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VISTA COLUMBUS DIGITAL MULTIPLEXER & HARD DISC RECORDER

 

STANDFIRST

Two into one will go, as the fully integrated Vista Columbus digital multiplexer and hard video recorder convincingly proves…

 

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If you're experiencing a mild sense of deja vu that might be due to the fact that the Vista Columbus looks uncannily similar to the Vista NPX Vision Multiplexer that we reviewed last year (XXX issue). Whilst they share the same box, and a number of features Columbus is a very different animal to its predecessor, it is a one-box digital multiplexer and video recorder, storing real-time video from up to 10 camera inputs on a fast, high capacity hard disc drive. That's just for starters, Columbus also has integrated alarm system with motion sensing facilities, digital zoom, multi-screen display, remote telemetry control for camera ancillaries (pan/tilt/zoom, lights etc.), covert camera settings, archiving facilities, macro recording, the list goes on… Suffice it to say this is one highly innovative and very well specified product.

 

We'll begin with the case, controls and connectors. The box is unusual on two counts, firstly someone has actually put some thought into the shape and layout -- it makes a welcome change from the 'standard issue' cream coloured boxes -- and second, it is made from tough ABS plastic, so it can withstand rough treatment. In short it looks more like part of a hi-fi system than piece of video surveillance equipment. Unfortunately the front panel controls and operating system hasn't improved since the last outing and it still takes quite a while to get used to its many and various foibles, more about that later on. In contrast the rear panel is a model of simplicity. Twenty BNC sockets, arranged in two banks of ten handle the camera inputs and outputs; there are two more BNC connectors (and one S-Video socket) for two monitor outputs.  Communications with external devices such as a PC or remote controller are carried on a pair of 9-pin D-Sub connectors (RS232) and two RJ11 sockets (RS485). The alarm inputs and outputs come together on a 25-pin D-Sub and an optional external DAT tape drive unit -- used for backup and archiving -- connects via a SCSI port.

 

The camera selector keys are arranged in a row along the top edge, the main function buttons are on the far left, camera controls are in the middle and replay controls are on the far right.  All of the installation and set-up functions are carried out using a set of menu-driven on-screen displays. There are two levels of access -- operator (restricted to non-critical functions) and installer (all options)  -- both are password protected. 

 

The menus are quite tricky to navigate at first, selections are made using the large round 'joypad' in the middle of the front panel, fortunately it does get easier with practice. Since there is so much going on under the bonnet, the easiest way to describe what Columbus does is to start with its three operating modes, namely Record, Playback and Live, they're selected from the cluster of buttons on the far left side of the front panel.

 

RECORD MODE

Columbus spends most of its time in the 'Record' mode, storing the multiplexed outputs from the cameras on to its SCSI hard disc. Various disc capacities are available -- our sample was fitted with an 8.4Gb model. Columbus has six recording speeds, (3, 24, 48, 72, 168 and 960 hours), the confusing use of hours to define speed apparently makes it easier to relate it to a time-lapse VCR. There are three quality settings (high, medium and low), which relates to the amount of compression applied to the data going on to the disc. The combination of recording speed and quality setting determines how much data is recorded on to the disc and as a consequence how long it takes to fill the disc and overwrite previously recorded images. This information is shown on the screen, along with an indication of how much of the disc's capacity has been used. By default the camera outputs are addressed in order but it is possible to change the order, and the number of times the camera appears in the sequence.

 

Each camera has associated alarm input, motion detection capabilities and video loss sensing. When the motion detector is triggered the relevant camera output is recorded more frequently in the sequence (2 or 4 times as often). The system can be configured to operate in two ways: 'Activity' detection looks for changes in luminance level in defined areas of the image. 'Intrusion' detection responds to actual movement in the scene and is better suited to monitoring areas where no movement is expected. In order to reduce the incidence of false alarms the system has an extensive range of adjustments. The detection grid is divided up into 256 zones, each of which can be switched on or off. Zones can be defined to respond only to objects of a particular size. For example, a person might occupy a grid of 5 x 2, or 10 zones. If that is set as the target size anything smaller -- an animal or movement of trees -- should be ignored. Additionally there are ten sensitivity levels for each camera and three alarm rejection modes, to prevent activation by vibration, changes in lighting level or camera movement.

 

To assist with motion detector and camera set-up Columbus has a facility called Camera Scope. This superimposes a histogram display over the picture showing the luminance levels of the incoming analogue video signal.

 

During record mode the main monitor (Monitor A) shows only live full screen images from the connected cameras, these can be manually selected or sequenced, with the facility to vary the dwell times. Alarm events are automatically logged and if the system is used with the optional archiving system, video sequences can be automatically downloaded to tape or another suitable medium.

 

Once you have waded through the somewhat stodgily written instructions and carried out a few dry runs most of the set-up and installation procedures are fairly straightforward. Camera sequencing is made a lot easier with the use of a feature called AutoList. Pressing the Alarm and Sequence buttons together engages the AutoList mode; the installer or operator then selects cameras and sets dwell times by pressing the camera buttons in the desired order and interval

 

The archiving system supplied with our Columbus is based around an external DAT tape recorder. There are two basic options: Selective Archive records only alarm events and Background Archive makes a simultaneous recording along with the hard disc.

