With a brand-new interface, batch processing, output to all major formats, and both high-definition and H.264 capability, the new Squeeze 4 Compression Suite marks Sorenson's latest attempt to go after users who want a compression tool that doesn't bind them to a single codec.
"We're trying to appeal to a broader user base," says product manager Randon Morford, adding that the buzz surrounding HD at this year's NAB confirmed to him that they were headed in the right direction. But while HD is sure to be one of Squeeze 4's selling points, Morford says the company isn't hanging all its hopes on the encoder's multitude of output options. "The codec is the bait, but the application is the hook. We've got all the bait, all the codecs, but without a good hook, you're not going to keep your customers."
The interface and workflow upgrades are significant improvements, regardless of what formats you're working with. While Squeeze 4 still includes the familiar Watch folder—where you queue video files to be compressed—Sorenson has added a Batch Tree window. When you drag an uncompressed video clip there, it appears as a Job, onto which you can drag any number of Intelligent Presets (which include format, frame rate, and HD options), as well as any of the four Filters (darken, lighten, generic Web, and VHS to Web). You're not limited to the Intelligent Presets, of course. By double-clicking on any of the formats, you can control data rate, frame size/rate, audio sample size/rate, and encoding method (CBR or VBR), or any other settings a particular codec allows.
All of these changes can be applied locally to a single clip or globally to the entire contents of the Batch Tree window. "If you bring in three different videos you want to encode, you can drag and drop 56Kbps QuickTime on one, but also drag and drop Windows Media 384Kbps on the entire job," Morford says. Squeeze uses color differentiation to indicate which settings are global and which are local. When you click Squeeze It, the application begins compressing and applying filters from top to bottom in the Batch Tree window; while Squeeze is compressing a clip into one format, you can always make changes in the settings for formats it hasn't gotten to yet.
Your clip is displayed in the Preview window, where you can zoom in and out as well as crop your frame. The window is detachable from the interface, so you can watch it full screen or even on another monitor; when you dock it back into the application, it resizes to fit the standard window size.
You can also set in and out markers to do a test run: Select a few seconds of your video and highlight the format, then click Play Preview to see what it will look like. In previous versions of Squeeze, you had to remember to remove those in and out markers when you wanted to do your final compression. "I'd set something to encode overnight, walk away, and then come back in the morning to find out I'd only encoded three seconds," Morford says. Now, the preview markers only create a temporary file, and when you click Squeeze It, the application knows to encode the entire clip.
While some of Sorenson's developers were working on the interface, others were focusing on getting HD and H.264 output capability into the latest version of Squeeze. Morford admits that the FCC's digital television mandate is partially behind Sorenson's push for HD, but adds that early market adopters in the consumer space are already looking to make the switch. Still, he says that we're about five years away from most consumers having HD in their homes, a prediction with which he says his colleagues at Real and Microsoft agree. The inclusion of both HD encoding (for Real, QuickTime, Windows Media, and MPEG-1/2 output) and the MPEG-4-based H.264 output in Squeeze 4, is part of Sorenson's strategy to offer consumers a product that doesn't bind them to any one format. "A lot of hardware vendors are pushing for H.264," Morford says. "They're very wary of being too close to Microsoft and therefore losing control over how they implement their own solutions."
Squeeze 4 is set for final release sometime in Q3 2004, though Sorenson released a beta in mid-July. In our beta tests, we encountered no problems, and the compressions came off without a hitch. It compressed an 86.7MB, 27-second QuickTime movie into 384Kbps MPEG-4, Flash Video, QuickTime, Windows Media, and Real files. The QuickTime compression was the quickest, at 27 seconds, while the Windows Media file took 49 seconds, with negligible picture quality difference. The time and picture quality differential between Real, QuickTime, and Windows encodes at 1080i HD was similarly close.
The Sorenson Squeeze 4 Compression Suite will sell for $449 for both Windows and Macintosh (though the Mac version won't include Windows Media 9 output). A Macromedia Flash MX-only version will sell for $119, while an MPEG-4-only version will retail for $199. —Eric Schumacher-Rasmussen