Software vs. Hardware Streaming Encoders: Your Options Explained [2020 Update]

software vs. hardware encoders for live video streams

Encoders play an important role in maintaining a high-quality live stream. It’s important to understand the difference between software and hardware live streaming encoders so that you have the information you need to choose the best option for your streaming video broadcasts.

In this post, we’ll discuss the ins and outs of streaming encoders. We’ll also compare the most popular hardware and software encoders on the market, as well as which scenarios work best for each encoding option.

Table of Contents

  • What is an Encoder?
  • Software Encoders
  • Hardware Encoders
  • Popular Software Encoders
  • Popular Hardware Encoders
  • Best Live Streaming Encoders for Broadcasters
  • Questions to Consider When Comparing Streaming Encoders
  • Conclusion

What is an encoder?

Live Stream Encoding Software Options
An encoder is a tool that converts video files from RAW to digital.

Encoders are devices that convert video files from one format to another. They can be either hardware or software-based. Encoders are essential for converting the RAW video files from your camera to streamable digital files.

Your encoder takes the necessary format and converts it into codecs through a compression/decompression process. The standard streaming protocol for internet sources is H.264

We also recommended the video compression format for HD streaming. The H.264 protocol can create what’s called “lossless compression.” For audio-only streaming, there are two popular choices: MP3 (MPEG Audio Layer III) and AAC (Advanced Audio Coding).

There are two important protocols for broadcasting to keep in mind: RTMP and HLS streaming protocol. RTMP transmits the files from the encoder to the video hosting platform, and HLS transmits it from the video hosting platform to your audience. Since the RTMP protocol is so widely used, you’ll want to look into an RTMP encoder.

Now that you have a better understanding of the purpose of an encoder and how it works, let’s take a closer look at the two different types of encoders: hardware and software.

Software Encoders

Software encoders
Software encoders are typically a cheaper encoding option that is popular among beginner broadcasters.

Software encoders are programs that run on your laptop, desktop computer, or another computing device.

There are several perks to using a software encoder. They are typically very easy to set up, and you can tweak or change most aspects of the codecs to get the bitrate and video quality you desire. You can easily update encoding software when a new version or upgrade is available.

Software encoders are generally appealing to beginner broadcasters because of their low cost and customization features. In fact, one popular open-source software encoders–OBS Studio–is free. Many Dacast broadcasters use OBS Studio since Dacast has partnered with OBS to create a custom encoding platform.

However, software encoders lack the overall speed that hardware encoders offer. This is because a computer runs multiple programs at the same time, and therefore can’t devote all of its resources to encoding.

Hardware Encoders

hardware encoders
Since hardware encoders are typically more expensive and complex, they are best suited for advanced broadcasters.

Hardware encoders are dedicated processors that use a designed algorithm to encode video and data into streamable content. These encoders come in both smaller, portable boxes and larger permanent fixtures.

Given their higher price-point, mainly professional broadcasters tend to use hardware encoders. They are specialized specifically for encoding, which gives them an advantage over software encoders.

That said, the video quality of hardware encoders is usually pretty fixed. In other words, there’s not a lot of room to adjust video quality with hardware encoders. Given that hardware, encoders take time to design, build, and manufacture, they are sometimes equipped with older codecs. This makes hardware encoders very rigid, compared to flexible encoding software.

The higher price-point and lower latency that comes with hardware encoders set them apart from their software counterparts. You won’t find any free hardware encoders. You may find some for as low as $100, but for the most part, they reach towards the thousands.

Popular Software Encoders

We’ve gathered some information on a few of the top software encoders on the market. Here’s what you need to know.

1. OBS Studio

obs studio Software Encoder
Once known as Open Broadcaster Studio, OBS Studio is a free, open-source platform that is perfect for encoding.

Since Dacast has created a custom platform on OBS Studio, the two platforms integrate perfectly. This makes OBS Studio a great software encoder for Dacast users, especially those who are still learning the ropes of live broadcasting.

Basic Functionality

OBS Studio offers a variety of video broadcasting tools, but we’re focusing on the encoding capabilities. The OBS Studio platform integrates seamlessly with most online video platforms.

