VMS Live Video Shootout 2013

Published Aug 06, 2013 04:00 AM

Viewing live video is the first and most fundamental feature of video management systems. In this study, we tested 7 VMSes, comparing and contrasting features and the ease of use of the offerings.

We evaluated Avigilon, Exacq, Genetec, Milestone, Network Optix/Digital Watchdog, OnSSI and Video Insight to understand those differences and recognize what operators can expect using each VMS.

The image below shows a glimpse of each VMS side by side:

We found 9 main differentiators:

  • Screen Default - What is first shown to the user impacts their experience
  • 16:9 vs 4:3 Aspect Ratios - How a VMS handles different aspect ratios (such as HD and SD)
  • Creating/Selecting Views/Layouts - How sets of cameras can be accessed and displayed
  • Dragging and Dropping Cameras - What ways cameras can be selected
  • Camera Options in Live View - What information and tools are provided
  • Instant Replay - How quickly or easily can a user access recently recorded video
  • Camera Tours - How operators can watch multiple cameras over time
  • Send Live View to Others - How operators can share important video feeds in real time
  • Instant Manual Recording - How operators can immediately record key incidents

Screen Default

Three user interface patterns were evident:

  • Side Panels / Options Available: Milestone, Genetec, Avigilon, Exacq and Video Insight all included buttons, side panels and many options the user would have to hide, via keyboard shortcuts or client customization to optimize the live view for streaming only without all of the added options.
  • Side Panel / Options Available With Easy Removal: Network Optix’s UI included a left pane, and a bottom timeline pane that can be tucked away with 2 clicks.
  • No Side Panels: OnSSI Ocularis' UI was the most minimalistic, simply showing the live streams once a layout was selected. They offer both a full screen mode (default) and a “windowed mode” with customization. This may be a bit overwhelming for the non-initiated user to find the options, since the buttons are not readily available with tooltips explaining what each is used for.

This video compares and shows the screen setups:

16:9 and 4:3 Aspect Ratios

Wasting screen space because of different aspect ratios is not maximizing the real estate of the screen, so we examined how each VMS displays those ratios.

  • Best: Avigilon’s layout edits options were the most versatile and less daunting. They allowed the user to create vertical or horizontal - 270 degree 16:9 panes (Genetec as well) combined with 4:3 panes thus maximizing the real estate of the layout.
  • OnSSI, Milestone and Exacq could set a layout as either 16:9 or a 4:3 not a mixture of both (Exacq will redraw a mixed layout based on the largest count of cameras with a specific ratio, so if 5/9 are 4:3, all in that layout will show 4:3).
  • Network Optix was the only VMS that allowed rotation without depending on the camera's capabilty. Both vertical and horizontal 16:9 and other rotation options are available, but situating those vertical cameras in the freeform layouts was awkward.
  • Worst: Video Insight was the worst by stretching 16:9 cameras to a 4:3 square boxes. The user would have to use the “Force Aspect Ratio option” to have the layouts redraw, but even then there was more than acceptable wasted space between the cameras.

This video demonstrates the aspect ratio options:

Creating/Selecting Views, aka Layouts

Client settings are important for ease of use and each operator’s needs- and preferences- are different. Some VMSes allow for customizations via UI and others do not.

Layout creation included 3 different groups:

  • Customization allowed: Avigilon and Exacq offered the most customization without complexity by adding or removing rows/columns individually thus creating custom layouts (though NO saving of layouts in Avigilon entry level Core version).
  • Predefined Templates only: Genetec, Milestone, and Video Insight offered pre created layout templates ranging from a single camera layout to an extreme 100 panes for a single layout in Milestone with varying ranges in between (Genetec and OnSSI max of 64, Exacq max of 48, Video Insight and Avigilon 36 max). Note: Genetec and Milestone both offer a preset number of tile layouts to choose from, further customization would require XML file modification or SDK integration, respectively
  • Freeform: Network Optix's dynamic creation has a max of 24 cameras (no predefined grids) in 32bit OS and 64 camera layout in a 64bit OS. It is, by far, the most different, and one users will either love or hate.

This video overviews layout options and creation:

Dragging and Dropping Cameras

The VMSes fell into 2 groups for dragging and dropping:

  • No camera tree/list nor ability to move cameras across panes: OnSSI was the most restrictive by requiring end user to right click and change a camera in the layout- 3 clicks too many. (No camera groups concept in OnSSI)
  • Both camera tree list and able to move cameras across panes: In Avigilon, Exacq, Genetec and Network Optix, not only can the end user drag and drop from the left pane, but also drag and drop within the layout itself to change positions. (Avigilon groups of cameras only available in Enterprise edition, Genetec/Milestone require grabbing header of camera to move)

Here is an overview video:

Camera Options in Live View

We looked for the basics such as camera name date/time and location first and found a few add-ons as well.

