Cut the Cord with Wireless HD: A Paralinx Review
COW Library : : Helmut Kobler : Cut the Cord with Wireless HD: A Paralinx Review
A few months ago, I started yearning for a way to give my clients a "director's monitor" so they could see what I was shooting without being tethered to my camera by way of a long video cable.
Of course, there have been tools to do this for years, but all of them seemed to have unacceptable compromises for my kind of work and budget. The higher-end solutions from the likes of Boxx and Nebtek were big and expensive. The more affordable solutions, like Teradek's Cube, were smaller, but suffered from delays from a few frames to a few seconds (aka "latency"), couldn't support 1080 resolution effectively, and required using a tablet or computer to receive the signal.
But as I did my research, I noticed there was a quiet revolution going on in the wireless video space, with new products eliminating performance issues like latency, while getting smaller and cheaper. I tracked down two products in particular that seemed to be getting some traction, and got evaluation units of each (the benefits of writing for Creative COW!).
The two units are the Paralinx Arrow, and the Teradek Bolt Pro. Each offers a couple of different models to choose from, but I picked configurations that were different from each other, and appealed to different audiences.
The Arrow is HDMI-only, and least expensive at $1,198 for a single transmitter/receiver package (there's also an Arrow Plus package that's $1,398, which can multicast to up to four receivers at the same time).
The Bolt Pro is about twice as much at $2,490, but you get industry-standard HD-SDI connectors with loop-through. A Bolt Pro transmitter can also broadcast to up to four receivers, and the transmitter features a built-in 60 minute battery so you don't have to worry about powering it in certain scenarios. (Note: you can also get a less expensive Bolt Pro with HDMI connectors, or a non-Pro version without pass-through, multiple receiver functionality or the built in battery).
TESTING THE TERADEK BOLT AND PARALINX ARROW
After trying out the Arrow and Bolt Pro for a couple of weeks, my experience shows them both to be reliable, with similar performance -- ie, the same simple setup and operation, the same signal range, the same bandwidth to carry a high-quality HD image (1920x1080, 4:2:2, 10-bits, up to 60p with 2 channel audio) and the same negligible latency of less than 2 milliseconds.
Regarding signal range, they both advertise a range of about 300 feet when their transmitters and receivers have a line-of-site to each other. I wasn't able to test out the 300 foot range, but did try a 100 foot test in the great outdoors, and could not see any degradation in the HD image being beamed to a 7" SmallHD monitor. (Apparently, when the signal degrades, you'll begin to see artifacts in your image, or will lose the signal altogether. Since artifacts might be hard to spot unless you're really looking for them, I would personally not use either of these units to record an HD signal to a field recorder, expecting that to be my camera master).
I also tested the Bolt and Arrow in my basement, without line of site (ie, around corners and storage boxes) and found they held their signal for the 40 feet of distance I could put between transmitter and receiver. Finally, I walked my camera up 7 stairs and another 10 feet into my backyard. That move finally killed the connection between both the Arrow and Bolt's transmitter/receiver. I guess the elevation change, through a narrow stairwell and doorway, along with the concrete foundation of my house, was enough to muck things up. The good news is that when you lose a signal, both the Arrow and Bolt can re-establish a link automatically once you bring their transmitters and receivers within range. I found it took about 10 seconds for my camera's image to show up again on my monitor.
It's also worth noting that both units showed no vulnerability to interference from other common wireless devices, like Wifi networks and cel phones. You can also run multiple pairs in the same vicinity (for instance, a transmitter/receiver for an A camera, a B camera, a C camera) but you'll need to follow some minor prototcol so they don't interere with each other. First, power up the A camera's transmitter/receiver pair to establish a link, then wait at least 60 seconds before powering up the next pair, and so on. Also, keep the pairs at least a couple of feet away from each other.
At any rate, the Arrow and Bolt's solid real-world performance was certainly enough for plenty of scenarios -- ie, put a handheld, battery-powered monitor in the hands of a nearby director; set up a video village for clients without laying cable, or monitor a camera while it's mounted on a crane/jib/dolly, or in a car.