 

PLAYBACK

The second operating mode is 'Play' and as the name implies it is used to review recordings stored on the hard disc or downloaded from the DAT archive. Monitor B continues with live full screen images during playback. When the play button is pressed monitor A automatically changes to a pre-selected multi-screen display (quad/2 x 2, 7-way/3 x 4, 9-way/3 x 3 or 10-way/2 x 8). Cameras can be assigned to any display position and can also be shown more than once. Pressing the Search key brings up an on-screen display showing the date and times of recordings stored on the disc with the facility to search the data according to pre-set time 'filters'. Pressing the Enter button a second time brings up the Search Results window with all of the recorded sequences listed by date and time. Sequences are selected by moving a highlight down the list and pressing the Enter button once again. This returns monitor A to a multi-screen display, showing all connected cameras, or the recorded output from a selected single camera.

 

The recording is shown at the speed it was recorded along with all recorded time and date information and alarm indications. Replay speed and direction -- from single frame freeze to high-speed search -- is controlled using the direction buttons on the joypad and the replay buttons. Other replay options include electronic zoom and pan/tilt. Pressing the zoom button increases the size of the image by a factor of two; the area being shown can be moved around using the joypad.

 

LIVE MODE

'Live' is the third and last operating mode. The options are basically the same as Play except that the images come only from the cameras and not the hard disc drive or archive. The same camera selection, display and sequencing facilities are available.

 

The Telemetry button enables the camera control functions, for the record these are: camera power, wash, auto-pan, lamps on/off, wipe, preset position, focus far/near, iris open/close and zoom in/out. Positions can be preset and cameras can be set to automatically randomly patrol or park themselves after a period of inactivity.  

 

Frequently used key sequences or set up operations can be assigned to a simple two-keystroke macro. Columbus can be programmed to store up to 10 macros, each of up to 32 keystrokes. In addition macros can be set to start at fixed times using the Macro Scheduler feature, up to 20 events can be set over a seven day period.

 

Various alarm responses are possible. When triggered the recording can be set to interleave mode (with the camera output recorded more frequently) or exclusive, with only the camera associated with the event being recorded. Recording speed can stay as is or switched to real-time mode. Alarm indications during record and replay include on-screen displays, flashing front panel LEDs or an internal buzzer, the unit has two alarm output relays (max 30V AC/DC, 500mA, N/O or NC), and alarms can be linked to various functions.   

 

PERFORMANCE

Recording speed has little or no impact on image quality, at the fastest speed (3 hours) the image is close to real-time live action with only a hint of jerkiness. In the high quality mode resolution on our sample when fed with a colour signal was a little under 220-lines, it's not brilliant but it is on a par with VHS time-lapse. Black and white performance is a little better. It appears that colour and monochrome cameras cannot be mixed, as the recording will be made in black and white. The image has a fairly distinct texture, some graininess is evident and colours lack the vibrancy of a good quality analogue tape system but on the whole image quality is acceptable for most routine surveillance applications.

 

In the medium and low quality recording modes there is a significant reduction in the amount of detail in the image, especially in the 'low' mode where the picture is borderline fuzzy, nevertheless there is still enough information for it to be of use in undemanding situations.

 

Searching through recordings is quite hard going at first. The first impulse is to treat it like a tape recorder but a hard disc VTR behaves quite differently. It's possible to get lost quite easily; finding and stepping through a sequence can be difficult to start with. What it really needs is a little more on-screen information, something to relate to other than the time and date readout.  

 

The DAT archive has little or no impact on video quality. Since the hard disc is continually overwritten this, or some other type of external storage device is almost essential.  

 

SUMMARY

Functionally Columbus gets a reasonably clean bill of health; we can't fault the feature list either, though a multi-screen display in the record mode would have been very welcome. We would also include audio recording on our wish list, but that's probably asking a bit too much at this stage of the game. The only relatively minor concerns we have are centred on the cumbersome operating system and controls. Maybe we have become too accustomed to the predictable behaviour of video tape recorders and are being a little unfair to Columbus but it would have been a lot easier to use and get to know if the controls had followed VCR conventions. The instruction manuals are dreadful, they're clearly written by someone who knows Columbus inside out but they fail miserably conveying their knowledge to the reader. Overall a very interesting product with a lot of potential. Digital disc recorders like Columbus are now a viable alternative to tape in a lot of applications but the combination of additional facilities like camera switching and multiplexing means it is much more than the sum of its parts and device like this are clearly the way forward.

PRODUCT SPECIFICATION

 

Power supply              12 VDC (AC mains adaptor supplied)

Weight                        5.8kg

Dimensions                 460 x 88 x 390mm

 

PSI RATINGS

 

 

Product                      

Product design 9

Build quality               9

Ruggedness                9

 

Operation                  

General functions            9

CCTV functions            8         

Ease of use                 6

Instructions                5

Manuf. support            ?                     

 

Performance

Video playback            8

Video quality              7

Switching                    7

Audio                          n/a

 

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Ó R. Maybury 1999 0503

 


 

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