CCTV Test: Avigilon 8L-H4PRO-B

When the first mainstream High Definition camera was launched in the surveillance sector, by sheer fluke the Benchmark team was with the manufacturer in question when the first working sample arrived by courier. The pre-production unit was in a casing that was taped together, it was accompanied by hand written notes and the software was scattered across several CDs and USB keys. However, as soon as it was up and running there was no doubt amongst those in the room that HD1080p would become the de facto standard in surveillance. The 8L-H4PRO-B from Avigilon isn’t as early in its lifecycle, but does it lay down a similar marker? Benchmark put it through its paces to find out.

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hroughout 2014, manufacturers of cameras placed great emphasis on the delivery of functionality. The surveillance sector had previously made its leap into the world of HD1080p video despite many claiming that 4:3 megapixel video was the future. Virtually every manufacturer offered a HD range and as the euphoria of delivering an up-to-date technology began to subside, the Manufacturers’ R&D teams realised that higher resolutions introduced new performance challenges.

Thankfully, help was at hand in the form of Moore’s Law! Early HD1080p cameras used up the majority of their processing power in the delivery of a higher resolution real-time video stream, and whilst many were grateful for that, it did create problems with underperforming low light functionality, WDR, IVA and other processor-heavy features.

Just as HD1080p video became accepted as the standard for serious security applications, so a new breed of processors arrived. These not only allowed manufacturers to deliver high quality HD video streams, but it also enabled significant advances in video management.

Last year saw all of the major players in surveillance push the envelope with regard to video processing. The low light levels required for usable video actually fell (rather than the numbers on the spec sheets being rewritten). Image stabilisation and tamper protection became credible. VMD gave way to IVA, and business intelligence was something that could be delivered, not just talked about.

A number of manufacturers went one step further and opened up the additional processing in their cameras to allow the use of third party applications. Of course, while R&D still considers how to best exploit spare processing power in 2015, it’s also the case that resolution is back on the menu.

As 4K becomes a driver in the consumer market and other associated AV industries, so the security sector has looked towards the emerging standard. One manufacturer active with the technology is Avigilon, and whilst the company already offers a 7K camera, its 4K HD Pro model will have greater appeal.

Specification
The 8L-H4PRO-B is a part of Avigilon’s HD Pro range of cameras. These devices are no slouches in the performance stakes, and the series lifted the 2015 Benchmark Innovation Award for the video surveillance hardware category.
The camera delivers 4K (8 megapixel) video footage at 3840 x 2160 pixels. Frame rate is claimed to be 12fps. Of course this means that the camera cannot deliver standards-compliant 4K video, which requires real-time streams. The device makes use of a 27.2mm image sensor, and the true day/night unit supports the use of H.264 and M-JPEG compression. Multiple streaming is supported, as are Regions of Interest (ROI).

The camera boasts 70dB dynamic range. It also features Avigilon’s LightCatcher technology. Sensitivity is claimed as 0.005 lux at F1.4. This brings us onto the subject of lenses.

The 8L-H4PRO-B makes use of lenses manufactured for digital SLR cameras. For installers and integrators well versed in optics, this won’t be an issue. However, it is fair to say that those who sell photographic lenses are more ‘enthusiastic’ about the various technologies than many who sell CCTV lenses. There’s a reason for that: digital SLR lenses vary in terms of cost, and some have significant price tags. Learning a little about photographic lens functionality will be time well spent.

Generally, the HD Pro range of cameras uses EF and EF-S lenses, as the 8L-H4PRO-B does. However, always check compatibility because a few of the models only take EF lenses, and it’s therefore possible to make a fairly expensive mistake!

Given that many have concerns about the quality of CCTV lenses at higher resolutions, Avigilon’s approach has to be understood.

The 8L-H4PRO-B includes the manufacturer’s HDSM technology. This stands for high definition stream management, and is an intelligent function designed to manage high bandwidth streams. The way it works is – in theory – simple. Video is split into a high resolution stream for archiving and a lower resolution stream for viewing. If an incident occurs and a higher level of detail is required, for example to identify an individual, then a ‘zoomed’ portion of the video is requested, and the region of interest is sent as a higher resolution feed.

The 8L-H4PRO-B makes use of Avigilon’s H4 platform, as is evident from the camera’s designation. The H4 platform works with HDSM to enhance video management. It also drives greater efficiencies in terms of low light performance and image quality.

The latest HD Pro cameras also are enabled with self-learning analytics. The claim is that the IVA functionality adapts to the viewed environment, and therefore can adjust to varying conditions without any need for operator intervention. The camera needs to be linked to the ACC VMS in order to use this functionality. This isn’t made clear in any of the marketing information we’ve seen, and could therefore mislead installers and integrators who take the brochure contents and product specs at face value.

The camera also has the typical array of everyday surveillance functions. Motion detection, electronic shutter control, auto white balance, privacy zones, audio support, alarm I/Os and edge recording via SD cards are supported, as expected.

Power is PoE; 12V DC and 24V AC supplies can also be used.

Installation
First off, let’s get the negative out of the way. Avigilon is frustrating in that the company delivers a good quality product, but support documentation has always been wanting. The 8L-H4PRO-B is supplied without any documentation. It does have a leaflet but this merely promotes an App which allows you to download the installation guide (which is very brief and skirts much of the functionality) as an .ePub file. Alternatively, you can download the installation guide from the Avigilon website as a PDF.

