Published in February 2006

What Difference Does The Box Make?
By Neal Weinstock

All those video encoders…

Blackmagic Design’s Multibridge Studio is the world’s first all-in-one bidirectional converter that instantly switches between HD and SD, features 4:2:2 and Dual Link 4:4:4 video quality, and uses a PCI-X connection to host computer.

     A challenge: Go to the NAB convention and try to visit every MPEG encoder exhibitor and understand its products. The show lasts only three-and-a-half days and, this year, more than a hundred companies showed encoding products. Fifteen minutes with each would fill up all your time, no lunch breaks. You probably won’t be able to do it.
     You might not even be able to accomplish the same feat at InfoComm, which, despite being a much smaller show, still has lots of stuff you need to do. And, almost certainly, not at CES, a much larger show but hardly a convention focused on MPEG encoding. Anyway, you have better things to do at these shows, which is why you keep coming away wondering, in your spare time, how there can be so many MPEG encoder companies! How do they tell themselves apart, much less how can you tell them apart?
     We’ve given this some critical thought lately…and, even more useful, asked some smarter people. It seems most reasonable to classify the encoder competition into seven categories:
• Enterprise/institutional conferencing codec.
• Enterprise/institutional encode only systems.
• Core hardware.
• Core software.
• IPTV and telecoms.
• Post-production and streaming focused.
• Broadcast-oriented.
     We’ll try to take them one at a time, but many products and companies cross over, so it will get a little messy.

Video Apps of The Starship Enterprise
     Enterprise- or institutional-oriented encoder boxes typically package boards and software (B/S) with development tools. These might either be in the form of PCI boards and software on CD, meant to work on a desktop PC, or packed into boxed systems that don’t require host computers. In this category, systems run the gamut from single-channel with one codec (H.323, MPEG2 or H.264 typically) and nonprogrammable, to multichannel, a choice of MPEG2/MPEG4/JPEG2000/ Windows Media and many other codecs, faster-than-real-time encoding and other doodads. The most likely application here is video teleconferencing, where encoder and decoder are packaged into the same unit. Such a unit is sometimes called a “two-way codec,” which is a redundancy because “codec” is a contraction of the words “encode” and “decode.”
     Teleconferencing codecs vie not only on matters of capabilities and price, but also on issues of upgradeable security, the ability to conference with some security with somebody on a web interface and growing compatibility with new standards. Especially important are Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) and voice over IP (VOIP), and various connection management schemes. Also key to any purchase decision is compatibility with the codec on the other end of a connection, a factor that tends to reinforce the leadership of the most-used systems from Polycom and Tandberg.
     Other sorts of institutional video distribution, such as distance learning, especially, can use the same technology, and vendors are increasingly bringing out systems that not only handle video-conferencing, but also will distribute distance-learning videos of material from the conference. But if you are not doing much video teleconferencing and mainly need to encode video for one-to-many distribution, you’ll probably buy an encode-only device that doesn’t require all the security, SIP and VOIP features, etc. Major competitors include Polycom, Tandberg, Amnis Systems (formerly Optivision) and, focusing on encode-only devices for distance learning, Optibase, VBrick Systems and many others.
     The twin enterprise categories discussed here probably hit most readers’ core business, so you might think these are the only products to look at. You’d be very wrong.

Winnov’s Videum AV PCI card works with its own, or others’, encoding software.

Harmonic’s Professional HD encoder.

Core Hard, Core Soft
     Core hardware is another way of saying “chips.” Suppliers probably also offer development kits with their chip sets. They supply chips to all of the B/S and box systems companies discussed here and also, typically, directly to anybody else who wants to buy them. But a chip vendor has to focus on the highest-volume customers, so commercial AV systems will be an afterthought to DVD recorders, set-top boxes and gear such as that discussed earlier. Still, your application might have a high-enough profile, or involve technology so similar to one of the big consumer apps, that a chip supplier might pay attention to you. After all, an Optibase or Amnis makes a living selling some 10,000 units or so in a year. Maybe you have a 10,000-unit app, or a slight modification on a DVD recorder or game device. Suppliers include LSI Logic, IBM, Philips, Broadcom and others.
     Core software might be specialized around specific chips (thus “embedded” software) or, more commonly, run on all kinds of desktop or boxed systems. Suppliers may focus on offering the best development kits or most efficient version of a standard, or may offer their own proprietary codecs. Suppliers run the gamut from Microsoft and Apple Computer and Real Networks through smaller companies such as Divx or Envivio. As with core hardware suppliers, they’re probably going for the main chance in big consumer markets, but might offer surprisingly good support to more specialized applications.
     Companies including Digital Rapids, Ligos and InterVideo supply codecs to be combined with third-party capture cards (from such companies as Winnov and ViewCast) for high-quality small networks at low cost. Most of these little codec guys focus on MPEG4, but almost all have their own secret sauces, too. If you simply have a need for a few encoders, you might buy the capture card and the software at retail. If you have that dream 10,000-unit app (or even a 1000-unit app), you’ll want to approach one of these smaller codec suppliers directly, negotiate a high-volume license, and maybe get some desired customization of the software together with an introduction to the appropriate capture-card hardware company so you can negotiate volume pricing with it, too.

