Hardware vs Software Encoding in Live Streams

More often than not, live broadcasting is mentioned in the same breath as encoding. So, what is encoding all about? 

Encoding is the process by which media is converted to the desired format using a range of algorithms. The quality of your live stream is very important for your audience’s experience. Even with top notch streaming equipment, lagging video and shaky audio from faulty encoding or lack thereof becomes a nuisance to your audience.

A live streaming encoder is the tool that converts your live transmission into a different format to create digital copies of your video that can be transmitted over the internet. Encoding should be real-time because the whole point of a livestream is being real-time.

Hardware Encoding

Hardware streaming encoders are powerful reliable tools used by professional streamers for all their encoding needs. They are dedicated pieces of hardware that run encoding algorithms. 

Hardware encoders are super-efficient because they serve one purpose – encode the live stream. 

With software encoding, the tools work with your computer’s OS, which makes encoding more of a secondary function. Before settling for hardware encoders there’s a few things to keep in mind:

First, hardware encoders are pretty pricey – sometimes to the tune of thousands of dollars. It is for this very fact that hardware encoders are mainly used by professional streamers who make decent enough money from live streaming. 

At the risk of redundancy, hardware encoders do one thing: encode your live stream and stream it out. Hardware encoders are also extremely reliable and unlike software encoders, they don’t get lagged down by other running applications. Typically, hardware encoders do not include multiple inputs or switching capabilities – you will need to add software for that.

Pros

Hardware encoders are incredibly reliable because they are built for the sole purpose of encoding. On top of superb reliability, they also perform great so if you need insanely-high streaming quality, it’s a match made in live transmission heaven. 

With the high encoding speed they offer, there is minimal latency in the stream.

Cons

The biggest downside to hardware encoders is their cost. Typically, the price starts from a couple hundred dollars going up. That doesn’t exactly spell out ideal especially for small scale streamers. 

Hardware encoders are built for encoding and encoding only. As such, they lack capabilities like switching. You again have to get additional gear for functions like this.

In summary, getting an upgrade is kind of tricky. In comparison to software encoders whose upgrades mostly only involve a download, upgrading a hardware encoder more often than not involves buying a new one.

Software Encoding

Software streaming encoders are encoding computer programs that you run on your PC. They get data from the capture cards and send it over the internet. Software encoders are the more used of the two because of how affordable they are – some of the most popular software encoders are actually free.

Pros

Some of the best software encoders out there are actually free making software encoders much more affordable than hardware encoders. Software encoders also include capabilities like switching because they can take in multiple feeds from streaming equipment. 

Finally, software encoders come with some customizability factor in that you can change aspects like encoding type as well as the bitrate.

Cons

To begin with, software encoders are only as good as the computer running them so there’s high dependence on the host. Even the best software encoder in the market will be horrendous when run on a slow computer. 

Software encoders run on a computer so their performance is as well affected by other programs in the computer. Unlike hardware encoders that are specifically made for encoding, software encoders have to coexist with other computer programs leading to slower encoding and after that, high latency.