Friday, July 19, 2013

An afternoon visit with Extron

I've not talked about Extron here recently since my visit to Anaheim for their training school nearly two years ago. Since then, two Infocomms have come and gone without Extron's once expected presence, but they've still been at least somewhat on our collective radar as one of the major players in the industry. In lieu of making trade show appearances, they've focused their outreach efforts on creating a network of local demonstration and training facilities. Today was my first visit to the facility here in New York. It's not as much fun as flying out to Anaheim, and they don't have anything as impressive here as the labor of love that is the Saloon (a great live-performance space showcasing some of their products, as well as local Country Western musicians), but it's a heck of a lot more convenient. So what did I find there? Read on!

This is what you get when you take an application diagram
and bring it to life.
The demo room was clean and modern, with quite a few of Extron's product lineup on display. They had, amongst other things, a live demo of the XTP digital matrix system. XTP, of course, is Extron's digital video matrix. It's their answer to Crestron Digital Media, AMX Enova, Purelink PM, and about a dozen other similar products. The demo was very nicely presented on a wall printed with the  system diagram, including cutouts for some of the live and running system elements.

Extron announced that, as of tomorrow, pricing will be available through their online "configurator" utility for XTP systems. This, of course ,is a big step towards being able to evaluate XTP against other solutions.

How does it fare?

It's largely quite familiar to anyone who's used a digital media switch in the past few years. Input blades fit into a 16x16 or 32x32 card frame, accepting HDMI, 'XTP', and DVI inputs. Outputs are XTP or HDMI only.
At 5RU for a 16x16 and 10 for a 32x32 it falls between the AMX Enova DGX (4 and 6RU, respectively) and Crestron DM (7 RU for a 16x16, 14RU for a 32x32). Unlike the AMX product, there's no onboard control processor. Unlike Crestron, there's no USB transport. There is, as of yet, no 8x8 or 64x64 option.

 Like the AMX Enova DGX, it will power a number of cards through the frame with no additional hardware. Like Crestron Digital Media, it offers full audio breakaway. Unlike the above solutions, it is not interoperable with other HDBaseT solutions. This is starting to become a concern as display manufacturers are adding native HDBaseT inputs. Extron claims a high level of support (to the point at which they will commission each XTP system without charge to the integrator). They also claim a very high level of testing, and that no parts of the system will be delivered that aren't thoroughly checked out and guaranteed to work with the widest possible variation of endpoints. The demo system we saw worked well enough, but switching speeds were inconsistent, sometimes taking two seconds or longer. Other solutions, at present, appear to be faster. On the roadmap are fiber input and output cards, possibly SDI input cards, and decora-style transmitters.  There also might be larger switchers.

What it appears that there will not be is an "all-in-one" system similar to the Crestron DMPS or AMX Enova DVX. Instead, Extron's lower-cost all-in-one IN- series devices will continue to use the lower cost DTP extension system, leaving the HDBaseT compliant XTP for the larger matrices. This likely means that the IN systems will never be interoperable with native HDBaseT inputs on displays or with third-party extenders. It's their tradeoff for lower cost.

The other interesting topic of discussion, and something legitimately new to me, is the announcement that their VN-matrix 250 streaming appliance (using the proprietary Pure3 Codec) is HDCP compatible. When I asked what that means, I was told that it encrypts a stream which can be decoded by VN decoders only. It will NOT be decoded by the  VNR recorder, and the receive side will give a green screen if connected to a non-HDCP compliant display. THis is the first HDCP-enabled streaming solution I've seen, and it's definitely nice to have as an option.

The tour wouldn't be complete without a moment in their classroom proper. It sports a 4x2 LCD video wall driven, of course, by Extron's Quantum Elite video wall processor. They did a nice job of showing off the processor's capabilities, including upscaling images to the entire wall, downscaling to display literally over a hundred windows, and the addition of text overlays and time stamps.

There was time for a brief discussion of all things Extron, including their audio products. One thing which may be in the roadmap is Dante support for their XPA series of amps. XPA is one of the Extron lines with which I'm quite pleased; they're small (1RU or less), energy-efficient, dissipate heat out the sides so they can be stacked, and have no fans (and, therefore, no fan noise). The DMP audio processors are simple, fixed-architecture audio processors better suited for simple systems than the larger, more complex and more demanding systems for which one would want an open-architecture system.

All things considered, it was nice having a visit with Extron and nice getting the chance to again see in person their commitment to professionalism and customer service. Will this be enough for them to catch up in the digital video switching arena? They clearly aren't there yet, but I remain open to being convinced as they roll out more products and refine the ones already there. Time will tell.