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Commentary: NewTek TriCaster 40 Software v2 "Mission-Critical" Update Comes at a Price

Launch of new features for NewTek's entry-level video mixing product leads to price increase.

Last week, NewTek announced it would soon be releasing version 2 of the software for its TriCaster 40 (TC 40). Along with the software update, NewTek also announced a price increase, pushing the analog-only video mixer from $4,995 to $5,995 for new purchases.

What follows in this article is not a review, or even a feature list--this information can be found in NewTek’s press release--but a commentary on NewTek's approach to a market it once dominated.

We don't object to the fact that NewTek has raised the price for new TC 40 customers--although it seems like a bit of sleight of hand since they are only adding back in features that were stripped from previous TriCasters to create the original TC40 as an “entry-level” unit--but we do find it disingenuous to charge existing TC 40 customers for the update.

The $995 upgrade cost for the TC 40 v2 software is more akin to upgrading to a computer program to a new software version than it is to updating an appliance's firmware, and therein lies the heart of the problem.

Is the Tricaster an Appliance or a Computer?

NewTek's public relations team pushes back hard whenever a journalist refers to the TriCaster as a computer, despite the fact that it runs on Windows 7 (or XP, depending on your version) and takes an inordinate amount of time to reboot (as most computers do).

The company prefers that the TriCaster be referred to as an appliance, but appliances often receive firmware updates that increase their functionality or solve limitations without charging for that functionality.

We've seen this problem numerous times in the industry, when a company skirts the computer/appliance product line, but seldom have we seen an already-purchased appliance generate an additional cost.

One classic example is the Videonics FireStore, a hardware device sold by Focus Enhancements that allowed DV video to be recorded to a hard drive in a "direct to edit" on-the-fly format conversion for immediate use on a specified preferred nonlinear editor. Whenever the early FireStores needed to have a software update, the unit would be shipped back to Focus Enhancements for an update. Yet the company never charged for the EEPROM updates since it was an appliance.

A more recent example is Pro Tools audio appliances: From the early Digidesign to the more recent Avid-badged Pro Tools hardware, there's yet to be a charge for functionality updates.

Why Is NewTek Increasing the Price of the TC 40?

After the announcement of version 2 of the software, we asked about the price increase, with this specific question: “Why is the price increasing, and how does this square with the intent to keep pricing affordable for those who were disenfranchised when the older, less expensive SD units were supplanted by much-higher prices HD ones?”

NewTek gave a very long answer in writing, attributed to Philip Nelson, senior vice president of Artist and Media Relations. Much of it is a rehash of features, as if listing out the upgrade features somehow justifies the price increase—and not fully answering the question about disenfranchisement.

The essence of the page-long response boiled down to this line: "The price of the TC 40 is increasing because we've added new functions and features that increase the value," said Nelson, adding that the TC 40 is "still priced considerably lower than all but one of our older SD units (only the original TriCaster was priced lower)."

Let's follow the logic so far: An appliance is upgraded only by software, to add functionality, but the purchase of said software—if looked at as a version upgrade which one would load on a computer—justifies charging for both the software upgrade from version 1 to version 2. As well as for any future purchases of the TC 40.

The company then noted that the value of the capabilities justify a price increase.

"The value of the capabilities in the upgrade version alone would add up to more than the entire cost of the TriCaster system if customers sought to purchase similar capabilities separately for a different system," Nelson said.

This is certainly true, but the logic is still circular, given the fact that NewTek chose to strip many of the functions out of the existing TriCasters to create the TC 40, touting the sub-$5,000 price when it launched TC 40.

What About The Waveform?

An example of how far they'd cut was evident in our review of the TC 40 a few months ago. We pointed to an article by Allan Tépper that mentioned NewTek had chosen to strip the waveform and vectorscope from the TriCaster 40. The premise at the time--that no one needed these scopes--was curious as they are highly valuable for analog-only gear, much more so than for serial digital interface (SDI)-equipped devices.

We followed up with NewTek on this point in our recent email exchange, after a more recent article by Tépper noted that he is "delighted to report that I have just received written confirmation of NewTek’s commitment to add this feature to the sub-US$5k model sometime in 2013."

"Frequent readers will know that I consider a waveform monitor to be an essential tool to facilitate camera matching," Tépper wrote, "first with the camera’s own adjustments (preferably via a CCU or mini CCU) and later (if required) with the video mixer’s own proc amps (if available)."

We asked NewTek if Tépper was referring to another sub $5k model, and Nelson's response was that Tépper was "referring to TriCaster40 with the version 2 upgrade," adding that "he was unaware of the price increase at that time."

That leads us to believe that NewTek chose to raise the price at a fairly recent juncture, as Tépper's initial article had pointed out just how far NewTek had cut functionality.

"The preview scopes monitor can calibrate source levels with built-in Waveform and Vectorscope display," said Nelson. "Users can maintain optimal visual quality and signal compliance with TriCaster 40’s built-in scopes. The Waveform Monitor and Vectorscope provide industry-standard reference for correcting and synchronizing the black, white and color levels for your live video sources.”

What's interesting is that NewTek now calls the scopes "mission-critical compliance for broadcast" in our email exchange. That's a no brainer that Tépper had pointed out months ago, yet NewTek is now charging existing for this "mission-critical" feature.

This TriCaster is not for you if you are...

In addition, NewTek's sales melody is pitched to a slightly different tune.

"TriCaster 40 is meant not for pros who can afford an SDI infrastructure but just want a cheap HD switcher," Nelson said, "but rather for people with more basic gear who are seeking to build an entire live production capability with professional results."

More basic gear means analog-only, a point we mentioned in the initial review of the TC 40 in January.

"The TC 40 comes as a pleasant surprise," we wrote, "as long as you’re not looking to hook up any Serial Digital Interface (SDI) or HD-SDI cameras to the unit.”

A NewTek representative took issue with the statement, stating that "while this is not factually incorrect, our intention was to design TriCaster 40 users that would most probably not be using SDI cameras for budgetary reasons. HDMI is not an option because of cabling, etc. In our view, this was neither a random decision nor a 'cut corner.'"

The idea of an SDI infrastructure being more costly than an analog infrastructure is curious, because the "analog sunset" that prohibits manufacture of certain analog-only devices means that most cameras now come with either SDI or HDMI outputs. In addition, many pieces of gear are now hybrid, using one BNC for either SDI or composite analog video.

Conclusion

We will wait to get a fuller answer about what this means to users looking for more versatility at TriCaster’s old, pre-HD price points, and we'll touch on the topic of other equally capable, software-based solutions (that also piggyback on a Windows computer) in a future article, but the bottom line is we're disappointed to see NewTek charging customers an extra $1,000 for features it chose to strip out of previous versions.

To our knowledge, no appliance manufacturer has taken the approach that NewTek is taking: charging customers for "mission-critical" add-backs into previously purchased systems.

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