Key Features

OBS Studio is not a streaming solution, but it is a multi-faceted broadcasting tool. It provides real-time video mixing tools, camera transitions, audio tools, and more.

It is super easy to use, which makes it attractive to broadcasters who are new to the arena.

Pros 

  • Absolutely free
  • Integrates with most professional streaming platforms
  • No learning curve involved
  • Perfect for new and experienced broadcasters

Cons

  • Does not work with Windows XP
  • Relatively limited functions and capabilities

Pricing

OBS Studio is totally free to use.

Best Use Case

OBS Studio is meant to be used as an encoding and broadcasting tool that integrates with professional online video platforms.

2. Wirecast

wirecast Software Encoder

Telestream’s Wirecast is another video streaming software with encoding features. This tool has been around since 1998 and was used privately until 2004 when Telestream publicly launched the software.

Basic Functionality

Wirecast has several functions that contribute to creating a professional live broadcast. The function we will focus most on is the encoding capability. The encoder is most well known for its real-time mixing and multi-camera switcher.

Key Features

  • Camera switcher
  • High definition graphics
  • Compatible with Windows and iOS
  • Multi-casting features

Pros 

  • Advanced features for advanced broadcasters 
  • Compatible with both Mac and Windows
  • A responsive customer service team
  • Consistent system updates to keep the software running effectively

Cons

  • Very expensive for a software encoder
  • The platform is tricky to used

Pricing

Wirecast has two encoding plans: Studio for $599 and Pro for $799. This is a bit expensive for an encoding software, but it is geared towards advanced streamers.

They offer a free 30-day trial if you want to try before you buy.

Best Use Case

This encoding software is for advanced broadcasters with the goal of broadcasting elaborate streams.

3. VidBlaster

vidblasterx software encoder

VidBlaster is a streaming tool with encoding capabilities. It has options for all broadcasters from beginners to advanced. The software offers more than just encoding tools and focuses on video productions.

Basic Functionality

VidBlaster offers streaming support with a wide variety of tools. It has plans for streamers of all levels of expertise.

Key Features

  • Plans for every budget
  • Designed to grow with you
  • Offers an array of video editing tools

Pros 

  • Offers a free version
  • Simulcasting capabilities
  • Simple to use and set up
  • Audio mixing and video perfecting tools

Cons

  • The free version isn’t white-labeled
  • Not compatible with iOS

Pricing

VidBlaster offers four plans, which makes it suitable for broadcasters of all levels.

Here are the plans and their prices:

 

  • Basic: Free
  • Home: $9/year
  • Studio: $99/year 
  • Broadcast: $999/year

 

Best Use Case

VidBlaster’s wide range of plans gives it multiple best use cases, but it’s encoding software is powerful and can be integrated with most professional streaming solutions.

4. vMix

vmix Software encoder
Vmix is a Live Video Streaming Software that allows you to broadcast live productions online.

StudioCoast’s vMix is a live streaming tool with encoding capabilities. It offers an array of useful streaming tools. vMix comes in six different packages and can be used by broadcasters with different levels of expertise.

Basic Functionality

vMix is a feature-rich encoding software designed for Windows users.

Key Features

  • Works with a variety of file types
  • Compatible with several video outputs
  • Simulcasting features 
  • Integrates with FMLE encoder add-on
  • Optimized for speed

Pros 

  • Free version available
  • Speedy and reliable
  • Low latency streaming
  • Feature-rich
  • Great customer service
  • Highly professional look

Cons

  • Not compatible with iOS
  • Difficult to use

Pricing

vMix offers six different plans at different price points.

  • Free: $0
  • Basic: $60
  • SD: $150
  • HD: $350
  • 4K: $700
  • Pro: $1200

Best Use Case

vMix is best used in collaboration with a professional hosting platform.

Software Encoder Takeaways

Software encoders
Software encoders are typically easy to use and integrate with professional OVPs.

OBS Studio is one of the most popular options, particularly if you are seeking for a free software encoder. OBS offers encoding software for game recording and live streaming. It supports mixing between multiple sources and is accessible for new broadcasters.

