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FOR.A FSC-80E FRAME SEQUENCE CONTROLLER

 

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WHAT OUR EXPERTS SAY...

What has the FOR.A FSC-80E colour video multiplexer got in common with hamburgers? Time's up. The answer is McDonalds in America have brought five hundred of them, for use in their restaurants. The McDonalds endorsement carries a lot of weight -- whether or not you like their hamburgers -- its fast-food outlets are representative of many small to medium-sized retail and commercial businesses in this country, in terms of size, staffing levels and security requirements.

 

The FSC-80EP is the PAL version and one of a range of three colour multiplexers currently marketed by FOR.A in the UK, (the other two have 6 and 16 inputs otherwise the specifications and facilities are broadly the same). The headline feature on all models is custom-designed digital processing microchips, which helps keep the cost down, improve performance and ensure reliability. Up to 8 asynchronous (free-running) cameras can be connected to the FCS-80EP, so there's no need for any external synchronisation and almost any type of camera can be used. It works in full duplex mode, which makes it possible to review recorded tapes whilst continuing to record, though this particular trick requires two VCRs.

 

During normal record or replay operation the monitor output has three display options: normal full screen of one camera channel, 4 x 4 quad, and 3 x 3 multi-screen. Full screen images can be individually selected or automatically sequenced, with a variable dwell time of between 1 and 30 seconds. The multiplexer generates user pre-settable camera idents plus time and date information. Each camera channel has an associated alarm input that when triggered, switches the sequencer and VCR output to the camera concerned for a pre-set period and a time-lapse VCR -- if used -- is set to real-time recording mode.

 

The multiplexer is housed in a standard rack-mountable steel case measuring 430 x 44 x 375mm. On the rear panel there is a bank of 16 BNC connects, one for each camera input, and it's associated loop-through output. Incidentally, these are automatically terminated (75 ohms), if the output is left open-circuit.  There are three more BNC sockets, two of them are for the video input and output connections to a VCR, and the third one is for the monitor output. In the middle of the panel there's a set of four miniature spring terminals, used for the alarm output, to trigger a time-lapse VCR. There are three multi-pin connectors. The first is a 9-pin D-Sub, used for RS-232 serial communications, allowing the main functions of the multiplexer to be controlled from a PC (connection and software requirements are outlined in the instruction book). Next to that there are two 25-pin D-Sub connectors, the upper one is labelled Remote and is used exclusively by a remote front panel. The lower one is for alarm sensor inputs, one for each camera, and an input for an external timing signal, to initiate auto switching when two or more FSC-80's are connected together. Also on the back panel is a fuse holder, ground terminal and 3-pin AC mains socket.

 

The mains on/off switch and power on indicator are on the left side of the front panel. To the right of that there's a button for auto sequence start and alarm reset. It's followed by the 8 camera input selector keys. By the way, all but one of the front panel buttons has their own green LED indicator. In the centre of the panel there's a cluster of buttons concerned with operating mode and monitor output, this includes the quad and 3 x 3 'split' display options and a selector for VCR playback. Lastly, on the right side are keys for calling up the various menus and on-screen displays. There are two other indicators, for showing time-lapse VCR operation and time-lapse trigger activation.

 

Inside the slimline case, bolted to the base of the sturdy all steel chassis there are three printed circuit boards. The largest one is the motherboard, which is concerned with control and housekeeping functions, digital video processing and on-screen displays. A smaller daughter-board handles all of the analogue video signals; both PCBs are heavily populated with surface mount components. There are very few interconnections -- they're mostly heavy-duty ribbon cables and on-board connections -- which bodes well for long-term reliability. The third PCB is a switched-mode power supply module. Everything is very neatly laid out -- the few cables inside the case are held in place with cable ties -- overall the standard of construction is very high indeed.

 

OPERATION

So far so good but it's not all plain sailing. The first surprise is that there is no anti-tamper protection for the front panel controls or on-screen menus. The only security feature is a tiny DIP switch, to disable the front panel controls. This is located on the motherboard inside the case. It can only be accessed by removing the ten screws that keep the lid on; you can take it as read that it is not very easy to get at. Surely it wouldn't have been beyond the whit of the designers to come up with a simple PIN-coded routine and incorporate it into the operating software? As it stands we suspect most end users will not want to go to the fuss and bother of dismantling the unit simply to disable the controls. This will leave it vulnerable to accidental (or deliberate) mis-operation.

