This page defines the encoders used in the streaming video codec test. It also includes relevant, but brief, information about the experiences of the author when using these encoders. This is not an attempt to precisely define all of the capabilities and operational aspects of these encoders; you can get that information elsewhere.
Windows Media, Quicktime, & Real Media
The Big Three of the streaming video world all provide encoders that you can download for free. The capabilities of those applications does vary, however, so if you want the best possible quality at the lowest bitrate, you may need to get a professional encoding tool like Canopus Procoder, or Sorenson Squeeze. In particular, even the Quicktime "Pro" player that Apple has does not allow you to do Variable Bitrate encoding with the Sorenson Video Pro 3 codec, even if the codec is already installed on your computer with Sorenson Squeeze. From the standpoint of market share, the crippled capabilities of both the Quicktime encoder and it's free codecs are a huge gift to Microsoft and Real.
It appears that Apple is trying to rectify that situation with the release of it's new H.264/MPEG-4 AVC codec. That codec requires a new version of Quicktime, but will it allow you to do things like two-pass variable bitrate encoding? While we are on the subject of H.264/MPEG-4 AVC, the beta version of Quicktime 7 is the only currently available, free downloadable media player that will handle this new format. Since the vast majority of the 822 million+ desktop computers on the internet are PC's, it's going to be awhile before H.264/MPEG-4 AVC gets any significant media player market share on the internet.
UPDATE 10/2007: Apple released a Quicktime player for the PC platform that will handle it's H.264/MPEG-4, but it's a moot point, given the overwhelming market share of the latest Flash player. And contrary to what the Apple fanboys will tell you, the latest Flash codecs have very good picture quality.
In light of the shortcomings of some of the free streaming video encoders, this codec test will utilize Sorenson Squeeze as much as possible. The reason for picking Squeeze over Procoder was to include the Sorenson H.264/MPEG-4 AVC codec in this test.
A note on the Flash format: ON2.com has taken over the Wildflix lineup of Flash video encoders, and they are working on porting their latest codecs over into those encoders. So how will the new ON2 Flash video codec compare to the Sorenson Spark Pro 3 Flash video codec? Stay tuned to this website for a comparison update. Also watch out for the new Flash 8 player from Macromedia, it will be using the same ON2 codecs referenced here. As a content producer, there will be a downside to that for you, because Windows XP will not be distributing the Flash 8 player. WinXP has had a Flash player bundled with it since it was first released, but this time it will not contain the latest Flash codecs. So the vast majority of your website visitors will have to download the latest Flash player and it's codec to see this new ON2 codec content. UPDATE 10/2007: The latest Flash player is still not part of any native operating system installation, but it has gained incredible market share, thanks to the popularity of video sites like youtube.com
Sorenson Squeeze 4
Media encoding software has a long tradition of being difficult to use, but not in this case. Sorenson Squeeze 4 has one of the more intuitive interfaces on the market. It's pretty easy to set up multiple format encoding from one source file, for instance, but is there a way to swap source files, without disturbing the current encoding setup? That part didn't seem too intuitive, but lets move on to the higher priority stuff.
After awhile, the program suddenly started crashing whenever it had to re-write over a file with the same name. That can be easily avoided, but the real problems started showing up with the Quicktime encoding functions. When trying to encode a standard QT file with the Sorenson 2 Basic codec, there was no way to access the quality slider that is present in the Apple QT Player software. Since it was totally grayed out, there was no way to control the video bitrate. So that codec was effectively useless, which wasn't much of a loss anyway, considering how bad the picture quality is.
Being forced into using the Sorenson Video 3 Pro codec isn't maybe such a bad thing after all, however, that didn't work right either. While it was possible to set any video bitrate you wanted within the interface, the file sizes did not reflect the bitrate changes, no matter what was done to the encoder settings. Constrain file size ON, framerate changed, etc., seemed to make little difference. This test needed files that were 1.2 mb in size, not 2.6 mb in size. Some mysterious combination of settings finally produced a 1.3 mb file size, so it was time to quit while we were ahead. Do note that there were never any bitrate control issues with the Windows Media or Sorenson H.264/AVC files that were encoded with Squeeze 4.
One disappointment was the MPEG-2 encoder, and it's apparent lack of a two-pass encoding option. Scuttlebutt has it that Squeeze uses the Mainconcept encoder, which is a good product that definitely has two-pass encoding capability. By comparison, the Canopus Procoder MPEG-2 encoder is a two-pass encoder that has an option for something called "Mastering Mode", that some people feel produces a better picture than the Mainconcept encoder is capable of. Mastering Mode is much slower to encode, but at this price point, there is no excuse for this lack of two-pass MPEG-2 encoding capability. The author will take a closer look at MPEG-2 encoding for DVD authoring in the near future. Meanwhile, the bitrate bugs and limited MPEG-2 encoding capability of Squeeze make it difficult to recommend this product over Procoder, unless you need H.264/AVC, which you can get with the Nero encoder for not much money at all.
The Nero Ultra Edition, Version 6.6, has it's roots in the CD and DVD world. It's a jack-of-all-trades kind of a software tool, but it doesn't appear to overextend itself. Nero is the default CD and DVD burning application for a whole lot of people, including this author, who has burned over a thousand DVD discs with it. The functionality is based around creating and copying CD and DVD discs, but Nero also has a super-efficient H.264/AVC codec that can be applied to streaming video as well.
The encoding interface leaves something to be desired, however, as it's totally geared towards DVD newbies. It does a decent job of hitting it's target market there, but it's a hassle for doing any advanced encoding work with. Once you see the results of your H.264/AVC files, though, you'll be willing to wade through the clumsy interface without any complaints. Check out the Nero Digital codecs at nerodigital.com, and compare the codec testing results on this website.
Do you have an Apple video Ipod? Nero Recode will encode your video clips into the H.264 format, and they can be played back on the video Ipod. Should you wish to test the functionality of the Nero H.264 encoding, here are a couple of video clips that you can download and play back on your Ipod. One of these clips has the QT simple profile checked, which means that it is not capable of using bidirectional VOP, but it will be Ipod-compatible: