What is Video Encoding?

Blog 8 min read | Sep 29, 2022 | JW Player


Video encoding happens under the radar of just about any video service. Whether you’re posting dance clips from your phone to TikTok or uploading your videos to a platform like JWP, your content must undergo a decoding and encoding process to become universally accessible.

Modern-day technology makes video encoding quick and easy. Most of the time, you have no idea this process is even happening. However, understanding what’s going on under the hood will give you a bit more insight into the video files you upload, export, and view.

Below, we’ll walk you through everything you need to know about video encoding. First, we’ll get into the details around what it is and how it works—then, we’ll cover why video encoding matters and how you can provide the best user experience for your viewers.

What is Video Encoding?

Video encoding is the process of converting raw video files into a standard digital format that is compatible with an application or hardware. This process includes compressing the files and changing their codec to work for the desired output.

For example, when you upload a video to Snapchat, the platform compresses the file to an H.264/AVC, H.265/HEVC, VP9, or AV1 video codec. Their video encoding algorithm compresses the file, reducing redundant sounds and images to deliver video faster.

Online video downloading and video streaming wouldn’t be possible without encoding—the files would simply be too big. Industry-leading cameras and even your own mobile device records video with a focus on quality. However, top-notch quality leads to massive file sizes, slow download speeds and poor user experiences—there are trade-offs. 

There has to be a compromise between performance and quality, and that’s what video encoding makes possible. 

Video platforms design complex algorithms to quickly compress files to a standard format that’s both high-quality and high-performing. While that might sound like pie in the sky, it’s something just about every video service does behind the scenes. Publishers get to record and edit videos on practically any device and platform, and the video encoding software does the magic to make it playable for end users. Yet, some platforms do it better than others.

But with so many different devices, platforms, and internet bandwidths in the world, how does encoding software provide the best user experience for everyone without compromising quality? Through a similar process known as transcoding.

Encoding vs. Transcoding: What’s the Difference?

Transcoding and encoding share a lot in common, but they’re not the same. Transcoding (also known as multi-bitrate encoding) is the process of compressing video files into multiple versions with different sizes (bitrates).

For example, when you watch a video hosted by JWP, you get to choose the playback quality, which is typically one of the following:

  • 4K
  • 1080p
  • 720p
  • 406p
  • 270p
  • 180p

The player will default to the most appropriate quality based on your hardware and internet connection, and this is made possible through the video transcoding process.

Transcoding also allows your file to be playable on different devices. Thanks to transcoding, your video looks nearly identical whether you’re watching it on your computer, mobile device, or 4K TV. 

When you use a platform that doesn’t support transcoding, you essentially have to encode the same digital video file multiple times into different versions (as opposed to transcoding a video file once).

By definition, you’re always encoding (multiple times) when you transcode a video file. However, you’re not necessarily transcoding when you encode. That’s why the terms can’t be used interchangeably.

How Does the Video Encoding Process Work?

Video encoding happens at multiple points in the video production process. Your smartphones and cameras actually kickstart the encoding process as soon as you start recording by formatting your videos to the H.264 codec. 

These systems and software run advanced video algorithms to compress your video files to remove redundancies and minimize the file size (while still delivering quality footage)—this also makes it possible to share files immediately rather than having to encode them later before uploading to a platform or sharing with a friend.

The algorithm tries to identify and remove identical (or near-identical) frames that add to your file size. In a sense, your compressed video file shows viewers the same frame (when necessary) rather than two identical frames. When this is done excessively, the quality degrades, and the user experience suffers. Fortunately, today’s software finds a nice balance between quality and performance to optimize digital videos.

Your video hosting platform or encoding service runs a similar process to encode video files. Depending on your platform and the desired end-user output, it’ll change your file’s video format and codec. This involves further transformation and compression.

Why Video Encoding Matters

Video encoding is the solution to the growing demand for video. Back in the day, file size didn’t matter so much when you simply smushed a cassette into your gigantic VCR player. You just had to make sure your video file could fit on the cassette.

However, as video quality improved, publishers faced a problem. To show their movies and TV shows without compromising quality, they’d need to split it up onto multiple discs—and that’s why you need two discs to watch 4K Gandhi and 52 discs to watch the complete collection of Walker, Texas Ranger.

That problem grew exponentially with digital video. Users uploaded millions of hours of video content daily to the internet. Millions. And that uncompressed video needs to be encoded for the expanse of the global web to contain and consume it.

With all that in mind, here are a handful of reasons why encoding matters:

  • Reduces file size: Video compression shrinks file sizes, but it also reduces video quality. Video encoding intelligently compresses video files to reduce file size without impacting quality.
  • Accelerates upload speed: Smaller files take less time to upload, making it easier for creators to publish their content to the masses.
  • Improves viewing quality: Transcoding files into multiple bitrates lets viewers watch any video at the highest possible quality.
  • Adjusts the resolution: Video encoding lets you change the resolution of your videos to fit any aspect ratio, whether that’s on a phone, tablet, or computer.
  • Increases compatibility: Encoding helps you make video files compatible across any platform, meaning your video can be live-streamed and then published for on-demand consumption.

Video compression shrinks file sizes, but it also impacts video quality. Intelligent video encoding doesn’t have the same problem.

How to Encode Your Videos

You can find plenty of online tools (both downloadable software and in browser) to encode your videos, but most of these limit your file size and outputs. Plus, they aren’t typically fast. If you need to encode lots of videos—and want to do it quickly—you’ll need a more scalable solution.

Publishers, TV networks, live streaming classes, and online course providers need more purpose-made video platforms. Without a scalable video platform, users uploading and viewing videos on these systems will compromise the quality and speed of the network.

Businesses with large video content demands need a video platform like JW Player to automate the encoding process—one that uses comprehensive APIs and transcoding options with everything from 4K to 180p. Try the encoding process for yourself with our 30-day free trial.

4 Best Practices for Encoding Your Videos

Everything from the file you upload to the settings you adjust in your encoder will determine the quality of your published video. Here are a few best practices to help you deliver the best video with confidence:

  1. Upload the right file formats: If you’re in control of the format, uploading videos using MP4 container formats with H.264 video codecs and AAC audio codecs might be the best way to go. This is the most popular and reliable format for digital content.
  2. Use a pixel aspect ratio of 1:1: Online video pixels are always square, so don’t upload or export with non-square pixel ratios—this will lead to stretching and glitches.
  3. Configure your settings for the medium: Quality isn’t always going to be your primary concern. Think about your use case. For example, if you’re uploading and storing massive amounts of security footage, you want to prioritize minimizing file size (to cut storage costs) while maintaining the minimum amount of required quality. However, if you’re live streaming in real-time to your audience, you’ll want a high frame rate.
  4. Never upscale: You can’t make your video higher quality through the encoding process—you can only compress and reduce. Avoid scaling your video dimensions to be larger than your original input.

Play Fast, High-Quality Content Anywhere With JWP

Stress less about video encoding and deliver better content with a complete video platform built for top-notch viewing experiences. Here’s how JW Player can transform digital video for your business:

  • Play: Use our HTML5 video player to deliver fast, high-quality videos across websites, mobile apps, and connected TVs.
  • Stream: Process better quality video at a smaller size to engage your audiences in real-time on any device.
  • Monetize: Take advantage of innovative player tech and expert guidance to get the highest possible ad fill and CPMs (plus, keep 100% of your ad revenue).
  • Engage: Capture your viewers and keep them engaged with real-time intelligent content recommendations that maximize viewing sessions.


Start your free trial or discuss your needs with our video experts.