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Review: Inlet Technologies Semaphore Pro 2

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Semaphore is a positive first step in allowing an average user to accurately assess the quality issues that file-based broadcasting creates. As a standalone product, Semaphore allows for consistent quality control in the field; coupled with FathomPro, Semaphore creates a much more compelling scenario for enhancing mid-sized and large broadcasters’ workflows.

Semaphore Pro 2
Inlet Technologies

Price: $4,499 ($1,499 without SDI output; $999 for VC-1- or AVC-only versions)

System Requirements
—2.8GHz Pentium 4 (3.2GHz recommended)
—1GB RAM (2GB recommended)
—Windows XP SP2, Windows Media Player 10, .Net 1.1. runtime, and DirectX 9.0b or later
—50MB of hard drive
—USB 1.1 or higher port for license key
—32MB graphics adapter (128MB PCIe or AGP DirectX9-compatible recommended)
—Semaphore Pro requires available PCIe slot for SDI output

Digital video broadcasting, whether via IP or over the airwaves, has many benefits over traditional analog transmission. While the move to digital transmission in the U.S. broadcast market is well underway—thanks in part to a congressional mandate— there are those who have been reluctant to move away from tape-based broadcasting and toward file-based broadcasting. While new systems, such as IPTV, are free of legacy constraints, most traditional broadcasters have made the move from analog to digital but are still acquiring, editing, and transmitting via tape.

Over the years, traditional broadcasters have employed a variety of tools to assess the quality of the content they intend to broadcast. A lack of these tools constitutes one of the primary barriers to the move to file-based or tapeless transmission. Some of these tools monitor the physical medium, looking for tape dropouts that might cause a glitch in the broadcast. Others assess the content itself, looking for anomalies in color, audio distortion, or graphics, and titles positioned outside the "broadcast safe" area of the screen. While there have been great strides in the ability of tapeless acquisition and broadcasting to deliver a consistent broadcast experience, the absence of proper quality-analysis tools has created a bottleneck. Broadcasters are often obliged to hire a full-time employee whose job is to watch each video prior to broadcasting in order to verify that content has been encoded properly and that it passes that employee’s subjective quality test. And while the same rigorous quality-control efforts aren’t always applied to video delivered over the internet, they should be.

Inlet Technologies is a firm founded by Neal Page, an industry veteran who introduced the Osprey encoding card and headed up that product line at ViewCast. Inlet has taken a sizable step toward replicating traditional quality-analysis tools for the new era of tapeless broadcasting. Other companies, such as PixelTools and the venerable Tektronix, led the way with earlier video quality-analysis tools. But Inlet’s HD-capable Semaphore Pro product provides a cost-effective and more intuitive method of file-based quality control, in addition to providing analysis of the three primary HD formats used in both Blu-ray and HD DVD disc specifications: MPEG-2, VC-1 (the SMPTE-standard version of Windows Media 9), and AVC/H.264 (MPEG-4).

That versatility comes at a price, of course. The full Semaphore Pro package, including SDI output, lists for $4,499; it’s $1,499 without the SDI output. You can also purchase a VC-1-only or AVC-only version for $999 each.

Testing Configurations and Setup
We tested Semaphore Pro in two configurations: a laptop and a pre-configured desktop. While Semaphore will run as a standalone software-only product on a laptop or desktop, that configuration does not take advantage of the added features that a combination of Semaphore and Inlet’s Fathom Pro encoding cards provide. As of late September, Fathom Pro 2.5, combined with a standard-definition encoding card, was on the market. We were also able to assess a prerelease version of Fathom 2.8 with a high-definition encoding card, though the final version was not yet ready for review. (A review of the high-definition encoder will be available on StreamingMedia.com by mid-November.)

Setup on the laptop took only a few minutes; to meet the minimum requirements, we used a laptop with a 2.8GHz Pentium 4 processor. Once the software is loaded, Semaphore requires a USB license key. Be careful in mobile settings: Without the key, Semaphore will not work. We performed a few basic tests in the laptop configuration, including an assessment for dropped frames, which analyzes the video file for any areas where the encoding process might have caused a frame to be dropped. We also set up Alert Conditions, a set of user-defined business rules that allow Semaphore to look for and report only those quality issues with which the end user is concerned.

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