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VICON AURORACORD DIGITAL RECORDER

 

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WHAT OUR EXPERTS SAY...

 

It has taken a while but it looks as though we’re finally getting there! To date we’ve had relatively few quibbles regarding the picture performance of hard disc drive (HDD) digital video recorders but when it comes to ease of setup and use, archiving facilities and secondary features just about every machine we’ve looked at has been found wanting in one way or another.

 

The AuroAcord digital video recorder and multiplexer from Vicon could mark an important milestone in the development of this crucial technology; it sets a new benchmark for digital video recorders and comes tantalisingly close to solving almost all of the gripes and glitches we’ve associated with earlier products.

 

Most of the HDD recorders we’ve seen to date appear to have been designed by computer engineers with either scant knowledge or an apparent disregard for what has gone before, namely analogue VCRs, which have been the backbone of video surveillance for the past quarter of a century. Whilst there’s no denying that digital video recording requires installers and operators to adapt but there is surely no reason to ignore tried and tested ways of working or to make the transition more difficult than it has to be.

 

At first glance the AuroAcord’s core specification doesn’t look significantly different to the half a dozen or more HDD video recorders we’ve looked at in the past year or so. The HDD recorder and 16-channel multiplexer provide full duplex operation so it can simultaneously record and playback. It comes in a variety of configurations, our test sample (AURFCD80) was fitted with an 80Gb hard drive which, using the ‘normal’ factory default settings for picture quality and sensitivity provides a recording time of around 14 days, using a proprietary video compression system. Models with 40, 120 and 160Gb drives, and proportionately longer or shorter recording times are also available.

 

All variants are fitted with a floppy disc drive for exporting still images or short video recordings from a single camera channel; our test machine was also equipped with a CD-RW drive for making longer video archive recordings of as many camera channels as required, we’ll look at this particular feature in more detail later. Monitor display formats include single screen, picture in picture, quad, 3 x 3, 4 x 4, mixed border, mixed half, mixed quad and split. Each camera has an associated alarm input and for good measure there’s also full motion sensing on each camera channel, digital pant/tilt and 16x zoom, mechanical PTZ control, networking and PC control facilities.

 

The AurorAcord has one other important extra, rarer than hen’s teeth on HDD recorders, and that’s an audio recording channel. This is something we’ve campaigned for since the first digital video recorders appeared five or six years ago. It is a genuinely useful facility, though it could have been better implemented on the AurorAcord. Basically there’s no loop-through facility, which means you can’t easily monitor what’s being recorded; it’s not a big deal but it does make wiring unnecessarily complicated.

 

The archiving facility could also have been better thought out. There’s no problem with exporting stills and short clips, lasting between 2 and 7 minutes, to floppy disc since it uses standard image and motion video (AVI) formats, which means they can be viewed on any PC with suitable software. However, video footage (up to 12 minutes of all 16 channels) archived on CD-R/RW media can only be replayed on AurorAcord. Vicon has missed a trick here by not making discs readable on a PC, even if it means installing specialist software, or better still, loading a viewer utility onto the CD-ROM.

 

That’s really as bad as it gets, it’s all good news from now on. The unit is housed in a black rack-mountable case measuring 483 x 292 x 89mm. On the back panel there’s a slightly unusual arrangement with the video inputs and outputs. Inputs are handled by four groups of four BNC sockets; the loop-throughs are carried on two 15-way D-Sub sockets. The alarm inputs and output share a single 37-way D-sub. It has one high-impedance (600 ohm) audio input with variable AGC, suitable for a microphone and two line-level audio outputs, one on the front, using minijack sockets. The main display video monitor output is configured for both composite video and VGA, additionally there’s spot monitor output showing a single image or sequence from any designated camera. Finally there are three RJ45 connectors, one on the front for serial communications or an optional keyboard and two on the back, also for serial comms, with a PC or for PTZ telemetry.

 

Moving on to the front panel there are two rows of camera selectors with LED indicators along the bottom left hand side, these also double up as controls for the mechanical PTZ. Above that there’s the CD-RW drive loading tray. In the middle there’s the floppy drive slot and below that a cluster of four ‘cursor’ type buttons to control record/playback and menu functions. On the right hand side there are two rows of buttons for controlling various functions including display format, digital zoom, alarm reset, picture freeze, menu setup and a useful on-screen ‘Help’ system. Up in the top right hand corner there’s a jog/shuttle dial for controlling playback speed and direction.

 

SETUP AND OPERATION

AurorAcord has several unique features but one of the most impressive is the highly intuitive control system. We’ll have to check back through the archives but we suspect that this is the first HDD recorder we’ve tested that we were able to get up and running without once having to refer to the instructions. Either we’re getting smarter (unlikely…) or manufacturers like Vicon are actually putting a bit more effort into their product’s user interfaces.

