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Review: Digital Rapids StreamZ

A few years ago, pundits were claiming that the move to digital acquisition and distribution would end the format wars. Turns out they were partly right: what was considered a war between VHS, Beta, S-VHS, 8mm, Hi-8, BetaSP, etc. ended less than two years after affordable digital acquisition formats like DV and DVCAM hit the scene. Problem was, that format war was just a practice exercise for the real format war, which is very much upon us today. On last count, we’re up to about 50 viable codecs and variations of codecs, and the number is still growing.

Last issue I reviewed Autodesk’s Cleaner, a software-only product that does an adequate job of transcoding content. This month, though, we kick it up a notch to a hardware-software combination that provides real-time encoding, remarkably fast transcoding, and a host of other features.

The Digital Rapids StreamZ series of network video encoding solutions consists of a Digital Rapids single- or dual-channel encoding card, a 3RU chassis with 8 hot-swappable bays, dual 3.6GHz Xeon processors, and either a breakout cable or an optional breakout box. For this review, we decided to forego the analog encoding cards, and review a dual-channel digital and analog card, the StreamZ-2500. We also took a sneak peek at the StreamZHD, in the same configuration as the StreamZ-2500 but with SD-SDI and HD-SDI inputs. Even though it’s not a "standard" configuration (see the product information at the beginning of this article), it gave us a chance to experiment with the best of both worlds, so to speak.

Codecs and Formats
The StreamZ solution, which includes Digital Rapids’ Stream Enterprise software, is capable of handling many different codecs and formats, thanks to the company’s agreements with major codec vendors. The system works in real time with WindowsMedia, QuickTime, Helix-based codecs, MainConcept MPEG-2, Sorenson, DivX, and Flash. Digital Rapids has also shown a willingness to integrate new codecs as they reach maturity; future plans also call for real-time H.264 encoding and transcoding.

Form Factor
The StreamZ box we tested was designed for rack mounting in a standard server rack, but Digital Rapids also makes a expansion chassis version as well, known as StreamZ-P (the P is for portable), that plugs into a laptop’s PCMCIA slot. While it’s only available for standard definition and is limited by the laptop’s processor, it provides a portable solution for those who need it. Some production companies are now equipping mobile productions trucks with Digital Rapids’ solutions. Be forewarned, though–as with any standard dual Xeon server with redundant power supplies, this beast produces significant noise.

Setup
On our review system, set up was straightforward, even with a unit that had both the standard-definition DRC-2500 card and the high-definition DRC-5000 card. The system booted up immediately, and we were able to begin a transcoding session. We were also able to position the breakout box in a location about 2 meters away; it is possible to position the breakout box longer than 2 meters away, using a 50-pin SCSI-2 cable, but Digital Rapids doesn’t support that configuration and it could lead to anomalies in the HD-SDI signals.

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