That ‘PTV’ Buzz
     Telecoms’ B/S and boxes are moving toward IPTV (Internet Protocol television) standards rapidly. In IPTV, the MPEG transport stream is encapsulated within an IP layer, similar to the way video is packed into IP, well, packets, for streaming distribution over the web. The point of moving to IPTV is so that, either:
     • Consumer set-top decoders can use the same basic technology for decoding TV channels as for decoding internet traffic, and thus be combined in the same chip set with cable modems. This would be the reason if you’re a cable company and want to get out the lowest-possible cost and simplest combined consumer box.
     • Or, if you’re a telephone company, so you do TV reception in a DSL modem, again with one chip or chip set, and compete head-to-head with the cable company.
Internet Protocol is also less important to the enterprise than to a public video-distribution system. It will matter greatly in a few years, as these decoding chip sets built for cable and telcos get to be really inexpensive and can be used easily for an institutional video system. Then the same basic IPTV encoder already sold up and down TV-land will allow a low total-cost-of-ownership for our uses.
     But, in the short term, IPTV encoders cost more than other encoders aimed at telcos, and nobody’s yet ramped up the volume on the consumer decode equipment so these are yet available as nearly free goods for us to play with.
     Aside from this buzzy new IPTV stuff, telecoms-oriented encoders differ from enterprise-oriented encoders in being aimed either at distribution of thousands of simultaneous streams, or at high-quality video teleconferencing that’s not so different from enterprise needs, but probably is bigger and can run more simultaneous links. Suppliers include TUT Systems, Tandberg Telecom, Nexstream, Skystream, Optibase, Harmonic, Minerva and many others.

     Broadcast-oriented systems typically encode MPEG2 within digital broadcast standards for use by TV stations, using the multiple ATSC standards in North America or other digital terrestrial standards elsewhere in the world. Suppliers include Harris Broadcast, Vela Research, Encoda Systems, Radyne, Triveni Digital and others. Not of much interest to most commercial installations, but some systems companies working with educational institutions that run local public-broadcast stations will have to integrate encoding for distribution around the institution with encoding for broadcast.
     Nonetheless, integrators in this position probably should avoid the temptation to use the same encoder for broadcast and non-broadcast purposes. Doing so would be like using a tank to drive around town on errands. Come to think of it, maybe that’s what Humvee sales are all about. Still, the broadcast encoder is a tank aimed at assuring conquest of the airwaves, and you’ll almost certainly have to encode at different bit rates for non-broadcast distribution. So you can use something far less costly for the AV system.

Post, Streaming and Us
     For several years now, you’ve been fighting being associated with either the video post-production industry or the web-streaming industry. The problem with the former is that post equipment vendors keep trying to sell you production capabilities you don’t need but that are fun and so you waste money buying the stuff. Web streaming is a great way to distribute non-broadcast video for distance learning, campus information, digital signage, etc., but hundreds of web-streaming service providers committed seppuku a few years ago, and your bankers and in-laws don’t respect you much when you try to tell them web streaming still can be a good business.
     Still, there’s a lot of good encoding equipment here. Mostly, this is a matter of systems that aim at the movie and advertising production world by offering extremely high-quality images and sound over standard codecs such as MPEG4 and Windows Media 9 for teleconference-like sharing with collaborators. As bandwidth gets to be ever more available, such systems are proving attractive to many commercial-installation clients. Suppliers include Tele-stream, AJA Video, Optibase and Blackmagic Design.
      Also, much of the software/board combinations from different vendors, discussed earlier under “core software,” are aimed at this application. A board from the likes of Blackmagic, popped into a desktop computer, can accomplish all the encoding a small institutional distribution system requires, for only a few hundred dollars, including the PC. Providers can also help customize software for specialized systems. Just don’t call it streaming, and keep the budding moviemakers away from editing video on the same box.

Neal Weinstock, Editor of Sound & Communications’ quarterly IT/AV Report, is the founder and president of Weinstock Media Analysis, a market research firm in professional audio and video since 1993. Author of two books about computing and design, he has edited magazines, including TV World, and written hundreds of articles.

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