Video is rapidly becoming a vitally important way in which business presents itself to the outside world. Fixed or multi-camera setups are becoming viable as equipment costs fall. The one area that is still running at nosebleed territory though is live video streaming.
Right now there are two main choices: Newtek's Tricaster range of devices that start at around $10,000 for anything half decent or you could consider renting LiveU equipment. The mid range Tricasters offer tremendous flexibility but they're not really portable. The LiveU equipment looks like it could be a winner but last time I checked, the kit rents at $2,500 a month. Unless you are going to shoot a lot of video in a short space of time then you have to consider the cost/benefit of using the LiveU setup.
Earlier in the year, Livestream announced Livestream Broadcaster. On its face, the $495 unit which includes ad-free live streaming for three months that would otherwise cost $45 per month, looks very attractive. The question is, would it meet the needs of SMEs in this space? Maybe.
Regular readers will know that I have a video presence with my partner Jon Reed over at JD-OD.com. Over the last year we've invested in a lot of kit. One of the things I was interested in trying out is the Livestream Broadcaster. The unit finally arrived today after a month long delay, partly because FedEx screwed up notification of customs clearance requirements and forgot to tell me about the taxes and duty I'd also have to pay.
From what I can gather, I received one of the first off the line units so treat this as a V1.0 review. I really want to like this product but therre are too many 'gotchas' for me to go overboard with praise.
What's in the box?
- Livestream Broadcaster unit
- 12" HDMI to mini HDMI cable
- 12" ethernet cable (useless)
- 3 AA batteries (but watch for the power requirements which are 3x1.5V and not the more common 1.2V AA type)
- 12V DC power adapter with a full complement of international plug attachments (nice)
- Camera shoe mount
- Quick start guide (almost useless)
- It does what it claims on the tin. That is, it prodices a live video stream out to the internet without your requiring a connection to a computer. Whether you get the advertised HD quality depends on factors I set out below.
- It is portable, but it won't fit well with certain camera configurations. Again, I'll explain why.
- The unit will auto detect the manner in which you are connecting i.e. ethernet, wireless or 3g/4G
- Good audio connection options (HDMI, Line in, none (why?), mon or stereo.
- Including a 12" ethernet cable is useless. How is anyone supposed to connect that to a router and still use the unit?
- Insisting upon 4.5V of power means I have to carefully shop for batteries. That's not an issue with other equipment.
- Speaking of battery life, the unit I received included batteries that were 75% drained before starting. I'm not sure what battery life is likely to be but after running about an hour of tests, I was out of juice.
- The quick start guide assumes that you'll be able to work out how the onscreen menu works. It is not as intuitive as some people think and at times, the selection buttons develop a mind of their own with the cursor dancing across the screen unconctrollably.
- There is no obvious online help/FAQ. The only way to contact Livestream is via an onscreen form. Past experience tells me that you can forget getting any response within 24 hours. Of course I might have been unlucky.
- The unit refused to accept my wireless access password, forcing me to remove all security from the iwreless network in order to make it work. I am sure part of this is because of the vagaries of the buttons used to make menu selections rather than my fat fingers. I spent a good hour messing around before giving up and opening up the network to get doing. It was either that or toss the unit in the bin and licking my wallet's wounds.
There is no auto quality setting. You have to manually set the tramsmission speed. Why does this matter? Network connections fluctuate. This is especially true with wifi settings that can leap and collapse in the space of a few inches of movement. In an ideal world, this unit would detect the network connection and optimise for what it initially finds and then auto dial down when the signal becomes weaker. Instead, if the signal falls, then you either see a lot of pixelation in the final recording or the video signal freezes altogether. Audio continies to work. This can be partially compensated if you have top quality audio but that misses the point. In today's world, people want good video AND audio.
The unit is designed to fit into the hot/cold shoe of your video camera via an offset mount. The problem is that in some configurations i.e. on a Canon XA-10 with the mic holder in place, you can only mount it sideways. As it turns out, this is good because you can at least see the unit's screen and so know if you are getting the kind of signal you expect. The alternative is to fit the unit to a bracket that raises the unit above the level of the camera's mic holder. If you don't have this configuration then I recommend fitting the unit with the screen facing the operator. That way you can monitor what's going on with the signal. From my limited tests, that's essential.
The real question is whether Livestream Broadcaster is a truly portable solution. I've mentioned configuration issues above. They can be overcome but then you will need to do some cable management if you turn the device so that the screen is facing the operator. More important - can it truly be used without a computer? Yes it can but you'll almost never do that. While the device is billed as portable, wireless latency means you have to montor what Livestream is seeing as well as what the device is seeing. Forget getting in front of the camera unless you want to use it as a toy and hoipe for the best.
Other reported issues
Last month, Geeknews undertook a review and said:
The device detected the Sprint wireless card but refused to ever connect to Sprint.
Every time you turn the device off, it does not save the password you entered for your WiFi network? Thus requiring you to manually enter it each time. This is a total fail and they will need to fix this.
Minus the tech issues, this is nearly a perfect solution with “one” huge exception it really drives me crazy in the way that Livestream forces you to create an event before live streaming. You cannot just have a page on Livestream that you can easily send people to. The broadcaster account forces you to send folks to the Livestream site to a unique page with a new URL, for each live event. To me that is really is a deal killer.
So much for not needing a computer then?
An unoffocial CNN video ireport mentions some of the issues I have outlined. They talk about the situation where you need to run long lines from a DSL router to the device.
How best can this unit be used?
If you can get a great wireless connection then I can see this as a viable option for SMEs. If not then you have to connect via ethernet and even then you will be captive to the best speed your network can provide. That kind of destroys the purpose of the device. However, on the plus side, Livestream Broadcaster does overcome the problem many people have in connecting non-firewire cameras to the internet for live streaming use.
Will it succeed?
As a business tool I'd be hard pressed to recommend Livestream Broadcaster. I'm going to give it a shot at my next location gig but only if I can get a fast ethernet connection. Connecting at 192Kbps (mobile speed) wont provide the quality I need. Check this test video to see what I mean.
As a toy for consumer use? I can see how Livestream will get some traction with this unit but they have to make a number of imprtant changes to both the hardware specification and the software. In the meantime, I supect that most consumers will be disappointed, partly through a lack of understanding about the vagaries of wifi but also because Livestream Broadcaster could have been so much more than what it is today. But then that's the bumps you take as an ealry adopter and the lumps you take as an innovator.