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SONY HSR-1P DIGITAL SURVEILLANCE RECORDER

 

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The VHS recording system has been with us for the best part of a quarter of a century and it has served the surveillance industry well but there is little doubt that it is headed for a long overdue retirement. VHS, for all of its faults is cheap and reliable, with a proven track record, so its successor has a lot to live up to. Currently there are at least four contenders for the job of surveillance video recording; all of them based on digital technology.

 

The first to appear, around five years ago, was hard-disc recording, using PC hard disc drives (HDD) to store video images in the from of compressed digital data. HDD systems have much to commend them, not least the recording quality which has the potential to be much better than analogue VHS -- and fast access to any part of a recording. However, being a non-removable medium, a separate video recording system is required in order to archive recordings, as data on the disc has to be continually overwritten. Digital tape recording systems overcome that particular problem and first off the blocks three years ago was the Sony DV format. That was joined last year by the JVC pioneered D-VHS (Data VHS) system. In performance and economic terms both technologies work extremely well, but wear and tear on tape and delicate moving parts, which have to operate continuously, is a big concern.

 

The most recent arrival is DVD-RAM a video recording system based on the Digital Versatile Disc system originally developed for consumer use (initially movie playback, recordable DVD is due out next year) and PC data storage. Like tape it is a removable medium and in common with HDD drives it offers fast access. DVD-RAM holds a lot of promise but the technology has yet to prove itself in surveillance applications and it may take a while for the format to become established.

 

For the moment at least the digital recording options are confined to tape and HDD but Sony has come up with a novel and innovative approach in the shape of the HSR-1P digital surveillance time-lapse video recorder. It is a hybrid design that offers the best of both worlds by initially recording video footage essentially sequenced still frames -- on a hard disc drive, and then automatically downloading the data to digital tape. The specification is very impressive. In the 'Super' recording mode horizontal resolution is in claimed to be in excess of 500-lines. The 'High' mode is said to be comparable with S-VHS recording systems but with a significantly better signal to noise ratio. The 'Mid' and 'Low' quality modes equivalent to standard VHS provide extremely long time-lapse recording times, up to an incredible 9999 hours, or a little over thirteen months on a single tape!

 

The use of a hard disc drive as a temporary storage device significantly reduces the amount of time the tape mechanism is operating and it also provides pre-alarm recording, which is clearly not possible on an alarm-triggered VCR. The tape-disc system has other advantages, including automatic fail-safe operation. If for any reason the HDD fails the tape deck takes over and conversely, if the tape mechanism develops a fault HDD recording continues uninterrupted.

 

In addition to the video recording functions the HSR-1P has a number of additional features. It has a built-in multiplexer with up to 16 camera inputs (4 are provided as standard). The multiplexer provides a high degree of flexibility with a choice of monitor and display patterns plus independent recording and monitoring. The unit has highly configurable alarm options, flexible camera assignment and multiple recording modes continuous or timer controlled. It has two independent monitor outputs and recordings are 'watermarked'; the HSR-1P will display a warning message if it detects that a recording has been tampered with.

 

The dual-mode deck mechanism operates with both types of DV digital cassette. The standard DV cassette is around one third the size of a VHS cassette, a 270-minute DV cassette has a data storage capacity of more than 60 gigabytes. Mini DV cassettes, originally developed for domestic and professional camcorders, can also be used, these are about the size of a box of matches and have up to a one hour recording capacity which translates to a little over 13 gigabytes. To put that into perspective the HSR-1P's internal hard disc drive has a capacity of 4.3Gb. Incidentally, the HSR-1P cannot replay DV recordings made on other equipment; moreover it doesn't have a real-time video recording mode.

 

It is a reasonably compact shape measuring 355 x 125 x 410 mm, which makes it a little narrower but slightly taller and a tad deeper than most VHS time-lapse VCRs. For such a sophisticated machine the front panel is surprisingly uncluttered, on the right side there's a fluorescent display panel showing time, status and menu information. Beneath that is an illuminated 16-button numeric keypad, which is used to select cameras and monitor display mode. The deck loading hatch, tape transport controls and menu buttons are located behind a hinged flap on the left side of the front panel. Both types of tape cassette (DV and Mini DV) use the same tape slot, a set of guides helps line up Mini DV tapes as they are inserted. A jack socket in the bottom right hand corner of the front panel is for an optional external remote control unit.

 

On the left side of the back panel are the camera input sockets, arranged in banks of four. Each bank has a mini DIP switch for setting socket terminations. The video output sockets are next to camera inputs 1 to 4. A pair of BNC connectors and one S-Video socket handles the monitor outputs. There are two D-Sub sockets, the larger one (37 pin) is a parallel I/O port used for alarm inputs, outputs, and control functions. The other (9-pin) is a RS232 serial data port, used to connect the HSR-1P to an editing unit or PC. There's a large cooling fan built into the back panel, it runs continuously and somewhat noisily. 

 

INSTALLATION AND SETUP

Installation is a bit of a mixed bag. It is actually fairly straightforward but the instruction manual tends to make fairly heavy weather of it and doesn't get to the nitty-gritty until well past the halfway mark. Virtually everything is controlled from a menu-driven on-screen display. Selections are made using the four cursor buttons and settings are saved using a Set/Yes key. It can be a bit cumbersome first but it doesn't take long to get used to it.

 

The main setup menu has ten options. Item one is Image control, this deals with the monitor outputs, automatic monitor switching (sequence in 1 to 60 second intervals), camera selection/deselection, and the layout of the monitor screen in play and record modes. There's a choice of 8 patterns, including 4 x 4 and 2 x 2 (quad) plus various permutations of large and small sub-screens. Display layout can also be changed without going into the menu by pressing the cursor buttons on the front panel.

