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ASPRO NETWAVE DIGITAL VIDEO RECORDER SYSTEM

 

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WHAT OUR EXPERTS SAY...

  

The concept of digital video recording has been steadily refined over the past five or six years and we’ve seen the development of three quite distinctive technologies. The first is a dedicated recorder using removable media, such as tape or disc; the second type is also purpose designed but uses a computer type hard disc drive to store video (and sometimes audio) data. The third and last type also stores images on a hard disc drive and is the PC-based solution. These are usually based on an off-the-shelf system or parts (motherboard, processor, disc drives etc.), and operating system (usually Windows).

 

Aspro Netwave fits into the latter category; inside the huge heavy and quite possibly bomb-proof case there lurks a more or less routine Windows PC with a 1GHz Athlon processor, 256Mb of RAM and a hard disc drive with a capacity of 80Gb (or more, depending on the model). The operating system is Windows NT and it is available with up to three plug-in video processor boards, allowing a total of 16 channels of video for simultaneous record, playback, transmission and archiving (the latter to hard disc or an optional CD-R/W drive).

 

Managing the whole kit and caboodle is Netwave Server a utility and control program responsible for video processing, scheduling, alarms and communications. The video side breaks down into several distinct areas, including displaying the camera inputs in a variety of formats and compressing the data before it’s recorded, playback, searching and data archiving. At the higher compression settings the supplied 80Gb drive should hold several weeks worth of data, which can be overwritten or archived, either when it’s full or at regular intervals. Scheduling covers a lot of ground, including setting recording times and archiving. The Alarm facilities include up to 16 external alarm inputs and output, built-in motion detection for each camera channel and event logging. Communications facilities include linking the unit to a local area network, or the Internet, for remote control and access plus alarm notification via email, fax or printer. Additionally it can control PTZ cameras, there are 9 levels of security and because it is based on standard PC architecture it’s a relatively easy matter to update or upgrade the system or components.

 

It really is a bit of a beast the rack-mount case is extraordinarily well built and weighs an absolute ton. Access to the front panel controls, CR-ROM (CD R/W in our case) and floppy drives is via a locked hinged flap. Around to the back now and here we encounter the first of several problems. The rear panel is largely familiar territory with the usual array of PC type connections (VGA monitor output, keyboard and mouse sockets, serial, parallel, USB ports etc.), the extras are the alarm input – via a 25 pin D-Sub socket – and the video input/processor boards. Each one has a pair of BMC sockets and a 15-pin D-Sub connector. For some bizarre reason on a 3-board/16 channel setup camera inputs 1, 2 and 3 are assigned to three BNC sockets whilst the rest have to go via a three custom-made ‘breakout’ cables, each with a D-sub plug on one end and 5 ‘flying’ BNC line sockets. The three remaining BNC sockets carry switched video from all camera inputs. Needless to say this kind of arrangement is over complicated and inconvenient; it does nothing to improve reliability and suggests hasty or careless design.

 

Inside the case the standard of construction is most impressive with a heavy-duty chassis and bracing struts everywhere. It’s built to withstand anything its likely to encounter in an industrial or commercial installation, and that probably includes small earthquakes as well, judging by the gauge of the metalwork.

 

SETUP AND OPERATION

Setup and installation are largely taken care of by the operating system and software. The system boots up to a normal NT Workstation desktop before the Netwave software is loaded. The operator is then required to enter a password and ID and it’s ready to go. Whilst Netserver is running Windows NT retreats into the background and becomes inaccessible until the program is exited, which helps reduce the likelihood of an accidental or deliberate interference.

 

The Netwave desktop has two basic ‘views’; in normal use it fills most of the screen area with live off-camera images, which can be in single camera full-screen, quad, 4 x 4 or a variety of customisable multi-screen layouts. In this mode the menu and taskbars, showing a number of status indicators, remain on display. In the setup or control mode the camera window shrinks and additional tool and control boxes appear down the side and along the bottom of the screen. Much of the screen is taken over by a disproportionately large row of camera selectors on the right side that occupies almost a third of the screen area. It’s used to setup the layout of the camera display, by dragging and dropping the ‘buttons’ into the position you want the image to appear. It’s a fairly cumbersome method, not particularly quick or easy to use and it takes up a lot of valuable screen space. The other toolbar, at the bottom of the screen is also wasteful of space and crudely implemented, with buttons for selecting the screen layout and a disc usage bargraph on the left, and camera controls (PTZ etc.) on the right.

