What Is Video Bitrate (And What Bitrate Should You Use)?

December 1, 2022 by
abstract video bitrate graphic
 

Video bitrate refers to the amount of video data transferred across a connection in a set amount of time. In this way, it could also be thought of as video density since having more information sent to a playback device each second results in a higher quality video. In short: the higher the bitrate, the bigger the file, and the better the video.  

Of course, anyone who has faced a two-hour download can tell you that large files don’t exactly move quickly. So, inherent to the question of what bitrate you should use for your video is the problematic balancing act between video quality and stream speed and reliability. In this article, you’ll learn more about what bitrate means for your video, how to choose the correct one, and strategies for addressing the quality vs. speed conundrum.  

   

Understanding Video Bitrate

Let’s go back to the top and take this term apart since it’s a little more complicated than you might think. After all, it’s not just about speed, and it’s not exactly about size. It lies somewhere in the middle in a place best described as “richness.”  

What is a Bit? 

Put simply, bit refers to all those 1s and 0s we hear so much about. It’s a unit of data that makes up a piece of digital content or, if you’re feeling poetic, the building-block of digital DNA.  

What is Bitrate? 

What else but the rate at which bits are transferred across a digital connection? Bitrate is measured in bits per second (bps) and often used to describe speed. So, if you were to check your download or upload speeds on your internet connection, you’d see them defined by how many bits can be transferred each second.  

This makes sense when you consider a sizable game file that you are trying to download. The game itself is a set size (number of bits) and the more bits can be transferred each second, the faster the game downloads. In this way, a high bitrate connection speed translates to a fast download. 

What is Video Bitrate?

Of course, we said that it’s not JUST about speed. And that’s true where video streaming is concerned. Let’s say you create a video file and encode that video file with a specific bitrate. Nothing is being sent or received yet, so what does that bitrate mean if not speed?  

It basically refers to the demands of that file. In other words, that’s how much data that file needs to transfer each second to stream properly. If those demands (bps) exceed the network connection speed (also bps), then the stream could buffer or fail completely. In this way, a high video bitrate does not mean the stream is fast. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. A higher video bitrate makes for a larger and more demanding file. That’s one reason why it’s challenging to live stream high-quality video with low latency.  

 

Why Should You Care About Video Bitrate? 

You could just as easily ask why you should care about stream quality or reliability, because the bitrate at which you choose to encode your video will have direct bearing on both. The trick is to maximize the former without sacrificing the latter.  

Bitrate and Video Quality

All digital information can be reduced to bits. This includes all the colors, frames, etc. that make up your video file. The more information you can send in a single second, the crisper and smoother the video image will be. It’s that simple.   

Bitrate and Stream Reliability 

On the other hand, you want a reliable and accessible stream. Typically, this means you want a stream that won’t fail or buffer. It could also mean the ability to play the stream back on a variety of devices, depending on your specific needs.  

The Bitrate Conundrum

You’ll want to ask yourself how the importance of video quality measures up to that of stream reliability for your specific use case. Unfortunately, there’s no way to truly maximize both.  

In Silicon Valley’s 2014 debut episode, the hapless protagonist, Richard Hendricks, stumbles across a solution to this very problem with his audio searching and streaming website, Pied Piper. Of course, he didn’t realize at first that what prospective investors were most interested in was not the website itself but the lossless compression technology he used to reduce high quality media files to a size that can stream in an instant.  

Unfortunately, Richard’s achievement is still largely fictional. Certainly, there is such a thing as lossless video codecs for compression. However, they have their limits. While they can compress video data such that it can be fully reconstructed. How much they can compress those files still faces limitations, as does the reliability with which that data can be reconstructed. So, you can’t expect to stream a 4k HD image instantaneously to any device.  

 

Subscribe and stay up to date

Learn the latest tips and tricks for all your video streaming needs.

Subscribe
 

What Video Bitrate Should You Choose?

Video bitrate doesn’t operate in a vacuum. When choosing your video bitrate, consider these other streaming factors and how they affect or are affected by your video bitrate.   

Upload Speed 

Your Internet Service Provider’s (ISP) connection speed is measured in bits per second. This denotes how much data can be transferred each second. You can’t upload a video whose bitrate exceeds your upload speed.   

Tip: Check your ISP upload speed at a sight like speedtest.net. Consider a video bitrate some 35-40% lower than this speed. 

ISP Stability

Your bandwidth (and that of your audience) is not static. It can vary depending on the reliability of your ISP, how many other devices might be making demands on your network, and even the weather. 

