A huge upgrade, with many UI improvements for editors and other video pros who are not necessarily savvy compression artists when it comes to Web deliverables

This review of the new Sorenson Squeeze 6 is from an editor’s point of view. Compression is very much a “dark art,” as I have heard it called, with a lot of different factors going into what makes good (and fast) compression.  A true compression artist weighs many factors when deciding on bit rate and image size and has studied the different speeds when compressing to different hard drives. I haven’t really done any of those things; nor will I look at a specific compressed frame and compare artifacts from different codecs and competing applications for this review. As an editor and not a dedicated compression artist, I don’t have the time or the desire to dive into that kind of minutiae when it comes to compressing video. It’s more about finding usable settings that produce acceptable results for client viewing copies, DVDs or uploads to YouTube or Vimeo. There is some trial and error involved in getting the file size to image quality ratio just right, but once it’s close, I tend to stick with those numbers. I’m currently using a modified iPhone preset for a number of HD projects that I am working on and that is producing good results for Web-based client approvals. While I do want good output from a compression utility, I also want a tool that is stable, functional and relatively easy to use. I’ve been having mixed results with the newest version of Apple Compressor, stability being the primary problem, so when Sorenson offered to send over a copy of the new version of Squeeze, I was happy to give it a try.

The first thing a veteran user of the old Squeeze will notice is that the interface has been updated but not entirely changed. It’s a simple interface that will let a new user get to work right away. In the upper left corner of the application window, you’ll see icons for three different input options: importing files, capturing from a device, and the very handy Watch Folder, which keeps an eye on a designated folder and automatically encodes media placed there. There are also tabbed panels listing all your presets, filters, publishing options and notifications running down the left side of the Squeeze 6’s application window. The Preview window and Job window, where all your clips to be encoded will appear, are on the right. Operation is simple: Drag a clip into the Job window or click the Import File icon and the clip appears in the Job window. Then it’s as simple as walking your way down the left side of the app to set up an encode.
Presets is where all of the available codecs live (see detail, below). They are broken down by tabs: Devices (Apple TV, iPod and iPhone, Mobile, PSP, Wii);  Discs (DVD, Blu-ray, audio), Editing (DV, HDV, offline); Formats (Flash, MPEG, MP3, QuickTime, Windows Media) and Web (YouTube, Flash player, among others). A Favorites tab let’s you create user-defined favorites. And Presets are expandable for select QuickTime codecs such as ProRes. I was able to easily make a number of ProRes presets, for example, by duplicating one of the existing QuickTime formats and setting Apple ProRes 422 as the codec under the Video tab of the Presets pop-up menu. You can access this menu by double clicking on a preset in the Presets menu or after you have applied a preset in the Job window. There’s also a Preset Exchange on the Web for Squeeze users to upload and download new presets, which is a great idea. One of the biggest problems I’ve been having with the new 3.5 version of Apple Compressor is that is crashes when I load a large batch of files. This happens on each of the three different machines on which I run it. With Squeeze 6, however, I was able to easily transcode a large batch (50+ files) of H.264 Canon 7D files to ProRes for editing by using the Watch Folder. It was only about a three-step process. In Compressor, I typically had to limit each transcode to five or six clips at a time; otherwise, it would crash, even when I was using Compressor’s droplet functionality. If Compressor didn’t crash, it would often take so long to recognize the files and even longer to let me add the presets that I grew extremely frustrated. Squeeze, on the other hand, handled this task with ease. I left it encoding overnight and it had finished the ProRes files the next morning.

