Camera technology is not the only reason it's an exciting time to be a filmmaker. Manufacturers such as AJA, Atomos, Blackmagic Design, Convergent Design and others offer increasingly inexpensive solutions for bolstering and customizing camera workflow -- especially when it comes to external media recording and monitoring. Some of these devices provide functionality shooters have long sought after, and still others bring capabilities some of us may never have even dreamed of. The Teradek Cube is one such device, and here is the first part of my full review.
Teradek is a manufacturer of next-gen wireless video technologies, a notably different mission than the aforementioned companies. Some of Teradek's offerings include the Bolt, for zero-latency HD-SDI transmission, and the Bond, for video streaming over cellular network. This post concerns the Cube, for real-time encoding and streaming of H.264 video. The Cube 155 HD-SDI encoder can transmit over 2.5/5 GHz WiFi or ethernet via LAN or even the internet. Its stream can be received by computer, iOS device, and Cube 355 HD-SDI decoder or 455 HDMI decoder. Its HDMI encoding brethren, the Cube 255, can do the same. The following points mainly concern the 155 HD-SDI encoder, but may, to lesser extents, also apply to the HDMI model and either of the decoders.
In exploration of the Teradek Cube and its capabilities, the phrase which comes most strongly to mind is 'power through versatility.' By virtue of its design the Cube can do borderline revolutionary things, some of which it can do at the same time, all the while able to be powered and controlled in multiple ways at once. As such, the operational flexibility it offers is rather astounding, providing myriad potential deployments -- to the point where my expectations for any camera-related piece of gear have been irrevocably raised. At the risk of hardly scratching the surface of what the device can do, the following points are those, I believe, which best sum up the powerful versatility of the Teradek Cube.
1. WiFi Means Cable-Free Camera Feeds with No Boundaries
Though it my seem obvious given the Cube's job description, there's a lot to be said for wireless video monitoring. "Cut the cable" is, after all, Teradek's catch phrase. Now, you wouldn't necessarily want to use the Cube in lieu of the more purpose-built Bolt for mission-critical applications such as monitoring for wireless focus pulling -- but in dire circumstances you could make do. With a Cube already in play, the option to do so is there. Conversely, an iPad can easily fill in as a director's eyes on frenetic run-and gun shots. Since iOS streams don't carry audio, a laptop with VLC presents a low-budget solution for Cube decoding when remote performance monitoring, sound included, is needed.
If both audio and high-mobility are necessary, a battery-powered SmallHD with Cube decoder and headphones splits the difference between the prior two configurations. If a larger monitor village is a must-have but a long HD-SDI tether is impractical or prohibitive, the decoder again comes in handy. Even at relatively low (i.e., 2.5 Mbps) bitrates, Cube outputs a very reasonable 1080p in either the native framerate or a more NTSC-friendly time base, cross-converted in real-time, by a 355 or 455 decoder. Depending on the number of clients the network is serving, the bitrate can be pushed higher. Again, if it isn't up to quality standards, a more traditional solution may have to suffice -- but the Cube gives you the option.
Perhaps the most significant thing about the WiFi aspect of the device in particular is the implication of the Cube's 'infrastructure' mode. Though the little guy can easily create its own ad-hoc wireless local area network, it can, much more importantly, tie into a WiFi infrastructure of your own design. This means that unlike it's direct-linked cousin the Bolt, the Cube is not limited by its own point-to-point signal range. Instead, its throw need only be limited by the reach of the network you have put in place, which is theoretically infinitely expandable. The Teradek Case is a slim Pelican-bound Mac Mini Server with Apple Airport Extreme Base Station designed exactly for this purpose. (Photos of Teradek Cube & Case, above & at right, courtesy Talamas Sales and Rentals).
2. WiFi Also Means Hands-Free, Remote Control & Configuration
There is another convenient and greatly significant by-product of the Cube's WiFi nativity -- remote control. The Cube can be extensively configured using the few basic button/stick controls on its face, but once it's hooked into WiFi infrastructure everything can be set-up remotely. This occurs via TeraCentral (free) on either a computer connected to the same WiFi network, or an iPad connected to that Network, or both. Given the Cube's MO this seems totally obvious, but it's huge -- count one less camera peripheral that needs to be hovered over by a crew or camera team-member for set-up, and you have one less crowded camera.
Given both WiFi-based monitoring and control (not to mention remote recording, see below), you have a device with very few peers -- off the top of my head, the original Ki Pro is one outboard recorder with available WiFi control, and GoPro offers the niftiness of both monitoring and control. In many circumstances, a pre-config of any device may be enough to alleviate most concerns of complicating a camera set-up. But when that simply isn't enough to easily troubleshoot in the field with a multitasking team, dedicated/remote iPad or laptop control could be a godsend. Or not: just as it can stream over ethernet in lieu of WiFi, the Cube's web UI can also be accessed over wired network connection if preferred or necessary.
3. Real-Time Cross-Conversion
The Cube isn't picky when it comes to the flavor of video, either. It can accept basically any resolution and frame-rate combination you throw at it, up to 1080i60, 1080p30, and 720p60 -- integer and non-integer. It also readily accepts/recognizes 24PsF, and has an active deinterlacer, which can be disabled if you need to do so for some reason. Between two stages of settings in the encoder (i.e., input: 1080PsF24; stream: 720p24) and the output of the decoder, you can up, down, and cross-convert both resolution and frame rate, in real-time, to your heart's content.
