Hardware Transcoders vs. Software Transcoders – Comprehensive Guide

The choice of a transcoder is a big decision that you need to make when setting up a streaming company. Transcoders are critical to video streaming and reduce costs (encoding, CDN, storage), improve the video quality, deliver fewer bits per pixel, and make your content look awesome for the end user!

In this article, let’s take a look at the broadest classification of transcoders in the market – hardware and software transcoders.

Hardware transcoders use specialized hardware to convert video files from one format to another, while software transcoders use computer programs to perform the same task. Both options have their own advantages and disadvantages and in this article, let’s understand the impact on the cost of operations, video quality, and efficiency.

Let’s get started, shall we, with hardware transcoders?

What is a Hardware Transcoder?

A hardware transcoder is a device or equipment specifically designed for transcoding video from one format to another. It uses specialized hardware components, such as GPUs (graphics processing unit) or ASICs (application-specific integrated circuit) chips optimized for video processing tasks. Hardware transcoders can be used to convert video from one format to another, such as converting a file from H.264/AVC to AV1 or H.265, or to modify the bitrate, resolution, or other characteristics of a video stream.

Video decoding and encoding is a complex and computationally expensive process and it is advantageous to use hardware chips designed specifically for transcoding algorithms in order to gain speed and performance.

hardware transcoder
Example of a Hardware Transcoder

Hardware transcoders are often used in video streaming and broadcasting applications, where the demands on performance and quality can be high.

They can also be used in other contexts where the need for fast and efficient video processing is important, such as in video editing or post-production workflows.

Hardware transcoders can be standalone devices that are connected to a computer or network, or they can be integrated into other equipment, packagers, IRDs, etc. They may also be available as cloud-based services that can be accessed over the internet.

With this introduction to hardware transcoders, let’s move our attention to software transcoders and understand how they are built.

What is a Software Transcoder?

A software transcoder is a dedicated computer program that is used to transcode video from one format to another or to change the bitrate, resolution, or other characteristics of a video stream. Software transcoders can be used to convert video files from one format to another, such as converting a file from H.264 to HEVC or VP9, change resolution from 1080p to 720p, or to transcode a live video stream in real-time.

ffmpeg software transcoder
FFmpeg is a Software Transcoder

Software transcoders are typically implemented as computer programs that can be run on a variety of different hardware platforms, including desktop computers, laptops, industrial grade servers, handheld mobile phones, and even browsers. They can be used in a wide range of applications, including video streaming, video editing, and post-production workflows.

The most famous example of a software transcoder is FFmpeg, a software library that is used across the world for compressing/transcoding video. Many companies use FFmpeg for their daily transcoding and there are several software built on top of FFmpeg, such as Handbrake.

Software transcoders are generally more flexible than hardware transcoders, as they can be easily modified or customized for different use cases. However, they may not be as fast or efficient as hardware transcoders, which are specifically designed for video processing tasks and may have dedicated hardware components that are optimized for this purpose.

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Deciding between a Hardware and Software Transcoder

Now let’s look at the few key factors to consider when deciding whether to use a hardware or a software transcoder –

Performance

Hardware transcoders tend to be faster and more efficient than software transcoders, as they are specifically designed for video processing tasks and may have dedicated hardware components (such as GPUs or ASIC chips) that are optimized for video encoding or specific video encoding algorithms. Having dedicated chips makes hardware transcoders incredibly fast with very low latency (time gap between the video entering the encoder and the video coming out).

However, software transcoders can also be quite fast, depending on the specific implementation and the hardware they are running on.

Flexibility

Software transcoders tend to be more flexible than hardware transcoders, as they can be easily modified or customized for different use cases. Hardware transcoders, on the other hand, are generally more difficult to modify or customize.

In addition, fixing issues that occur in the field (like artifacts, ghosting effects) is much easier on a software transcoder via a simple software update vs. having to upgrade the entire box for hardware encoders.

Cost

Hardware transcoders tend to be more expensive than software transcoders, as they require specialized hardware components that can be expensive to produce. However, the overall cost of using a hardware transcoder may be lower if it results in significant performance improvements that outweigh the upfront cost. For example, transcoding a live channel 24×7 in a fault-free manner might be better suited to a hardware transcoder than a software one.

Software encoders on the other hand come as executable programs that can be installed on compliant hardware, thus, reducing the overall cost of set up and operations.

Maintenance

Hardware transcoders may require more maintenance than software transcoders, as they may have physical components that can wear out or fail over time. Software transcoders, on the other hand, do not have these types of physical components and may be easier to maintain.

Conclusion

Ultimately, the decision between using a hardware or a software transcoder will depend on your specific needs and constraints, such as the performance and quality requirements of your video content, your budget, and the level of maintenance you are willing to undertake.

krishna rao vijayanagar
Krishna Rao Vijayanagar

I’m Dr. Krishna Rao Vijayanagar, founder of OTTVerse. I have a Ph.D. in Video Compression from the Illinois Institute of Technology, and I have worked on Video Compression (AVC, HEVC, MultiView Plus Depth), ABR streaming, and Video Analytics (QoE, Content & Audience, and Ad) for several years.

I hope to use my experience and love for video streaming to bring you information and insights into the OTT universe.

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