When you start delving into the details of video encoding, it can come as quite a shock just how much there is to tweak and adjust. Many of us will be content to choose an encoding preset that works and stick with that, and that’s fine for your average YouTube video, but what about streaming?
If you’re looking for a quick answer, here it is; the best bitrate for YouTube streaming is between 2,250 and 6,000 Kbps for 720p video at 60 frames per second. Of course, there is much more we can cover in this topic, which is precisely what we intend to do in this post. For example, why did we pick 720p? What is the best bitrate if you want to stream a different resolution to 720p? What is a bitrate?!
Let’s dive in.
What is a Bitrate?
The bitrate of a video is literally the rate that bits are transferred when streaming. The higher a bitrate, the higher the quality of the video can be. Bitrates can be fixed or variable, and the streaming platform can (as most do) make dynamic adjustments, such as dropping the quality of the video to compensate for poor connections, so that less bandwidth is required.
One way to think of bitrate is as a pipe through which water is flowing, with the water being your video content. The bigger the pipe, the higher the volume of water that can be transported at any given time.
Why is Streaming Bitrate Different to Regular Video Bitrate?
When you watch a regular video, be it on YouTube, Netflix, Amazon Prime, or anywhere else that serves streamed video content, there are a few factors that make it different from streaming live content.
The Source is Fixed for Regular Video
When streaming a video from a server somewhere, the video is already made. It is a file on a server, and it’s not going to change size, vary in quality, suffer from processing issues due to a bogged down computer, or anything else that might change the requirements on the streaming platform. Having this stability at the source allows the streaming platform to be more refined with its methods, and squeeze more performance out of it without worrying about large margins of error.
Timing is Less Important in Regular Videos
For a standard YouTube video, YouTube is essentially at liberty to produce the video as quickly—or as slowly—as they like. Now, don’t get us wrong, if you had to sit and wait for forty seconds for the video you put on to actually start playing, you’d probably be a bit annoyed. The point is that YouTube can take a little extra time to load in the content, and they can even buffer the content (load ahead of where you are in the playback) so that they have some extra information to compensate for erratic connections.
With streaming, the content is expected to be as close to live as possible. With live content, buffering is far less useful because the content is being created in real time; you can’t load ahead! The only way to buffer a live stream is to delay it so that the viewers are behind the live content, which is frustrating for those live viewers. Especially if there is a live chat situation and the streamer is interacting with their viewers.
The Requirements on Your Computer are Lower for Regular Videos
One thing that many aspiring YouTubers overlook—at least until they find out the hard way—is just how intensive working with video is on a computer. In the early days of Blu-ray, many computer owners excitedly bought themselves a Blu-ray drive for their computer, only to find out the computer wasn’t powerful enough to play back Blu-ray content!
Streaming is much more intensive than merely playing back content, because your computer is not just processing the video, it is encoding it as well. When you export a regular video, your computer can take its time and let you know when it’s done. When you stream, your computer has to do the same thing but instantaneously.
Now, of course, there are differences between the two processes—streaming sacrifices some quality to ensure fast encoding times—but it should give you an idea of why streaming is so hard on a computer. Especially when you consider that there’s a good chance the streamer’s computer will be doing other things beside streaming, such as playing video games. Some streamers get around this by having an entirely separate computer dedicated to the streaming side of things, and doing their gaming on a different computer, but that’s obvious not an option for everybody.
So, how does this tie in to bitrates? Well, the higher the quality of the video, the higher the bitrate. You may find that your maximum bitrate is not limited by your connection, but by the power of your streaming computer.
Quality Can be Higher for Regular Videos
Because of the above points, the quality of a regular YouTube video can be quite high compared to a stream, with a typical streaming resolution being 720p, compared to the standard YouTube video resolution of 1080p, with 1440p and 4K beginning to show up more and more.
Of course, this will change as Internet connections become faster, more reliable, and more widespread. We are already at a point where 4K content is available on services like Netflix, which means there must be enough of a user-base able to stream 4K to make it worth those platform’s while to provide that content. And, if we’re streaming 4K video today, we will probably be live-streaming 4K video in the not-too distant future.
Finding the Best Bitrate
Assuming your computer is capable of processing the video that you are putting out, your only limitation on bitrate is your Internet connection or the destination platform. If you go by YouTube’s recommendations, you would be looking at a bitrate of 51,000 Kbps for the highest quality streaming they support—4K video at 60 frames per second, so it is unlikely your bitrate will ever need to be higher than that on YouTube. At least, not until they start supporting 8K streaming.
Since your bitrate is essentially a single-value representation of your video content as it is being transferred, you can tweak just about any setting to change the bitrate requirements of your video. For example, if you switch from 4K content to 1440p content, you are essentially halving the amount of information that needs to be sent because each frame is half as big.
