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Test Drive: Telestream Episode Pro, Part 2

Telestream Episode Pro

In the first installment for this month, I looked at Telestream''s new Episode Pro for Windows, detailing the interface, I/O, and preview function. This time out, we''ll look at encoding quality, performance, and compatibility. Let''s jump right in with Blu-ray and DVD.

Figure 1. MPEG-2 encoding parameters in Telestream Episode Pro.

Figure 1. MPEG-2 encoding parameters in Telestream Episode Pro.

DVD/Blu-ray


Episode Pro offers only two Blu-ray presets—one for PAL and one for NTSC—and both are very conservative at 20Mbps, where Blu-ray can accept up to 40Mbps. Both are MPEG-2 presets, which obviously means that there are no H.264 Blu-ray presets, though I personally still prefer MPEG-2. In contrast, Sorenson Media Squeeze offers 23 presets, with data rates ranging to an average of 30Mbps, with 12 in MPEG-2 and 11 in H.264. It also has several 24fps presets, which was nice for my tests because one of my test files was 24fps. Telestream could certainly do a lot more to make Episode easier for Blu-ray producers to use.

Otherwise, as with the Macintosh version, Episode tends to offer more compression parameters than most competing programs. Though the language is often quite novel (VBR using VBV, anyone?), the program is well documented via easily accessible help screens, and output quality—with the exception of Windows Media Video files—is quite good. Just be prepared to do some research if you like to know what all the dials and levers actually do.

That said, producing SD DVD from HD video gave me a minor scare. I liked the fact that Episode had HD to SD presets, but the preview made it look like the program converted my 16:9 input source into 4:3 output, which is seldom the desired result. When I actually produced the file and input it into Adobe Encore CS4, however, the authoring program recognized the file as 16:9. All''s well that ends well, as they say.

Further on this theme, to test the compatibility of the encoded MPEG-2 streams, I created separate Blu-ray and SD DVD projects in Encore. The Episode encoded footage loaded into their respective projects without problem, and Encore gave the appropriate "Don't Transcode" indicator for the video, meaning that it found the video properly encoded. Encode did not re-encode either file when rendering ISO images for each disc, indicating very good compatibility with Encore.

Windows Media Video


I next ventured into the streaming world, starting with Windows Media Video. Episode Pro has two different presets for Windows Media Encoding: one for VC-1, which uses the Advanced Profile, and one for WMV output, which uses the Simple and Main Profiles. I used the latter.

 
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As with the Macintosh version of the product, neither profile gives you access to the Windows Media Format SDK 11 tweaks. However, since this version of Episode runs on Windows, you can tweak via direct registry settings or by using the Windows Media Video PowerToy. If you have no idea what I'm talking about, that's probably OK; tweaking in my tests hasn't reliably produced quality improvements anyway. If you''re the curious type, you can get a good introduction to tweaking in this article I wrote back in 2007.

In terms of encoding performance, Episode Pro dropped frames during extreme high motion sequences in our SD tests, something I've experienced with the Macintosh version in the past. Note that in the two-pass CBR mode used for all Windows Media comparisons, the Quality/Smoothness slider is grayed out and unavailable, so I couldn't try to resolve the problem by adjusting the slider.

Otherwise, quality was slightly below average in both SD and HD trials. Nothing terribly onerous, but when you could discern a quality difference between the encoders, Episode Windows was generally towards the bottom (as compared to Microsoft Expression Encoder, Squeeze Windows, and Adobe Media Encoder [AME] CS4). When you consider that Episode Windows was the slowest Windows Media encoding tool tested, this is not the optimal tool for heavy Windows Media encoding shops.

Episode Pro''s H.264 encoding controls.

Figure 2. Episode Pro''s H.264 encoding controls.

H.264


H.264 encoding started poorly, as the settings that I used on the Mac version crashed consistently. I checked the Telestream boards and found no similar complaints (and only 12 active threads in total, which is impressive for a new product), so the problems could relate to the fact that my two test computers have multiple encoding tools installed. I sent my two settings files to Telestream representatives, who reported that they encoded without problem on their test machine, though they were working with a soon-to-be-released version with lots of minor bug fixes. I''m guessing that the problems were unique to my computers, but now you know what I know.

