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DEDICATED MICROS DIGITAL SPRITE LITE

 

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It has been fairly obvious for some time now that analogue video recording systems day’s are numbered, but for all of the advances made in digital recording technology, and there have been many, it still cannot compete effectively with VHS tape on every level and it is still found wanting when it comes to crucial factors like cost, recording times and flexibility.

 

Maybe not for much longer. The recently launched Dedicated Micros Digital Sprite Lite has been generating a great deal of interest as an alternative to a conventional 24 hour VHS time-lapse VCR and multiplexer, and with good reason. To begin with the unit is housed in a slim rack-mountable case that takes up less than half of the room of the devices it replaces, and the price is not significantly different to the combined cost of separate devices of comparable specification. The facility to archive recordings is one of the other areas where digital systems have some catching up to do – VHS tape is abundant and cheap -- but Sprite Lite has that one covered. Still images or short sequences can be downloaded onto a companion Zip drive, Zip discs can be played back on a PC using supplied software; images can then be easily printed, sent as email attachments or posted on a web site.

 

Time now for a quick tour. The back panel is dominated by a bank of BNC sockets for the camera inputs and loop-throughs, and the monitor outputs (main and spot). There is also a D-Sub socket for connection to the Jaz or Zip drive, a bank of terminals and ‘C-Bus’ sockets for an optional external alarm module and a DIN socket for the DC power supply from the external adaptor module. Incidentally this is quite a lump, and it has it’s own cooling fan.

 

On the front panel there’s a row of camera selector buttons (why no LED indicators?); in the middle there is a set of blue coloured ‘VCR’ and function controls, to the right of those there’s four coloured buttons that select display mode and double up as cursor and direction controls. On the far right is the Mode/Menu button, for calling up the on-screen display.  Inside the case there’s two large PCBs, smothered in big and complicated looking digital processing chips, and the hard drive, with space next to it for another one.

 

Sprite Lite is effectively two devices in one, so we’ll begin with the multiplexer section. It has 9 camera inputs, each with a loop through monitor output and associated alarm input. Each camera can be assigned a title or ident of up to 12 characters. Camera detection is automatic, termination can be switched on or off and there’s a colour saturation adjustment for each input. The main monitor output can display images full screen or in 2 x 2 quad, 3 x 3, 8 + 2, full screen plus PIP or sequence. It has a digital zoom facility with electronic pan and tilt plus activity detection with variable sensitivity and user-programmable activity grid.  The alarm options include variable pre and post activation recording, alarm triggered events can be automatically copied to the backup device. It has a built-in relay to trigger other devices or systems and the main monitor can be set to display the alarm camera or sequence of cameras.

 

The video recording section is based around he internal 13Gb EIDE hard disc drive. Images are recorded as JPEG files; picture recording rate and file size can both be varied by the installer or user according to requirements. It’s a bit of a balancing act; increasing the file size give better picture quality but reduces the recording times; changing the recording rate also affects how long the ‘loop’ time is, in other words, how long the system records, before data is overwritten. The data compression level, which dictates how large image file sizes are can be set between 6 and 30kb; recording times can be varied between 1 and 25 pictures per second. The factory default is set to a file size of 18kb and a record rate of 7 pics/sec, which gives 24-hour loop recording time. A ready-reckoner table is included with the instructions to simplify configuration. Recording times are unaffected by the number of cameras connected but it does determine how often the output from each camera is recorded.

 

It is a full duplex system and recording continues all of the time, even during playback. Recordings are electronically watermarked with an MD5 code, to prevent tampering and alarm recordings are tagged. Playback options include still, frame step, and picture search at 4x, 8x and 16x normal speed, in both directions. The designers have tried quite hard to make the controls appear VCR-like, but we have to say they’ve failed miserably, more about that in a moment.