In both the input and output/stream settings, running the 155 encoder in 'automatic' should be all that you need in most circumstances. Of course, it depends on the camera output, but these things are at least standardized enough for the Cube to work with you on pretty much any terms. Even the mighty Ki Pro (much beloved by myself), which is quite flexible in terms of input specs, will in-convert resolution-wise and not frame rate-wise. Such features, once again, highlight the down-and-dirtiness of the Cube.
4. Cube is an External Recorder -- With 3 Media Destination Options
The Cube can also play double-duty as an on-camera recording unit. Built as it is upon everything above, this isn't to be disregarded. No matter what settings you choose, you're talking H.264 of varying resolution, frame rate, and bitrate. But, much more importantly, the Cube doesn't care what storage it's recording to -- which is not something many other external recorders can claim. The Cube can record to Micro SD card, hooked-in flash drive, or, most significantly, remote NFS server. In practice, any folder on a remotely connected computer can be configured as an NFS server, essentially allow the Cube to beam recorded files onto your desktop machine as they're happening. This option unlocks one of the true latent powers of the unit.
Like many other recorders, the Cube 155 can capture SDI-embedded audio and be configured to trigger recording via time code (rec-run) or SDI metadata. In the case of RED, metadata such as file name, time code, and start/stop flags are read by the Cube, producing identical H.264 versions of camera-original RAW files. Similarly, in the case of Alexa, Cube reads start/stop and TC to create variable container (.mp4, .mov, etc.) H.264 versions of takes. In other words: this feature, combined with remote WiFI recording to computer folders, equals instant dailies. If you were wondering how Light Iron's Live Play & Todailies apps can provide iPad access to freshly recorded takes as insta-dailies -- the Cube is the part of the key.
This feature allows playback to be decentralized from the primary camera unit and becomes independently distributed among anyone with iPad access to Live Play. The camera team is freed to keep on trucking, not having to stop for reviewing takes. Functionally, this is similar to how film in the magazine only goes one direction, while video tap footage can be wound back for review -- except now, everyone has random access to any specific point they need to play back. And, in an indie environment where H.264 proxies are good enough to start offline editing, the Cube could even take the place of a more robust ProRes or DNxHD-type recorder.
5. On-Board Power Redundancy & Flexibility
Just as the Cube is fairly unique in its recording media agnosticism, it also doesn't care how it's juiced. The 155 provides both a 2-pin Lemo DC connection, easily adaptable to P-Tap or 4-pin XLR, or a micro-USB link. Between those ports and the accessories Teradek provides for a disgusting array of battery types -- Panasonic CGA-D54, Panasonic VW-VBG6 or CGA-E/625 Battery, Sony B Series, Sony L Series, Sony M Series, & Canon BP-970G, all for the 2-pin Lemo connection -- you can find a way to power the unit.
More importantly, the 155 unit contains a Lithium-Ion battery. You wouldn't want to operate indefinitely on the internal power, but it provides redundancy for when both camera and outboard devices need to brick-swap. For any device -- particularly the Cube, which operates on a mostly non-mission-critical basis and does in fact boot rather slowly -- this is important because it means no downtime. Outboard recorders such as the Ki Pro siblings, HyperDeck Shuttle, Ninja-2, and others require full-time external DC power to operate. Not that this is a deal-breaker for any of these devices, but self-provided power can mean one less thing to worry about.
6. Size & Mountability
Finally, the most obvious attribute of the Cube's small footprint is its physical size. At 2.5 x 3.5 x .9 inches, the Cube is rather tiny, and at 8 ounces, very light-weight. It wouldn't quite be fair to compare it to other recorders in this regard, as the other devices mentioned capture much greater-fidelity media than the Cube. However, if you are using the Cube as your only external recorder, it's certainly not going to weigh your rig down or obstruct you much by its physical presence. And with its ability to be mounted by either direct 1/4"-20 or hot shoe, you won't have too hard a time affixing the unit.
Wireless Video & Recording, 'Cubed'
The Teradek Cube does not necessarily replace any traditional extra-camera device -- nor does it really set out to -- aside from older analog solutions for wireless video transmission. What it does do is pretty much up to you. The Cube provides some fairly simple services, specialized as they may be, and leaves their implications up to a given application to harness them. To hear of experiences both good and bad with an earlier iteration of the Cube, check out Evan Luzi's writeup in the links below.
As a device, it definitely has its own learning curve and set of quirks. For your purposes the Cube may even constitute a superfluous piece of gear -- especially with its price starting at around $1,000 going up to a few thousand (depending on the model and encoder/decoder options), making it more of a rental for people who don't need its capabilities very often (rentals would likely be a few hundred or less). At the same time, it creates opportunities that have previously been impossible to shooters, and a variety of ways to approach them. I appreciate the "well, why not" design principle at the heart of the Teradek Cube and its unrestrictive openness of operation. Flexibility increases the value of any device, as adaptability allows for new uses instead of obsoletion. In short: it's always nice to have the option.