HD live streaming is revolutionizing how the world connects and how organizations engage with audiences. In a time when we rely on live streaming for everything from watching a major sporting event and attending a college lecture to tuning into a religious service or fitness class, standard definition is no longer good enough. High definition live streaming gives audiences the best possible viewing experience.
If you’re a broadcaster, brand, publisher, or creator who’s intrigued by HD live streaming, this guide is for you. We’re going to review:
- What HD video is
- The differences between high definition video and standard definition video
- How to live stream in HD
- What multi-bitrate streaming is
What’s HD video? A comprehensive overview
The “HD” in “HD video” stands for “high definition.” High definition videos have a higher resolution than standard definition videos, which are also known as “SD” videos.
Resolution indicates how detailed a video is by measuring the number of pixels in a standard aspect ratio frame of 16:9. Resolution is expressed as the width times height of pixels in a frame. For example, 1,280 x 720 indicates that the frame is 1,280 pixels wide by 720 pixels high. Because 1,280 pixels is a standard width, resolution is often abbreviated as just the frame’s height, such as 720p, for example.
Common high definition video modes
There are several common HD video modes that you need to know about and will encounter as you broadcast or watch live streams. Here’s a quick overview:
|Video mode||Commonly known as||Frame size (width x height in pixels)||Type of scanning|
As you can see, each video mode has both a name and abbreviation that corresponds to its dimensions. When we get to higher-quality HD video modes, we also encounter differences in scanning modes. 1080i uses interlaced scanning, while 1080p uses progressive scanning. In interlaced scanning, only half of the lines in a screen are displayed at any one time. With progressive scanning, all of the lines in a screen are displayed at the same time.
A caveat about HD live streaming
Typically, the higher the resolution, the better the image. However, higher resolution video files are usually larger than SD videos and require more bandwidth to stream.
If your audience has a high-speed internet connection that can keep up with an HD stream, they’ll enjoy an optimal viewing experience. However, if your audience has a slow internet connection, HD quality can slow down the stream, create lag, and result in a pixelated video. While it may be tempting to always opt for the highest resolution while live streaming, it’s better to optimize for the best viewing experience.
Use cases for HD live streaming
With that caveat in mind, you may have to be judicious about when you use HD video and when you don’t. HD live streaming is the best option when you know your audience has a fast internet connection. It’s also good for video content in which details matter. Examples include live sporting events, where viewers need to see where the ball is clearly, or a retail live stream, when it’s important for consumers to see the details of the products being advertised.
You know your audience better than anyone, and if you think the majority of them will be tuning into your live stream with slower internet connections, think twice about capturing video in the highest definition possible. Keep reading this guide to HD live streaming to learn options for optimizing video quality no matter what your audience’s internet connection is like.
Differences between high definition and standard definition video
As you know, HD stands for “high definition” and SD stands for “standard definition.” So what’s the cutoff for a high definition resolution? Generally, a resolution of 720p or above is considered high definition, and anything below that, such as 480p, is considered standard definition.
Because it has a more dense concentration of pixels, high definition video shows more detailed images than standard definition videos. SD videos are, therefore, of lower quality. HD videos are best for high quality streaming where details matter, while standard definition is best for audiences with slower internet connections. HD uses more bandwidth than SD, so if your audience doesn’t have fast internet, a high definition live stream can result in a poor viewing experience with lots of buffering.
So, which is better: high definition video or standard definition video? Standard definition can tarnish the quality of a stream and leave a bad impression. Plus, SD technology is on its way out. To avoid compromising the viewing experience for people with slower internet connections, 720p HD Ready is a great option, as it uses less bandwidth than higher HD video modes. Multi-bitrate and adaptive streaming are also good workarounds to this problem. We’ll discuss these in more detail later on in this guide.
Here’s a cheat sheet that summarizes the differences between high definition and standard definition video quality:
|Category||High Definition (HD)||Standard Definition (SD)|
|What is it?||Higher quality video with more details||Lower quality video|
|Resolution||720p+||<720p (usually 480p)|
|Best for||High quality streaming where details matter||Audiences with slower internet connections|
|Overall winner||High definition|
What’s the best resolution for live streaming?
The best and most commonly-used resolution for live streaming is HD Ready, or 720p. As the lowest resolution of HD video, 720p is a happy medium between video quality and bandwidth. Plus, with 482.5 billion hours live streamed on small, mobile screens globally in 2020, it’s difficult for most audiences to tell the difference between 720p and a higher resolution stream.
This resolution is also accessible to both publishers and audiences, because most entry-level devices can shoot in 720p, and most internet connections can easily support HD Ready footage.
How to live stream in HD
Ready to level up your live streams and go live in high definition? Keep reading to learn which tools you’ll need to launch a high definition live stream and how to go about doing this.
What you’ll need to live stream in high definition
If you’ve ever done any kind of live streaming, you probably already have most of the tools needed to stream in HD. Here’s the setup you’ll need to launch an HD live video stream:
- A fast, stable internet connection with an upload speed of at least 15 mbps.
- A live streaming platform, like Facebook Live, Twitch, or LinkedIn Live, which is where viewers will tune in to your live stream. While you have lots of options when it comes to platforms, we recommend JW Player for its comprehensive features.
