By Tim Adams
This article aims to explain the pros and cons of software and hardware production switcher options* that are currently available on the market. I will not be discussing particular products, but more generic concepts, concerns, considerations and fundamental issues in both software and hardware systems with the aim of providing you the ability to make a more informed decision as to which option is right for you. In the interest of full transparency, I land on the side of hardware over software, but will do my best to provide an objective and fair comparison.
When evaluating a production switcher for your tech ministry, whether it’s your first dive into the world of live production or you are looking at upgrading your current system, it’s important that you have a full understanding of what’s involved in not only integrating this solution into your system, but what you can reasonably expect in terms of capabilities and reliability.
It’s easy to get seduced by software that promises an all-in-one production solution, particularly if you want to have the use of lower thirds, overlays and ease of use. And, I must admit, software has gotten much, much better than when these solutions first hit the market.
The ability to switch between multiple sources—from cameras to computers to just about any HDMI-equipped piece of equipment—opens up a lot of possibilities and tends to cost less per input than their hardware brethren. Factor in the ability to superimpose graphics (logo bugs, lower thirds, etc.), and the possibility of using a computer that has already been purchased presents a very attractive and affordable option. Inclusion of NDI capabilities for camera control and signal ingestion can also tip the scales in favor of software.
However, there are inherent and underlying issues that you may not think about and additional costs that often are not accounted for when evaluating these options. Easily the most common issue lies with software updates; regardless of whether you run Windows or MacOS, a system update can render your entire production system useless as the drivers for your devices that allow you to ingest your camera and/or audio signals can suddenly be out of date and thus inoperable. It might seem obvious to some of you, but turning off automatic updates should be one of the first things you do when configuring a software switcher solution. I cannot tell you how many times I have seen a church tech frantically posting online for help when they are 10 minutes before service and they can’t figure out why their system doesn’t work anymore.
While these updates can be frustrating, the solution outlined above is an easy one to put into place and I would suggest implementing a system of scheduled software updates—early in the week—so if something does go wrong or becomes inoperable, you have a few days to sort it out rather than having the pressure of an impending worship service before you.
Additional Items Required
When evaluating a software solution, it’s also important to understand the additional hardware you may need, such as a more powerful graphics card (GPU), sound card, and/or additional USB ports or busses. Every external source that will come into the computer will need to have a dedicated port for it. Often multiple USB ports share one bus, which generally means you can use one bus for each external device. For example, if you have 4 cameras coming in via HDMI, you will need 4 separate USB busses and/or HDMI inputs to accommodate those cameras and have them work inside your software. A bus is different from a port, so having 4 USB ports may not be enough if they all share the same bus,. Furthermore, you may need to invest in multiple add-on USB cards to gain the proper functionality you need.
And yes, I know that NDI (Newtek’s Network Device Interface) can ease a lot of these issues, but it has its own inherent issues, particularly around the amount of bandwidth it requires. While 100mbps per device doesn’t sound like a lot, especially for a gigabit network, multiplying that 100mbps by every NDI device you have can quickly eat up your 1000mbps of bandwidth on your network; especially if you are sharing the network with other non-NDI devices, such as computers and the WiFi system. You want to ensure you also have some headroom above your average bandwidth use for spikes and irregularities in signal bandwidth.
If you are using your camera system to do IMAG (image magnification-displaying live video in the room on a projection screen, video wall or large TV), NDI does have some inherent latency that could present delay issues by the time the image gets to the screen and as such, is not recommended for these situations.
But…the benefits of using a single Cat5e/6 cable to power the camera, control the camera (in the case of PTZ cameras) and get signal from the camera into your software package is a very attractive set of features, and you may be willing to overlook the latency issues, particularly if you’re doing IMAG. I would encourage you to consider how your system could be used in the future, though, when making that evaluation, because if you get an NDI-equipped system all set up and then two years down the road you want to start doing IMAG, you’re going to be asking for trouble.
Another issue is that if you don’t have a computer that can run the software you’re looking at, then by the time you invest in the software, buy a new computer and all the dongles, and external equipment you will need, you’ll likely be approaching the cost of a hardware solution anyway, which doesn’t necessarily have these inherent issues and therefore tends to be more reliable.