Telestream’s Wirecast is one of the best paid professional-grade software encoders on the market. In addition, Wirecast offers some great sports features to enhance any live sports broadcast. For example, you can insert scoreboards, live replays, and even real-time scoreboards with Wirecast encoding software.

Popular Hardware Encoders

There are three popular hardware decoding brands that are worth noting. These include Tricaster, TeraDek and Niagara.

Here’s a breakdown of some of the features, pros, and cons, prices and best case uses for these three hardware encoders.

1. TriCaster

tricaster-multi-display encoder

TriCaster is high-ticket encoding hardware designed for advanced streamers. It’s capabilities extend beyond encoding.

Basic Functionality

TriCaster’s encoding hardware is designed to connect to video capturing devices to encode video content in real-time.

Key Features

  • Real-time encoding hardware for live streaming
  • Recording functions 
  • Video and audio mixing tools

Pros 

  • On the spot moving graphic processing
  • Recording for video on demand (VOD) playback 
  • Mixing tools
  • Real-time encoding for live streaming

Cons

  • Expensive
  • Requires expensive accessories to use
  • Steep learning curve
  • Bulky hardware

Pricing

TriCaster offers an array of recording devices, ranging from $4500 to $15,000.

Best Use Case

The TriCaster encoders are best suited for professional broadcasters due to their high price points and complex features.

2. TeraDek

teradek_video encoder

TeraDek offers compact encoding hardware that is perfect for live streaming on the move. Unlike many other hardware encoders on the market, their products are light and sleek. Some are built with portable chassis.

Basic Functionality

TeraDek hardware encoders are designed for portability and streaming on the move.

Key Features

  • Sleek design
  • Top tier video quality
  • Expensive

Pros 

  • Designed to live stream on the go
  • High-quality video
  • Compact and portable

Cons

  • Very expensive

Pricing

Pricing for Teradek’s encoding devices starts at $1,790.

Best Use Case

TeraDek hardware encoders are best suited for professional broadcasters who require some mobility. 

3. Niagara Video

niagara video encoder

Niagara Video is an encoding brand through and through. They offer nearly 20 different encoding hardware options, in addition to a few different software solutions. 

Niagara Video has been around for nearly two decades. They have been at the forefront of encoding, and are often considered trailblazers in the industry.

Basic Functionality

These tools are built for both encoding and transcoding. Most of their tools are hardware encoders designed for professional podcasting.

Key Features

  • Many encoding hardware options

Pros 

  • Wide variety of encoding tools to choose from

Cons

Not applicable.

Pricing

For pricing, you must contact Niagara directly. Prices are not published online.

Best Use Case

The primary function of Niagara Video’s products is to encode and transcode live video content. Since they have a variety of products and solutions, they offer a wide range of specific tools and features.

Hardware Encoder Takeaways

When it comes to hardware encoders, Teradek VidiU is one of the most popular options. It allows you to live stream over-the-top with just the encoder and video capturing equipment, so you don’t actually need a computer. 

Other Teradek models include the Cube, Beam, Clip, and T-Rax which are all designed for different uses and projects. The Teradek Beam is a long-range encoder that can transmit data from up to 2,500 ft. away. This feature makes it ideal for live broadcasts on the field for sporting events.

TriCaster also has multiple encoding models to fit your every project and need. Some popular models include the TriCaster 40, 455, 855, and 8000. As one of the leading innovators in all-in-one live video encoders, you can’t go wrong using one of these to produce your content.

Best Live Streaming Encoders for Broadcasters

live streaming encoders
Which type of live streaming encoder best fits your needs?

If you’re oscillating between software and hardware encoders for live video streams, these suggestions might make your decision a bit easier.

Here are some suggestions based on encoders that work best for different types of broadcasts.

  • Beginning Streamers: OBS Studio is free and allows you to familiarize yourself with the live streaming process. It offers a decent amount of features. Thousands of broadcasters, from beginners to experts, use this software.
  • Live sporting events: Since these events take place in either a gym or a field, less equipment is ideal. You won’t need to take up much space with just your computer and camera. As mentioned above, Wirecast, in particular, has some great sports-related features.
  • Live streaming from home: If you’re a broadcaster who occasionally wants to stream live video to viewers from home or in more casual settings, you’ll likely prefer something simple and free, like OBS Studio.
  • Production Companies: When you are live streaming professionally, you likely need high-quality, crisp video streams for your viewers. In that case, live streaming hardware encoders are the best option for you. They are built specifically for live stream encoding and can transmit for days with minimal issues. That said, it requires a bit of a steeper budget and technical know-how to use a hardware encoder effectively.

