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Hardware encoders vs. consumer type notebooks

By September 26th, 2011 Technical No Comments

A number of hardware solutions for video streaming over mobile networks appeared over the last years. Most of them are backpack solutions. And although I have not seen a piece that really works for everybody, you can already see the first on-camera mount devices on the market.

Mbcast.com is only providing a software solution instead of a special mobile device. Why is that? Well, the answer is simple: Because special hardware devices are obsolete.

One device I’ve recently seen had some very interesting features, but the specs where more than disappointing: The machine weighed more than 12kg (without batteries) and had an electrical power consumption of 150W. This is absolutely useless when it comes to a real field application, especially if it should be operated by a single reporter.

Another well known device has some better hardware specs, but only if you can afford it: They provide it on a rental base, but the smallest available package (only including very limited transfer-time) costs more for a single month than buying a decent laptop and using it for years.

What these guys seem to have forgotten when they designed their hardware years ago, is a very famous theory in computer science, called Moore’s Law. The theory mainly describes that computers double their performance every 18 months (some sources state a different time, but that actually doesn’t make much difference in the result). And indeed this trend has continued for more than half a century.

To cut a long story short: Computers became incredible fast in the last years, and modern CPUs are beating most hardware encoders hands down. Notebooks have all the hardware built in to perform the tasks of encoding and streaming, and they have many advantages over specialized hardware. They are much cheaper, there is plenty of different vendors and models to choose from (from fancy designed lifestyle notebooks up to fully ruggedized outdoor devices), and they are of course much easier to get. With support for external devices for capturing SDI or HDMI coming along, there is definitely no drawback in using laptop computers compared to specialized hardware.

And so we are glad to be able to say: Let the new generation of netbooks come. Mbcast will only work even better on faster machines!

Why mbcast.com delivers the best image quality

By September 25th, 2011 Technical No Comments

The heart of the MobileBroadcast Client is actually one of the greatest pieces of software I’ve ever found: The x264 encoding platform, a software implementation of the well known ITU-T H.264 standard. x264 development was started by some developers of the famous VLC media player, which in turn started as a project from École Centrale Paris, a prestigious engineering school in France. Today, it has a large developer community, with contributers from companies, universities and private software engineers all over the world.

So, what’s special about x264? Well, it’s currently the best available video encoder that can be found. This is not only a claim, but also confirmed by several scientific codec comparisons. For instance, an institute at the Lomonosov Moscow State University evaluates different codecs within regular intervals. For the third time (and for the second consecutive year), x264 clearly won over several other well known encoders with famous names in the industry. Don’t believe? Have a look at the Seventh MPEG-4 AVC/H.264 Video Codecs Comparison.

But beating all the others concerning image quality still does not make a good encoder. Another main factor is speed, and this is where another strength of x264 is revealed: It’s heavily optimized for modern CPUs using brilliant hand-coded assembly routines, and thus makes use of all the technical capabilities recent Core i5 and Core i7 CPUs can offer. Especially since Intel launched it’s Nehalem architecture around two years ago, software encoding became faster on normal desktop CPUs than on specialized hardware encoders. And with the new Intel-Sandy-Bridge architecture that came out in early 2011, encoding became even faster.

But besides all this technical evidence on x264, one event impressed me most: At the recent IBC, I was talking to a staff member of a very well known codec manufacturer, and asked about how their H.264 implementation compares to x264. Without a second of consideration he admitted: “They are better.”