There are a few options when it comes to initial configuration. The camera can either be attached to a DHCP server and will be automatically allocated an IP address, zero config can be used, or the ARP/Ping method can set the address.

Once installed, the menus are relatively straightforward. The layout is clean and easy to use, and everything is where you’d expect it to be. There will be the odd occasion where a bit of trial and error is required, but that’s the price you pay for specifying a camera which doesn’t have support documentation.

Many of the menus are brief and deal with a single function. This actually makes progress through the camera settings fairly straightforward, and ensures that nothing is missed.

The menu screens cover General, Network, Image and Display, Compression and Image Rate, Motion Detection, Privacy Zones, Storage, Digital Inputs and Outputs, Microphone, Speaker, Users, System and Alarm Log.

The only anomaly we found was that the promised 12fps turned out to be limited to 11fps in the menu. We tried to adjust a few settings to see if we could liberate that missing frame, but we couldn’t if we retained the performance levels that an installer or integrator would specify this camera for!

Motion detection is average, with settings for Sensitivity and Threshold. Given that many competitive devices include IVA, Avigilon could improve this. Even if they want to reserve IVA for customers willing to purchase ACC, a few more discriminations could make the motion detection more usable.
Performance
With the camera powered up and configured, the image quality is immediately obvious. Our initial set-up made certain assumptions, and either we were very lucky in our guesswork or the 8L-H4PRO-B delivers extremely high quality streams. Our money is on the latter.

We did carry out a few additional tweaks, but in truth the differences we made were marginal and arguably unnecessary. Detail was very high, and ultrafine detail was clear and well defined. Colour accuracy was spot on, with no bias towards either warm or cool tones. Using charts, we also noted that greyscale replication was accurate.

Fast motion in the viewed scene was as smooth as you can expect at 11fps, and given that the camera will inevitably be used to view large spaces, speed becomes less of an issue.

The general video functionality works well, and changes in the settings do have an effect. There is certainly scope to deal with a wide range of application-specific issues.

The auto-focus function works well, and whilst it is a little slower than some, it doesn’t become irritating. It is certainly quicker than trying to carry out the task manually.

We used the camera in both internal and external applications, and in both it performed very well. One test team member remarked that the camera didn’t do anything extraordinary, but everything it did do it did pretty much flawlessly.

We carried out initial testing of the camera with it set at the maximum 36Mbps bit-rate. Some might think this is touch high, but we’d consider it sensible for 4K performance. In the past, Benchmark tests have shown that HD1080p cameras generally require 8-10Mbps to deliver an artefact-free stream, so 36Mbps is right on the money for 4K.

However, while dropping the bit-rate inevitably impacts on quality, you’ll be hard pressed to notice much change until it falls to around 20Mbps. After this, you will spot a general ‘softening’ of details as bandwidth is throttled downwards.

In our opinion, if you are going to invest in a 4K camera and good quality optics, then it makes sense to either ensure you have appropriate bandwidth, or to employ RoIs to moderate bit rate.

When it comes to low light performance, the 8L-H4PRO-B really gets into its stride. The manufacturer claims a sensitivity of 0.005 lux. Whilst we’ve seen similar figures on a whole range of devices, we’ve never seen a camera that even gets close based upon our interpretation of usable video.

With the camera forced into colour mode, light levels were slowly reduced. Aside from the odd moment when gain levels changed, the image retained colour information and detail and delivered consistent and stable footage. It held a good quality colour stream until ambient light levels were below 1 lux.

At 0.8 lux, colours were still accurate, and whilst greyscale replication was suffering in the 0-10 per cent and 90-100 per cent graduations – which are the typical problem areas – the image remained more than usable. Motion was showing the first signs of blur, but it was still possible to carry out positive identification or to gather useful information.

With regard to day/night switching, there is no way to adjust this. Our camera switched at around 0.4 lux, and in an ideal world we’d have liked to adjust that closer to 0.8 lux. In fairness, in most applications this won’t be a problem.

Motion detection is very basic, and its more akin to a budget camera than a high end device. It’s probably the most basic implementation we’ve seen in a fair while. Without care you will see false triggers as light levels drop. Adjustability is limited, and to be honest we think Avigilon have added the function simply to tick the VMD box.

Verdict
The 8L-H4PRO-B is a good camera. In fact, it’s a very good camera, and with regard to image quality and low light performance it’s among the best we’ve ever tested.
Its performance in low light applications is staggering, and image detail has the same ‘wow’ factor that HD1080p did in the surveillance sector after years of 4CIF streams.

If we had the ability to change one thing, it would be an increased frame rate. However, 11fps is sufficient for most applications, and is a price worth paying for the overall quality.

Despite this, the camera does miss out on ‘Outstanding’ status, mainly for two reasons. The first is the lack of documentation. The Installation Guide is very brief, and it should be included. Additionally, there is no operations guide, even as a PDF, and some customers will demand one.

The second is due to the fact that the IVA is only accessible if you use the Avigilon ACC VMS. We understand that Avigilon has made investments in the acquisition of VideoIQ and ObjectVideo’s patent portfolio, and it did so to generate revenue. We don’t have an issue with that, and it probably won’t bother anyone. However, the self-learning analytics are pushed as a headline feature of the camera through the company’s marketing, but without making it clear that the functionality cannot be accessed without ACC.

These issues aside, the 8L-H4PRO-B has created a standard of performance that other camera manufacturers must achieve, and for the surveillance sector that’s good news!

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