Please keep in mind that your final decision should be based on the specific features you need to reach your live streaming goals.

Questions to Consider When Comparing Live Streaming Encoders

Software vs Hardware Live Streaming Encoders
The most important thing to consider when investing in an encoder is how well it suits your needs.

Here are a few key questions to ask yourself when considering whether a software or hardware encoder will work best for your live streaming needs. 

Will I use a professional streaming service?

If you’re planning on using a professional live streaming platform, like Dacast, check to see which encoders are compatible with that service. Most use a standard format such as RTMP

In rare cases, a platform may have its own encoder. However, for the most part, you’ll find format-based encoder recommendations from your chosen OVP.

Will I need a portable encoder for live streaming on the go?

Different events call for specific encoder requirements. Software encoders are typically preferable for streaming on the go since they only require your laptop and are easy to set up.

For hardware encoders, it’s typical that broadcasters want the ability to transfer them easily between venues. The long-range of TeraDek’s Beam encoder, for example, will give you added mobility.

If you don’t need portability, however, there are fixed encoders that you can set up and keep in your recording space. Some of the hardware encoders are pretty heavy, weighing upwards of 20 pounds. If you feel that a heavy-duty encoder is best suited for an event, you can bring it to the venue and set it up once.

Which features will I need for my video content?

Knowing how you want your final video project to look when it is done, can play an important part in choosing the right encoder. Software and hardware encoders for live video streams differ in the features that they provide. Likewise, each company offers different services and advantages.

Closed captioning and ads, to name only a couple, are key features to consider. With the Wirecast encoder, ads are done by broadcasters using pre-recorded content. These pre-recorded ads are then inserted manually during the live feed.

What functions do I need the encoder to have?

Which features and functions you need will be one of your deciding factors for which encoder to choose.

Software encoders can come with a lot of functions useful for producing high-quality content. The right software encoder can handle multi-camera switching, title insertion, and playback on a disc-based file.

Hardware encoders, on the other hand, can be used for any multiple-camera producing content you might want to create. For context, most live broadcasts nowadays involve at least two cameras recording live content.

Conclusion

software vs. hardware encoders for live video streams

Now you know what an encoder is and why you might choose hardware over a software live stream encoder (or vice versa). 

To recap, hardware encoders are more reliable, as they are built with the sole purpose of encoding and transmitting. 

Software encoders usually run well, but their speed can depend on the computing device on which they’re installed. 

Envisioning your end project is key in determining what features you need from the encoder. Ultimately, you should choose one that has the features that you need to reach your goals and is compatible with your broadcasting setup.

The most important thing is that you find an encoder that works for you and is within your budget.

If you are in search of a unified video hosting platform look no further. Dacast offers both a live streaming solution and advanced VOD hosting, so you can broadcast the content that works best for you on a white-label video player. Why not take advantage of our 30-day free trial (no credit card required) to test out all our great features for yourself? Simply click the button below to sign up today!

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I hope this helped you out with live stream encoders and that you find the one that fits you best! For regular tips on streaming solutions and exclusive offers, you can also join our LinkedIn group.

39 thoughts on “Software vs. Hardware Streaming Encoders: Your Options Explained [2020 Update]

  1. Pingback: How to Fully Test Before Your Church Live Stream - Dacast

  2. Dacast Team says:

    You can try using an other encoder. We usually recommend Vmix, Wirecast & OBS. The later is free and open-source but they do not offer customer support.
    You can also open a support chat on http://www.dacast.com and one of our amazing support people will help you set this up.

  3. Dacast Team says:

    Thank you reading us James!

    The most important when trying to stream in HD quality is your internet connection. Be sure to use an hardwired one (Ethernet cable). Indeed, WIFI tends to be less stable and your viewers might face some buffering issues.

