Buyer's Guide to Live Webcasting Hardware

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While there are a number of software-based webcasting tools, including several covered by Jan Ozer live streaming platforms buyers' guide, there are those occasions when a physical, tactile device for controlling a live stream comes in handy. 

This article will cover several form factors of portable webcast hardware, ranging from single-button hardware all the way up to portable vision mixers. Note that the listing of products is meant to be representative, not exhaustive; if your company has a product that should be considered with those listed, please add it as a comment below. 

One Button to Stream Them All

In instances in which there's one video input and the stream is fairly straightforward, the best approach to webcasting hardware is fewer buttons. This means that some pre-production setup is required before going live, unless the same URL and metadata are used for each and every live stream.

The smallest of the single-button devices that also houses a video input is the Magewell Ultra Stream. The device comes in two versions: Ultra Stream HDMI and Ultra Stream SDI, and both have a single green button to start the stream and a red button to stop it. Other than that, the rest of the unit comprises power and audio-video inputs.

Magewell Ultra Stream

The HDMI version has a loop-through HDMI signal, so there are two HDMI connectors. The input side captures HDMI and any audio embedded in the HDMI signal and can extract the embedded audio to a headphone jack for monitoring. On the video side, besides the loop-through HDMI signal for monitoring, the Ultra Stream is capable of capturing 4K 60 fps progressive video (4:2:0), which means it can be used, according to the company, to "capture from the newest game consoles such as PS4 Pro and XBOX One S, and automatically downscales to 2K for recording or streaming." That downscaling is due to the same Magewell video engine found in its higher-end encoder and USB capture devices. 

There's also an onboard chip to record content, as well as a web interface to configure various settings. All in all, this type of device is good for repeatable webcasts in which the operator doesn't have to think beyond starting and stopping the event with a single button.

A Few More Inputs, a Few More Buttons

At CES 2020, Roland announced a thin, paperback book-sized device that it calls Go:Livecast. One of our intrepid contributing editors is planning a review of the product, testing it against live webcast workflows, but it appears to fill a middle ground in both size and feature sets when it comes to multiple video inputs.

Roland Go:Livecast

Go:Livecast, which Roland refers to as a "live­streaming studio for smartphones" that combines hardware and software, has a panel of buttons laid out somewhat like the old Radio Shack solar calculator you might have had as an elementary school student. One button controls the live-stream start and stop, while the others are dedicated to a variety of audio and video needs. Some mute or modify the audio input, and others launch music cues or prerecorded video clips. The unit also has a built-in microphone and two potentiometers ("pots") to adjust line input audio and microphone audio, respectively. 

Curiously, for a device that has audio controls, as well as a Neutrik combination 1/4" and XLR audio connector with user-selectable 48v phantom power, there's no discrete monitoring of individual audio inputs at the source and no basic LED meter to confirm that audio is making it into the device. Any form of monitoring requires that a smartphone be plugged into the device, with the smartphone doing quadruple duty: acting as the video input, the audio mixer and monitor, the streaming output device, and a chat or commenting tool. And, as the company notes, "if you're using an Android smartphone, first use the smartphone's volume buttons to adjust the volume, and then adjust the headphone knob" on the Go:Livecast hardware.

However, since the software app on the smartphone is upgradeable, it should make one-button encoding for popular live-stream platforms easy to launch. According to Roland, the app "logs in to your accounts on Facebook Live, Twitch, YouTube, and other major streaming services."

And from a portability standpoint, the company says that the 5v micro USB connector allows flexibility. "When using the unit outdoors, you can supply power from a mobile battery (sold separately) instead of an AC outlet," says Roland's documentation.

Finally, for those who want to use a second camera input, the software application allows one additional smartphone to be linked to the primary smartphone as a "satellite camera," provided that a) the app is installed on both smartphones and b) both smartphones are on the same Wi-Fi network.

On-Camera Video Mixers

While devices like the Ultra Stream and Go:Livecast are designed to sit on a flat surface alongside the camera, there are a few hardware setups that are portable enough that they mount on the camera being used. The devices use the hot-shoe slot, which can be found atop most digital single lens reflex (DSLR) cameras or even on the top of all but the most basic video cameras.

Many of these on-camera devices have quite basic functionality, processing a single stream from the camera. Essentially, these hardware units replace software-based streams from an Android or iOS device with a smallish box that doesn't contain a screen but may contain a Neutrik TRS-XLR combo connector for audio as well as a video input. A few of them also contain integrated cellular or Wi-Fi radios, so that the broadcast can be live streamed via one of several paths without requiring an Ethernet cable tethered to the camera.

A new breed of products has emerged in the last year, though, that offer a combination of the functionality of hardware with the flexibility of software. Moving beyond the hot-shoe-mounted single-stream devices, this new class of devices strongly blurs the line between raw streaming and multi-input streams mixed together at the source. 

VidiMo Go, a new hardware streaming product from StreamGear, is one such device. Combined with the VidiMo Show software, it forms an interesting mix of, well, vision mixing of multiple audio and video sources.

StreamGear morphed out of Gerard Virga's Power­Stream and StreamDynamics companies. Virga is joined at StreamGear by Darryl Spangler, whose other company is a market representative and distributor for products like the Magewell Ultra Stream. Vidi­Mo Go was announced in 2019, but it wasn't shipping until January 2020, after StreamGear showed it off at CES 2020 in Las Vegas. 

On the surface, VidiMo Go looks like a fancy clamp to attach a smartphone—in this case, an Android phone, although Virga said during an interview at CES 2020 that an iOS version of the control software is coming—to the top of a DSLR or video camera. While it does act as a smartphone clamp, securing the phone horizontally above the camera—in much the same way as the inexpensive JOBY Sure Grip that we previously reviewed—the VidiMo Go is both sturdier and so much more than a clamp. Its ingenious design, in fact, was selected by the Industrial Designers Society of America as a finalist in the 2019 International Design Excellence Awards (IDEA).

Inside the metal bracket is a user-changeable battery, which can be charged via a USB-C connector on the VidiMo Go, and there's a second USB-C that is used to connect to an Android phone. In addition, there are two 1/8" (3.5mm) connectors, one for microphone or line input and the other for a tethered remote, which is good for those who might mount the DSLR or video camera on a tripod. 

While we've not reviewed the VidiMo Go hardware, it appears there's no audio monitoring on the hardware, meaning that the smartphone will have to pull triple duty as audio monitor, video mixer, and streaming device. A final input connector is a micro HDMI. This is the same form factor as most DSLR cameras equipped with HDMI output, which is slightly smaller than the USB-C connectors.

On the video mixing front, the VidiMo Show application allows users to switch among six fully customizable scene layouts. Those layouts can mix both the HDMI input and the smartphone's camera, as well as lower-third graphics (titles and crawls) or text or prerecorded video clips. 

"When it's time to go live," according to StreamGear, "the show can be recorded onto the smartphone and streamed live to a private server or popular third-party services," including YouTube, Facebook, and Twitch.

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