Category Archives: Tech Review

To Build or Not to Build: Finding a Network Video Recording (NVR) Solution

This past summer, I was ready to upgrade my home video monitoring system to all 3MP high definition camera feeds and add additional cameras, this is what started me on my quest to upgrade my Network Video Recorder (NVR) solution.

At the time, I was only utilizing:

  • Two Ubiquity 720P High Definition PoE WeatherProof IP Cameras
  • Two Asante Voyager Standard Definition (640×480) Cameras with Audio

My NVR solution at the time consisted of a Compaq Desktop running Blue Iris on Windows Vista with the following specifications.

  • Compaq Micro ATX PC w SATA 300
  • 2GB DDR2 PC2-6400 RAM
  • AMD Athlon 64 Dual Core 2.2Ghz Processor
  • 160GB SATA Hard Drive
  • 10/100 Network Interface

This system was not initially purchased to be tasked as an NVR, but a secondary desktop computer for standard home office computing, but it put an extra computer laying around in the office to work.

All in all, the system functioned fine for the recording of just one HD feed, however, if more than one HD camera triggered to record at the same time, both recordings would get choppy. The video was still useable, but looked similar to a time lapse video even though it was a standard feed. At the time, I even experimented with rolling back the frames per second on the feed to 10-15 frames per second (which decreases the processing load), but the problem continued. In addition, the CPU power monitor in Blue Iris would spike to 98-99% load regardless of the frame rate during recording.

I knew 4 cameras and 720P was my maximum on that system. If I wanted to upgrade cameras to a higher resolutions, or add additional cameras, I was upgrading the NVR. The computer performance and specifications just we’re not designed to meet the needs of high definition video recording.

The Thrill of the Hunt

In order to identify my performance needs, I started out looking at the minimum and recommended specifications as defined by Blue Iris, my NVR recording software solution. Blue Iris has always served me well and is very stable software. It allows for the install of IP cameras from multiple manufacturers and also allows you to stream/record dynamic images from the Internet (I.e. traffic camera feeds that only show in JPEG stills but update every 1-2 minutes). The software allows for multi-user support, and interfaces with their mobile application (sold separately for $9.99, but worth every penny) which allows you to view your cameras in real time and also view recordings from your smartphone. You can even have your Blue Iris server send you push alerts for camera triggers to the cellphone application. And to top it off, they have some of the best customer service support I have ever experienced from a software provider.Blue Iris Logo for NVR

Back to the build, Blue Iris recommends the following as
their minimum requirements to run the software (their requirements can be found here).

Blue Iris Minimum Specifications

  • Pentium Dual Core or Equivalent 2GHz Processor (or better)
    2GB RAM (or more)
  • Microsoft Windows XP SP3 (or newer), or a Server OS
  • One or more USB or Network IP cameras, or an analog capture card with DirectShow drivers

Their recommendations for running High Definition cameras were as follows:

Blue Iris HD Specifications

  • Intel Core i7 Processor
  • 8GB or more RAM
  • Microsoft Windows 7 64-Bit (or newer) (Update: Now compatible with Windows 10)
  • nVIDIA Graphics Adaptor for Hardware Decoding
  • 7200+ RPM Hard Drives and/or Solid State Drives (SSD)

From here, I performed a little internet research to confirm if the recommendations appeared to be on par with the performance seen by users (user experience is important, as benchmark tests on paper don’t always relate to the performance actually seen in the real world). A few reviews of IP Video Security forums and CompTIA video recording performance criterion confirmed that the Blue Iris recommendations where right on the mark.

It was at that point that I started looking for an “off the shelf” solution that I could mail order or pick-up off the shelf. Some people may not agree with this method, but much time can be saved in configuration and build time if you can find an off the shelf solution to fit your needs. Unfortunately, the search of online retailers, manufacturers, and big box stores alike yielded me only a few options worth considering under $1000.

The research then started on the cost to build a custom solution myself to meet my specific needs by pricing specific PC components. I would then be able to compare this with the cost of the “off the shelf” solution to see which direction to proceed. A few online searches later, I was able to find all the components to build a custom PC with better performance for $600. Over $400 less that the cost of the “off the shelf” solutions available. I have listed the components I chose below.

Component Price
Coolmast N200 MATX Mini Tower $    44.99
Intel Core i7-4790K 4Ghz Processor $  279.99
Gigabyte GA-A97M-d3H MATX Motherboard

  • SATA 600
  • 10/100/1000 Network Interface
$    49.99
Western Digital 1TB 3.5″ 7200 RPM Hard Drive $    47.99
Crucial 8GB 4×2 DDR3 1600 RAM $    74.99
Corsair 430W ATX Low Noise Power Supply $    59.99
TOTAL $ 557.94

 

I quickly decided to go the custom build route, rather than an “off the shelf” solution. After a few quick clicks on an internet shopping cart to put the parts on hold at a local retailer, I was on my way to pick everything up. One trip a few hours later, and I was back at the casa ready to build a PC.

