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Best Hardware Encoders for Live Streaming: How to Choose the Right One

hardware encoders for live streaming

The live streaming industry is growing by the day, with its viewership being at an all-time high currently. Just between April 2019 and April 2020, the number of regular live stream viewers had doubled. This increase in demand for live streaming content has made delivering a high-quality and smooth live stream more crucial than ever to stand out from the competition. That is where hardware encoders come into play.

We’re going to cover everything you need to know about these devices, including what they are, how they can help you, and why you should use them. In the end, we’re going to give you a few excellent hardware encoder choices to help you get the best product for your needs should you decide to purchase one.

Let’s jump right in!

What Is a Hardware Encoder?

Hardware encoders are devices that serve to ensure that broadcasters provide their users only with the most professional-looking live streams. These dedicated processors use an algorithm to encode video files, i.e., compress them, and turn them into a more suitable format for streaming. These devices come in various shapes and sizes — from small, portable boxes to larger, bulkier fixtures. Depending on your streaming encoder of choice and its complexity, these devices can have a wide range of specifications.

When it comes to streaming quality, hardware encoders are as good as it gets. These devices are best suitable for professional broadcasters as they are considered high-end equipment. However, with exceptional quality also comes a hefty price tag. 

Because video encoding hardware specializes in encoding, it can be quite costly for amateur or beginner streamers. So unless you are serious about video streaming, something like a software encoder would be a better choice for you.

Hardware Encoder vs. Software Encoder

Before you purchase a hardware encoder and begin live streaming, you should first identify your streaming goals. Depending on them, you will have to choose between a hardware and a software encoder. Although our focus here is on the former, we’d be remiss not to mention their software counterparts too.

Hardware encoders are generally more powerful and provide better live video quality, while software encoders are more flexible and affordable. Let’s take a look at a quick list of the pros and cons of each to make it clearer how they compare:

Hardware Encoders

Hardware encoders contain everything you need to meet your encoding needs in a portable little box. However, these devices don’t come without their flaws.

Pros:

  • Provide the most high-quality streams.
  • Excellent encoding speed.
  • Low latency.
  • Top-tier reliability.

Cons:

  • Lack of some of the functionalities that software encoders offer.
  • Expensive — the prices for these devices often go into thousands of dollars.
  • They don’t have as wide a variety of supported video codecs as software encoders due to their long manufacturing times.
  • Difficult to upgrade, as that would entail having to replace the entire device.

It’s safe to say that hardware encoders are quite an investment, but a well worthwhile one for streaming professionals. But what about software encoders? Let’s find out!

Software Encoders

Unlike their counterparts, software encoders come in digital form and have no hardware of their own. They rely on your PC’s CPU to do their job, which can take quite a significant toll on your computer’s performance. However, these encoders allow for more flexibility and plenty of additional streaming-related features that hardware encoders don’t offer.

Pros:

  • Incredibly flexible since they can often ingest multiple feeds, act as switchers, come with various streaming-related effects, support multiple video codecs, and more.
  • Offer excellent customizability.
  • Affordable — all you’ll need to pay for is the price of the program, and you can sometimes even find free ones.

Cons:

  • Worse encoding performance than with hardware encoders.
  • Higher latency.
  • Can take a significant toll on your CPU.

As you can see, software encoders are a much better choice for beginner streamers since they offer more features, higher flexibility, and are more affordable. So if you fall into this category, you’re likely better off reading our article on finding the best live streaming software app. There, you will find some of the best streaming software on the market to help you come to an informed decision.

Why Using a Hardware Encoder Is Essential for Professionals

As we’ve mentioned above, hardware encoders are, despite their high price tag and fewer features than their software counterparts, the best choice for professional live streamers. That has mostly to do with their incredible encoding capabilities. 


Besides that, hardware encoders have much higher processing power and performance capabilities due to their dedicated hardware. That results in a higher bitrate, framerate, and more powerful compression.

