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VISTA VC16Te COLUMBUS TRIPLEX

 

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WHAT OUR EXPERTS SAY...

 

In the absence of any recent or reliable statistics there’s no way of knowing exactly how much video surveillance recording is a complete waste of time but it’s a fair bet that it’s going to be a disturbingly high figure. A great deal of material is lost through simple carelessness, recordings are not routinely archived and equipment improperly maintained. Tape-based systems have stood us in good stead for more than a quarter of a century but they are particularly vulnerable to mis-management, however, as digital video recording systems slowly take their place what’s to say the same thing isn’t going to happen?

 

If anything the situation could be even worse, at least with tape based systems archiving and storage is made relatively painless by the fact that recordings are on media that is cheap, removable, and cassettes are easily viewable. With first generation hard disc video recorders archiving was often a secondary consideration, requiring additional hardware and stricter regimes to ensure that potentially important data was retained and not simply overwritten due to limited and costly storage capacity.  However, thanks to the PC industry archiving is becoming much less of an issue, and the development of massive hard disc drives and increasingly efficient digital compression systems means that images can now be stored on disc, not just for a few days, or even a couple of weeks, but for years.

 

This very welcome trend is ably illustrated by the new Vista Columbus Triplex multiplexer and digital video recorder. The pace of development has been nothing short of phenomenal; eighteen months ago we looked at the Columbus VDGHDe 16-channel multiplexer/hard disc recorder -- of which the Columbus Triplex is a direct descendent – it boasted a 30 gigabyte hard drive, capable of storing up to 960 hours of video, which a the time seemed quite impressive. The Triplex VC16Te, which we’re looking at here, shares a number of features with its predecessor and from the outside they look remarkably similar but inside there’s twin disc drives, with a combined capacity of 328 gigabytes, which in ‘Standard’ recording mode gives the unit a recording capacity of an incredible 2,023 days and 19 hours!

 

It gets better, the VC16Te can be easily connected to a PC network using standard Ethernet connections and protocols, live and recorded images can be viewed directly on the PC screen using Vista’s WaveReader software, which also allows access to the DVRs menu and controls; recordings can be downloaded, archived to hard disc or recordable CD, and printed and the program has some basic image enhancement facilities. The PC can also control pan/tilt/zoom cameras and used to manage an external video archiving devices, such as Vista VAIDe, which connects directly to the Triplex This is basically a box containing from 1 to 8 additional hard drives and some control circuitry in a so-called JBOD (Just a Bunch Of Discs) configuration, which the Columbus Triplex treats as extra storage space. The sample we’ve been testing in conjunction with the VC16Te has a total capacity of 1311.43 gigabytes! The office calculator almost gave up trying to work out the maximum recording time but a few sums on the back of the fag-packet suggests it could be in excess of 20 years! Incidentally, the Columbus Triplex is also compatible with other types of archiving device including other manufacturers RAID (Redundant Array of Inexpensive Discs), CD-ROM and tape units.

 

Of course those figures are based on lowest quality settings, longest time-lapse intervals, and minimum number of connected cameras, which is an unlikely real-world scenario but the point is hard disc recording has served its apprentiship and not only can it do just about everything tape can do -- and in a lot of cases do it better -- but it is now creating new possibilities and opportunities for the surveillance and security industry, but we digress, back to the Columbus Triplex. 

 

In addition to the hard disc video recorder functions the unit also incorporates a 16-channel multiplexer and camera sequencer. Text from an ATM, cash register, POS, access control and other devices can be superimposed over images. The alarm facilities include a built-in motion detection utility and external trigger inputs, it can control PTZ functions on connected cameras and there’s a ‘covert’ recording mode, that records a camera input but hides it on the monitor display selection.

 

The unit is housed in the now familiar slim rack-mountable black box with the distinctive rows of blue buttons. From left to right these include a set of recording and playback controls – the digital video recorder equivalent of a VCR’s tape ‘transport’ keys. Next to them is a bank of camera selectors, they’re followed by an electronic ‘zoom’ button. The large circular pad is a 4-way cursor, used to control playback speed and access menu functions and on the far left there’s a motley collection of function buttons including menu selector and Enter, screen display mode, archive search, freeze frame, record, sequence and alarm.

 

On the back panel the 16 BNC camera input and loop through connectors take up around two thirds of the available space, there are also connectors for monitor outputs (composite and S-Video), alarm I/O, an RS485 comms port, an SCSI port for an external archiving device, two RS232 comms port and a 10/100 Ethernet port. Power is supplied by an external mains adaptor.