 

In order to get Netwave into the record mode it’s necessary to click the Record icon then select the cameras from the list, set record quality and then the OK button. Outwardly this doesn’t appear to be much of a problem but there are two concerns; firstly the settings are not remembered so if you come out of record mode for any reason you have to go through the whole palaver again. Second, if there’s a power interruption the way the software is configured it can’t reboot to a fail-safe recording mode.

 

Playback is equally convoluted, though for different reasons. Clicking the Play icon brings up a useful Search window that lists all recorded events by time and date criteria. There’s also an AutoSearch mode tied into the motion sensing utility. However, once a recorded block has been selected a non-resizable viewing window appears on the screen. Unfortunately its not very large (around 1/3 full screen) it only shows one camera at a time and there are no quad or multi-screen options. The only alternative is ‘All’ where the camera channels are flashed in rapid sequence. This is compounded by crude playback controls; in order to use the variable speed playback control or move quickly to another part of the recording using a ‘timeline’ slider playback has to be paused. The upshot of all this is that it makes analysing a sequence of events captured by several cameras a major operation; even playing back detail from a single camera channel can be hard work on the mouse finger!

 

Archiving is another unexpectedly awkward operation. At first glance the inclusion of a CD-R/W drive looks promising and it should be easy way to download files to a CD-R disc, so they can be stored, and viewed. Sadly Netwave’s own archiving abilities appear to be confined to shifting data between partitions on the hard disc drive as it failed to recognise the CD-writer as a storage device. This may explain why a copy of the CD recording utility Nero Burning is bundled with the system. As a matter of interest Netwave uses the JPEG compression scheme but it looks very much like a proprietary encoding system as recordings cannot be played back using standard viewer software, moreover recordings held on CD-ROM cannot be played directly from disc but have to be imported back to the hard disc as ‘clip’ files.

 

The manual doesn’t go into detail about any of this (the program’s own Help files are even vaguer…), apparently assuming that the operator will know all about finer points of recording CD-ROMs. Nor does it have anything to say about how or why recordings are organised as two files per clip (one info, the other data). This is just one of several problems we encountered with the Instruction Manual; we only hope the one we were issued with was a very early draft. Whoever wrote it appears to be under orders to fill every page.  The wordy prose makes it harder to read and the layout could do with tidying up as in several places diagrams and text do not marry up.  That’s bad enough but it appears to be in need of revision as several of the menu screens on our sample were significantly different to the one’s shown and this included part of the window concerned with setting the record frame rate.

 

It’s not only the instructions, some of the menus and dialogue boxes are poorly thought out, not very intuitive, or they disappear before you’re finished with them. It can get quite annoying, especially if you are used to the slick presentation of commercial Windows software. And whilst we’re on the subject of gripes, here’s an old one for a hard disc-based digital video recorders, there’s no audio recording facility.

 

PERFORMANCE

Not being able to set the recording frame rate separately seems like an oversight but the amount of data recorded can be adjusted using the ‘recording quality’ slider in the Record setup window. At the highest setting it is very good, comparable with S-VHS tape and most other rival hard disc recording systems, however, it’s difficult to make too many comparisons on a PC monitor due to the limitation on re-sizing the replay screen. At the lowest quality setting the contrast range narrows noticeably, leaving colours blotched and blocky and there is a marked reduction in detail, nevertheless the image is quite useable and still better than a well-used VHS time-lapse recorder.  

 

The image is normally very stable though our sample appeared to be quite touchy with video input levels and the image on one camera input channel occasionally lost lock (on both live view and replay); the instructions briefly mention distributing the cameras evenly between the input cards to improve stability, which might have something to do with it, though it didn’t make any difference on our sample.

 

OVERALL ASSESSMENT

The Aspro Netwave is something of a bit of a mixed bag, and ironically named as you may well need to take some headache tablets after trying to get to grips with the menus and instructions. We have absolutely no problems with the hardware; it is based on quality parts built inside a strong and robust case. Windows NT bodes well; it is tried and tested, one of the most reliable members of the Windows family and ideal for this kind of demanding ‘always on’ application. The weak link though is the Netwave software. Nearly all of the essential elements are there and the performance of the core video processing alarm and scheduling components is good, but the presentation and operation all leave something to be desired. In particular the playback facilities need sorting out, there should be a multi-screen display and better playback controls plus the instructions and Help files need revising. The good news is that like all PC software nothing is set in stone and much can be done to improve the look and feel of the program so we’re hopeful there’s a Mk II version somewhere in the pipeline, which could easily turn Netwave into a slick and worthy contender in this important and rapidly developing market.

 

 

PRODUCT ASSESSMENT

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                         ??                          

 

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ã R. Maybury 2002 1211

 


 

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