    Other than that, 12 Cores and 1GB of GraphicRAM will be way enough.

  4. Dacast Team says:

    No problem James 🙂

    The upload connexion is the one that matters when broadcasting video. 13 Mbps should be enough, even if it could be enhanced.
    It could be a CODEC problem, or a sync issue like you said.

    Have you tried to reproduce this issue with an other encoder? I personally use OBS on my mac, and I never faced such lags.

    Best,

    • James Stephens says:

      Just now getting around to updating on this issue. It is fixed. It was an issue with the encoder and could not be reproduced in another encoders setting. Had to leave adobe behind for OBS as you suggested and haven’t looked back.

      I just wanted to say thanks for the replies and help you have offered.

      Cheers.

  5. Alexander Voz says:

    You are aware that Tricaster relies on Adobe Flash Media Live Encoder to do its encoding, right? It’s not a hardware encoder, and FMLE’s encoding quality is sub-par at best.

  6. Dacast Team says:

    If they use the RTMP technology, any software encoder would do the job. Personally, I like to use OBS Studio (Open-source) or Wirecast 7 (paid) but since I am not 100% sure how they work, I wouldn’t want to advise you a wrong encoder. Safe bet would be to start with OBS Studio, and when you need more feature, start benchmarking paid solution as vMix, Wirecast or any other encoder.

  7. Manny S says:

    Very useful topic. I’m asked to build a platform that will offer live streaming to its clients. So Client A will be able to stream live say sitting in California and Client B will be able to do so sitting in London. What kind of encoder should be used for such a set up? I’m assuming a hardware encoder fits in more because of it’s reliability and performance. Also, can this hardware encoder be placed anywhere to accept encoding requests from all across and still perform?

    • Dacast Team says:

      Thank you reading us Manny! Generally, when people use hardware encoders, it means that this encoder is directly plugged into the cameras and/or the video capture cards. It wouldn’t be such a good idea to place an hardware encoder remotely and then struggle to transfer the inputs.

      I would recommend you to use software encoders (OBS Studio for the best of the open source world, or Wirecast / Vmix for the paid options) installed on each computer broadcasting. You would also need a live streaming platform that can allow you to create an unlimited amount of streaming channels, all that with no delay.

      Each time you would close a new customer, you will create his channel and provide him with the necessary information he could plug into his encoder (stream name & Url, login password) and would be able to stream in few seconds.

    • Jeff Hollis says:

      Well, you can’t just connect two streams to a publishing point and expect it to just “work” – you’re looking for video bridging, which is more Video Conference Unit/Webcam switch based than hardware encoder-based.

      This way, multiple people can connect (from different continents) to the same endpoint, and then the stream would be transmitted to an audience from a central server. The audience would see a presentation containing both presenters, either side-by-side, or voice-switched.

      You could direct streams to be ingested by a central wirecast server, and then use wirecast to transmit said streams to a delivery service, but that gets complicated, and bandwidth would be a problem. You’re probably best off going with a company that does this already, so you don’t have to spend the money on infrastructure and staff to run something like that.

      I work with these systems directly, let me know if you need more info.

      • Dacast Team says:

        I totally agree with you. A webinar platform might be a better fit but the pricing are often much more expensive.

        The second solution you mention is the one being use by some broadcasters here at DaCast. They would use a P2P communication service, or even using Skype or Google Hangout to handle the interviews, and then everything goes through a Wirecast where each speaker (each skype call for instance) is a new Input source and then the broadcaster is managing the transitions as if it was a genuine TV show.

  8. Michael Manke says:

    Hi Carlos, I don’t know if you already figured this out, but Periscope Producer allows you to use an encoder to stream an “advanced source” in your periscope account in the settings. You can send an RTMP stream with super rigid specs to them and it will allow you to preview and then publish the stream from your alternate source. The thing that might hold you up with the drone in particular is you would need to have some sort of encoding app on your phone that could ingest the drone footage or send it to some other external encoder somehow. As I said the specs are very rigid and some software encoders really don’t get along with it. Hope this is helpful.

