WHAT OUR EXPERTS SAY...
Whilst there is much to be said for the co-ordinated system approach to
video surveillance, it really helps to have some form of manual or
documentation giving a the installer and end-user a general overview of how all
the bits connect together, and for the components that make up the system to
conform to common wiring protocols...
Those are the two main gripes concerning the Opti-Cam system, an
otherwise well thought out package for small to medium scale commercial and
domestic installations. The heart of the system is a VHS VCR with a built-in
8-channel camera switcher and system control functions. This is designed to
work with a range of dedicated line-powered cameras, including discrete colour
and black and white models and more substantial-looking designs in anti-vandal
housings; all cameras have built-in microphones and either on-board or external
The VCR and its operating system is controlled from hard-wired keypads or
an infra-red remote control handset, it can also be used with one or two
4-channel light switching units and like the keypads and handset receiver they
link to the VCR via a simple wired control bus that carries low voltage power
and control signals.
We'll begin with the VCR since this is the core component. Judging by the
internal and external construction it seems to be largely based on a domestic
VHS video recorder chassis with format standard SP and LP recording modes, both
with mono sound. From the front it looks fairly conventional but on the back
panel, where the SCART AV and aerial connectors would usually be there is a
bank of mini DIN sockets, for the cameras, two phono sockets carrying the video
output for a monitor and audio, plus a multi-way socket, which carries the
system bus and alarm connections.
The VCR has three basic operating modes: manual, continuous recording,
and sensor activated recording, the latter making the most efficient use of
tape for unattended operation. There's also an 'In' mode, for monitoring
cameras with recording disabled. VCR functions are most easily controlled from
the remote handset using a set of on-screen menus, control from the keypads is
possible, however they are likely in a fixed position, some distance from the
monitor screen. The first menu item is a log that records a range of system
functions, including alarm activation and mode/status changes. Menu item two is
a timer facility with 32 memory positions, each capable of instigating a range
of actions including setting entry and exit times, switching lights on and off
and enabling scan mode, set by start time and the day of the week. Menu three
is for the lighting controller, it has 8 switched channels, which can be
associated with each of the camera inputs; options include setting lighting
levels and on-times. Menu four gives access to three sub menus. The first is
used to set camera idents (number and 8-character title), on-screen display
position, audio volume and switcher dwell and record release times. The second
sub menu sets camera sequencing, two 'lists' are available; the third sub menu
is concerned with a number of housekeeping functions including adjusting exit
delay times, entry and exit camera selection, warning tones, recording speed
(SP/LP) and light activation. Item five on the main menu sets time and date,
and item six is used to set installer and user PIN codes.
External system control, in the form of keypads and the infrared handset
utilises the system bus. Keypads connect to the VCR via a simple 4-way cable.
The keypads are compact wall mounted modules with the illuminated buttons
covered by a hinged flap. The unit has a set of camera selector; mode and alarm
recording LEDs plus a bleeper that confirms key entries and alarm activation.
The keypad is fitted with an anti-tamper switch, though this didn't appear to
do anything much on our sample. The remote control handset looks very similar
to a regular VCR handset, though it has two numeric keypads, one for camera
selection, and the other for light switching functions. Unfortunately the
rather sketchy instruction leaflets – more about those later on – didn't make
it clear that the handset doesn't communicate with the VCR directly. Instead it
uses a small receiver module that has to be wired to the VCR's system bus.
The lighting controller is housed in an anonymous white metal box and
once again it links to the VCR/switcher via the system bus. External units like
the lighting controller and keypads can be daisy-chained or wired directly to
the multi-way socket on the back of the video recorder. The controller unit
requires it's own independent mains supply and can handle up to four lights,
each output rated at up to 550 watts. A jumper inside sets the communications
address when two controllers are used together.
Finally the cameras. Our test system came with two types: the
OPT780/780c, which is about the size of a tennis ball and has an on-board PIR
detector; and the ATC82, which is available in B/W or colour variants (ours was
B/W) housed in a vandal resistant housing with an external PIR.
OPT780 cameras are available in several different configurations
including colour and black and white and with 3.6 or 4.3mm lenses giving
viewing angles of 90 and 72 degrees respectively. It's a fairly inconspicuous
design, built inside a black or white case, with an eyeball-type mounting
bracket. Black and white models use a 1/3-inch CCD with a minimum sensitivity
of 0.1-lux and a claimed resolution of 420 lines, whilst the colour models have
1/4-inch sensors with 4-lux sensitivity and 330 lines resolution. In both cases
the PIR detector has a range of around 10 metres with a 90-degree viewing
angle. Incidentally, the B/W cameras have built-in IR illuminators though
curiously no mention of this fact is made on the installation sheet.