The Buzz of the Build

Similar to the saying that everyone should go hunting once in their life to understand what it takes to put meat on the table; building a desktop computer is something I believe everyone in today’s world should do at least once. It is important to understand what goes into the machine to give us the technology we have at our fingertips every day. Especially when 84% of American households have a computer (Source: US Census Bureau, Computer and Internet Use in the United States: 2013). Building a PC is a great learning experience. And there’s nothing like the sense of accomplishment when you fire it up and take it for a spin at the end of the process.

I wouldn’t recommend completely doing it on your own if you don’t have any experience. In this case, having a good IT support person at hand is a plus. It doesn’t have to be a support tech at a repair store, it could be one of your neighbors, or your IT guy at the office. Most people have a tech-savvy person who can assist with a build relatively close at hand. This doesn’t mean get them to do it for you (that kind of defeats the purpose ofthe learning experience) but having that person to help you over the humps, really helps the process. An average build is complete in 2-3 hours max (not including software install time). Intel Core i7-4790K 4Ghz for NVRI was able to obtain the newest generation of Core i7 processor on sale, this is the most expensive and most delicate parts. There is little room for error with the processor install. Have an experienced technician assist you with the install if you do not have experience installing processors. I was able to mate the i7 with a quality Gigabyte motherboard, click in 8GB of RAM and a 1TB hard drive, mount to the case, plug in the power, and I was installing Windows in about 2 hours.

I chose to stick with the on-board video processor for this build. Since my goal is an NVR using a single monitor, most of the processing power is needed for video recording (i.e. the processor, RAM, and hard drive) and not the video graphics card. The Core i7 processors also do a great job supporting integrated video with the Intel HD Graphics Chipset without diminishing performance. If I was doing anything less than an i7 processor, an upgraded video card would have been higher on my priority list.

Gigabyte GA-A97M-d3H MATX Motherboard

It’s Show Time

After about another hour or two for the Windows install, Microsoft updates, and Blue Iris install, I was ready to see some cameras. Since I was a previous Blue Iris user, I was able to import my existing configuration from the old computer bringing all my old cameras instantly back online. All that was left was to configure the new HD cameras which I had installed but had not yet connected (didn’t discuss the camera install as part of this write-up, if you are interested in the install, please comment and I would be happy to consider as a future post). Utilizing the “Add New Camera” function in Blue Iris, the new HD cameras were online in 15-30 minutes and were configured for motion recording. One final check of the Blue Iris configuration to make sure all user accounts were active and cameras were set and recording properly and the build was complete.

After monitoring the PC performance for around 60 days for stability reasons, I am happy to report that I could not be happier. The system now runs:Dahua IPC-HFW4300S for NVR

I am able to get smooth video recording across the board, even when all cameras are triggered to record at the same time. In addition, my average CPU load in the Blue Iris monitor is around 30%. Even with all cameras recording simultaneously, I haven’t seen it over 60%. This is a tremendous improvement over the performance seen with the older desktop which was replaced. I have no doubt that the computer can handle future HD camera installs in addition to the existing installation.

Conclusion

Setting up a Network Video Recorder can provide you much more flexibility for the price than purchasing an out of the box surveillance solution. It breaks you free from the requirements of sticking with just one camera manufacturer, allows you enhanced recording capabilities, additional storage options, and more. However, it is important to ensure the performance of the computer you plan to use meets the requirements of your NVR software and that of your video monitoring system (i.e. SD, HD, number of cameras, etc).

Ubiquiti AirCam for NVR

Older computers are an option if you are breaking into the NVR world and want to get your feet wet for a limited cost, with the understanding that you will have performance limitations and will probably be stuck with Standard Definition (SD is still very capable and is much more affordable than HD when purchasing cameras). With multiple options to build a high performance NVR tailored computer, for under $1000, it remains an option for even those on a budget with some planning. If you plan long term to build for High Definition, the upfront investment will most likely be a requirement to get you the capabilities most users are looking for with the perk of HD, unless you happen to have a Core i7 desktop just lying around.

 

The Best In Noise Limiting Bluetooth Headsets, Plantronics and Blue Parrott Lead The Way

We have recently had the chance to test some of the best rated Bluetooth headsets with noise limitation currently on the market to provide our own opinion on how they compare. Today we will be comparing the VXI Blue Parrott B250 XT Plus and the Plantronics Voyager Pro Plus.

Good noise limitation on a Bluetooth headset in today’s world is a must have. It can literally make or break the calling experience for the call participants. Most of the time, when you are on the phone while on the go, you don’t necessarily want the person on the other end to hear everything that is going on in the background at your location. Would you rather your client her you clearly, or hear the rest of the people in Starbucks placing their orders? Or the wind noise while you get out of the car to fill up the gas tank while still on a call?

Older models of both of these units are at the top of the list on many different review sites across the web, however since many of those reviews, new features have been added to the newest models of each headset.

Recommended Minimum Standards

Both the VXI Blue Parrott B250 XT Plus and the Plantronics Voyager Pro Plus now offer a extended battery life, Multipoint technology to allow you to connect up to two phones to one headset simultaneously and handle calls and audio from both phones, as well as A2DP technology allowing you to play music, Pandora radio, use a 2-way radio app, GPS navigation, or use voice recognition software through your headset with capable Bluetooth devices (iPhones and most Androids are covered, but check you device to make sure).