 

It’s virtually ready to go straight out of the box, the only preliminaries being to set the time and date on the main menu. Pressing the menu button brings up seven options. Number one is Easy Setup with the aforementioned time and date adjustments; item two is the Main Menu has 8 sub menus (Display Setup, Camera Setup, Serial Port Setup, Time/Date, Record/Playback Setup, System Setup and Disc Functions). Menu three deals with camera calibration, menu 4 is for Saving and Restoring system settings, menu 5 sets the OSD operating language, menu 6 displays a list of 14 occasionally useful FAQs (frequently asked questions) and menu item 7 covers the system details (drive capacity, software version number etc.).

 

Needless to say all of the most interesting items are to be found on the main menu. The Display Setup has sub menus for title text and backgrounds. The Camera Setup contains the title composer, motion sensor configuration and camera calibration utilities. The Alarm, Serial Port and Time/Date set-ups are all fairly straightforward too but all of the most important video settings are to be found on the Record/Playback menu. These include the recording rate (from 1 to 15fps and 25fps) and sensitivity (5 modes: lowest 8kb/field, low 12kb/f, normal 15kb/f, high 20kb/f & highest 35kb/f). Between them these two setting determine both image quality and recording duration, in the case of a unit with a 80Gb drive this can be between 1 and 31 days. The audio recording facility when enabled appears to have very little impact on recording times.

 

The System Setup menu can be used to password-protect access to most of the recorders function including locking the front panel to camera access. This menu also includes the setup for the schedule timer and a system reset option.

 

Motion detector setup uses a grid of 12 x 16 targets, which can be individually enabled or disabled using the camera selector buttons. Sensitivity can be adjusted to minimise false alarms. When activated it can be programmed to carry out a number of responses, from increasing the update rate on the camera concerned to sounding an alarm.

 

Archiving recordings to floppy or CD-R/RW couldn’t be easier, just set the start and end times, pop in a disc and let it get on with it. Other useful extras include a disc space remaining display, simply by pressing the Enter button.

 

In normal operation the unit will default to record mode; pressing the play button on the front panel enables playback. Playback normally starts a the last recorded block, which is typically a few seconds behind what’s being currently recorded, however, to view any other part of the recording simply use the jog/shuttle dial. Turning the outer shuttle ring shifts the search speed in seven steps in either direction and the display shows the speed as 1x, 2x, 3x, 4x, 5x, 7x and 10x, however, whilst the lower speeds – up to 7x – are probably about right, the 10x speed works on an entirely different time frame and will wind through 10 days worth of material in a little under 10 seconds. Impressive as this is it makes finding a particular sequence extremely difficult. Slow motion replay is also a little awkward, the recorder first has to be put into pause mode (by pressing the Play button) and then the speed can be varied using the jog/shuttle control, however, once again the action is very coarse making it difficult to repeatedly review a sequence.

 

PERFORMANCE

The manufacturer’s claims for picture quality are not far off the mark. At the highest resolution setting recordings are indeed superior to analogue S-VHS, resolution is noticeably up on the 400-lines the analogue tape-based system is theoretically capable of (and that’s on a good day with a following wind) but the most obvious difference, and a very welcome characteristic of digital recording is the very low noise levels. Colour rendition and contrast balance is not as good as tape, however, and it really begins to show up on the lower quality settings when areas of block noise show up, especially in lighter areas of the image. Nevertheless, on the ‘Normal’ settings image quality is very acceptable indeed and noticeably superior to standard VHS. As an added bonus there’s no deterioration with repeated playback, and absolute stability when playing in search, still or slomo modes.

 

Audio recording quality is not that wonderful, it’s sufficient for recording speech and background sounds but the fact that it records sound at all is something of a breakthrough, and definitely to be encouraged.

 

OVERALL ASSESSMENT

There is so much to like about the AurorAcord that it seems churlish to highlight defects but they are relatively minor in nature – more in the nature of niggles -- and do not detract from overall functionality. The first and potentially most debilitating one has to be the tricky picture search control, it really needs sorting out and at the very least some intermediate speeds, between absurdly fast and relatively sedate. Number two gripe is the lack of an audio loop through, we’re very pleased to see audio recording but it has been hobbled by a simple and undoubtedly cheap to fit facility. Third, the export to CD-R/RW facility is a simple, effective and inexpensive way to archive recordings but it would have been so much more useful if the recordings were viewable on a PC.

 

AuorAcord is an excellent piece of kit, genuinely easy to setup and use, capable of outstanding results and hopefully it will inspire other manufacturers to follow suit. Digital video recorders showed promise from day one and the writing has long been on the wall for tired old VHS but somehow none of the machines we’ve seen so far have offered a totally convincing alternative to tape; HDD still has a way to go in terms of cost but it has now reached the point where the gap dividing the two technologies has all but disappeared.

 

 

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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ă R. Maybury 2002 2708

 

 


 

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