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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.

Choosing Your Software

Beyond pure functionality, there are several other factors to consider when choosing a software package, including usability, and as touched on above, the ability to share tasks logically for larger productions. In terms of usability, TriCaster, and to a lesser degree, Livestream Studio, were patterned after the interfaces of hardware switchers that they replaced. This makes them simple to use for producers migrating from that environment, but unintuitive for those without that background.

In contrast, programs such as vMix and Wirecast were designed primarily for ease of use, and will be easier to learn for newbies than TriCaster and Studio. It’s not a night-and-day difference, however; anyone who can invest an hour or so can learn the basic functions of any of these programs. But for a church or school buying a system to be driven by multiple users with minimal training, vMix and Wirecast are probably better choices.

Beyond that, as mentioned above, more complicated productions might need multiple operators, perhaps one mixing, another creating titles and working on social media, and a third working on instant replays and the scoreboard. If these are the types of productions you’re targeting, be sure to check out how easily your candidate systems enables this type of shared operation.

Choosing a Hardware Vendor

If you’re buying a TriCaster, you can purchase it from a wide range of brick-and-mortar and online distributors, though the products are identical. With turnkey systems, the hardware is very different, and each vendor has a unique take. For example, Paladin specializes in producing small systems that operate very quietly so you can use them in a boardroom or similar environment (Figure 4, below). 1Beyond offers both rackmount and portable systems complemented with PTZ and other camera bundles, as well as control surfaces and tally lights. vMix Go comes in multiple configurations, all with 4K support right out of the box.

Figure 4. Paladin specializes in small, quiet systems. Click the image to see it at full size.

Whether you’re buying direct or through a dealer, find out what support is available and during what hours. If you’re broadcasting on nights and weekends, you need support at those times. If you’re a production newbie, find out what training services are offered and at what cost.

When comparing prices, be sure to identify all the components that you’ll need to make the system usable. For example, the vMix GO and 1 Beyond Stream Machines are lunchbox notebooks with keyboard and LCD screens that are ready to go right out of the box. In contrast, the Paladin systems, and TriCaster 410 require that you buy—and carry—LCD panels and keyboards. Control surfaces greatly simplify operation during the production, but can add thousands of dollars to the purchase price.

Before buying, try to see the candidate systems in operation, as close as possible to the configuration and inputs and outputs you’ll be using for your productions. Pay attention to details such as CPU utilization; if the system is consistently at 80% or higher, it could lead to instability or failure down the road. Finally, speak to a few users of the systems, and get their take on issues such as usability, stability, and support from the manufacturer or distributor.

One More Mixer in the Mix

While the Roland VR-50HD ($7,495) doesn’t technically meet our definition of streaming appliance, since it can’t directly connect to a streaming service, it’s close enough to warrant mention in this article. Briefly, the VR-50HD (Figure 5, below) is an audio/video mixer that can input the required 4 HD-SDI streams, as well as multiple other audio and video feeds. While it can’t connect directly to a live streaming service, it can output a stream via USB that any computer can input and transmit to a service, so if you have a computer around, the extra cost is negligible.

Figure 5. The easy-to-use Roland VR-50HD. Click the image to see it at full size.

Essentially, the VR-50HD looks like a webcam to the computer, which means you can easily use it as a video source for programs such as GoToWebinar, Onstream Webinars, TalkPoint Convey, and WebEx that are designed primarily for webcam input. Beyond this feature, the VR-50HD is likeable for its extreme portability and sheer usability.

Specifically, the unit comes with a touchscreen panel, so you don’t have to bring a separate monitor, and you can use the touchscreen to choose your inputs. Once the VR-50-HD is configured, you can train a new user to mix a simple event with it in less than 2 minutes.