The 7 Best Hardware Encoders for Live Streaming
If you have questions about what to look for in a hardware encoder, this article will walk you the right things to look for before buying one. I’ll also identify some of the best hardware encoders in multiple categories. For transparency’s sake, I haven’t been hands-on with all of these encoders personally and have chosen several of them based on features, specifications, and user reviews.
That said, let’s start with a look at what an encoder is, what it does, and why hardware encoding is often preferable over software encoding.
Table of contents
- What Is an Encoder and Why Is Hardware Better?
- General Purpose Encoding
- Portable Devices for Remote Production
- Lecture Capture and Presentation Solutions
What Is an Encoder and Why Is Hardware Better?
An encoder is a device or program that inputs a video signal and outputs either a compressed stream for delivery and transcoding to a cloud service or a complete encoding ladder ready for delivery. I’ll cover only the former category in this blog post, not the latter.
Most software-based video mixers, from OBS to the TriCaster, have integrated encoding capabilities, which are always an option. However, because encoding is a CPU-intensive process that can steal CPU cycles from these programs (and potentially degrade performance or stability), many producers eschew using an integrated encoder for a separate hardware encoder.
Before digging deeper, let’s distinguish encoders from capture devices. It’s easy to confuse the two because many encoders and capture devices may look similar and come from the same manufacturer. However, capture products almost always connect your video source to a computer, typically via USB, so you can input your video into a video mixing application. In contrast, encoders input your video, encode into a compressed format, and deliver it to the internet for transcoding.
Like most technical products, identifying the best encoder for a particular application starts with a number of questions.
Can it connect to my video source(s)?
The major differentiators here are connection types (HDMI vs. SDI) as well as resolution and frame rate (1080p/4K, 30/60 fps). Also consider the number of connections, particularly in the context of a broadcast application or lecture capture, where the output signal will combine multiple sources like PowerPoint input from a laptop with a talking head video.
Can it produce my target output?
Virtually all encoders can produce 1080p@30 fps 8-bit input with the H.264 codec. If high frame rate, HEVC, high dynamic range (HDR), and/or 4K/8K are currently required or in your future, you may need a more capable encoder.
Will it connect to my target service?
All transcoding and delivery services publish specifications that detail the protocols, container formats, codecs, and other information about the streams that they ingest. Here are the specifications for Wowza Streaming Engine. Some services are relatively generic; with H.264 and RTMP the main flavors available. All encoders should be able to connect to these services without issue.
Support for more exotic fare, like SRT support for low latency and/or HEVC support for low bandwidth streams, is less available — though rest easy, Wowza Streaming Engine supports both. To access these features, you’ll need a more professional (and expensive) encoder.
How do I control it?
Most encoders don’t have control interfaces that you can use to directly connect to a cloud-based service. Typically, you control these units by logging in to them from a browser that can access its IP address, which works well when you’re connected on the same LAN. Others also enable control via a smartphone, which may be more convenient if you don’t have a computer handy.
How will it connect to the internet?
Virtually all encoders have Wi-Fi capabilities, Ethernet, or both. If neither of these are available at your production location, you’ll need an encoder that can connect via cellular.
How noisy is it?
If you’re running the encoder in a closet, obviously you don’t care about this. On the other hand, if the talent and production team are in a closed space, encoders without noisy fans are definitely best.
With these questions in mind, let’s start exploring different encoder classes for different applications.
General Purpose Encoding
For general purpose streaming from a fixed location with power and internet, you can focus on cost and simplicity.
1) URayCoder Wired 1080P H.264 HDMI Video Encoder
One unit that ticks all the right boxes (and provides a great diagram to assist our discussion) is the URayCoder Wired 1080P H.264 HDMI Video Encoder, which is an Amazon Choice with a 4.5 star average with 100 ratings ($188). As the name suggests, the unit accepts HDMI input at 1080p maximum.
In the diagram below, you see that the unit has an HDMI loop through, so you can attach an HDMI monitor to watch the display. This provides a nice confidence monitoring function (yes, the unit is receiving video) and could be useful for some presentations or events. You can control the unit via a webpage on a computer or via App control, and the unit can broadcast to up to four services simultaneously, though you’ll need 4x the outbound bandwidth to do this.
As you see in the diagram, you can also display the video from a separate decoder box or on a computer or mobile device that can access the URL of the video encoder, both relatively common features. URayCoder also has relatively low-cost units that accept SDI input ($248) and output HEVC $238).
2) Datavideo NVS-35
It’s often useful during a live event to record the output locally
, so you can immediately make the stream available for VOD viewing , or grab highlights. In these instances, you might have to stream at relatively low quality — say 4 Mbps for a 1080p stream — but record at a higher bitrate, like 12 Mbps, for better quality. The DataVideo NVS-35 shown below ($999.69 at B&H, no reviews) supports such recording via an SD card slot on the front and you can configure both streams to different quality levels.
