To 4K or not to 4K video?


Our industry’s seemingly insatiable appetite for more and more resolution has now produced a wave of interest in 4K cameras that promise exceptional clarity and sharpness, akin to the big screen, Ultra HD television sets found in consumer electronics stores and an increasing number of North American homes.

The jury is still out on whether there is an immediate need for the resolution that can overcome the downsides of increased storage and bandwidth required for running 4K cameras in a surveillance operation. Like so many things, if the cost of the camera, cost of the supporting system infrastructure and components were of no concern, this new format would likely be a more viable and attractive option for many security applications.

Here are four things to consider before making the leap to investing in and deploying 4K video:

1. What will I get with 4K that is not possible at lower resolution?
There’s no doubt that 4K technology is light years ahead of analog quality, but the reality is that the increased clarity and sharpness provided by that level of resolution is often over and beyond what is required and able to be managed by a typical security operation. For many reasons, full HD/1080P is the most commonly used resolution for new systems. The majority of security systems in use for live monitoring situation do not really benefit from such a resolution, as the human eye is well served with the details of a 1080P picture. Higher resolutions pay out when more details are required in forensic investigations.

2. Double the resolution, double the processing requirements
Users typically want to see more than one camera on one monitor, and only occasionally switch to full screen modes. With 4K, the clarity of that multi camera view would be no clearer than what would be viewed from a lower resolution camera. In addition, delivering streams from multiple 4K cameras presents some technical challenges. The client PC and graphics card must handle a significant flow of data. The best approach is to have the live view limited to only enough resolution for the video size and screen resolution of the display.

Today a typical approach to balance PC power requirements and quality uses lower resolution streams for live view, while recording in the highest resolutions. 4K resolution taxes the workload on the network because recording the highest resolution means the full stream content moves from the camera to the NVR.

3. Limitations on form factors, lenses
The availability of affordable high resolution optics is just not there yet, and a dome style camera with a typical curved dome bubble cannot transmit the 4K resolution. In addition, a true 8MP resolution lens with appropriate coverage for the 4K sensor is quite large, which would render a 4K version of the compact dome camera (the market’s favorite form factor) essentially not possible.  The dome camera would get physically bigger which, for many customers, is a negative.

4.  Bandwidth and storage requirements
From a cost perspective, quadrupling the resolution from full HD to 4K won’t quite double the camera price. However, on the recording side it will most definitely demand more than double the storage requirements when operating under the same conditions.

Bandwidth consumption is related to processor power available on the camera. For example, the average full HD cameras deliver about 6Mbps at 30 ips. On the bright side, some manufacturers are offering full HD models with advanced compression capabilities that can reduce bandwidth consumption to about 3Mbps, with the next iteration to handle 4K video at full HD bandwidth consumption levels. Additionally new compression standards such as H.265 HVEC (High Efficiency Video Encoding) will make higher resolution bandwidth more practical for surveillance.

So where does this leave you, 4K today or not just yet? For some customers a bigger number is frequently perceived as a better solution but surveillance installations should focus on the reason the system investment is being made in the first place; protection of personnel and protection of assets. It is far from a one size fits all decision and resolution is an important tool in the system solution.

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