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Review: NewTek TriCaster Pro

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What’s New In the TriCaster Pro
The TriCaster Pro is a streaming box that uses Windows Media encoders, as do many other streaming video appliances. Yet its core strength lies in its ability to create a complete live video production environment—a studio in a box that combines ease of use with professional-level video and audio mixing, keying, and titling.

In some ways, though, the Windows Media encoder in our test unit really does a disservice to the TriCaster Pro’s abilities. When the live, full-resolution program output is compared side-by-side with the Windows Media encode, you can’t help but wish that TriCaster Pro had the option of outputting other low-bandwidth, high-quality codecs such as RealVideo 10, On2 VP6 (Flash 8), and H.264 (or even MPEG-4 ISMA).

TriCaster Pro uses a small form factor (a Shuttle PC with mini-ITX motherboard) with a keyboard and mouse for commands. An optional USB-powered external human user interface (HUI), dubbed the TriCaster VM switching surface, can be used to interact with the TriCaster Pro. The HUI is essentially a video switcher that mimics many of the on-screen commands, complete with a very solid-feeling T-bar. For professionals comfortable with a traditional switching surface, the HUI will be beneficial, but most users will probably stick with keyboard shortcuts and on-screen mouse clicks.

Mix, Record, Stream, Present
For those events where clients might ask for a local recording as well as a stream, the TriCaster Pro has enough storage to record a little more than ten hours of full 601-compliant AVI material. And the disk-based recording can be turned off and on without affecting the streaming output. Even when we ran out of disk space on the test unit partway through a concert (after several weeks of recording three-hour events), the streaming continued without a glitch.

In addition to its strong video mixing, the TriCaster Pro has a multichannel audio mixer built in. While the HUI doesn’t come with sliders, it does come with knobs ("pots" in audio lingo) that can be used fairly effectively to mix sounds between microphones, line-level signals, and internal audio.

TriCaster Pro also has the ability to prerecord content, cue it up, and then launch it as part of the live production. This works with both AVI files and still images, with the latter played back for a set period that the user can define with a mouse click or flick of a knob on the HUI.

For our tests, which included a series of concerts over several weeks, we used this feature to preload several sponsor and title JPEGs, then rotate through each in five-second intervals prior to the actual concert. Just prior to the opening act, we also displayed a pre-produced digital video file to open the event. TriCaster Pro handles both of these in a very straightforward way—"load" the content into the on-board digital VCR (an on-screen option that has standard device control buttons to cue up the content), and then choose the content when ready for playback during the event. Once the VCR is selected in the switcher, it begins to play content and will play it either all the way through to the end or until another switcher input is chosen.

Pros and Cons of the TriCaster Pro
The two main areas where the TriCaster Pro is lacking are media management and RGBHV content capture. For media management, the interface is cumbersome and required shutting down the TriCaster Pro and moving into the Windows interface to properly situate content so that it would all be in two primary locations. Power users may find this frustrating at times, especially if they have a significant number of still-image or video files they want to pre-populate in the proper media folders.

For RGBHV, the TriCaster Pro adds to the capabilities of the original TriCaster with XGA, SXGA, and WXGA inputs. However, it chooses to scale down these inputs to NTSC or PAL resolutions and stream this scaled-down content via Windows Media rather than using a frame grabber to capture high-resolution stills several times per second and send them out of band, as other all-in-one products do. This resolution reduction is significant, since the RGBHV content is subjected to a double degradation—once in the downscaler and once in the encoder. On the flip side, while the quality of these scaled-down XGA and WSXGA signals won’t replace a high-quality computer graphics display or projector, the ability to show everything on one screen could prove handy in situations where only one display device is available.

In conclusion, NewTek’s TriCaster Pro builds on the solid base of the initial TriCaster but adds features that make it worthy of use in a professional environment. The $6,995 price point positions the product well below the price of other all-in-one products currently on the market, most of which have been created by streaming-centric companies. Given NewTek’s background in video, audio, and RGBHV, the TriCaster product line—with a few tweaks—could rival and outdo products of many times its cost.

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