ll want a dedicated appliance handling your encoding.

    And if you’re in the market for a hardware encoder for your live video streaming, we’ve got you covered. Our Pearl family of hardware encoders are durable, easy to use, and rigorously tested for long-term reliability. Check out our Pearl system compare page for more details. Also take a look at a couple of our other blogs to learn why Pearl systems make the best YouTube live stream encoders, and why Pearl Nano is the best SRT encoder for remote guests.

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