 

The second surprise is the somewhat convoluted menu-driven on-screen displays, which appear to defy most normal conventions. The main menu appears after pressing an unmarked button on the right side of the front panel. The selection is made by moving an asterisk up and down a list of options, using a pair of arrow keys. Thereafter logic goes out of the window and it's usually only by trial and error that you find out how to make, change and save selections. Creating a camera ident is especially time-consuming for example and setting the clock for the first time takes ages. Whilst we're on the subject, the position of the camera ident is fixed, which could be a nuisance if the characters obscure an important part of the image.

 

After a while you can get used to it's strange little ways. In any event most operators will only need to use the on-screen display to change settings fairly infrequently, but it's as well to keep the instruction manual close to hand. Speaking of which, it is one of the better examples we've seen lately. It is neatly laid out and logically presented, with all of the information installers and end-users are like to need, accessible and easy to follow.

 

Split screen display positions are included in the set-up routine, so it is possible to choose which cameras are included in what sub-screen locations on the quad and 3x3 displays. It is also possible to program the multiplexer to skip selected channels, either because they are not being used, or to split coverage between, say, interior and exterior locations. A timer enables particular cameras to be accessed in 'day' or 'night' modes; the factory default is for night to begin at 18:00 and day to start at 06:00 hours, these settings can be changed if necessary.

 

If enabled the alarm system can be set to one of three modes. In mode one, when triggered the video output switches to the camera (or cameras concerned) and the word 'Alarm' flashes on the screen. If there's more than one event the outputs from the associated cameras are multiplexed. In Mode 2 sequencing continues as normal and again the word Alarm flashes on the display. Mode 3 functions like mode one, except that if there's more than one alarm each associated camera is sequenced, at one second interval, and the word alarm flashes on the screen. Alarm reset time is factory preset to 10 seconds; the range is from 1 second to 39 minutes and 59 seconds. An internal buzzer can be set to sound if required and all alarm events are logged, with details of the date, time and camera channel. Up to 100 entries are recorded, when the memory is full the first entries are overwritten.

 

The multiplexer can be set to superimpose time and date information on the monitor and VCR outputs. For the record the date generator is Year 2000 compliant and correctly registered the Millennium as the year '00' in a simulated Y2K rollover test. The internal clock and memory settings are protected against power failure; the lithium backup battery on the motherboard has an estimated operating life of 5 years.

 

PERFORMANCE

The multiplexer is largely transparent to the video signals passing through it. Resolution is unaffected; we tried it with colour and monochrome cameras capable of resolving up to 500 lines, without any noticeable reduction in detail or change in texture. There is certainly no increase in picture noise, if anything it could even be a little lower, on at least one camera there was slightly less 'fizz' in areas of high saturation. Colour fidelity is unchanged from the original input signal. In fact the only significant alteration to the video input occurs in the split screen (i.e. quad and 3 x 3) monitor display modes, where digital compression reduces resolution and frame rate, giving the image the characteristic jerky quality.  

 

Camera sequencing is very clean with no disturbance or loss of stability at the switching points. Picture performance, when replaying multiplexed recordings, depends to a large extent on the capabilities of the VCR, however, our sample was able to lock onto individual camera channel without any loss of synch, in both full frame and split screen modes. Replayed images can also be frozen, picture stability is good.

 

OVERALL ASSESSMENT

As far as normal multiplexing operations are concerned the FSC-80EP works very well indeed. Image quality is very good and picture stability is excellent in both record and replay modes. The feature list is brief and to the point, in fact the only thing missing is a front-panel security lock. The internal switch is a bad idea and counter-productive, we doubt many end-users will ever use it, as it stands. The on-screen display system is a bit cumbersome, it could do with tidying up, though it's fair to say that apart from the fixed camera idents, it has no impact on day to day operation. McDonalds chose well, the  FSC-80 is a capable no-frills design that does the job it is designed to do efficiently, with a minimum of fuss and for a realistic price.

 

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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R.Maybury 1998 0806

 


 

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