There are more subtle changes you can make, such as lowering the frame rate from 60 frames per second to 30 frames per second, which once again will halve the amount of information being sent because there will be half as many frames. You can also change codecs to something with a more aggressive compression, or make smaller changes across the board to get an overall lower bitrate.
Methods of compressing video content are constantly evolving, and are increasingly effective in the streaming arena, but it is useful to understand a little about what is going on in this regard, so you know how the type of content you are filming can affect your bitrate.
We mentioned above that switching from 4K to 1440p essentially halves the amount of information you are sending; this technically not true. It would be true if the video was being sent raw and uncompressed, but video like that would be enormous and not practical for today’s Internet connections.
The basic concept of compressing video is that duplicate information is bundled together. An easy way to visualise this is with a list;
- Black pixel
- Black pixel
- Black pixel
- Black pixel
- Black pixel
Our list tells us that there are five black pixels, but we can represent that more efficiently like this;
- 5x black pixels
Compression does this to your video, finding information that can be bundled together so that it takes less space when it is transferred over the Internet.
This is why video that doesn’t have a lot going on requires less bitrate than video that is all action. If a streamer is sat talking in front of a static background, the compression algorithm can practically render half the screen “free” in terms of data costs because it is unchanging. On the other hand, if the streamer is playing a fast-paced game in full screen, every frame will be different, and there will be much less that can be compressed, increasing the necessary bitrate.
If you choose a preset for your stream, and it works, there is no pressing need to go optimising things for the lowest possible bitrate you can get away with. YouTube will take care of the variable side of things, and as long as your connection and computer are up to the task, your end will be fine.
That being said, if you do want to get under the hood and tweak your streaming settings, be sure to enlist the help of someone (or a few someones) to check your stream is playing how you hope before you go live with it.
Top 5 Tools To Get You Started on YouTube
Very quickly before you go here are 5 amazing tools I have used every day to grow my YouTube channel from 0 to 30K subscribers in the last 12 months that I could not live without.
1. VidIQ helps boost my views and get found in search
I almost exclusively switched to VidIQ from a rival in 2020.
Within 12 months I tripled the size of my channel and very quickly learnt the power of thumbnails, click through rate and proper search optimization. Best of all, they are FREE!
2. Adobe Creative Suite helps me craft amazing looking thumbnails and eye-catching videos
I have been making youtube videos on and off since 2013.
When I first started I threw things together in Window Movie Maker, cringed at how it looked but thought “that’s the best I can do so it’ll have to do”.
I soon realized the move time you put into your editing and the more engaging your thumbnails are the more views you will get and the more people will trust you enough to subscribe.
That is why I took the plunge and invested in my editing and design process with Adobe Creative Suite. They offer a WIDE range of tools to help make amazing videos, simple to use tools for overlays, graphics, one click tools to fix your audio and the very powerful Photoshop graphics program to make eye-catching thumbnails.
Best of all you can get a free trial for 30 days on their website, a discount if you are a student and if you are a regular human being it starts from as little as £9 per month if you want to commit to a plan.
3. Rev.com helps people read my videos
You can’t always listen to a video.
Maybe you’re on a bus, a train or sat in a living room with a 5 year old singing baby shark on loop… for HOURS. Or, you are trying to make as little noise as possible while your new born is FINALLY sleeping.
This is where Rev can help you or your audience consume your content on the go, in silence or in a language not native to the video.
Rev.com can help you translate your videos, transcribe your videos, add subtitles and even convert those subtitles into other languages – all from just $1.50 per minute.
A GREAT way to find an audience and keep them hooked no matter where they are watching your content.
4. PlaceIT can help you STAND OUT on YouTube
I SUCK at making anything flashy or arty.
I have every intention in the world to make something that looks cool but im about as artistic as a dropped ice-cream cone on the web windy day.
That is why I could not live on YouTube without someone like PlaceIT. They offer custom YouTube Banners, Avatars, YouTube Video Intros and YouTube End Screen Templates that are easy to edit with simple click, upload wizard to help you make amazing professional graphics in minutes.
Best of all, some of their templates are FREE! or you can pay a small fee if you want to go for their slightly more premium designs (pst – I always used the free ones).
5. StoryBlocks helps me add amazing video b-roll cutaways
I mainly make tutorials and talking head videos.
And in this modern world this can be a little boring if you don’t see something funky every once in a while.
I try with overlays, jump cuts and being funny but my secret weapon is b-roll overlay content.
I can talk about skydiving, food, money, kids, cats – ANYTHING I WANT – with a quick search on the StoryBlocks website I can find a great looking clip to overlay on my videos, keeping them entertained and watching for longer.
They have a wide library of videos, graphics, images and even a video maker tool and it wont break the bank with plans starting from as little as £8.25 ($9) per month.