Encoding vs. Transcoding: The Ultimate Comparison

By Emily KringsJan 11, 2024

No matter your goal with online video streaming, chances are good that you want to offer the best viewing experience for your audience. 

And there’s a very good reason for that! A sharp image and smooth playback in your stream will convey a sense of professionalism, and that’s beneficial for any business, whether you operate as an individual content creator, run a small team, or manage the marketing for a large enterprise. 

To support that level of streaming quality, it’s important for you to understand two fundamental terms in the world of digital video: encoding and transcoding. We’ll dive into what both of these terms mean and what you need to know in order to achieve the best stream quality possible for your business.

Table of Contents

What is Encoding?

Abstract Technology Background in Tech Circles intersecting lines and  shining point geometric shapes Gears and Elements Bright Purple Gradient  Background 22779151 Vector Art at VecteezyEncoding is the compression of raw media files into a format and file size that can be transmitted over a network. In today’s digital world, this process often centers around ensuring a video file is compatible with a wide range of common web players and mobile devices for viewing. 

At a more technical level, think of encoding as taking massive raw video files and finding ways to reduce these file sizes without a significant loss in quality. In other words, encoding is a way to compress large video files into smaller chunks so that they can be shared and accessed efficiently online.

What is Transcoding? 

Transcoding is the conversion or alteration of one digital media file into a different type. The transcoding process starts with an encoded media file that is then unencoded to change one or more properties, including its bitrate or size. 

With transcoding, you can dynamically change a video file type or size, which is a key driver of adaptive bitrate streaming (ABR) technology. When you go to live streaming, transcoding, and ABR can ensure that every individual viewer’s video file is optimal for their playback device and network connection.

Transcoding vs. Encoding

So, now that we have definitions of encoding and transcoding, it’s time to compare the two. The big questions are: when do you need to encode, when do you need to transcode, and how do these compare to some other common video terms you’ve likely heard?

First of all, encoding makes video streaming possible, period. If you want to deliver your video content to an audience online, you need it to be viewable in a digital format, meaning video encoding is a must. 

How about transcoding? The idea with transcoding is to take a video that’s already been encoded, decode it, alter it in some way, and then re-encode it right before it gets delivered. Remember, the alterations involved in transcoding can be as simple as adding a watermark to a streaming video or as complex as changing the file from one codec to another.

In practice, you tend to see encoding first, then applying a first-mile delivery protocol like RTMP to a transcoder, then transcoding the content into a range of codecs or protocols that work with your audience’s devices. There is a wide range of protocols, from Apple HLS to MPEG-DASH, and you want to ensure your content is compatible with as many of them as possible. 

Thankfully, transcoding allows you to make these alterations at the right time and only when it’s necessary to do so.

Transcoding vs. Transmuxing

Briefly, we wanted to touch on the related term “transmuxing,” which is similar in concept but different in process. With transmuxing, you’re actually adapting content to a range of streaming protocols without needing to re-encode first – and that’s because you’re simply making changes to the container or “packaging” of a file rather than the contents.

With transcoding, you actually have to encode a file and change the contents. Transmuxing has its uses, particularly in the last-mile stage of a video stream when you need to make sure your video is compatible with the various streaming protocols and devices. By contrast, transcoding will ensure that the video file itself consists of the proper size, frames per second, bitrate, and resolution to meet requirements.

How Encoding Impacts Video Quality 

As we mentioned, encoding needs to happen with any video file, but there are really only two types of encoding you need to know about: lossy and lossless.

  1. Lossy: The file size is reduced by discarding some data. 
  2. Lossless: The file is compressed without loss of any data. 

As we touched on before, a raw video file is much too big to transmit across the web for live streaming, so you should expect to implement some kind of lossy compression. 

You can learn more about the whole concept of bitrate in our ultimate video bitrate guide, but the bottom line is all streams have an upper limit on the bitrate. Think of it like a truck that’s driving on the road – if the road is wider, then you can have a bigger truck. 

Similarly, with a higher bitrate, you can accommodate a bigger video file with more overall information retained (ie less compression). Encoding is a 100% necessary step in the process of streaming your content, but transcoding is also a step you’ll need to think about. 

How Transcoding Impacts Video Quality

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The process of transcoding takes place using a transcoder, which is available through a streaming server or a cloud-based streaming platform, in order to meet the specific requirements of each of your viewers.

As with encoding, transcoding is taking one file and altering it somehow. This can either be done with no loss in quality or with some loss in quality. There are really just three ways transcoding can occur:

  1. Lossy to Lossy: The data is compressed using lossy compression, then is uncompressed and recompressed further via transcoding. This results in lower video quality. 
  2. Lossless to Lossless: The data is compressed using lossless compression, meaning no information is lost when uncompressed and compressed in the same format.
  3. Lossless to Lossy: The data is compressed with lossless compression, so no information was lost initially, but after uncompressing and recompressing, some information loss occurs.

When considering how to transcode vs. encode works, how you transcode your video can dramatically affect overall image quality due to data loss. 

You should also be aware of the steps that your video file will go through with a live stream transcoder. The transcoder will:

  1. Analyze the input file
  2. Decode the contents
  3. Process the raw video
  4. Re-encode the file
  5. Generate output file (in the proper delivery protocols)

Ultimately, the transcoder will wrap the file in a new container format that works for each of your viewer’s required specifications based on their playback device and network connection. 

Going back to what we mentioned about ABR, these transcoding steps make adaptive streaming possible so that you have enough resolution and bitrate options to work with any viewer who’s trying to watch your stream.

Where to Find Encoders and Transcoders 

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Choosing the right encoder and transcoder can make or break your live stream, so it’s important that you understand the importance of both. 

First of all, you should know that encoders are primarily available as hardware or software that converts your video signals from camera sensors in real-time.

As for transcoders, you should be aware that they are either a cloud-based solution or a local option. Either way, this technology is typically packaged with or built into your chosen online video platform.

With all that said, your overall streaming setup is unique to you and your viewers. You’ll want to consider where your typical viewers are located, what kind of devices they use to access your streams, and what kind of connection they have.

As an online video platform, Maestro allows you to work with the best encoder and transcoder for your stream!

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