in February 2006
What Difference Does
The Box Make?
All those video encoders…
Multibridge Studio is the world’s first all-in-one
bidirectional converter that instantly switches between
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and uses a PCI-X connection to host computer.
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.