Studio Streaming: How Low Should You Go?
Posted Feb 12, 2005

Back when EventDV was EMedia magazine, columnist Bob Starrett was one of our resident "deep technology" gurus. In the days when CD recorders had just entered the consumer market, player compatibility was hit-and-miss and, all too often, more miss than hit.

One of the things Starrett noticed was that the likelihood of a CD-R playing back successfully on any given player correlated almost directly to the price of the player. In my favorite installment of his CD Writer column, Starrett argued that the manufacturers of CD media had a responsibility to make sure that their discs were as likely to play on a $50 boombox as on an audiophile's $300 component player. Fast-forward a decade. CD-R compatiblity is virtually a non-issue. Same goes for single-layer DVD±R; if it's authored at a reasonable bitrate, it's going to play back on most players, whether it's a $39 off-brand from Wal-Mart or a unit with a higher price tag and recognizable nameplate. (The new dual-layer recorders, unfortunately, have yet to achieve this level of compatibility.)

The bottom line is that if you're doing your own DVD authoring and duplication, as most videographers are, you thankfully don't have to worry much about whether your discs will play on your client's (or their family members') players. If you're delivering video from your Web site, however, it's a different story. Just because you've got a G5 and broadband in your studio, that doesn't mean your clients have the same level of PC power or a fast Internet connection. You need to consider everyone from dial-up to T1 users when encoding clips—demos or final product— for your Web site.

All of which means you'll want to encode your clips at at least two, and maybe even three, different bitrates and resolutions. Most broadband users can reliably receive streams between 200 and 300Kbps, so 256Kbps is generally considered the "sweet spot" for broadband encoding. For those who've got faster connections, you also might want to offer a 512Kbps version. In either case, you'll also need to consider the resolution (or screen size). According to Steve Mack, author of The Streaming Media Bible, the best bet is to start with an encode at 240x180, then work your way up through larger screen sizes until the quality of the video becomes unacceptable. Since high-action video puts more of a strain on codecs, in terms of both bitrate and resolution, your results likely will vary from project to project. For most wedding videos, however, you should be able to encode at 320x240 and achieve acceptable results.

But that leaves dial-up users out in the cold. Even though the installed base for U.S. broadband access surpassed dial-up for the first time in late 2004, there are still plenty of modem users out there. (If there weren't, we wouldn't be seeing all those TV commercials for NetZero and AOL TopSpeed, would we?) To ignore them is to ignore almost half of the potential viewers of your work. While you might cringe at the thought of delivering any video in a format that doesn't do justice to your productions, you should at least consider the option of offering a 112Kbps version at a 160x120 resolution, with a disclaimer that the quality of the Web video does not reflect the quality of your finished products. (Progressive download is another option. Check out the November 2004 STUDIO STREAMING,, for more on that approach.)

Worrying about bandwidth and screen sizes might seem like putting the cart before the horse. Isn't it more important to decide on a format first? Microsoft, Real, Apple, and other codec and format proponents would like you to think so, but that's just so much marketing bluster. Truth is, from a player standpoint, it doesn't make much difference. If you encode in Windows Media Player (for viewers on PCs) and QuickTime (for Mac users), you've likely got all your bases covered. In fact, if you encode for the Macromedia Flash player—which is on virtually every PC in the market—you can bypass the Windows vs. QuickTime vs. Real dilemma altogether. (Plus, the Macromedia Video Kit makes it ridiculously easy to embed video into Web pages created with the company's Dreamweaver so that the video doesn't need to pop up in a separate player screen; viewers never take their eyes off of your brand.)

Now, I won't argue that videographers have the same kind of responsibility to the public to make their video accessible to everyone with a computer as CD media and player manufacturers do with CD-R compatibility. It's just good business sense, even if the lower-bandwidth, small-screen versions don't provide an ideal reflection of the quality of your work. I know that's anathema to many of you, and there's something to be said for never displaying any work that doesn't meet your own high standards.

But the potential client without broadband is accustomed to video playback that's less than top-of-the-line, and your clips will be on the same playing field as every other videographer's. If you make sure that you take the limitations of low-bandwidth viewers into account, at least you'll be in the game.