Saturday, September 8, 2012

Cutting the Cord - HD Wireless Comparison

As a Steadicam operator, the ability to be disconnected from everything else and operate freely is crucial. The minute you become constrained by cables feeding a monitor you add one more element to trip you up, slow you down, or distract you from mastering a perfect shot. With that said, having a reliable wireless video solution is very important. For the first few years operating I was constrained by budget to only use SD systems on set, namely the Modulus 3000. This system gets the job done for framing purposes, but many Directors and DPs today want to see their picture in stunning full HD. So finally I made the jump and decided to pickup a new HD wireless system. The question became which one.

In the past I have had the luxury of working with the IDX Cam-Wave, an uncompressed SDI unit that simply mounts onto a standard V-mount plate. This system has always carried a high price tag around $5,000. Lucky for me BHPhoto has been carrying the unit for around $3,500 as a special offer; however, I decided to look and see what else was available. I started by reading reviews on the Teradek Cubes, but negative reviews from other Steadicam Operators turned me off, not to mention the price for both a transmitter and receiver was north of $3,000.

I then stumbled upon a new system I had not heard about before, the Switchtronix Recon Ultra. The system, which lists for around $3,000, offers many of the same form factors and features as the IDX system. Curious about this unit, I went to Google for reviews, and surprisingly enough found very little information, only one video test and a short written review from another operator. The specs all seemed good on paper, but could it hold up against the Cam-Wave?

So there I was, needing to make a decision without enough facts to back it up. So what did I do? I bought them both and put them head to head in a real-world battery of tests. And after three-and-a-half paragraphs of back story, here are my findings.

Form Factor:
This part was simple. The IDX Cam-Wave beats the Recon hands down with its more compact and more robust construction. In the picture to the right you can see the Recon on the left, standing taller and thicker than the Cam-Wave. The Recon also felt cheaper and more likely to break. Additionally, the Recon's Receiver unit boasts 4 large external antennas that protrude from the top. My first thought looking at the Recon receiver was that these things will get broken off the first day.

Recon Ultra Receiver

Here things are reversed. The Recon definitely beats the Cam-Wave by adding the HDMI ports to both transmitter and receiver. You should note that there are two models of Recon, but the Ultra is the only one that can take SDI as a source. The lower-end Recon only transmits HDMI, but can cross-convert to SDI at the receiver. The Recon also adds a tally light port giving broadcasters more options, and awards the Recon the top slot for features.

This is where the rubber meets the road. I conducted two tests with each system, the first being outdoors with line of sight between the transmitter and receiver. The second test was conducted indoors and transmitted through upwards of 3 walls with varying elevation. Starting with the Recon Ultra, I found that the system projected the signal farther, nearly 20 - 30' outdoors, in agreement with its tech specs. It also held a stronger image before losing signal, with little picture breakup. This held true for the indoors test, projecting a farther signal. One of the biggest drawbacks I found was that when the signal did drop out, it took a while to re-establish a connection. I also noticed that even at shorter ranges, the Recon would occasionally cut out from simply blocking the signal with my body. I was surprised when the unit cut out mere feet away a few different times.

The IDX Cam-Wave performed exactly as I expected from past uses. It remained solid within its manufacturing specs of 100' outdoors plus some, however still not as far as the Recon. Through walls indoors, the Cam-Wave performed well, but once again it fell a hair short of the Recon. What the Cam-Wave did that I personally preferred, was that even when losing connection, it was a much briefer period of time, reconnecting almost immediately, as long as the signal was available. I feel this is a huge plus when on set with non-technical people who just want to see a picture and don't have the patience or a care to wait for the picture to come back. Throughout a long shoot day, the less stress the system causes, the better.

The Decision:
With all the factors weighed, I had a tough choice to make. The Recon, while clunkier and bigger, is a cheaper system that performs better in some ways, while falling a bit short in others. Or do I choose the industry-proven workhorse that may not have the extra bells and whistles, but takes away some of the stress day to day? For me, and only for me, I chose the IDX Cam-Wave. I do a lot of work for other people, so considering their perception and feeling towards working with a device is important. I also rent equipment, so I wanted something reliable and trusted in the industry. The Cam-Wave meets these needs for me. I feel the Cam-Wave offers a better user experience, from handling and mounting it on your rig, to providing a consistent image for your crew. As long as you work within the system's limitations, there shouldn't be any issues. Don't get me wrong though, the Recon does have a place in the industry as well, and it is worth considering for your own applications.

Thanks for reading and I hope this article helps out the next person considering these two systems.