Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Livestream jumps into the production switcher business with the HD500

Earlier today, Livestream announced its first entry into the portable production switcher market. The HD500 is targeted directly against NewTek's Tricaster 455, at about half the price--$8,500 (U.S.) vs. $15,995 for the 455 without a control surface. Shipments will begin on October 15th. The HD500's features include:
  • Live video mixing for multi-camera productions (1 M/E bus)
  • Live audio mixing
  • Graphics overlay and titling (2 graphics & titling channels)
  • Digital video recorder (DVR) and player (two sources, 10 hour capacity at 1080i 100Mbps MJPEG AVI)
  • One-click live streaming in HD multi-bitrate to Livestream's service
  • Integrated multiviewer and 17" 1920 x 1200 display
  • 4 HD/SD SDI inputs with live video out; 5 inputs when configured for streaming or recording
  • 5 video outputs (HD/SD SDI, HDMI, Component, Composite and S-Video)

The HD500 is based on a portable workstation running Windows 7 that's small enough to be brought on-board airplanes as carry-on luggage. It's got an Intel Core i7 3.2 GHz six-core CPU, integrated 17" display and multiple PCI slots--all of which are taken up by the display controller and off-the-shelf Blackmagic Design DeckLink cards for video I/O. The software was written by Livestream's own development team.

According to Max Haot, Livestream's CEO and co-founder, the HD500's design was based on input from Livestream's own in-house video production team, which produces hundreds of live streamed events each year for clients. The team has used a variety of production switchers over the years, including Tricasters and Blackmagic Design's ATEM 1 M/E and 2 M/E. They wanted a highly portable, all-in-one production switcher that would be simple to use.

The HD500 leaves out some of the features in the Tricaster 455, such as virtual sets, because Livestream's production team found that it never used them. In addition, there's no dedicated control surface available for the HD500, although Livestream may offer one as an option in the future.

Livestream's goal with the HD500 is to make it easier and less expensive to produce live video events, which will draw in more clients and revenues. To that end, the company plans to unbundle its switcher software in Q1 2013 and make it available to its customers for free. A paid version will support streaming services from competitors. Haot also believes that the HD500's price and features will appeal to companies using other streaming services--its internal encoder is dedicated to Livestream, but even with an external encoder, the package cost will still be below that of the Tricaster 455. Haot also made clear that the HD500 is only the first in a family of hardware switchers planned by Livestream.

One concern I have is Livestream's plan for product repairs. The company offers phone support seven days a week, 12 hours a day, but if a problem with a customer's HD500 can't be resolved by over-the-phone troubleshooting, the entire device has to be shipped back to Livestream's manufacturing partner for repair. There's no field repair option and no local dealers to contact for an emergency hardware loan. Livestream doesn't want users to open up the switcher to attempt their own repairs, and only two months of phone support are included in the purchase price. If a HD500 breaks down at a live production site, shipping the switcher back for repair won't be an acceptable option.

Another concern is the quality and reliability of Livestream's switching software. NewTek has been making Tricasters since 2005; that gives them a lot of time to have worked out the bugs. By comparison, this is Livestream's first go at a broadcast-quality production switcher. It's inevitable that features will be missing or poorly implemented, and that there will be bugs in the software. Those issues will get worked out over time...but do you want to be the one who first runs into them during a live production? If I were in the market for a switcher, I'd probably let Livestream's software mature for 6 to 12 months before I'd buy.

The HD500 is a compelling all-in-one switcher--but there are an ever-increasing number of options for buyers. More than ever, it's important to clearly understand how you're going to use your switcher, how you're going to connect it to cameras, the rest of your video chain, and (for streaming) the Internet, and which streaming service (or services) you plan to use, before you buy.

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