At this point in the technology age, in our opinion, the above should be the minimum standard in Bluetooth headset features.

Blue Parrott B250 Plus Specifics

BlueParrott B250XT+ at Work -Reflect
The Blue Parrott B250 units have always been a leader in noise limitation and battery life since they came on the market. The B250 + offers over a 20 hour talk time battery life (yes, I said 20 hours of talk time) which is unheard of in most of the Bluetooth headset market today. The major improvements of the + model over older models is that they took a proven design and included the A2DP technology, Multipoint, and voice prompts to tell you what the headset is doing instead of guessing what the beeps in your ear mean. The catch is that the unit is an “Over the Head” style unit that can make you look a little like a call center agent. It is very light weight and comfortable, just a little larger. On the bright side, it does take the weight off of the ear making it a little more comfortable for long term wear.

Plantronics Voyager Pro Plus Specifics

Plantronics Voyager Pro at Work -Reflect
As for the Plantronics Voyager Pro Plus, it offers a 6 hour talk time, Plantronics continued to include the multipoint technology from previous versions and added the A2DP as well and enhanced noise limiting features. Different from the Blue Parrott, the Voyager Pro Plus is an “Over the Ear” style headset that sits on your ear when worn. Although it is one of the most comfortable “ear mount” headsets we’ve worn, it is still not as comfortable for long-term wear as over the head models.

Audio Testing

We have provided an audio recording of each unit in one of the most challenging noise environments commonly faced by users; freeway driving at 70mph with general road noise, then with a window rolled down. Both units were tested on a Verizon Samsung Continuum Android device that many may know, does not have the best audio quality (for that we apologize), the actual audio quality out of both headsets is much better if calling from other cellular devices. However, for this review, the noise limitation was the focus.

Blue Parrott B250XT Plus

Plantronics Voyager Pro Plus – Standard Out of Box

In addition to the stand out of box configuration of the Voyager Pro Plus, we had read some reviews about the unit being improved my adding a custom wind screen onto the unit (like on the boom mic of the B250XT +), so we figured we would give it a try. We did not notice much of a difference, but you can decide for yourself.

Plantronics Voyager Pro Plus – With Custom Windscreen Added

We did notice a concerning problem with the Plantronics Voyager Pro Plus when facing strong direct wind noise (strong winds directly impacting the boom mic). You can hear the audio from that below. We put the B250 + in the same situation and did not hear any wind noise whatsoever, it sounded just like the clip provided earlier in the review.

Plantronics Voyager Pro Plus – Direct Impact Wind Noise Problem

Audio Testing Update: Headsets vs Fire Truck Engine Noise (12/15/2016)

To provide an example of how each headset preforms in an extreme noise environment, we recently completed one more test using the headsets while sitting next to the engine of a fire truck while idling (literally about 18 inches from the engine).  This test was preformed with each headset paired to an iPhone 6S.

Blue Parrott B250XT Plus

Plantronics Voyager Pro Plus

The Match-Up – Which Do You Choose?

So lets get down to it…which unit is the best for your needs? Let me start by saying you can’t go wrong with either model it all boils down to size and ergonomics. If you want the absolute best in Bluetooth noise limitation and don’t mind a little larger form factor, the Blue Parrott B250+ is the way to go. We liked the multipoint functionality on the B250+ better that the Voyager as well. It was more seamless and automatic, where as on the Voyager,the first phone connects automatically then you have to press a button to activate the second phone (things they don’t tell you in the manual).

Update 12/15/2016: With this headset I have held conversations  with people standing beside fire trucks, eighteen wheelers, in the middle of windstorms,  etc.  Many without the person on the other end of the line even noticing.  The noise cancellation in the B250 XT+ truly is impressive.

However, if size is everything, then your best bet in Bluetooth noise limitation the Voyager Pro Plus. You get close to Blue Parrott noise limitation but with the size convenience of a smaller unit and a shorter, yet manageable battery life that will get you through the day (or two or three).

Unfortunately there is just no comparison with having a boom microphone directly in front of your mouth rather than next to your cheek. There is a reason NASA mission control and call center agents look that way 🙂 . It allows for the best filtering of ambient noise and proper reception of voice. Both units can be purchased on Amazon for under $100 and will definitely keep you sounding clear over most of the competition.

NOTE: Blue Parrott also makes a new unit called the Blue Parrott Xpress that offers all the features of the B250+ but in a smaller form factor. It literally sound exactly the same as the B250 +, but offers an “Over the Ear” fit, a 7 hour battery, and is the same weight as the Voyager Pro Plus. We did not include this unit in the review due to the ergonomic design of the ear mounting. The unit was very uncomfortable for extended wear and did not hold securely in the ear. Another great unit, if you can get it to fit.

Note: The links to the Voyager Pro Plus in the review have been updated to route you to the newest version of the item, the Plantronics Voyager Legend as the Voyager Pro Plus is no longer in production.  The new version provides near equal noise cancellation performance to the Plus model in our latest tests with a few new features.

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