Testing: HD Decoder (NLSS)

Author: Antony Look, Published on Mar 15, 2011

The typical way of displaying IP surveillance video is dedicating a PC and loading a network viewing client. In the analog world, this was simpler as many DVRs had 'spot monitor' outputs that connected a display to the back of the DVR. Unfortunately, in the IP world, this is harder. We recently had a PRO member discussion on IP video display options that lasted more than 35 comments and ended inconclusively.

In the last few months, NLSS has released an HD Decoder that aims to provide an option in solving this problem. This appliance differs from traditional IP decoders in 3 key respects:

  • Open to 3rd party cameras: Most traditional IP decoders only supported the manufacturer's own cameras (e.g., Pelco decoder, Pelco cameras, etc.)
  • Decodes HD video feeds: Most traditional IP decoders only decoded SD feeds.
  • Decodes many feeds: Many traditional IP decoders only decode a single SD feed

Because of the NLSS HD Decoder's novel positioning, we've seen quite a number of comments and questions about its use. In this test, we attempted to better understand what the HD decoder can do. We found it interesting. While the NLSS HD decoder can do a lot of things, users will need to carefully consider what their monitoring objectives are (these vary greatly) and if the NLSS HD decoder can meet them. Inside the PRO section, we dig into these aspects.

Key Points

We found the following aspects to be key elements in analyzing the fit of the product:

  • Supports up to 2MP / 1080p resolution (higher resolution cameras are supported but displayed streams must be set no higher than 2MP or 1080p)
  • Maximum cameras displayed: 16 (max is 4 x 4 matrix - new in just released firmware - previously 2 x 2 max)
  • Panes are all the same size (i.e., no 1 x 5 matrix)
  • Extensive control options using the web admin interface
  • Restricted control options directly connected to the decoder/monitor
  • The HD Decoder does not provide the same level of granular controls as a PC + networking viewing application
  • Connecting HD Decoder to remote cameras can be problematic because of bandwidth issues
  • Single setting for video quality/resolution for each camera
  • Does not Interface with any VMS systems (possible by API but not implemented)
  • Runs on Ubuntu Linux
  • MSRP $1295

Note: The focus of this test is connecting the NLSS HD Decoder to 3rd party IP cameras. The Decoder can also be connected to the NLSS Gateway providing greater functionality. We will consider these elements in a future NLSS Gateway test.

Recommendations and Summary

We believe the best fit for the NLSS Decoder is for relatively static applications connecting to IP cameras on-site. The decoder did a good job of clearly displaying multiple HD (and SD) IP video feeds. It delivers this at a price point similar to a PC with a quality decoder card but with a much smaller form factor and with lower risks than typical in using Window PCs (concerns about information security, running unauthorized applications, crashing from video loads, etc.). Using the web admin interface on a separate PC, an operator can perform extensive customizations. Additionally, using a remote control, an operator can change basic display settings such as single cameras displayed (by number) and switching amongst pre-defined views.

Replacing Network Client Applications: Using the HD Decoder as a full replacement for a network monitoring application could be problematic as the Decoder lacks a number of commonly used feature sets expected by operators using VMS/DVR clients including:

  • No way to drag and drop / change videos displayed with a matrix (need to switch to a different view, cannot simply change tile 1 to display camera A instead of camera B)
  • No retrieval of recorded surveillance video; While you can upload video clips by the admin interface, the HD decoder does not integrate with any 3rd party VMS systems to pull up recorded video (e.g., such as the last 30 seconds of recorded video)
  • No alarm integration: It does not pop up or display alarm / alerts in real time from a 3rd party VMS system
  • No mouse support; A remote control (or separate PC) needs to be used to make changes to the display

If you are ok with showing individual cameras, a limited set of predefined views and sequences, the HD decoder will do well. If you are expecting more, this could be a problem.

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Remote Network Connections: Connecting to cameras across a wide area network also could be problematic. Since the Decoder is connecting directly to IP feeds with a single defined resolution/quality setting, it does not dynamically throttle video requested or transcode (as often happens with a VMS or DVR). For 4 HD cameras, the Decoder may request many Mb/s of video which could easily overload a remote low bandwidth connection. Note: when the HD Decoder is connecting to the NLSS Gateway, it can transcode / optimize. However, we are focusing on its use in an open / 3rd party VMS system.