 

The Triplex, as the name implies has three basic operating modes in that it can simultaneously record, playback and allow live viewing.  The live viewing options are single, sequenced single or multi-screen; the latter has 8 display formats, including basic Quad and 4 x 4 plus 6, 7, 9, 10 and 13-way and moveable single picture-in–picture (PIP). The zoom function electronically enlarges the image by a factor of 2x. Recording is continuous, irrespective of any other functions, however there are numerous options to ensure both the best chances of recording useful images and making best use of the system’s storage space, these include settings for specifying recording quality (high medium or standard), time-lapse and alarm event recording rates. 

 

Installing and configuring an optional VAIDe storage unit is virtually effortless and once archiving has been enabled on the Columbus Triplex’s menu it operates automatically in the background.

 

SETUP AND OPERATION

Everything is controlled from a set of menu-driven on-screen displays. Access is password protected and there are two basic security levels, ‘Operator’, which covers various low-level system and viewing functions and ‘Installer’ for access to all menu options. Additionally the reset to factory default, menu language and Ethernet access are all password protected. The Installer menu contains 13 sub-menus, arranged in four groups. In the first group there is time and date setting and record configuration (record timer, time lapse, record quality, alarm actions and disk maintenance). In group two there are the alarms, macro and motion detection controls. The third group covers camera titles, camera setup and archive setup. Finally menu group four, which contains menus for setting up telemetry and communications, locking the front panel, returning to factory settings and password control. Navigating the menus is fairly straightforward, once you’ve got used to the cursor controls.

 

Motion detection setup follows the usual procedure of defining an activity grid, which in this case is made up of an array of 16 x 16 individually selectable ‘targets’. The system can be set for either Activity or Intrusion detection, the former triggers an alarm whenever any movement is detected whereas Intrusion detection has extra facilities for setting target size, alarm rejection levels and alarm output.

 

During normal operation the Columbus behaves pretty much like a time lapse VCR with replay controlled from a set of transport buttons, however, Vista has complicated things slightly by putting the rapid picture search controls on the large cursor button, it’s not very intuitive and takes a while to master, a jog shuttle or more co-ordinated controls would have been better.  Perhaps the most useful operator facility however, is the powerful ‘Search’ screen, which shows in a clear and easy to understand way how the disc space is being used, what’s been recorded and rapid access to any part of a recording. Search is based around two display screens: Search Filters is used to locate an event by using various parameters, such as time, date, alarm, activity or text, the search results appear in a separate window and playback can be started by highlighting the event with the cursor keys. The alternative is to use the graphical Disk Analysis screen, which shows the camera channels as a series of horizontal timelines, colour coded with different types of event or trigger. Any part of the recording can be viewed using the left-right cursor buttons move an indicator arrow across the display to line up with an event then pressing the Enter button.

 

Network control using the WaveReader software is similarly straightforward. This will run on any network enabled Windows PC with a 400MHz or faster processor. The main window shows the image from a single camera or a multi-screen display, which can be live, recorded or archived. The window has controls for camera selection and transport functions. From the main screen, using the drop-down menus, it is possible to access the full range of functions on the Columbus, including the Search Filters, Disk Analysis, motion setup screens and manage archived files and images. This latest version also includes some rudimentary video processing tools, called WaveStudio. This has controls for adjusting image brightness, contrast, saturation, sharpness and noise reduction. Additionally it also has histogram equalisation, zoom and region selection tools for isolating parts of the image. 

 

PERFORMANCE

Recording quality compares very favourably with tape based systems and at the highest quality settings sharpness is on a par with Super VHS but with significantly lower levels of noise, however, there is a fair amount of ‘texture’ in the picture, which shows up most clearly in lowlights and dark highly saturated colours. In the standard and medium quality modes there are further reductions in quality, giving the image an increasingly blotchy appearance with clearly visible digital artefacts. The loss of detail and drop in colour rendition is not too serious in the medium quality mode but it could be significant in the Standard mode where resolution dips quite noticeably and the picture looks increasingly as though it’s being viewed through frosted glass.

 

It’s worth pointing out that since the recording is digital data there is no reduction in playback quality, no matter how many times a recording is viewed and the trick play functions are absolutely rock solid.  The only minor complaint, as we’ve mentioned earlier, is the layout and position of the replay controls, which make it unnecessarily difficult to review a part of recording.  

 

OVERALL ASSESSMENT

It’s tempting to say that digital recording has come of age and it’s time to junk those tired old VHS machines but inevitably there is always something better, cheaper and fast just around the corner and VHS, for all of its faults, can still show the young upstart a thing or two, when it comes to ease of use and convenience. Vista has solved a lot of the problems associated with first generation digital video recorders, most notably archiving and access to the recordings but there is still plenty of room for improvement when it comes to control design and layout, and – this is an old gripe – the lack of a sound recording facility. Nevertheless, Columbus Triplex is a remarkable piece of kit, especially when teamed up with a VAIDe and coupled to a coupled to a PC network, and there’s little doubt that it will prove popular in a lot of critical high-end applications

 

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 3007

 


 

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