 

Everything is controlled from a fairly crude looking set of menu-driven on-screen displays, which can be password protected. Selections and changes are made from the four cursor buttons on the front panel. Setup mode is entered by pressing and holding the Mode button. Page 1 shows camera and alarm status, page 2 is for time and date setup, page 3 enables or disables camera inputs and page 4 covers the scheduling option, for setting night and weekend recording times. Menu page 5 is for recording all or selected camera during day, night or weekend periods; on page 6 there are the recording rate (standard and alarm) settings and alarm mode settings, this page also shows the recording/loop time and the time and date of the start of the earliest recording on the loop. Pages 7 and 8 cover alarm and activity recording time setup, page 9 is for setting passwords (user, installer and playback protect). Page 10 is System Setup, this has a reset switch for factory defaults, daylight saving time option, file size adjustment, system shutdown and multi-screen interlace. Camera setup is controlled from menu page 11, or it can be accessed by pressing a camera button. Here you can set camera title, select input termination, switch alarm polarity and adjust colour saturation level. Finally, page 12 is for setting the activity detection, using an 8 x 16 grid and 6 sensitivity settings. Page selection is one way only, and that makes life difficult, as the only way to access an earlier menu page is to start over from the beginning.

 

OPERATION

Sprite Lite defaults to continuous recording, unless told to do otherwise. To start replay you have to press and hold the Play button, which sounds fairly straightforward, but as likely as not it will take you to some apparently arbitrary spot on the recording. From there you have to navigate to the sequence you want to see by using the Goto function, to specify a time and date. Unfortunately it’s not very logical or easy to use, especially if you’re accustomed to the ways of a ‘linear’ video recording system, like VHS tape. It badly needs a more intuitive navigation system, something as simple as sliding scale, to show where you are on a recording, for example. As it is, it is incredibly difficult to find your way around the loop, and it’s made harder by the slow and clumsy way times have to be entered. It does get a little easier with practice but the long and short of it is that it’s a pain to use.

 

PERFORMANCE

The quirkiness of the operating system is more than compensated for by the recording quality. Even at the lowish 18kb setting image quality still looks good beside VHS. The most noticeable difference is the lack of noise in the picture; on the default setting resolution is broadly similar to low band VHS, there is some light texturing but colour fidelity is good and the image is rock steady. That’s more than can be said for most VHS time-lapse recordings, especially if the tape has been through the mill a few times. Needless to say there is no deterioration in image quality, which is another major plus point for digital recording technology. There’s little or no change in image quality on archived images either, and since they’re processed on a PC they are very easy to handle.

 

SUMMARY

If we had a wish list of changes for Sprite Lite the basic design and spec would stay pretty much as it is, though indicator LEDs for the camera selectors wouldn’t have gone amiss; an even bigger hard disc drive would be useful, to bring the useable recording time up to 48 hours, and we wouldn’t mind sound recording as well, but now we’re being greedy. It’s a pity that archived recordings cannot be replayed via the Sprite. PC operation is not a problem if the machine in question already has a Zip drive, otherwise a second drive will be needed, or the Sprite drive has to be pressed into service.  However, the one thing that really needs attention is the operating system and menu displays, which are crude and cumbersome. Even some relatively minor cosmetic changes would make the system so much easier to use and more likely to be ready and able to do its job, and as far as basic recording and playback is concerned, it’s a job that it does very well indeed!

 

 

PRODUCT SPECIFICATION

Camera inputs  9

Resolution                  720 x 252 pixels

Recording rate     1 – 25 fps

Compression              JPEG variable compression

Disc capacity              13Gb

Archive media            Iomega Zip or Jaz

 

 

Power supply              230 VAC 50Hz

Weight                        4.3kg

Dimensions                 45 x 432 x 390 mm

 

PSI RATINGS

 

Product                      

Product design             8

Build quality                           8

Ruggedness                            8

 

Operation                  

General functions                     8

CCTV functions                     9         

Ease of use                             6

Instructions                            7

Manuf. support                        ?         

Performance                           9

Video quality                          9

 

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Ó R. Maybury 2000 0504

 


 

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