However, the most notable reason professionals should settle for a hardware encoder is their consistency. As a large-scale broadcaster, having something go wrong during a live stream can be incredibly damaging. That is why minimizing any risks is essential and, in our opinion, well worth a bigger investment.

Best Hardware Encoders for Live Streaming

Now we come to the part you’ve all been waiting for — picking the best hardware encoder!

If you ask us, there are three major hardware encoding brands worth considering: TriCaster, TeraDek, and Niagara. These three are the best brands on the market and offer a variety of products you can choose from. Now let’s cover the three in more detail below:

TriCaster

newtek logo

TriCaster is a live streaming encoding hardware by NewTek tailored to professional broadcasters and includes various extra features aside from encoding. This brand has five different product lines, allowing streamers access to various other streaming-related products aside from encoders. One of the biggest TriCaster’s upsides is that it comes with customizable software that makes creating multi-camera setups much more intuitive.

Most Notable Features: 

  • Wide variety of features.
  • Tailored toward professionals.
  • Includes different recording functions, including recording for VOD playback.
  • Encoders support HD-SDI inputs from multiple video sources.
  • Comes with video and audio mixing tools.
  • Supports real-time encoding.
  • Variety of accessories and hardware equipment.

Downsides:

  • Not beginner-friendly.
  • Bulky hardware.
  • Incredibly expensive.

Pricing:

You can find TriCaster encoders for different prices, but most come at the cost of between $5,000 and $18,000.

TeraDek

teradek logo

TaraDek is an encoder brand that mostly deals in compact encoding hardware suitable for streaming on the go. This brand prides itself on its sleek and portable encoders, making it stand out among the competition. But don’t think that these encoders lack in power just because they’re light and compact! You’d be wrong!

Most Notable Features:

  • Powerful but compact, lightweight, and portable encoders.
  • Top-tier streaming quality.
  • Easy to use.
  • Compatibility with TaraDek’s Live:Air mixing apps.

Downsides:

  • Some of their products are starting to become a bit outdated.
  • Expensive.

Pricing:

Prices of TeraDek’s encoders start at around $1,800, so even if you’re looking for a cheaper option, you’ll be able to find something suitable.

Niagara Video

niagara video corporation logo

Niagara Video is a well-established encoding brand with dozens of different encoding products to choose from. You cannot go wrong with this industry giant when looking for a hardware encoding solution, as they have almost anything live broadcasters may need.

Most Notable Features:

  • Excellent variety of encoding products that can meet all professionals’ needs.
  • Portable encoding solutions.
  • High-end streaming quality.
  • Real-time encoding with multiple inputs.

Downsides:

  • Obscure pricing.

Pricing:

Niagara Video doesn’t disclose its prices publicly. You will have to contact their sales representatives to receive pricing info on their products.

What to Consider When Deciding on the Best Hardware Encoder Model

Before we leave you to your search for the optimal hardware encoder for your live streaming needs, we’ll give you a few guidelines to help you decide on the best product:

  • Consider whether you will need to stream on the go or not. If you do, a portable encoder will be perfect for you.
  • Think about the features you need for your streaming needs. Note everything you require and pick your encoder accordingly.
  • Decide whether you’ll be using a professional live streaming platform. If you will, ensure your encoder is compatible with it.

If you do decide to go for a live streaming platform, make sure you do thorough research before settling on one. There are numerous online video platforms that support live video out there, and each comes with a variety of different features. That is why choosing the right one can be tricky. Do you intend to focus solely on live streaming, or will you also make use of VOD? Is the video CMS easily navigable and user-friendly? Do you need live stream monetization?

These are just a few questions you should ask yourselves before deciding. Luckily, you don’t have to do all the heavy lifting. We have conducted thorough market research on the best online video platforms on the market and compiled our findings in a comprehensive blog post. So if you need help deciding which OVP and live streaming service is best suited for you, check our article below for all the information you’ll need to come to an informed decision.

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