 

The second item on the menu is Indication Control; this concerns how the various displays look and work. It covers a lot of ground, including setting image borders (black, white or none), date and time formats, display character size and position and composing camera idents. Menu number 3 is called Recording Functions and this provides an overview and means of adjusting recording quality, time-lapse mode and recording cycle duration. It also contains set-up screens for the recording timer, repeat and continuous recording modes and alarm record functions. The fourth menu is responsible for Function Control, this includes such things as action at the end of tape (rewind or stop), power-on and record, switching the control verification beeper on and off, still mode (high quality frame or jitter-free field). The last item is Function Level, which handles security, setting passwords and determining which controls can and cannot be used without a password.

 

Menu five, Remote Control, is used to configure the serial and parallel ports. Menu six, Maintenance displays hour meters for total time in use, drum rotation, tape running and CT (threading). Menu seven is for setting time and date. Menus eight, nine and ten cover various secondary functions, namely display language, menu type (full/enhanced or abbreviated/basic) and menu initialisation.

 

One of the most important items on the menu is the rather laboriously labelled 'Setting of Recording Mode' on the Record Function menu. Five 'modes' are available, each of which contains a set of key recording parameters that the user or installer can configure. The critical ones are Image Quality (Super, High, Mid and Low), and Time Mode (specifies the length, in hours, of the recording on a tape cassette). The recording cycle the switching time for each camera is automatically calculated and displayed. The fastest refresh rate is 0.12 seconds for a single camera input and 0.48 seconds when using 4 cameras. The quality modes correspond with resolutions of 720 x 240 pixels (Super), 360 x 240 (High), 180 x 240 (Mid) and 180 x 120 (Low).

 

There are five alarm record options, in Normal mode only the camera associated with the alarm is recorded; Interleave mode increases the number of times the alarm-activated camera is included in the sequence. In Event mode recording begins as soon as an alarm event occurs. In Prealarm mode recording doesn't being until an alarm is triggered but the footage leading up to the alarm event (2 seconds to 10 minutes) is saved on the hard disc. Lastly there's Frame mode, where a single frame is recorded following an alarm input.

 

An alarm log records data on up to 99 events, recordings can be quickly accessed from the list using an on-screen cursor, or found using a time search facility. In addition to alarm events recordings also contain data relating to camera number/title, recording time and date, record mode, timer mode and image quality this information can also be superimposed on the image.

 

Playback options include normal playback, still fame, step frame (forward and reverse) and fast forward/reverse high-speed picture search. During playback the display options are single camera/full screen or any one of the multi-screen monitor patterns. The illuminated camera selector buttons on the front panel switch between single camera and selected multi-screen view. Playback and live camera inputs can be shown simultaneously on a multi-screen display.

 

PERFORMANCE

The most noticeable difference between analogue and digital recordings is the almost complete lack of noise in the latter. Images look sharper, edges are more clearly defined, and colours are crisper with little of no 'fizz' in areas of high saturation. In the 'Super' recording mode fine detail is clearly resolved and the image contains significantly more information than is captured by S-VHS equipment, for example. The quoted horizontal resolution figure of 500 lines in Super mode is realistic though vertical resolution is significantly less and that is apparent when there is a lot of fine detail in the image. Image quality in the High mode is still very good though the lack of vertical resolution starts to show and the image can look slight mushy. In the medium and low quality modes the picture looks a lot more like a VHS recording, though the lack of noise is still apparent.

 

Playback is slightly hampered by the fact that picture search speed is determined by the number of cameras connected and recording quality. With just four cameras on line it can be excruciatingly slow, and it's not helped by the fact that there's no lock on the picture search button, so you have to keep it pressed. Secondly, for reasons that the instruction book fails to make clear, you cannot use reverse picture search on the tape, beyond the point at which it was stopped, if said material is still accessible on the hard disc. The tape must be rewound in order to access that material, needless to say it is extremely frustrating.

 

SUMMARY

In addition to the gripes about picture search facilities we have a couple of more general niggles. The lack of a real-time recording mode could be a disadvantage in some circumstances. For example, a fast-moving object a vehicle or someone running   may pass in and out of shot in a matter of one or two frames (depending on the recording mode and the subject's speed) which clearly limits the amount of information that may be captured. Allied to that is a lack of audio recording facilities, several analogue time-lapse machines can record sound in 12 and 24 hour recording modes admittedly the quality is poor but it can provide invaluable information.

 

Overall however, the HSR-1P is a most impressive piece of kit and a powerful argument in favour of digital recording technology. Sony appears to have solved one of the main problems associated with digital video recording, in the context of surveillance and time-lapse applications, but it has taken a fairly hefty technological sledgehammer to crack this particular nut. DVD RAM promises a simpler solution as far as the mechanics are concerned -- but the capacity of DVDs is currently less than 5 gigabytes, (compared with 60Gb for a DV tape). DVD autochangers are now appearing on the domestic market and could provide a solution for surveillance applications. However, for the moment at least, the HSR-1P is the only game in town, if you need seriously long term digital quality time-lapse recording.

 

PRODUCT SPECIFICATION

 

Power supply              230 VAC 50Hz

Weight                        10kg

Dimensions                 355 x 125 x 410 mm

 

PSI RATINGS

 

Product                      

Product design 8         

Build quality               9

Ruggedness                9

 

Operation                  

General functions            8

CCTV functions            8         

Ease of use                 8

Instructions                8

Manuf. support            9                     

Video quality              9

 

---end---

R. Maybury 1999 0410

 


 

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