As I worked with the Arrow and Bolt, I also found another benefit to going wireless, and that's for fine-tuning lighting on a set. I often shoot as a one-man band, without a grip or PA available. When I'm setting up lights, one of the little hassles I endure is adjusting a light, and then running back to my 17" FSI monitor to see how it looks, and then running back to the light for more fine tuning. But with the unique combination of the Flanders and a Bolt or Arrow, I was able to easily move the monitor around with me to each light. Despite its 17" screen, the Flanders is only 6.4 pounds, and can run for hours on a single Anton Bauer Dionic HC battery. Even with an HD receiver and small light stand attached, I can easily lift the whole package with one hand, and carry it over to any corner of the set.
POWER AND MOUNTING
Mounting the Bolt and Arrow is pretty straightforward: you get enough �xBC-20 and 3/8" threaded screw holes on the transmitters and receivers to make that pretty easy. It's powering the gear that can involve some hassles.
Aside from conventional AC power, both the Bolt and Arrow let you power their transmitter/receivers using the p-tap of an external battery plate for Anton Bauer or IDX batteries. So if have a p-tap battery mounted to your camera or monitor, you're good to go.
Things get more complicated if you don't have a big battery's p-tap on hand. For the Arrow, you can power its transmitter and receiver from just about any portable USB battery pack (the kind usually sold as secondary power sources for smartphones and tablets, here's an example). These typically cost from $30 to $60, are the size of a very slim portable hard drive, and last about 3-5 hours per charge. It's a little bit of a clunky solution, though, because those batteries don't have conventional mounting holes, so your best bet is to use heavy duty Velcro to attach the battery to your Arrow gear, and try to keep the usb cable out of your way.
"Ikan sells this great rig for a wireless monitor. It's light-weight, gives the monitor some protection, and costs $149. Pictured is the Ikan rig with an AC7 monitor from SmallHD, a Paralinx receiver and USB battery velcro'd to the receiver."
As for powering the Bolt, you can recharge its internal battery from any USB source, although it can't run on USB power like the Arrow can. Teradek does sell modified camera batteries that have built in p-tap cables to power the Bolt. You can slip them into your camera, and then attach their single cable to the Bolt. It's a decent way to power the Bolt without adding more gear on your camera, but the batteries cost around $190. Teradek also sells small p-tapped battery plates for a lot of different batteries, but then you're adding more clutter to your gear.
All in all, I wish the Bolt and Arrow had better power solutions for those that don't have a big Anton Bauer or IDX battery attached to their gear. I wish they both had small, removable batteries that I could easily swap, and that wouldn't require extra effort or clutter to attach to my camera. But for now, if you want to use the Arrow and Bolt without a big battery, you'll have to accept some awkward compromises like specialty batteries, Velcro, and so on.
Here are a few other random impressions and details about each unit....
Teradek Bolt Pro
I should also point out there are other wireless HD kits available at similar or even lower prices than the Arrow and Bolt. Abel Cine, which has a great reputation as a dealer, sells their own unit in the $1200 range, supporting both HDMI and SDI. Geffen sells a consumer-oriented unit for a few hundred bucks. Type "wireless HD" into eBay and you'll find even cheaper options, if that's your priority.
As for me, I'm focused on the Bolt Pro and the Arrow, given how well they did in my hands-on work. In fact, I'm actually pretty torn about which to get for myself. I want the HD-SDI connectivity of the Bolt, but the fanless receiver of the Arrow. I like the internal battery of the Bolt's transmitter, but the longer-running USB power option of the Arrow. It's going to be a tough choice, but I know that either option will make things easier for my clients, and quicken the pace of production on set.
About Helmut Kobler
Helmut Kobler is a Los Angeles-based cameraman who shoots for networks such as the BBC, PBS, CBS and BET. For more info, go to http://www.losangelescameraman.com.