  • Most Customization: Exacq offered the most customization for camera’s image overlay by allowing font/size/color name and time modifications, taking into account the camera background. For example, could be real beneficial when in a hospital environment (all white) to have the details stand out with a color/size of your choice or in a dark warehouse where neon green may be chosen.
  • Least Customization: OnSSI, Avigilon, and Network Optix all require the timestamp to be turned on in the camera for it to overlay in the live view.
  • Most Information: Exacq, Milestone, Genetec, ONSSI and Network Optix offer many granular details such as resolution, fps, lost packets and others by right clicking or using the camera widget in Genetec. In addition, Network Optix visual messages actually inform the user if the camera is not connecting because of incorrect credentials or simply no signal- beneficial for troubleshooting.
  • Least Information: Video Insight offers camera name, server name, auto focus, and the ability to launch a live window pop-up for a larger view.

Removing Cameras

VMSes provided two methods:

  • Fastest and impermanent: Avigilon and HD Witness were the fastest- simply click the top right X button: Exacq, Genetec, and OnSSI right click is required to remove the camera.
  • Slowest and permanent: Milestone and Video Insight require the user to go into setup to remove a camera-several additional steps and it is permanent for the layout, not just that view session.

Here is an overview video:

Instant Replay

Sometimes, replaying the last few seconds or minutes of a camera's view is necessary for a speedy recap of an event. We identified how that's done from within each live view without having to access archived video. Other than timeline UI similarity in Avigilon, Genetec and OnSSI, each VMS implemented different variations. There are 4 ways to access replay mode:

  • Via pop-up: Exacq and Video Insight - With Exacq, a right click will allow either a layout (all cameras in the view) or a single camera replay to be accessed, though it does appear as a pop-up (which can be minimized or moved to another screen). Moreover, the replay times are 5 and 30 seconds plus 1, 5 and15 minutes. Video Insight offers a single camera's 30 second default pop-up that cannot be minimized, but can be moved to another screen. If viewing more than one camera, it requires the user to set client options (and specify the camera count:1/4/9). The layout will appear with the synchronized timeline at the bottom with no way of doing a single pane playback or hiding it to go back to just a live view- convoluted and inflexible)
  • Timeline View: Genetec, Milestone and Network Optix - Genetec and Milestone allow for both a single camera replay or all cameras within the view (timeline within each pane of a layout or a larger timeline below for all cameras in view to show a synchronized view) so a user may watch both live and replay at the same time. Network Optix provides a timeline bar in the live view that allows simple and immediate playback without having to right click or select a specific time interval. This is quicker to do than most alternatives but comes with a visibly scrolling timeline which can be distracting.
  • Both: Avigilon offers a 30/60/90 second individual, or multiple cameras replay without pop-ups not obstructing other, live, cameras.
  • Via Archives: OnSSI allows for both an individual step back (1 frame at a time or hold down for reverse within a pane)or click Browse option to view a timeline history for all cameras in view-no predefined replay timeframes.

This video shows instant replay options in action:

Camera Tours

There are two different cycling methods: Views/Layouts as a whole and camera groupings within a pane of a layout. There are 4 groups the VMSes fall into:

  • Cycling both methods: Genetec, Milestone and Video Insight allow for tours/carousels/camera sequences within a pane thus expanding the use of a single layout. (Genetec and Milestone allow for different dwell times for each camera within a camera tour as well. Video Insight offers cross server layout cycling)
  • Cycling just views/layouts: Avigilon, Exacq and Network Optix don’t offer the ability to have tours within a pane/tile of a layouts and will cycle just layouts (Network Optix will iterate through all cameras in a single view)
  • Cycling just a single camera: Network Optix is the most limited by only offering a tour of whichever cameras are added to the “scene area”, not layouts cycling nor a camera carousel/tour within a single pane of a layout. OnSSI will cycle only via the carousel grouping of cameras within a pane.
  • Cycling layouts with multi cameras: Genetec, Avigilon, and Exacq allow for cycling of tasks/views/layout. The default dwell time is 5 seconds and allows for customization.

Here is an overview video:

Send Live View to Others

Collaboration via a VMS client is becoming more mainstream and that ability is important when considering large organization or disbursed operators when information sharing is critical.

  • Not available in Exacq and Network Optix at all. Milestone allows a send to Video Wall or Matrix, but not logged in users. Avigilon allows the collaboration feature to send to another user, but only in Enterprise.
  • OnSSI’s “push video” option requires the receiver to have a push video pane in their layout and inserts that pushed video without notifying the end user, which could be easily missed by the receiver. In addition,the sender must send the same view multiple times if there are multiple receivers.
  • Genetec allows sending a full task to another logged in user or monitor, which can entail a full layout or a single camera (Video Insight sends a single camera to a user), and it does show up as pop-ups for the receivers which would be harder to ignore.

Here is an overview video:

Instant Manual Recording

When a camera’s recording is off or motion detection hasn’t triggered yet, the operator should have the option to record manually in the event an incident is observed in live view.

