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Assembling an Affordable Streaming Solution

No streaming solution will be 100% perfect or suited to all of your needs, and they're changing week by week as the streaming world grows and develops. But asking these questions should put you well on the way to picking the right streaming solution for you.

Stepping Up the Game

Once you get to around $1,000–$2,500, you can find very capable streaming appliances like the Matrox Monarch HDX/LCS (see Jan Ozer’s Monarch LCS review), AJA HELO, Teradek Cube, LiveU Solo, and others that enable not just one FullHD stream, but possibly two, to different destinations, and different settings. These devices also offer internal recording to flash media or over USB. These appliances offer the reliability of a dedicated piece of hardware—no apps to crash, no OS issues, and no updates that can cause conflicts.

At this price point, the decision is between capability and dedicated hardware. Do you want to use software on a laptop and third-party hardware to ingest the camera feeds, mix a shot, generate titles and graphics, and provide playback, streaming, and recording? Or do you want a dedicated piece of hardware that can be one-button simple? Whether it’s in a rack of gear, or mobile, one of these simplified compact streaming solutions can easily be deployed by someone who doesn’t have the video engineering or streaming knowledge a computer-based setup would require.

At around this same price point, Cerevo offers the LiveWedge, which is not just a single-stream device, but also a hardware video mixer with four inputs, an audio mixer, and the ability to record internally if it’s not streaming. This is a lot of functionality for a low-cost streaming appliance. But to really leverage the LiveWedge’s capabilities, you need to add a 7" tablet for better control and access to the copious audio adjustments, as I discussed in my review of the LiveWedge. Streaming is limited to 720p, however.

Over the Hurdle

When you get to the $5,000-plus mark, your capabilities expand dramatically. Arguably the best-known appliances at the $5,000–$12,000 level are in NewTek’s TriCaster line of dedicated, purpose-built machines and software. The TriCasters’ tight integration of video switching, playback, recording, graphics, effects, titling, and, of course, streaming represent the evolution of technology introduced in 1990. Popular systems in the NewTek line include HDMI and HD-SDI versions of the Mini ($7,995–$9,995; Figure 4, below) to the 24-channel 8000 ($34,995).

Figure 4. TriCaster Mini

The TriCaster is by no means alone in this space. Livestream makes fully built-out computer-based solutions such as the HD51, using the company’s Studio Software and an innovative control surface. Livestream’s offerings span the range from $5,000 to considerably more expensive. Livestream also sells the Studio software separately, making it available to PC-based users building DIY systems for switching, mixing, and streaming.

vMix offers another alternative with both software and fully finished hardware solutions to choose from, including the vMix GO portable live production system ($8,995–$10,995; Figure 5, below), which supports up to eight HD-SDI inputs and two outputs in the higher-end model. Like TriCaster, it offers titles, CGI, replay, and other live production features. Unlike Livestream, which also offers streaming service and provides hooks for its service in its hardware, neither NewTek nor vMix offers streaming services, so their software packages lack that extra little bit of integration to the streaming service. However, Livestream hardware and software can be used independently of the company’s streaming service as well.

Figure 5. vMix GO

Telestream has also recently entered the standalone streaming appliance fray with Wirecast Gear, a four-input portable workstation built around the company’s Wirecast Studio software mixing, streaming, and recording solution, with support for graphics and titling, instant replay, and more. Pricing ranges from $4,995 for the HDMI-only Gear 110 to $7,995 for the Gear 220, with 2TB of built-in storage.

There are also bridge devices, such as the Epiphan Pearl ($4,875–$10,875; see Figure 6, below), that offer entry-level solutions for just under $5,000 that lack the full-on studio capabilities of the TriCaster, but still offer the ability to mix multiple sources, while streaming and recording the program. These are useful in conference rooms and other locations where fewer cameras are needed, but the ability to switch between slides and one or two cameras on the presenter is required. A computer can be used to set the Pearl up to do multilayer picture-in-picture and other effects. However, the front-side interface of the Pearl offers an ease of use that makes it easy for those who aren’t tech-savvy to manage.

Figure 6. Epiphan Pearl

At this level of production, you are investing in a total solution package. Not only are you looking at a streaming appliance that switches, plays back and records video, and does effects, titles, and more, it also ties in to the manufacturers’ own apps for wireless camera sourcing, control surface/remote control capabilities, tally light and PTZ head interfacing, and a lot more. So, stepping back to look at the whole production setup is required when looking at these higher-end systems and determining if they’re worth the investment for your production needs.

Examine Your Needs and Goals

The most important first step when choosing a streaming solution is to examine your needs and your goals. Assess what you have that you can apply to your streaming needs. Then look at what tools can best fit where you would like to go. The choices can be bewildering. Talking to a local reseller can be very valuable if you are looking at a bigger system to install. Read reviews, and ask questions in online forums.

No solution will be 100% perfect or suited to all of your needs, and they’re changing week by week as the streaming world grows and develops. But asking these questions should put you well on the way to picking the right streaming solution for you.