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September 2014
Issue: April 1, 2008

POST POSITIONS: ENCODING FOR THE WEB

By: Andreas Wacher
Early adopters of technology, simply by definition, are ahead of the curve. While that can be a good thing, there could also be pitfalls.

The post industry was among the first to embrace the Internet for distribution of moving media. While the future YouTube generation was still consuming Teletubbies the old-fashioned way, companies around the globe shared their work via T1 lines. Problem was, such technology, at the time, was very costly.

News about increases in bandwidth capacity and available computing speed hardly qualify as news anymore. Year after year we’ve heard these stories about bits, bytes and hertz from kilo to mega, giga, and now peta. Even though the excitement might have worn off, these developments left most of our personal tech outfits with some pretty amazing capabilities — much of which remain untapped.

So what have we learned over the last few years regarding clips encoded for distribution via the Web? Make them bigger — 640 pixels width should be considered the absolute bare minimum. The vast majority of your audience can handle even larger files, and they would appreciate the extra quality. Since this might be a rather shocking statement for the 320x240 crowd out there, here’s why it works…

Let’s look first at the Internet bandwidth that people have at their disposal in 2008. Almost all companies in the media space put some emphasis on upgrading their Internet connectivity in the last few years. Expect them to have 5Mb or more. But it’s not just in the workplace that high bandwidth can be found. At home, a DSL-like connection can sport 3Mb and more. And one can assume that people dealing with moving images professionally usually treat themselves with better connectivity than the average household.

Another aspect that determines possible playback resolution is the capability of the computer. While I tend to be rather bullish about posting resolutions, it is important to note that this aspect requires very careful evaluation. The purpose of a posting via the Web is to give somebody a good representation of the content. Continuous playback without the slightest interruption is an absolute must in the professional workspace. Deficiencies in bandwidth simply result in some wait time before the actual playback starts. This is often acceptable, especially for short form, but a clip playing back and then stopping and stuttering, however, renders the entire presentation almost meaningless. It is horribly annoying and unprofessional.

THE BEST QUALITY

When working with a client, specify the oldest computer that content should play on. There are no colorful iBooks left, and it has been years since there were any were being used on a real job. To put it another way: for every percent that you scrape deeper into that proverbial bottom of the barrel you will cut the capabilities for everybody else in half. Knowing definitively which computers your content will play on is half the battle.

Finally, there are methods of compressing content, called codecs. Progress in this area might have gone equally unnoticed, but has been never-the-less revolutionary. Modern codecs are pure marvels if it comes to quality versus bandwidth. They tend to really shine when the target resolution is rather large. Somewhat simplified, one could claim that it takes only 1.3 times the bandwidth to fill twice the pixels. In many professional postings, much higher resolutions could have resulted from the allocated bandwidth. Old habits and assumptions based on older encoding technology might be the reason for this behavior.

There have always been different formats available to deliver content. Flash has a reputation for being ubiquitous. In 2008 QuickTime is equally available on client computers. Image quality is determined by actual encoding format and not so much by these container formats. The amazingly looking H.264 format, for instance, can be delivered via Flash or QuickTime.

While revisiting posting standards it might be a good idea to shed some other historical ballast. There is no good reason to letterbox your content. Tubes and flat panels cannot change shape to match your content, but software can adopt to any aspect ratio. The other artifact that sneaks in from the last century seems to be interlaced material. Interlacing is a neat hack as long as there is a little beam running down a tube to make a picture.

FINAL THOUGHTS

To sum this all up, posting 960 pixels width with bandwidth in the 3Mb range and a modern codec like H.264 should certainly get you where you need to be. Years ago, it was the post companies that were among the first to create and encode moving images for the Web. This capability is commonplace now. Encoding in resolutions and in a quality that is appropriate for pro users in ‘08 is a wonderful opportunity to show to our clients that YouTube is not all that there can be on the Web.

Interdubs publishes media securely and easily via the Internet. Post companies manage their work in progress and reels via a Web interface; their clients access it with easy-to-use tools like RSS and Web pages.

Andreas Wacker is the Owner of Interdubs in Los Angeles. He can be reached at: andreas@interdubs.com.