Thursday, October 11, 2012

Problems with Pelco and Swann security-camera DVRs


My office has an established array of 8 security cameras but our DVR is now broken.  The old DVR was a Dedicated Micros DS2 and it never really worked as expected, but it was minimally sufficient so we put-up with it.  Now that it's died I was excited at the prospect of finally replacing it with something that worked exactly as we'd always wanted.  But I continue to run into a bewildering array of problems, none of which could have been predicted.


I have now researched about 8 possible replacement DVRs.  In addition to reviewing their online product-pages, I downloaded all the brochures and I read all the manuals cover-to-cover, keeping detailed notes.  In this fashion I was able to immediately eliminate several DVRs because they did not allow you to limit users to individual cameras (just general access-levels, e.g. live-view versus playback).

I have also been testing the online demos, of which I was surprised to find so few?  This experience gave me a general 'feel' for the level of spit-and-polish on the UIs, which one would expect to reflect the overall quality of the product.  Some DVRs had a distinctly 1990s UI -- not a deal-breaker but it definitely gave me pause.


After much discussion, I was able to get an in-house demo of the DVR recommended by our security-system vendor -- the Pelco DX4808.  This is the current mid-range DVR by the same industry-leading company that made our 480-line analog cameras.  It featured full-resolution D1 recording capability across all 8 cameras simultaneously, which was the biggest failing of the old Dedicated Micros unit.  Unfortunately, we quickly ran into serious issues with the new unit.

1. The D1 recordings were not properly de-interlaced.  When people would move side-to-side in the camera view, there were major 'jaggies' around them.  And this issue extended to motionless images, too, i.e., the new '480-line' recordings looked worse than our old 240-line recordings (which skipped the whole de-interlacing issue by simply recording one set of NTSC video frames).  I asked several people at Pelco about this and none of them had any idea how to fix it; they confirmed that there was no hidden setting I could use to 'flip' the odd/even frames, nor was there a switch on the cameras to reverse how they were sending the image.

2. There were 3 different DVR interfaces available but none of them allowed you to easily review the recordings?  The 'old' DX Series application allowed you to search by camera and date/time, then presented you with a time-line indicating when the camera had been triggered.  But the timeline was awkward to use since most (short) recordings would show-up as a single pixel-wide 'event' and clicking anywhere nearby would result in the 'invisible' playback of other cameras rather than skipping ahead to the next event on the camera you had searched for.  There was also a newer DS Control application which allowed you to search but then played-back events without any timeline or listing, i.e., it was like you were randomly playing back events.

3. The remote viewing apps used an old Win95-style video interface.  This meant that you could not move the view screen to a 2nd monitor nor could you resize it.  Also it would force my Windows 7 computer to drop out of 'Aero' mode.  The new DS Control app seemed to work properly but the playback UI made it a deal-breaker for my boss.

4. Finally -- and this is really a weird stupid one -- I could not get the DVR to properly use the local-time.  It seemed stuck on GMT, no matter what I tried.  I think the issue was that the initial recordings were done when the unit was still fresh-out-of-the-box running on GMT and so it insisted on deferring to those time-stamps even though I'd switched the general configuration to PST.  I repeatedly asked Pelco if I should just reset the cache of recordings but they never responded, and I returned the demo before bothering to test it.

One good point:  I was able to successfully operate the Pelco DVR remotely across our Cisco VPN.  The old Dedicated Micros had apparently used a faux 'UDP' mode of transmission (TCP packets without the full handshake) which tripped-up our VPN and made playback almost unbearably slow.


From all my extensive research I had started to notice distinct similarities between some brand-name DVRs and comparable 'off-brand' models.  Clearly, some of these units were simply OEM versions of the same recorder!  For instance, the Pelco DX4800 was really just a rebranded LG LE5008-NH albeit with additional remote interfaces like DS Control.  But this made me realize that I should consider some of the smaller (cheaper) brands, too.


The local Fry's Electronics would frequently advertise security DVRs for a fraction of the cost of the 'real' DVRs I had been reviewing.  In the past, when I would try to test the products' online demos or read their manuals, it was clear that they were shoddy fly-by-night units, totally unfit for a business environment.  But then I saw the brand-new 'top-of-the-line' Swann DVR8-4000.  It featured full D1 recording across all 8 channels as well as a well-reviewed mobile app.  And it only cost $400 -- a third what the Pelco would have cost!  So I purchased a unit, with the expectation that I could return it within 30 days if it wasn't All That.

At first it seemed a roaring success.  Out of the box it appeared to be a very well built and professional unit.  The default settings were all totally appropriate so I didn't even have to change anything to suit our desired recording-mode, i.e., only motion-activated and always max quality (D1 and 30 fps).  And the live-playback was properly de-interlaced -- finally, true 480-line resolution!

Unfortunately it went badly south from there:

1. First, I ran into weird UI issues where I would think I had saved a setting (because I'd clicked OK afterwards) only to learn that the unit only saved some changes if you clicked OK, then APPLY, then confirmed OK again.

2. Next, I created a new user-account and assigned it access to just 1 camera; this was one of the primary requirements which the old Dedicated Micros was unable to perform.  Unfortunately, the remote viewer would either show ALL the cameras (ignoring the configuration) or NONE.  I called Swann tech support and they eventually admitted that these were known issues, to be fixed in a 'future' firmware upgrade -- no ETA.

3. They also asked me if I was able to playback the recordings; I could not!  Apparently this was another known bug.

4. Since I only had 30 days with which to test, I escalated my issues to the senior tech support and asked if I could beta-test the next firmware.  They were very helpful and obliged me, sending me the file which was very easy to install ... and rendered the unit completely inoperable.  Now the tech support people offered to send me a replacement unit, but I declined that in favor of simply returning the unit to Fry's for a refund.


So here I sit, sans security recordings.  Of course, the cameras are still serving their primary 'deterrent' role since people don't know they're inoperable!  I'm staying in touch with Swann and if I don't find something else, soon, I may just re-purchase the DVR8-4000 after the firmware is upgraded.