Tip: Maximize this speed by eliminating other demands on your bandwidth (turning off other devices). Consider using an Ethernet cord instead of Wi-Fi for greater reliability.  

Frame Rate

Picture a flipbook. Each page of your flipbook is a “frame” in a larger animation. This is how video works. Our eyes interpret these static images as motion when we view them in quick succession. Frame rate is measured in frames per second (fps) and refers to how many and how fast these images are. The higher the frame rate, the smoother the video. That said, frames equal data and a higher frame rate will require a higher video bitrate. Therefore, your chosen bitrate will depend in part on your chosen frame rate.  

Tip: Consider 30fps for a standard video and 60fps for higher definition.  

Resolution

Video resolution refers to the number of pixels in a video frame. More pixels equate to a clearer and more nuanced image. Just as with frame rate, pixels are data and affect bitrate needs. For a higher definition video, you’ll want higher resolution and higher bitrate.  

Tip: Consider 1280 x 720 for standard definition and 1920 x 1080 for higher definition.  

Viewer Bandwidth 

You don’t have any control over your viewer’s bandwidth, but you should still consider this factor when selecting your video bitrate. If their bandwidth’s bps is less than that of your video, then the video may buffer or not play at all. Who are you trying to reach and what do you know about their resources?  

Tip: Consider adaptive bitrate streaming (ABR) or variable bitrate streaming (VBR) to adapt to viewer resources more easily.  

Encoder

The encoder’s job is to prepare your raw video data for streaming. It compresses the video at a certain resolution, frame rate, and video bitrate — all of which you can select in your encoder settings. However, not all encoders are as effective at handling large video files. Your chosen encoder will determine how quickly your computer can process your video, which is particularly important when live streaming video. 

Tip: Find an encoder that fits your needs and not the other way around. There are hardware or software encoders.   

 

Video Bitrate Recommendations by Platform 

If you’re looking to stream via a specific platform, then explore their recommendations and requirements. These platforms will also have recommendations and requirements for frame rate and resolution. We’ve included a few of the more popular platforms here with links to more detailed requirements.   

YouTube 

Video Resolution (pixels)Video Frame (frames per second)Recommend Video Bitrate (kilobytes per second)Recommended Upload Speed (megabytes per second)
720p30fps15,000-4,000 kbps2-5 Mbps
720p60fps2,250-6,000 kbps2.9-7.4 Mbps
1080p30fps3,000-6,000 kbps3.8-7.4 Mbps
1080p60fps4,500-9,000 kbps5.6-11 Mbps
1440p30fps6,000-13,000 kbps7.4-15.8 Mbps
1440p60fps9,000-18,000 kbps11-21.8 Mbps
4K30fps13,000-34,000 kbps15.8-41 Mbps
4K60fps20,000-51,000 kbps41.2-61.5 Mbps
Read More 

Twitch 

Video Resolution (pixels)Video Frame (frames per second)Recommend Video Bitrate (kilobytes per second)Recommended Upload Speed (megabytes per second)
720p30fps2,500-4,000 kbps3.2-5 Mbps
720p60fps3,500-5,000 kbps4.4-6.2 Mbps
1080p30fps3,500-5,000 kbps4.4-6.2 Mbps
1080p60fps4,500-6,000 kbps5.6-7.4 Mbps
Read More 

Facebook

Video Resolution (pixels)Video Frame (frames per second)Recommend Video Bitrate (kilobytes per second)Recommended Upload Speed (megabytes per second)
1080p30fps3,000-6,000 kbpsNot Specified
Read More 

Simulcasting with Wowza Video  

Maybe you’re not interested in just targeting one platform and want a more effective way to reach them all. A streaming solution like Wowza Video makes it easy to encode your raw video data for streaming using certain protocols and transcode that same data to reach numerous platforms and devices according to their specific requirements. Wowza Video is also your best bet for building video technology into your products and services or streaming live and video on demand (VOD) content to your own website. 

Recommended Baseline Encoder Settings for Wowza Video are as follows:  

Video Resolution (pixels)Video Frame (frames per second)Recommend Video Bitrate (kilobytes per second)Recommended Upload Speed (megabytes per second)
720p30-50 fps1,024-1,600 kbps Not Specified
1080p30-60 fps2,640-12,000 kbps Not Specified
Read More 
 

Research the Right Solution for You

Download our Buyer’s Guide for free.