- An encoder, also known as streaming software, which broadcasts the video and audio from your device to your favorite streaming platform. While you could stream directly through a streaming platform, an encoder gives you the ability to use external cameras and microphones, manage multiple video cameras and mics, and share your screen. The result is a more sophisticated, professional production.
- A computer or mobile phone from which you’ll access your streaming software and transmit your live stream.
- A high definition camera, like the one on your phone or laptop, a webcam, or camcorder. If you want to upgrade your streaming setup, consider purchasing one of these cameras.
- A microphone. While you can start with the microphone built into your camera, you’ll eventually want to upgrade to an external microphone so your audio matches your video quality. A lavalier mic is a great option for talking head-style videos or interviews, while boom mics are best for capturing a great range of audio.
You can begin with equipment you already have and a free encoder, then invest in more professional hardware and software as you develop your live streaming strategy.
How to live stream in HD
After you’ve gathered the above equipment, follow these steps to launch your HD live stream:
- Access your encoder via your computer or mobile device.
- Add sources to your encoder, such as video footage from your cameras and audio from external microphones.
- Set up a live stream to the streaming platform of your choice. Most platforms let you schedule a live stream or go live instantly.
- Select an HD quality stream in your streaming platform.
- Set up your HD-supported recording equipment, and prepare your on-screen talent.
- Test your internet connection and video set up to ensure it looks good to viewers and will be able to sustain an HD stream.
- Start your live stream!
Multi-bitrate streaming vs. adaptive bitrate streaming
You know all about HD videos and SD videos. You understand that even though HD videos are better in quality than SD videos, they use up more bandwidth and can be difficult for audiences with slower internet connections to enjoy. While we advise live streaming in 720p to offer high quality that’s accessible on slower connections, you may not want to limit the quality of your stream. Is there a way to give viewers with fast internet connections the highest HD level possible, while also giving audiences with poor internet connections the ability to watch the stream?
Absolutely. That’s where multi-bitrate streaming and adaptive bitrate streaming come in handy. Here’s an overview of each option to help you decide if you should implement them on your next live stream.
Multi-bitrate (MBR) streaming lets viewers choose their own adventure. Broadcasters can record a live stream in the highest resolution they like. Then, instead of being forced to watch a predetermined resolution of the stream, audiences can choose the highest resolution their internet connection will support.
Multi-bitrate streaming improves the viewing experience without crushing data usage or desktop bandwidth. Viewers choose the best quality for their device and internet. If their internet connection is unstable and slows down, they can downgrade the stream quality. If their internet is fast and reliable, they can choose the highest quality resolution the broadcaster offers.
Multi-bitrate streaming example
Let’s say you’re live streaming a basketball game. You film it in 1440p and make it available in 480p, 720p, 1080p, and 1440p for your audience.
Someone might tune in from their smartphone on their train commute. While they’re connected to LTE data, they opt to watch the stream in 1080p to get high quality without draining all of their data. When the train goes into a tunnel for a few minutes, they downgrade to 480p to reduce lag as much as possible.
Another viewer might be tuning in on a 60” ultra high definition television and with a stable ethernet connection. This person will probably watch on 1440p the whole time to take advantage of the best resolution you have to offer, and their large screen size.
Adaptive bitrate streaming
Adaptive bitrate (ABR) streaming is like the autopilot mode of multi-bitrate streaming. Broadcasters can stream in the highest possible resolution their internet, recording devices, encoder, and streaming platform allow. Viewers have access to various levels of resolutions. However, rather than having to manually choose the quality of the stream, ABR optimizes the viewing experience by automatically choosing the highest quality resolution the viewer’s connection can handle. Adaptive bitrate streaming can change the video resolution in real time.
Adaptive bitrate streaming example
Let’s see how our example for MBR changes when the live stream offers ABR instead. As a reminder, you’re a broadcaster live streaming a basketball game in 1440p.
Rather than the commuter having to experience lag when their train enters the tunnel, and manually change their streaming settings to a lower resolution, ABR automatically drops the stream to 480p while they’re in the tunnel, then raises it back to HD when they’re out of the tunnel. With ABR, the viewer doesn’t miss a second of the game and can sit back and enjoy, instead of thinking about video settings.
With a stable internet connection, the viewer watching the game at home on an ultra HD television should be able to watch the game at 1440p the whole time. However, if the viewer’s three roommates decide to watch Netflix, FaceTime, and tune into a Zoom call during the game, there will be a higher bandwidth strain on the connection. In that case, ABR would reduce the resolution to 1080p or 720p to make it possible for the whole home to do what they need to do.
Offer HD live streaming with JW Player
Now that we’ve convinced you of the magic of HD live streaming, you’ll never want to go back to standard definition again. HD live streaming lets you engage with audiences in new ways, without tarnishing your brand or your audience’s viewing experience.
While there are lots of live streaming platforms out there that support high definition videos, they’re not all created equal. JW Player is the most powerful and flexible video platform out there. With JW Player, you can connect and engage with your audiences on the screens of their choice, while taking advantage of monetization opportunities. Check out JW Player’s end-to-end solutions for live broadcasting.