The cameras are supplied with 18 metre cables, terminated at one end with
a mini DIN plug. At the other end there's bare wires, which go to a screw
terminal inside the mounting bracket. This shouldn't pose a problem but it
caught us out as until this point all wired connections had followed a fairly
logical pattern of colour coding, i.e. red to red, black to black and so on.
Expecting the same on the cameras was a mistake. White goes to yellow and
yellow goes to blue… It took us a while to figure it out and for a while a
fault was suspected. To be fair the wiring is clearly shown on the instruction
leaflet and whilst there's no excuse for not to 'RTFM', it would have been
helpful if the manufacturer had stuck to a common wiring scheme.
The ATC82 camera looks quite impressive. It's housed in a serious-looking
extruded alloy housing and the kit includes the external PIR, cables and
mounting hardware. Closer inspection reveals a suspiciously small lens behind
the front window and an internal examination confirms that the case is indeed
mostly full of air, apart from a simple board camera module with integral lens.
It's mounted on a sliding chassis plate that also holds a screw terminal block,
for the VCR cable (15-metres) and the connection to the PIR, which also comes
with its own 15-metre cable.
SETUP AND OPERATION
The OPT780 and ATC82 cameras are effectively sealed units with no user or
installer adjustments, so apart from wiring them up, and fitting the mounting
brackets, there's very little to worry about. The single sided instruction
leaflet supplied with the ATC82 gives some basic advice about siting the PIR
but apart from installers are left pretty much to their own devices.
VCR setup is also fairly straightforward; the most time-consuming part is
likely to be the timer configuration. Most of the other settings can be safely
left on their defaults until camera and PIR positions have been fine tuned and
working and operating patterns have been established.
When the premises are occupied the system would normally be set to 'In'
operating mode, with all cameras active and recording off. Cameras can be set
to auto sequence, or switch according to inputs from the PIR sensors. Pressing
the 'Out' switch activates a brief exit delay, after which time the cameras go
into sequence mode. If a PIR senses activity recording from the associated
camera starts automatically, for a preset period, or until the trigger has
stopped, at the same time the event is logged and an indicator on the keypad
lights up to show that a recording has been made. If the system incorporates lighting controller units these can be
configured to illuminate associated camera areas.
To view a recording playback on the VCR can be controlled from the IR
handset or a keypad. It operates in a more or less identical manner to a
domestic VCR with picture search and still frame replay modes. When the tape
reaches the end it is automatically rewound and the system returns to its
previous state. Recordings are not indexed or protected in any way so it is
possible for potentially important material to be over-recorded.
VCR performance is in line with domestic models and in SP mode, on good
quality tape; resolution is fairly close to the stated 240 lines. Noise levels
are average but colour rendition is good. Resolution takes a dive in the LP
recording mode and there is a noticeable increase in noise and a drop in
Image quality is influenced by a number of other factors, including the
cameras and the internal switcher. Camera inputs are unsynchronised and the
image jumps at the switchover point, which can be quite annoying when pictures
are being monitored, this also affects recordings and the momentary lack of
synchronisation can cause the recorded picture to loose stability for several
Camera performance is variable; the best results were obtained form the
black and white version of the OPT780. The image was crisp with a wide dynamic
range and very little noise. The ATC82 on the other hand produced a slightly
softer, less detailed image; both cameras responded quickly to changes in
lighting levels, however the OPT780 worked better at low light levels, with
less noise in the image and the built-in IR LEDs are bright enough to
illuminate objects within a metre or two of the lens in total darkness. As expected the Colour version of the OPT780
produced a slightly less detailed image – compared with the B/W model – the
automatic exposure controls were also less agile and our sample had difficulty
coping with brightly illuminated scenes, or spot lighting within the image
Audio recording in all cases was satisfactory, not exactly hi-fi quality,
and there is a fair amount of background noise, but the microphones are quite
sensitive and able to pick up conversations two or three metres away when
background noise levels are low.
Although some components in the system are better integrated than others
generally speaking it all fits together quite well. There are a few rough
edges, however. We would have preferred a more coordinated approach to the
manuals, rather than having to rely on lots of separate and not very
informative instructions sheets. The colour coding of cables could do with
being more consistent, if only to stop smart asses like us -- who never read
instruction manuals until they get into a fix -- from cocking it up, and a
choice that includes more specialised cameras wouldn't go amiss. Otherwise the
system looks like an affordable and reasonably flexible solution for situations
where previously the cost of a multi-camera system would have been prohibitive.
Design and design features ****
Circuitry and components ****
Ease of installation and wiring **
Range and variety of functions ***
Accompanying instructions **
Technical advice and backup ??
Value for money ****
ă R. Maybury