Download Now
 

Video Bitrate Methodologies 

While we’re on the subject of alternative methods to maximize your reach, let’s take a closer look at some video bitrate strategies and when they might come in handy. Keep in mind that you may or may not be able to benefit from these methodologies depending on your streaming protocol. For example, the ultra-fast WebRTC protocol is not capable of adaptive bitrate streaming (ABR). Of course, it has its own method for accommodating user bandwidth restrictions. 

Constant Bitrate  

Constant Bitrate (CBR) is encoding and streaming at its most basic. In short, you determine a single bitrate for your entire stream and send it out. That bitrate does not change according to which device it is being sent to nor can it adapt to fluctuations in user bandwidth. That said, thanks to its simplicity, it can encode video quickly, making it a good choice for live streamers.  

Tip: Choose a video bitrate on the high end of average to ensure quality video that is not prohibitively resource demanding.  

Variable Bitrate 

Variable Bitrate (VBR) is the other side of the coin to CBR. With variable bitrate, you can encode different data segments of a stream at different bitrates according to their complexity. In other words, some portions of your video are encoded at a higher or lower bitrate then others. As not every portion of a video is as resource demanding as others (e.g., higher action shots could require higher frame rates), this can be an effective way to maintain consistent quality while minimizing demand on bandwidth.  

Tip: VBR comes in different flavors. Which you choose could depend on whether you’re live streaming or offering video-on-demand (VOD). Read more. 

Multi-Bitrate Streaming 

Multi-Bitrate (MBR) streaming also involves a range of bitrates. However, it does not encode video data segments separately. Instead, it offers several options for playback, and once a specific bitrate is chosen, the entire stream is locked in at that bitrate. In this way, you can more easily accommodate a wide range of viewers, all of whom could be streaming on different devices at different bandwidths. However, if their connection speed dips mid-stream, the video may buffer.  

Tip: Consider this for a simpler way to accommodate a range of viewers on your VOD platform 

Adaptive Bitrate Streaming 

This is the gold standard in video bitrate optimization. Adaptive Bitrate (ABR) streaming starts off similarly to MBR in that determines the best video bitrate based on the viewer’s specific needs. However, instead of being locked into that bitrate, the stream fluctuates within a set range (encoding ladder) to adapt to changes in the viewer’s bandwidth. In other words, if their connection speed improves, so too does the video quality. If their connection speed dips, the video quality does as well. This makes it possible to maintain the highest possible video quality without risking buffering.  

Graphic Visualization: Adaptive Bitrate Streaming

Tip: A streaming solution with built in transcoding capabilities makes it easy to take advantage of this more complex strategy.  

 

Video Bitrate FAQs 

Still confused about video bitrate and how to choose the best one for your needs? Let’s close out with a quick stab at some of your most frequently asked questions.  

What Is Considered a Good Video Bitrate? 

Well, that depends on your frame rate and resolution. For a standard video, you’d typically choose 30fps (frame rate), 720p (resolution) and something between 3500 and 5000kbps (video bitrate). For a high-definition video, you’d typically choose 60fps, 1080p, and 4500 – 6000kbps.  

How Can I Optimize My Video Bitrate?  

Optimize your upload speeds with a good ISP and wired internet connection. Make sure your software is fully updated. Consider a streaming solution with transcoding capabilities to help you develop a more nuanced workflow. This can also help relieve pressure on your bandwidth and hardware.  

How Can I Change My Video’s Bitrate?  

An encoder allows you to select your video bitrate when compressing your raw video files. A transcoder takes already encoded video files and re-encodes them with different specifications. In other words, it can take your video at a bitrate of 5000kbps and create versions at 3500kbps and 4000kbps.  

Is 6000 Too High of a Bitrate? 

Generally speaking, the typical streamer should think of 6000kbps as the ceiling. However, it is possible to stream video at a higher bitrate and with the right resources and equipment that is not a problem. “Too High” is really defined by buffering and that depends on your audience and adaptive capabilities.  

Should I Stream In 1080p or 720p? 

How important is high definition (1080p) to your streaming needs? Don’t go big just because. If it’s better to have a smooth stream, standard definition (720p) is perfectly suitable. We recommend standard for anyone just starting out. 

 

Conclusion 

Unfortunately, Richard Hendricks’s revolutionary Pied Piper video encoder exists only in HBO’s imagination. That said, there are very real streaming solutions that can help you make the most of your video streams (live or otherwise). Consider a solution like Wowza Video to help you encode, transcode, and otherwise manage your video assets.  

 

About Sydney Whalen

Sydney works for Wowza as a resident content writer and social media marketer, leveraging roughly a decade of experience in copywriting, technical writing, and content development. When observed in the wild, she can be found gaming, reading, hiking, parenting, overspending… View more