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There’s a tradition of anonymity in the video surveillance industry, if a product stands out it’s usually due to technical merit (or lack of it…), a unique range of features or it is unusually cheap, or expensive. Only very rarely does distinctive case design play any part in a product’s character; this is for the most part a ‘black box’ (or should that be ‘cream cased’) technology. There are exceptions of course and the Vista NPX range of video multiplexers -- that we first looked at two years ago -- is one of them.


You may be experiencing a mild sense of deja-vu, seeing the Vista Columbus VDGHDe for the first time. This device, which we are looking at here, is a hard disc video recorder and it has the same two-tone black and blue case as its groundbreaking stablemates. Indeed, but for a few extra buttons on the front panel, and different model numbers, they are dead-ringers. Inside the box, however, it’s a very different matter, the multiplexer functions are still there – 16-channel full duplex in the case of this particular model -- but they’ve been combined with a hard disc video recorder cable of operating in real time and time-lapse modes (up to 960 hours on a 30.7 gigabyte HDD). The key feature on the VDGHDe is Ethernet PC network connectivity, for linking the device up to a PC (minimum spec 166MHz Pentium, 16Mb RAM, 6Mb free space, Windows 95/98/NT); it comes with bespoke network software that allows live images, playback and video clips to be viewed and archived on a PC.


However, before we get too involved with the many and various features and functions we’ll take a brief look around and inside the case. The sloping front panel is dominated by a large round four-way multi-function button that controls a number of playback and menu functions. Either side of it are controls for remote telemetry (camera control functions), playback and recording, and along the top is a row of camera selector and function control buttons. More about all of them in a moment. The rear panel has two rows of BNC sockets for camera inputs and loop-throughs, two more BNC sockets handled the two monitor outputs (digital and live analogue). It also has a 4-pin mini DIN socket for S-Video output. Along the top row are a pair of 9-pin D-Sub sockets for RS232 communications, a 25-pin D-Sub connector for the alarm inputs and outputs, a 50-pin SCSI port for an external disc or tape drive (for archiving recordings), two RS485 sockets for serial communications and a LAN/Ethernet socket. Power is supplied buy an external 12 volt DC mains adaptor


Inside the tough two-tone ABS plastic box there’s a motherboard with a couple of daughter boards and what looks like a standard PC DIMM memory module. The hard disc drive is bolted to the mainboard. Ribbon connectors link the mainboard with the I/O board on the back panel, and the front panel controls. The whole caboodle is kept cool by a small fan mounted on the right hand side of the case. All of the PC boards are densely packed but the standard of construction is very high and it looks as though it should be able to survive the rough and tumble of a typical installation. The case is strong enough to support a monitor, providing it doesn’t weigh more than 16kg.


As we’ve already indicated the VDGHDe has 16 camera input channels, other versions are also available with 10-channels and simplex operation. The specification fits in well with its intended role in medium scale applications in retail and commercial premises, banks and shopping centres. In addition to multiplexing and video recording it has a number of other notable features, including intrusion and activity/motion detection alarms, covert camera and conditional live displays, video zoom and freeze, alarm log and history, standard remote camera control telemetry functions, user-programmable macro and function keys and archiving. 



Basic installation is generally straightforward. It is largely self-configuring and once cameras, monitors and any external alarms have been connected, and recording speed/mode has been set it is more or less ready to run. There are two levels of access to the device’s control system, operator and installer, both password protected (using the camera select buttons). The installer has access to everything on the main on-screen menus and displays, which are very similar to the ones used on the NPX multiplexers. Options include setting time and date, programming camera sequences, setting alarm parameters, motion detection setup, camera titling, disc housekeeping functions, telemetry and communications set-ups. Incidentally, the motion detector operates on a 16 x 16 target grid -- with variable sensitivity --looking for activity by monitoring the image for changes in luminance in selected areas. When movement or activity is detected recording rates and camera selections are changed accordingly and the event is logged (up to 100 alarm events are recorded before they are overwritten). .

Three levels of recording quality are available (high medium or low), which in turn dictate the compression level and the amount of material that can be stored on the disc. According to the manufacturers recordings made at the highest quality/lowest compression level have a similar resolution to a high-band analogue (S-VHS) VCR. When the disc is full data is overwritten, either automatically, or when requested to do so by the operator 


The two monitor displays can be independently set. Monitor A shows a multi screen digitally processed live or recorded image, either full screen or in one of half a dozen multi-screen presentations (4 x 4, 12 + 1, 8 + 2, 3 x 3, 3 + 4 and 2 x 2 quad), monitor B shows live full screen analogue pictures, either fixed to a single camera or sequenced. When two monitors are used monitor B can also display multi screen images. Picture freeze and a 2x electronic zoom display are available on monitor A in live and play modes, the large central cursor button is used to control virtual pan and tilt, to view different parts of the zoomed display.


Thus far the VDGHDe has a fairly conventional line up of facilities, however the most significant extra, over and above what is available from most other types of hard disc video recorder, is its ability to interface with a network capable PC. When linked to a PC, via an Ethernet connection the front panel controls are locked out and the unit can only be accessed remotely using the supplied WaveReader software. The PC or network hub can be up to 30 metres (100 feet) from the unit using standard Ethernet cabling. The main program window opens with a set of controls on the left hand side, and the main screen on the right. This can be configured to full screen display, 2 x 2 quad or 4 x 4 and any of the mixed multiscreen displays available on monitor A.


Normal Windows conventions are used to access menus, images and activate the on-screen controls, for those accustomed to the ways of a PC it is very intuitive. In addition to the main control/display window, for controlling record, playback and storing clips, WaveReader provides a number of extra facilities. These include a useful disk analysis window that gives an at-a-glance indication of camera usage, alarm activation, video loss etc, on a series of ‘timelines’. This well thought out alliance of technologies overcomes one of the main problems with hard disc recorders, namely a friendly and easy to grasp user-interface.



At the lowest compression rates video recording quality is indeed in the S-VHS ballpark, as far as resolution is concerned, close to the system’s 400-line benchmark. Picture noise levels are very low, however digital recording gives the image a distinct texture and reduced colour depth, moreover rapid movement can result in a fair number of artefacts, which shows up in the image as ‘blocking’, particularly in lowlights or areas of fine detail. Nevertheless, image quality is generally very good, and there is no deterioration over time, as is the case with repeated use of analogue tape-based. However, the biggest advantage of digital recording is the ability to minutely examine recordings and on this machine it’s possible to instantly step forwards and backwards through the recording, a frame at a time, in slow motion or at very high speed. 



There is much to admire about the Columbus VDGHDe in its stand-alone form, not least the quality of recordings and the exceptional agility of its replay systems. However, whilst these facilities all are available from the front panel, it really comes into its own when controlled from a PC. This effectively transforms the VDGHDe, from smart-looking but not especially friendly video recording device into a very well appointed and easy to use surveillance system, that brings to the fore many well thought out facilities, that might otherwise be ignored or under utilised.



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                         ****                          



ã R. Maybury 2000 2812



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