The lecture capture conundrum: Hardware encoding or software encoding?

There’s an important decision to be made when equipping classrooms with lecture capture technology, one that has implications for video production performance, flexibility, reliability, even affordability. It’s a choice a lot of universities may not even realise they’re making – between software encoding and hardware encoding.

Making the best decision for your university depends on understanding the differences between these. Outside the audiovisual industry and adjacent sectors, though, the distinction may be a little murky.

Let’s break it down.

Video encoding 101

A software encoder is an application for video recording or streaming that runs on PC or Mac hardware. Open Broadcaster Software, Panopto Recorder, and Kaltura CaptureSpace Recorder are a few examples. These programs convert video and audio signals into a format suitable for playback on consumers’ devices. Without additional hardware, most software encoders can only bring in video signals from plug-and-play webcams (known as USB video class devices), and audio from USB-based or 3.5-mm microphones.

A hardware encoder is an appliance purpose-built for video streaming, capturing, recording – or all three. All the components in a hardware encoder were handpicked or designed for this purpose and the underlying software specially engineered for it. Many hardware encoders include inputs for non-USB video devices (e.g., HDMI, SDI) and for professional audio equipment (i.e., XLR, TRS).

Which is right for my university?

A lot of universities do lecture capture through a software encoder. There are some clear advantages to this. For one thing, software encoding uses equipment your university probably has on hand already – namely, laptops and webcams. Staff and instructors are likely familiar with these technologies, and provision and replacement are simple matters because you’re dealing with standard computer hardware. Initial setup also typically costs less than investing in a hardware encoder.

Lecture capture can be as simple as perching a laptop on a podium, running a slide deck, and recording the professor or instructor through a webcam. But today’s students consume a lot of media, which has given them high expectations for professional video. That’s true whether what they’re watching is published by a news agency, a media production firm – or their school.

As dedicated appliances, a hardware encoder is ideal for lecture capture and other video applications in education. The sticker price may be higher, but the advantages hardware encoders offer over software encoders are substantial. And as competition for students in the higher education sector continues to heat up, any advantage is a big advantage.

Why hardware encoding

Matched against software encoders, hardware encoders excel in several key areas:

Performance

Whereas software encoders typically run on computers made of multi-purpose parts and alongside dozens of other processes, hardware encoders are designed from the ground up for video streaming and recording. The extra computing power they’re able to dedicate to video encoding because of this offers a serious edge in performance – especially when multiple video and audio sources are involved.

Flexibility

With multiple inputs for video and audio, hardware encoders offer far more flexibility than software encoders. Software encoders can’t work with non-USB video signals without a USB capture card, or with anything but a USB or 3.5-mm microphone unless you invest in a separate audio interface.

Reliability

Hardware encoders running a non-Windows operating system tailored to video encoding are far less prone to system crashes and other interruptions, such as automatic OS updates. They also need fewer cables and components to record and stream from high-end cameras and audio equipment, which makes for fewer points of failure.

Installation and management

Managing a fleet of hardware encoders is far easier on IT staff than updating numerous PCs with their operating systems, recording software, and capture card setups. Maintaining multiple lecture capture PCs can also be a nightmare since all the parts will likely come from different manufacturers. This makes it hard to know who to call for troubleshooting, whereas most hardware encoders offer a single point of contact for support.

Affordability

For large-scale lecture capture, hardware encoders offer better overall value than custom-built PCs. Lower maintenance costs are one contributor. You also don’t need to purchase operating system and software licenses broad enough to cover all your university’s lecture capture systems. And if your university uses a video content management system, it may be contracted to update lecture capture workstations every two or three years – to the tune of a couple grand per unit.

Ease of operation

Speaking of video content management systems, some hardware encoders feature integrations that can turn them into hands-off lecture capture solutions. For instance, our Pearl Mini and Pearl-2 hardware encoders are fully integrated with the industry-leading Panopto and Kaltura video platforms. While software encoders require you to launch and interact with them to toggle recording or streaming, Pearl can trigger these events automatically based on a defined schedule.

Optimize video production at your university

Epiphan Pearl-2 and Pearl Mini hardware encoders are purpose-built for high-quality video recording and streaming. They include everything your university needs to master video production: multiple inputs for video and professional audio, integration with video content and learning management systems, and more.

Visit our website to learn more about how Pearl encoder hardware can help your university master lecture capture.

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