Welcome back to Codec Answer Guy Presents, the series where we address the questions we hear most frequently from broadcast professionals. This month, we’re talking about smartphone apps and hardware codecs.
On a very basic level, hardware codecs and smartphone apps do the same thing. Both transmit high fidelity audio over IP networks (public or private internet connections, like Wi-Fi or 3G/4G networks). They encode and decode, and often use some of the same algorithms to do it (like AAC, Opus, and G.722).
However, despite performing the same basic function, there are some major differences between hardware codecs and smartphone apps. The biggest difference, obviously, is form factor. But there are also big differences in capability.
Wait, but if they do the same basic thing, why can’t I just do my broadcasting from a smartphone app? What’s the difference?
While smartphone applications and hardware codecs share some of the same encoders, apps don’t have many of the capabilities which make professional-grade hardware codecs work really well. For example, some smartphone apps only utilize one encoding algorithm (like Opus), while most hardware codecs have a suite of algorithms to choose from.
Having your primary codec installed on your smartphone sounds incredible. Smartphones are sophisticated, multipurpose tools – they can handle everything from Facebook to Netflix, so why not audio encoding?
While it’s convenient to have equipment that can handle multiple jobs, a smartphone isn’t specialized for transmitting audio. In addition to managing bandwidth on an IP connection, a smartphone app also has to compete for available CPU and memory with other apps. This can impair function, especially on compromised networks.
It’s also important to mention that smartphones lack many of the hardware features that audio professionals rely on. The vast majority of smartphones aren’t equipped to process a stereo input, which greatly limits what a broadcaster can do in the field. There’s no way to easily connect a smartphone to Ethernet or other wired internet, meaning wireless connections are the only options. Additionally, smartphones have no pro-audio ports for connecting mixers, microphones, or other equipment. Broadcasters are limited to a micro USB port (or a Lightning port, or similar), and a headphone jack. (And now, the headphone jack isn’t even a given anymore! Looking at you, Apple!)
When should I use smartphone apps?
If you need something that can handle quick drop-ins, and you know you’ll have access to a reliable wireless network, a smartphone app might do everything you need it to. (In fact, apps like Luci Live and Linphone connect to Comrex codecs, making it even easier to do spontaneous drop-ins from the field.) Apps like Linphone will usually perform better than Skype or a regular cellphone. They’re easy to set up in the field, and the quality is that much better.
UPDATE (11/13/18) — We’ve introduced our own smartphone app! FieldTap is free for download, and is perfect for brief drop-ins. Learn more.
When might I want to take the hardware route?
IP networks are inherently unpredictable. Codec manufacturers know this, and build in tools to increase reliability (like forward error correction and dynamic jitter buffer, among others). If you’re using a challenging network that you don’t have full control over, you need a codec that can adapt to fluctuations in bandwidth. As technologically amazing as smartphone apps are, they aren’t as sophisticated as hardware codecs. Thus, they don’t have the capability to deal with network hiccups as smoothly.
Additionally, certain hardware codecs are capable of network bonding and redundancy. (ACCESS and BRIC-Link are two of our products that have this capability.) In other words, these codecs can intelligently use multiple networks at the same time, in order to increase reliability. Smartphone apps, however, are limited to only one, wireless network. If you need to be able to use wired networks, and you want to take advantage of as many networks as possible, a hardware codec is a better solution for you.
If quality audio is what you do, then you need equipment that is specialized to provide the best possible sound coupled with optimal reliability. As a one-time solution, or for simple situations, a tool from iTunes or Google Play can work great. But if you’re using your equipment regularly, in demanding environments, and you need a full range of pro-audio capabilities to ensure your audio sounds great every time, then a hardware codec is the way to go.