Filters and Beyond

After choosing your presets, it’s time to decide what filters, if any, you might want applied. There’s a good set of video and audio filters available, from the usual blur, brightness and contrast filters to more specific functions, such as pulldown insertion or removal. Like a preset, you can duplicate any of the filters listed and tweak them into a new filter set. It’s not apparent from first glance but each filter is more like a “filter set” as you can choose more than one filter at a time. The filter parameters are accessed via the Filters tab of a preset pop-up menu. For example, for some reason the engineers at Sorenson have decided to apply an auto crop and deinterlace as a default for each filter. Double clicking the filter will let you uncheck and turn those filters off. You can also automatically apply a global filter to every compression via the preferences menu > Advanced tab. This global filter defaults (for a reason that is beyond me) to turning on the Auto Crop Deinterlace filter; you might want to turn that off if you are dealing with more progressive sources than interlaced. Worth noting is the format that the timecode filter uses, a hour:minute:seconds:milliseconds format that is a bit foreign to those of us in video who expect to see SMTPE standard timecode. I’d like to see SMTPE timecode added as well in a future update.

Then it is time to consider the publishing options you need for a particular job. Defaults include YouTube, Akamai, Limelight and Sorenson’s own new Sorenson 360 service. You can also create other destinations, such as sending the media to an application, a folder or my favorite “send to FTP” option. Sorenson 360 is actually a complete video delivery network on its own. The service works very well and includes automated uploading and notification options by both e-mail and SMS messaging from within Squeeze 6. You can tag your video on 360 with metrics to see how much the video has been viewed, and you can also customize your player options. There’s even a review-and-approval option available with a big red or green accept/reject button for client feedback. 360 is also fully compatible with an iPhone, provided you encode the video properly. It took a page from YouTube, which also lets youo embed media on other sites as well. The only downside is that Sorenson 360 is not a free service. However, each new copy of Squeeze 6 comes with a one-year complementary account. After that, there are different pricing options depending on how much bandwidth you might need to deliver per month. Unfortunately, a 360 account is required for some Squeeze 6 delivery options like YouTube or Twitter notifications. I could see how these monthly rates might get expensive for a small shop. On the other hand, it is a great option for those who want the customization, security and reliability that free services like Vimeo don’t offer.

The Notifications pane, the final tab, is where you can add contacts that need to get e-mail or SMS messages when an encode job has finished. Again, a Sorenson 360 account is required to send and receive these notifications. It is nice to be able to e-mail yourself for nothing other than the piece of mind that an encode job has finished when you leave it running after hours.

How Fast and Furious?

As for encode speeds, Squeeze 6 can’t match those of Compressor. I have a virtual cluster set up in Compressor to use the multiple CPU cores of all my Mac Pros and Compressor was much faster on some encode tests I ran. But Squeeze 6 is no slouch: It could still burn through a four-minute music video in around six minutes. It’s hard to nail down the exact encode speeds, as speeds change due to many factors, including encode options and drive speeds. For me compression often comes down to finding acceptable encode times vs. file size vs. quality settings for the workflow that I choose. I can read books about compression and use all the presets I want but I still find myself tweaking and testing to get it just right for my needs. While I didn’t find Squeeze 6’s encode speeds to be unacceptable, it would be nice if the app could tap into the multiple cores and multiple processors of modern computers, since this lightning-fast multitasking is when multicore machines really shine.

The quality of the encoded video is very good. There’s three different H.264 encode “engines” to choose from and they all produced great results. I found the   DVD encode quality to be very good as well. Sorenson will automatically burn a DVD, if you choose to do so, when using the DVD preset. But you can’t add a customizable background or DVD menu, unfortunately.

Overall Sorenson Squeeze 6 is a huge upgrade from the previous version. It really feels like the application has re-launched itself as a brand new Squeeze. There are a few bumps in this new version but nothing that future updates won’t be able to iron out. The biggest question to ask as a new user is what value do you expect to get out of some of the publishing options that require Sorenson 360. After the twelve-month complementary account runs out you might be required to fork over a monthly fee or lose some publishing options. But you’ll still get a great encoding application with all of the encoding functionality intact. As with all good software worth the price of admisssion, there is a free trial available, so if you are looking for a new compression and encoding option-or are as frustrated with Apple Compressor as I am-then why not give Sorenson Squeeze 6 a try?