Video Wall Usage: Multiple HD decoder units certainly can be used to power a video wall. The web admin interface could be used to direct video dynamically across many HD decoders / flat screen TVs. Given the relatively low cost of the decoders (compared to traditional video wall displays), this could be an attractive option. On the other hand, compared to network video functionality in high end VMSes, there are some tradeoffs in video wall usage. While the NLSS decoder provides some uncommon features such as loading video clips and running as an appliance (rather than a PC), it will not be as deeply integrated with VMSes as VMS video wall modules. For instance, with many VMS video wall modules, operators can push video clips to one another, alerts can be shared, etc. This is not possible with the more limited operator controls in NLSS. (See the Milestone SmartWall Test results as an example of a much more expensive software based VMS video wall).

The remainder of the report will provide our findings on details of the overall solution.

Physical Overview

In this video we provide a physical overview of the NLSS HD Decoder. First we examine its dimensions (roughly the size of a cable modem) compared to a standard IP camera. We note that the unit comes with a power supply and there is no PoE option to power the unit. Also, an HDMI cable is included to connect the decoder to a display. We'll show that the unit provides 6x USB ports for connecting key accessories, such as joysticks, IR receivers, and keypads to give operators plenty of options to manipulate the display.  Other I/O include mic/speaker jacks and 1x GigabitEthernet port. Finally we'll show the remaining inclusions: 1) documentation CD; 2) HDMI to DVI converter; and 3) mounting bracket.

Administration and Configuration

In the video below we provide a tour of the web interface used to administer and configure the NLSS HD decoder. The interface is Flash based so a variety of browsers are supported (e.g., IE, Firefox, and Chrome). The web interface can also be used to operate the decoder/display system, but that it requires a separate computing system to do so and may not be a desirable approach.  After logging in we demonstrate the UI with key menus and a virtual remote control:

  • Decoder
  • Users
  • Cameras
  • Streams
  • Channels
  • Views
  • Sequences
  • (Virtual Remote Control)

We walk through each of the menus and focus on key points in each. Upon log in we also see an interactive graphic of the remote control off to the right side. This provides the same functionality as the actual physical remote control unit, but sends its commands over the network versus via the USB IR receiver. The 'Decoder' menu provides information such as firmware version, IP address settings, and provides options to upgrade firmware, reboot/default the unit, power off the system etc. We next show that the 'Users' menu is straightforward, providing a means to manage and control access to the decoder. The 'Cameras' and 'Streams' menu is where we discover and configure the source media for our decoder system, e.g. various supported IP cameras and file based streams (e.g. MP4, WMV, and FLV). Next, we demonstrate that our cameras and streams are merely 'raw' sources at this stage and that the 'Channels' menu is used to logically associate cameras/streams to more functional channels. We also note that the 'Channels' menu provides operator functionality as well via a 'Set Active' button which will bring the associated channel up on the display (single channel). We'll next venture on into configuration and operation of multi-camera/stream layouts in the 'Views' menu. Here we mix and match IP cameras and file based streams onto a layout to define or pre-configure a view for operators to call up on the display. All that's involved is a simple drag and drop procedure. Lastly, we'll look at the 'Sequences' menu which enables the administrator to embed a series of single/multi-channel views to be iterated through when the sequence is called up to the display.

Live Operation Demo

In this video, we take an operator's eye view of the NLSS decoder system. We'll go through some basic operator tasks showing you how the display reacts to commands from the remote control device. For example, we'll switch channels using one of three methods, mute and control sound levels, and activate multi-camera layouts. Finally, we demonstrate the latency when comparing the NLSS appliance decoder to real-time and a PC/network client based decoder. A slight edge goes to the NLSS appliance.

Remote Control Overview

The remote control we test and cover in this section is purchased separately from the NLSS HD Decoder (DC-400). It is one of several options to directly operate the decoder/display system (e.g., changing channels or views, and controlling volume/mute). For example, the DC-400 will interoperate with various other remote controls (as low as online $10), keypads, and an Axis T8311 joystick (online $375).

In the video below we examine a recommened remote control from NLSS. The unit resembles other standard TV remote control in terms of size, buttons, etc. The remote control requires an IR receiver be plugged into one of the USB ports on the decoder. Operators will tend to want to direct their 'commands' using the remote control at the display, so we recommend attaching the IR receiver on or near the display itself. Next, we mention that the remote control has a surplus of non-functional/unused buttons and that this might present a slight usability concern. Furthermore, for some functions such as channel list, view list, and sequence list, the button icons are not intuitive, but it is a relatively quick learn via the documentation or trial and error. Finally, note that the operator is restricted to pre-defined layouts and is unable to dynamically drag and drop channels from a camera 'tree' or list onto a layout. According to the manufacturer this limitation is found only in standalone decoder environments, and that when used in conjunction with an NLSS gateway dynamic views can be created.

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