Software vs. hardware encoders: Which is right for me?

Once upon a time, dedicated hardware was the only choice for live video encoding. Computers are now powerful enough to handle such a strenuous task — but just because you can use software doesn’t mean you should.

Hardware encoders have the dedicated power to encode high-quality streams quickly. Software encoders, on the other hand, must make concessions to encode in real time. As a result, you’ll sacrifice quality for efficiency — or vice versa — when going with a software encoder.

That’s not to say that software encoding isn’t a viable option for professional broadcasting. Live streaming software like OBS, Wirecast, and VMix are cost-effective and easy to use. For that reason, we’d recommend starting with one of these solutions if you’re new to broadcasting. Audio, video, and graphics are often stored on a computer anyways, so software encoding can streamline the process. One caveat, though: Make sure your computer is up to the task if you’re going this route.

With hardware encoding, alternatively, you’re able to free up resources and support more advanced configurations. Hardware can get pricey, though. In our list below, the best hardware encoders for live streaming ran the gamut from just over $200 to just over $12,000.

There’s also a third route to take. Encoding expert Jan Ozer advises using a hybrid workflow:

“Many producers who use software programs like Wirecast and vMix (and TriCaster for that matter) use an external hardware-based encoder for producing their live output streams, which totally removes the encoding load from your mixing station. In very high profile engagements, you should always consider this option as well.”

Jan Ozer, Founder of the Streaming Learning Center


Check out our chart below for a quick breakdown of the software vs. hardware encoding debate.

for more information see Live Streaming Encoders: Top 20 Compared [2023]