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Choosing a Streaming Appliance

So, you've decided to buy a streaming appliance for live event production. In this article, we'll start with a high-level history of the live streaming appliance market, then identify the factors you should consider when making your buying decision.

So, you’ve decided to buy a streaming appliance for live event production. Your must-have features include at least four HD-SDI inputs, plus other network inputs, live streaming to one or more services, ISO recording, and basic production features such as switching, titling, transitions, social media integration and the like. Your budget for the appliance itself is $10,000, and you’re wondering what your options are.

As with all things streaming, there’s never been a better time to choose a streaming appliance, and your legitimate choices are much more extensive than they were even 2 or 3 years ago. Of course, with freedom of choice comes confusion. No worries, though; we’re here to help. In this article, we’ll start with a high-level history of the live streaming appliance market, then identify the factors you should consider when making your buying decision.

What’s Past is Prologue

Ten years ago, the obvious choice for a live streaming appliance was whichever TriCaster you could afford. NewTek largely founded this market and still has the lion’s share, particularly at the high end. Early on, NewTek achieved its well-deserved success largely because its competition on the assemble-it-yourself side consisted of underpowered computers and an immature market for peripherals such as capture cards and video mixing software. The only way to create a production-quality live streaming appliance was to build it from scratch, and at that time, even the early TriCasters needed a separate box for streaming encoding.

Since then, companies such as AJA, Blackmagic Design, Magewell, and Matrox have produced an extensive range of production-ready capture cards supporting various inputs and input densities. Software applications such as Livestream Studio, Telestream Wirecast, and vMix have matured from hobbyist-level programs to well-featured, high-performance video mixers. When combined with a competent CPU and graphics cards, a turnkey system built around these components can provide TriCaster-level performance and stability, often at a significant savings.

Build vs. Buy

So which approach is best? We’ll get there, but let’s take care of one issue first: build vs. buy. If you decide to go the turnkey route, one irresistible step is to price out the bill of materials to identify the price premium, if any, charged by the manufacturer. Given that you’re about to spend $10,000, it’s only responsible to do this math, and certainly more producers build than buy.

That said, duplicating a turnkey system is harder said than done. Most of the prefabricated turnkey options available incorporate some custom hardware and/or custom drivers or other software that might not be generally available. Sometimes, selecting a single off-brand component, such as a hard drive or RAM type, can affect both performance and stability. The value proposition of a turnkey system is clear: You get a proven, production-ready system with one number to call should any problems arise. Remember that there is little room for error in live productions.

Surveying the Field

Let’s start with an overview of the field. At one end is the TriCaster line, with the 4 HD-SDI input 410 model just under the $10,000 price ceiling (Figure 1, below). Like all TriCaster models, the 410 includes NewTek software in a custom enclosure using custom capture hardware. Under the hood, though, the TriCaster runs Windows, driven by an industry-standard Intel CPU.

Figure 1. The TriCaster 410, accessorized with monitors and control surface. Click the image to see it at full size.

At the other end of the spectrum are totally turnkey boxes from companies such as 1Beyond and Paladin that combine industry standard hardware and third-party software, whether it’s Wirecast, vMix Go, or Livestream Studio. The enclosures may be custom, but the computer components, capture cards, and software are all generally available. Each vendor has multiple products that meet our pricing targets, most notably the Paladin Quad Pro-SDI, which uses Blackmagic capture cards, and starts at $6,995, and the 1Beyond Stream Machine Portable (Figure 2, below), which uses a Matrox card.

Figure 2. The 1Beyond Stream Machine all-in-one streaming appliance

In the middle are multiple products from Livestream and vMix that combine industry standard hardware and each company’s proprietary software. For example, the Livestream HD51 ($6,999) includes 4 HD-SDI inputs plus Livestream Studio, using Blackmagic Design capture hardware. The vMix GO portable live production studio starts at $9,995 for the HD-SDI model, which uses capture hardware from AJA (Figure 3, below).

Figure 3. The vMix Go all-in-one video mixer

All three approaches have their virtues. NewTek claims that it set the pace of the initial innovation, and never let up, and that its unique approach marries the capture hardware and mixing software for performance, stability, and high-end features that companies working with industry-standard hardware and third-party software can’t match. On the other hand, NewTek vehemently warns against adding third-party software to its systems, so you can’t use your live streaming station to edit video once the event is over.

Livestream and vMix control their proprietary software, so they can be more responsive to bugs or customer requests than 1Beyond or Paladin, whose customer service staff has to work through Telestream, Livestream, or vMix to get similar issues resolved. None of the providers of third-party mixing packages advise against loading other programs, so you should be able to use your switcher for other functions, such as video editing and encoding.

Again, which approach is right for you? Applying the 80/20 rule, 80% of live event producers will use roughly 20% of system features. For these producers, from a features’ perspective, any system will do, and the analysis comes down to subjective usability factors and price.

Users in the minority 20% who are pushing the features envelope may find that some systems don’t meet their feature-related requirements. Of course, you don’t know which category you’re in until you inventory the features that you actually require, so every potential buyer should start there.