H.264 makes Megapixel go Mainstream

Author: John Honovich, Published on Apr 30, 2008

ArecontVision's upcoming release of H.264 megapixel cameras will spur adoption of megapixel cameras for mainstream security organizations.

Until now, bandwidth and storage costs were big problems so even if you were willing to pay the premium for the cameras, the total cost of the system was hard to justify. Now, with H.264 megapixel cameras, the total cost of megapixel camera systems drops significantly, making it easier to find the budget and justify the expense.

Advantages:

  • Reduce costs: Lowers cost of storage by $1,000 or more per camera
  • Eliminates barriers: Enables many more networks to support megapixel cameras

Disadvantages:

  • Using analytics with these cameras reduces the H.264 benefit
  • Costs few hundred dollars more per camera

Potential Risks:

  • When will it be available?
  • Will the quality be good enough?
  • Which and when will DVR/NVR manufacturers support the CODEC?

The central advantage of H.264 cameras is that they reduce the amount of bandwidth needed. ArecontVision is claiming a 5x - 12x reduction of bandwidth. So, if your megapixel camera needed 10 Mb/s before (with MJPEG), it might now need only 1.5 Mb/s. So for each camera, you will save a lot of bandwidth. I am going to choose 3 Mb/s to be conservative. (To read the details see footnote #1 at the end)

Reducing camera bandwidth by even 3 Mb/s per second can save thousands per camera.

Let's say you want to record video for 1 month, a fairly low storage duration for today's security manager. That 3 Mb/s would require an extra 1000 GB of storage. Now, storage is getting cheaper but that much storage, per camera, can cost you an extra $1,000. Imagine if you wanted a 16 channel megapixel system, that's $16,000 more just for the storage. Big money for most of us.

You also get a similar benefit on the network side. Most of us are reluctant to spend major money on network upgrades to support video systems. The hope is that you can use existing networks or simply purchase low cost, basic networking equipment to get the video from the cameras. Historically this has been a very tough challenge with megapixel cameras. With megapixel cameras routinely needing 5 Mb/s, 10 Mb/s, 20 Mb/s or more, the load was very high.

H.264 is like getting a free upgrade from dial-up to broadband. The massive savings in bandwidth let's you do things that were previously prohibitive.

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You will get this benefit both for wired and wireless networks. With wired networks, you likely can add many more megapixel cameras without hitting problems. With wireless networks, for the first time you might be able to use megapixel cameras.

So what's the risk and downside?

The Arecont cameras will not support analytics (footnote 2 for details). So, if analytics are driving your decisions, these cameras don't fit. However, for your analytics needs, consider using standard definition IP cameras and using analytics on these. For most scenarios, this will give you the alerting you need, complimenting nicely with your higher definition H.264 cameras.

The Arecont H.264 cameras will be more expensive, likely a few hundred dollars more. However, this should be easy to justify because of the storage and bandwidth cost reductions, your overall installation cost should be cheaper.

The H.264 cameras are scheduled to be released later this quarter. Arecont has been promoting these cameras since at least January. As is common with manufacturers, caution is appropriate in planning when the equipment will be released and how mature it will be.

Perhaps the biggest risk is will the quality be good enough? The quality should be lower than a MJPEG camera with equivalent settings. If it obstructs the ability to identify targets, this will be a show-stopper. Using the 'good enough' test is prudent here: Can you still identify the target with either camera, even if one camera is slightly less crisp or sharp? If so, the camera is good enough and the overall system cost savings should be the deciding factor. However, this is a controversial point as many feel strongly that image quality is paramount

Finally, this is a proprietary adaption of a CODEC. This means NVR/DVR manufacturers will need to support it. Make sure that your video systems vendor will support and determine when they will support it. Given Arecont's wide distribution, low pricing and the economics of H.264, I believe this will happen fairly quickly but it could provide short term logistical problems.

In sum, H.264 is changing the economics of video surveillance system design, enabling security organizations to cost-effectively deploy megapixel cameras. As it is early, be cautious but start evaluating and making plans for deployment.

Footnotes:

1: ArecontVision is claiming an average of 10x bit-rate reduction for their H.264 compared to MJPEG. Let's be conservative and say it's only 5x. So a 2 Megapixel camera using MJPEG that might consume 20 Mb/s is 4 Mb/s with H.264. Let's also assume that different camera settings could reduce the average bit rate to 10 Mb/s for MJPEG. Let's say in both scenarios we other advance configurations that reduce bandwidth equally by 50% bringing us to 5 Mb/s for MJPEG and 2 Mb/s for H.264. Even in this conservative scenario, that's a reduction of 3 Mb/s per camera.

2: Performing the analytics at your NVR/DVR is unrealistic. The processing cost to decode H.264 will be fairly prohibitive. You could consider using multiple streams, 1 with H.264 for recording and 1 with MJPEG for analysis, to get both. The bandwidth is higher obviously but it at leasts eliminates the storage issue and allows for analysis with this camera.

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