Final Thoughts on Software Solutions
Finally, software solutions can be much more involved in setting up, configuring and running the system as everything is run by one person (camera movement, graphics, switching, recording and live streaming) and can be quite overwhelming and a tad unfair to expect a volunteer to jump into.
However, if you are intentional with how you manage your network and computer, software can be an amazing tool that serves for years to come.
Now let’s talk about the benefits and disadvantages of hardware solutions.
In case it’s not obvious, even hardware equipment runs on some form of software, so the irony is not lost on me. However, it’s important to understand that this is not off-the-shelf operating system software, but rather built-for-the-purpose, custom-programmed software that is limited to very specific functionality and generally doesn’t have nearly the same number of updates as Windows or MacOS. In my experience, firmware updates to hardware nearly always add capability and provide better stability and functionality.
That’s not to say that there are never issues; I have been through several firmware updates that made things worse, not better, so updates are not always bulletproof—a reality shared with software solutions.
Generally speaking, though, in my experience hardware switchers tend to offer more long-term reliability, ease of use and functionality.
Graphics & Other Functions
I do have to admit that in terms of finding a hardware switcher that includes an on-board graphics generator for overlays can be a bit difficult, if not impossible. Hardware switchers rely on external equipment to provide much of the capabilities you find in software solutions. However, by dividing functions among other equipment, in theory at least, your entire system doesn’t go down when a component crashes, and thus you’re still able to continue your program while you troubleshoot the issue. Obviously, if the switcher goes down, you’re kind of out of luck, but in a pinch you can plug one of your cameras directly into your external encoder and still have a live stream, so there’s that.
The largest issue most people have with hardware switchers is the learning curve—there are often a lot of buttons, and the terminology on the labels often is not intuitive to the untrained. But any equipment is going to take time to learn. If you choose to work with an integrator, they often will include training so you can get up and running with a fundamental understanding of how it all works.
A secondary issue is cost, and this can be a major hurdle when comparing with software solutions—the software appears less expensive. However, this hurdle has become less of an issue with lower cost options becoming available from a number of manufacturers.
But, it’s extremely important that you do your research and understand exactly what you’re getting and what it can and cannot do. Many churches have gotten caught by assuming some of the lower-priced hardware switcher options on the market came with two HDMI outputs, only to find there is only one. Make sure you are evaluating based on overall value and the features you need rather than price; focusing on the latter will almost always mean you’re compromising somewhere and you may not find it easy to discover where that compromise is until you’ve already made the investment and are several weeks or months into using the system.
A third issue is the physical footprint required. Software solutions require a mouse and keyboard or sometimes just a tablet, whereas a physical switcher does take up some room, especially if you are not using a computer-based control solution for it. You also need to consider the need for two external HDMI-equipped monitors—one for your Program output and one for your Multiview screen. This all means that you need to have a fairly sizable space available in order to accommodate not only the switcher but also the additional equipment you will need, such as the aforementioned TVs/monitors, but also any recorders and/or streaming encoders.
Hardware switchers can be just as feature-rich and confusing as software solutions, so expect a learning curve with either solution. Working with a system integrator can help ease the transition by having an experienced professional teaching you and the crew on basic functions, why live production standards exist and how to go about employing those.
Regardless of which solution you go with, it’s important that you do your research and have a full understanding of what your new capabilities will be and how much those capabilities will cost. And remember that just because your software can technically “do” something does not mean that your computer can support it out of the box—expect a fair amount of modifying or upgrading to a computer to handle everything you may want to do.
If a software crash is not an option for your live stream, I’d strongly recommend looking at hardware options as crashes are far less common. I’ve yet to see the hardware systems I put together have a catastrophic failure, yet I have seen $25,000 software switchers freeze up multiple times during the same program. This tells me that regardless of how much you spend on a software solution, you can always ask too much of the system, even if the capability you are employing is technically supported.
Be smart and remember that good stewardship is about how much money we don’t waste, not about how much money we save. Value should be our primary focus, not bottom line price.
*Author’s note: for clarification, I define a software switcher as any switcher that requires a software interface for switcher control. Hardware switchers are those that may have a software control component, but allow for basic to full operational control utilizing a hardware interface. As an example, the original Blackmagic Design Television Studio was a software switcher as you were required to use a software interface for control. Switching may have been done on the hardware, but software was required for control—hence a software switcher.