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Video Encoder Hardware Buyer's Guide: Four Key Attributes to Focus On

A hardware encoder can be a great investment, especially if you're looking for a professional-grade system. But it's a clever approach, and by far the best way to encode video.

Of course, which system is right for you depends on your target application and other elements of your video production setup. But whatever the case, there are some guidelines you can follow to zero in on a device that meets your needs.

Four key attributes for video encoder hardware

1. Features and flexibility

Pay close attention to this, even though it's really obvious. Take the time necessary (however long) to make sure you're 100% clear on this: Will the video encoder hardware you're considering fully support your video production plans?

To get an answer, list all your production needs, whether in terms of functionality (eg, ability to stream 1080p at 60 fps, or use codecs like H.264/H.265) or quality (eg, long-term reliability) . For example, you might ask for a hardware encoder:

Will it work with your existing gear? (for example, does it have HDMI and/or SDI inputs for cameras and other video sources)

Does it support the streaming protocols you want to use (beyond standards like RTMP and RTMPS), such as SRT, RTMP, HLS, and UDP?

Can it stream to multiple online video or social media platforms with different video quality levels? (For example, a live streaming encoder provides the processing power to simultaneously stream to YouTube, a streaming service.)

2. Ease of use

For some hardware encoders, the actual use environment of customers is not considered. Complexity can be a big obstacle to your production success, and not just in the process of learning how a new system works.

A confusing interface, labyrinthine menus, and unclear features can all slow you down during setup and showings. Especially during a live production, you don't want to bother with buttons or search menus because you know a feature exists.

Depending on your situation, you may also need to consider more than just your own level of technical expertise. If you're looking to purchase video encoder hardware for shared use environments, such as corporate video production studios or classrooms, any solution you choose must be user-friendly enough for anyone, regardless of technical background.

When evaluating a potential purchase, be sure to take a close look at all UI elements. Look for solutions that seem intuitive and clearly geared toward great user experience. Product reviews or testimonials are usually good indicators. Demonstration videos on the company's YouTube channel also give you an idea of how the device works. Some companies will even give you a live demo if you need it.

3. Reliability

Increased reliability is one of the key differences between hardware and software encoding. As specialized devices, hardware encoders eliminate many of the interruptions and errors common to software encoders running on general-purpose computer hardware. Untimely OS updates, antivirus pop-ups, and extraneous software crashes aren't hardware-related — which is why so many AV professionals and professional broadcasters stick with it.

4. Customer support

If you've ever had the frustrating experience of getting help or support with a product, you know the value of buying from a company with a track record of exceptional customer service.

Good customer support means that if you have any questions or your hardware needs repairing, your experience will be fast and smooth. Often, you can find out that this is the case for a particular company from product reviews or testimonials.

Also be sure to review the warranty terms and service plans. When available, a service plan is a good option, especially if you rely on hardware for professional applications.

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