  • Requires User Setup: In Exacq that’s considered a “soft trigger” and requires a few steps to setup for each camera.
  • Built In: Avigilon, Video Insight, ONSSI, Milestone and Genetec all offer a manual record option with a default 5 minute record time (30 minute default for Video Insight).
  • Exception: Network Optix has a ‘Panic’ option available where ALL cameras will switch to highest available FPS and quality BUT it requires the cameras to already be recording- not exactly the same as the manual record option when the cameras are not recording and is not applicable to this feature when compared to other VMSes.

Here is an overview video:

Other Notable Features

VMSes have evolved to monitor more than just live camera streams; options to show websites, maps and other options are also available. OnSSI, Milestone and Genetec offer hotspot images (A pane within a layout that can be used to expand another camera within a layout), webpages views (OnSSI and Milestone) in panes of a layout and HD Witness offers a built in screen recorder that can be used for presentations.

Moreover, with the exception of OnSSI that offers no predefined keyboard shortcuts (requires customization by user), the rest of the VMSes offered a myriad of keyboard options, here are a few you may find helpful:

  • Avigilon, Milestone and Network Optix F11 to maximize screen
  • Genetec F11+F10 to maximize screen, CTRL+Q and ESC to start and stop task cycling
  • Exacq F4 hide/show tree, F8 to hide top and F11 goes full screen
  • Video Insight F11 to maximize screen (but have to use your mouse to get out)

Manufacturers Overview


Genetec's Security Center includes large icons and many clear tool tips to find what the operator needs to navigate and customize their layout- which can also be easily hidden for the power user interested in using a myriad of keyboard options instead. They offered camera layouts ranging from a single camera layout to a max of 64 (no drag and drop within a layout), in addition to camera tours with customized dwell times. The manual record option readily available from the camera view or the dashboard offering several convenient ways to access it. Camera rotation, for vertical views, depends on whether the camera supports it or not and layout template creation is limited to an XML update which would require advanced skills. Note: Genetec version 5.2 tested.


Milestone's layout selection was the most comprehensive of any other reviewed VMS ranging from 1-100 (would anyone use that many?) and they were separated by 4:3 and 16:9, though a mixture of both ratios into a one layout is not a stock option (must use SDK). In addition, they offer advanced options: allowing users to embed a map (with overlayed cameras- Exacq as well) within a pane of a layout, in addition to a hot spot monitor, websites, alerts and flat images. The design of structured folders (much like OnSSI) to access layouts was tiring and long drawn when switching layouts is commonly used by operators. Note: version 8.1a/8.0a build 1306 tested.


This VMS will appeal to those interested in creating customized templates for layouts, if the existing stock options don't seem to satisfy their needs. It offers the least complexity (compared to Exacq's layout option which is more complex) with the ability to "draw" a layout template of your choice by simply adding/removing lines. The ability to collaborate (Enterprise only) and easily record as well as drag and drop within a layout are also available. Avigilon's most disappointing omission was the user's inability to save a view (aka layout) in the core version - upgrading to Standard is a must. Moreover, the ability to apply a date/time overlay must be done at the camera. Note: version tested.


The stand out for Exacq was the ability to customize the image overlays which include name/date/time/font/size and color. Exacq's requirement of creating an Event trigger to manually record as an operator was cumbersome. They, offered the ability to create customized layout templates, albeit more complex than Avigilon's straight forward. Many camera details can be gathered from a right click in live view, but the ability to delete a camera from view requires 2 clicks. Note: version tested.


OnSSI's client was the most minimalistic view when compared to the other VMSes. As a new user to this VMS it was clear to see that using the screen real estate for the live images was priority and accessing buttons/tools/options was secondary. Layout selections from the View menu involved a hierarchical folder structure and didn't allow for an easy selection of layout switching. No predefined keyboard shortcuts for maximization (would have to be customized), no left pane for easy drag and drop of cameras. They do offer the send to user option and camera tours (pre-created by admin or created by user) within a pane as well as a predefined list of layouts to choose from (1-64). Note: version version 8.0c/3.6 tested.

HD Witness/Digital Watchdog

HD Witness's ability to create layouts was different than any other VMS; no predefined templates or grids to use. They allow the user to rotate (0/90/180/270) any camera regardless if the camera supports it or not. Furthermore, the user can define whether it is a 4:3, 16:9 and even the cell spacing between each camera (none-large). The inability to record a camera manually prevents users from recording incidents immediately in cases where the camera's motion detection hasn't triggered yet or the camera is set to record off. Note: version 1.51 tested.

Video Insight

Video Insight presents problems for using cameras with different aspect ratios. The way the VMS manages to display aspect ratio is wasteful and shows a disregard to the end user's screen space. Creating layouts and tours (which they do offer) requires nested child windows, but selecting the layouts once they are created is easy and more inline with other VMSes (Exacq, Avigilon) standards. The send to user option is easy to find/use and appears as a pop-up (can be blocked by receiver and cannot be retrieved once sent/blocked,) which is harder for the receiver to ignore. In addition the manual record option, once activated by operator, is accessible and will default to 30 minutes of record time - though the tool tip misleadingly states "always". Note: version tested.

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