To produce the comparative files, I started with fresh templates and started configuring them closer and closer to my target encoding parameters until Episode crashed again, and then I backed up and used the last file successfully encoded. This means that the files I ultimately produced used lower-quality parameters than some other encoding tools (e.g. CAVLC rather than CABAC), but the overall quality was still very good—a testament to the quality improvements that H.264 codec supplier Dicas has made over the past 12 months.

Overall, though they weren''t all working in my version, Episode Pro provides more H.264-related encoding parameters than any encoding tool in its class; though to be fair, Squeeze also covers all the most important parameters. Still, if you''re frustrated by the lack of control granularity in Adobe Media Encoder, for example, you''ll love the controls in Episode Pro.

In quality comparisons, Episode ranked at the top of the class, about the same as Adobe Media Encoder CS4 and slightly ahead of Squeeze. Thomson Grass Valley ProCoder, which uses the Apple codec, was the clear laggard among Windows encoding tools.

Interestingly, though Episode Pro does have Flash 9-compatible presets that produce H.264 files, the presets output in the MOV QuickTime format. Most new encoding tools, including Squeeze, output .f4v files, Adobe''s designated extension for H.264 files encoded for Flash. At this point, it''s a distinction without a real difference, since both the Flash Media Server and Flash Player work with .mov files the same way they work with .f4v files. However, sometime down the road, Adobe will add Flash-specific features to the F4V format, and Episode Pro will have to both incorporate the features and adapt the extension.

Episode Pro''s VP6 encoding options.

Figure 3. Episode Pro''s VP6 encoding options.

VP6


Though VP6 has lost the spotlight to H.264, it''s still the most widely used codec in the world, and Episode Pro produces quality on par with the leaders with similar controls. For example, you get both VP6-E and S support, Alpha channel support and 2-pass VBR.

In terms of quality, none of the encoding tools really stands out; all tools produce video about the same quality as On2 Technologies' own Flix Pro encoding tool, the gold standard. This makes encoding speed the primary distinction between the VP6 encoding programs, and it''s a surprising point of excellence for Episode Pro.

Encoding times, single and five files.

Table 1. Encoding times, single and five files.

Performance


I say surprising because in trials I ran last December, Episode Pro was the absolute slowest in VP6 encoding on the Mac. In Windows trials, it was the fastest, producing a 1-minute DV file to VP6 format in 3:26 (min:sec) on a dual-processor, quad-core, 2.83GHz HP xw6600 workstation. The next closest was Adobe Media Encoder CS4 at 6:42.

However, when encoding multiple files, single-file encoding time becomes less important than the ability to multitask and encode more than one file at a time, which Episode can't do (neither can Adobe Media Encoder). In contrast, when encoding multiple files, you can open multiple instances of Squeeze, which brought the five-file VP6 encoding time down to 10:28, compared to 17:10 for Episode Pro. ProCoder can internally encode more than one file at a time, so its five-file encoding speed is also well below that of Episode Pro.

Table 1 shows similar results for Windows Media and H.264 encoding. In all instances, Episode Pro was the slowest at encoding five files, and total time to encode 15 files was about twice as long as that of Squeeze, its closest competitor. In most environments, however, multiple-file encoding speed is less important than quality and configurability, where Episode Pro excels—Windows Media excluded, of course. To avoid getting (yet another) reminder from Telestream PR, I''ll note that Episode does have a higher-end product that does simultaneous multiple file encoding (Episode Engine) though it''s Mac only and starts at around $3,000.

Overall, Episode''s biggest weakness is ease of use. Even if you''re experienced with other programs—heck, especially if you''re experienced with other programs—you''ll be confused by the new terms and concepts that Telestream throws at you. Again, if you don''t mind researching a bit to find the best parameters, or watching Nate Caplin''s Complete Training for Episode and Episode Pro DVD, you''ll find yourself appreciating the extra parameters. On the other hand, if you''re looking for an encoder with an “Easy Button,” Episode Pro isn''t it.