  9. Sami Wilberforce says:

    Hey guys is there any other software that you can add scenes like obs and xsplit softwares and adjust video bitrate to have a small size file but still maintain better quality? Please email me

    • Etienne Noualhat says:

      Hey Sami! That is a great question, I will suggest you give us a call in order to get exactly what you need. I am not sure there are software that can do that, but our sales rep might know better!

      • Sami Wilberforce says:

        Have called but no one was available to pick. Have you used OBS and Xsplit to understand what am asking?

        • Etienne Noualhat says:

          I have! And I understood your concerns, only (and I have verified that with the team) I reckon it is not possible to do what you ask, with any software:
          Choosing the bitrate will change the quality of the video, you mechanically can’t have both at the same time. High bitrate means heavy file but high quality, low bitrate means low quality and light file, this is the reason bitrate is a parameter of any encoder.
          If you would like, you can contact me on the following: etienne.noualhat@dacast.com and explain what exactly you want to accomplish there!

          • Sami Wilberforce says:

            Thanks you have answered me maybe the best thing is to record with the high bitrate and use minimizer software to minimize the size

          • Etienne Noualhat says:

            It will depend on what is your need exactly: are you aiming for more people to download your video, or more people to just watch it on VoD?

  10. Sami Wilberforces says:

    Download and watch on VoD. I somehow managed a few tricks with OBS, these are the settings i did
    Video bitrate: 200
    Encoder: Software {(x264)
    Audio bitrate: 128
    Recording and streaming quality: High quality medium size file
    Recording format: .mp4
    Base and output resolution: 1920×1080

    It gave me double quality of what i was getting and reduced the file size by 1/4 that to me was impressive considering how bad the video were and with a big size yet also blurred. Learning few tricks still. I make make live webcam small on top of powerpoint and so the viewers still have me and the powerpoint slides at the same time

    • Etienne Noualhat says:

      I would say that is the only thing you can do: playing with your OBS settings and how you will record the video.
      I found the following video that sums up which settings you should go for: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AkPhzxyVarY

      Apart from that, you should be able to stream in a quality that is different to the quality you’re recording with.

  11. Sami Wilberforce says:

    Thats a timely help you provided there by the video. I chose flv cause i dont need multiple audio track its smaller size but quality too. Thanks

  12. Joseph Otieno Adamson says:

    I find it very interesting in this article you only mention hardware encoders such as TeraDek VidiU which is aimed at amateurs I have the VidiU every time I tried to stream it failed plus the software is buggy in the end I ended getting a LiveU solo+ prior to that I was hiring a LiveU 400 for serious jobs. I am not sure who your readers are on this topic.

    • Etienne Noualhat says:

      Well! You probably had a worse experience than ours! We have tested the products for a while and nothing was buggy. You definitively should contact their support team, they could have fixed your problem?

  13. George says:

    Did you find any new hardware encoders (Broadcast quality) preferably 4.2.2 – 10bit or better
    Thank you in advance

    • Maciek says:

      Thank you for your interest in Dacast’s Streaming Solutions. I have forwarded your inquiry to either our sales or support team and they will reply to you shortly. Have a great day!

  14. Trevor Connell says:

    Since you published this article the Blackmagic ATEM mini Pro has been released.
    The ATEM Mini Pro supports direct live streaming over ethernet using Real Time Messaging Protocol (RTMP).
    I’m assuming this would be an excellent way of getting the appropriate signal to dacast. It is certaqinly the combination I am currently investigating.

    • Harmonie Duhamel says:

      Hi Trevor, I hope you are well. We haven’t had the opportunity to test with the Blackmagic ATEM mini Pro. But if you have any feedback, we would be more than happy to hear it. Thanks!

    • Simon Tucker says:

      It looks like this doesn’t work currently due to the fact dacast requires user authentication – would be really great to work out how this might be possible – any ideas Dacast?

      • Harmonie Duhamel says:

        Hi Simon, I responded to your message directly on LinkedIn. Let me know if you need further help. Thank you! Best regards

  15. Martin Fajth says:

    Hi, i am beginner in streaming, sorry for stupid question. How can you add layers ( for example scoreboard) when you are streaming with an hardware encoder?

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