The unit has A/V inputs for HDMI and SDI, with 2 XLR inputs plus RCA connectors for other audio sources. The unit supports FAT32, exFAT, and NTFS file systems, enabling recordings with no preset file size limits, and features dual-stream output so you can stream to two services simultaneously, or record to the SD card and stream to a service simultaneously.
3) Asus TUF GAMING GeForce RTX™ 3090
Beyond these options, you may also want to consider thinking inside the box. Specifically, if you’re configuring a computer for a software-based video mixer like OBS, vMix, or Wirecast, you can add hardware encoding via many NVIDIA-based graphics cards (see a list here). The GeForce RTX 3090 shown below can encode H.264, HEVC, and AV1, all in hardware, preserving the CPU for mixing-related tasks. The Asus model shown is pretty pricey at around $2,100, but you can find graphics cards all the way down into the sub-$100 price range with H.264-based hardware encoding.
4) ATEM Mini Pro
Another way to look inward to access hardware-based H.264 encoding is via switchers like the ATEM Mini Pro below, which has that functionality. Many low-end switchers don’t have this feature and require either an external encoder that can accept HDMI or SDI input or a computer with software that can accept a USB signal from the switcher. While you’ll usually need a computer to drive the ATEM Mini Pro during your event, you won’t need a separate encoder; just plug an Ethernet cable into the Mini and you can encode with hardware and stream directly to your target service. This is a unit that I own and it’s worked well for many productions.
Portable Devices for Remote Production
When you don’t have Ethernet or Wi-Fi available you’ll need to rely on cellular to get the encoded stream to the Internet. This requires an encoder that combines compression and wireless communications.
5) VidiU Go
Since many of the scenarios described above also lack access to AC power, you’ll be looking for a unit with a battery or the ability to accept USB power. These come in two general form factors, units that sit on your camera, like the VidiU Go shown below, and bigger units with extended batteries that come in bags or backpacks.
Most units include multiple modems that connect separately to create sufficient bandwidth for the encoded stream. Connecting to different services like T-Mobile and Verizon also provides redundancy if one provider is swamped.
These units use what’s called cellular bonding to combine multiple cellular signals and transmit your compressed data over the combined signal. In many cases, you send the encoded video via the bonded signal to the company’s cloud service, which reassembles the data into a single stream and passes it along to your target service or services.
The on-camera VidiU Go shown above supports HDMI and 3G-SDI inputs and can output H.264 and HEVC. The unit costs $1,590 (without the optional modems shown in the figure) on B&H where it enjoys a 4.5-star rating with 18 reviews.
LiveU offers multiple unattached models in its LiveU Solo family, shown below. The LiveU Solo HDMI/SDI in the middle inputs HDMI and SDI with up to two modems plus Ethernet and Wi-Fi, which can all be combined to carry the H.264 signal into the cloud. The unit weighs just over a pound and includes an LCD monitor on top for monitoring and control. The unit costs $1,345 on B&H where it enjoys a four-star rating with 35 reviews. I’ve used the HDMI-only unit many times going back to 2017 with consistently good results.
Lecture Capture and Presentation Solutions
These products combine multiple-input mixing, switching, recording, and live streaming output.
7) Pearl2 Encoder
You can visualize the combination of these features in the Epiphan diagram for the Pearl2 encoder. This high-end Pearl2 has multiple inputs for up to 4K SDI and HDMI video with XLR connectors to support professional audio gear. As you can see, the unit has a large LCD panel for monitoring and some control plus a headphone jack for audio.
You create compositions from your various input sources by connecting to the system via a computer and web browser. Beyond the connected sources, you can add still images, logos, and text to the production. During the production, you can switch between various shots using controls on the unit or via a browser-based controller called Epiphan Live. You can record the program stream output and even record ISO streams of the various inputs.
The Pearl2 family includes the unit shown above ($7,499 at B&H; one five-star review), a rack-mountable unit ($7,495, same review), down to the earl Nano, that I reviewed here ($1,695 at B&H, 2 reviews, 4-star average; but see poor reviews on Amazon, also $1,695).
There you have it — seven of the best hardware encoders on the market. Each have their advantages depending on your production and what kind of streaming you want to do, so consider the pros and cons of each as you make your decision.
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About Jan Ozer
Jan Ozer is a leading expert on H.264, H.265, VP9, and AV1 encoding for live and on-demand production. Jan develops training courses for streaming media professionals, provides testing services to encoder developers, and helps video producers perfect their encoding ladders and deploy new codecs. He’s a contributing editor to Streaming Media Magazine and blogs at www.streaminglearningcenter.com.