Review: NewTek™ TriCaster® Mini 4K

We all have stories to tell. From community churches spreading gospel, to businesses reaching customers, to schools connecting with students and parents–stories are being told every day. Over the last several years though, the tools being used to tell these stories and the way in which these stories are being delivered has gone through a fundamental shift.

NewTek has been at the forefront of this shift ever since the launch of the TriCaster live production system. Gone are the days of massive “big iron” production switchers, expensive recording decks, complicated graphic systems, cryptic playout engines, master controls, matrix routers, up/down/cross converters, armies of technical staff and SDI cables…Wait. What was that last thing?

NewTekTriCaster® Mini 4K

NewTek’s TriCaster live production system platform took a huge leap forward with the introduction of the TriCaster Mini 4K earlier this year. Unlike TriCaster Mini’s of the past, this powerful production system has no physical I/O connections making it the first 100% NDI ® based production system in the world.

Before we get too deep under the hood of the new TriCaster Mini 4K, you might be asking, “What is NDI?” Simply put, NDI ® (which is short for Network Device Interface) is a high-performance, low-latency standard developed by NewTek to enable video to move across everyday data networks with simplicity, flexibility, and scalability. Of course, NDI is far more than just video, and we could spend an entire review just on the protocol itself, but for the sake of this review, know that NDI is rapidly displacing traditional baseband footprints by leveraging the power of IP networks. To learn more about NDI ®, go to https://ndi.tv/

At first look, the TriCaster Mini 4K looks like Mini’s of the past. The cool, smooth, black case emblazoned with the signature thin, blue glow ring feels very “NewTek’y,” but as you circumvent the small box looking for video connections, you quickly realize that this is not like any older TriCaster Mini. SDI or HDMI connectors have now been replaced by PoE enabled network ports labeled as “NDI” ports. This allows direct connection of up to four NDI devices such as PTZ cameras or Spark Plus™ boxes. Additionally, the TriCaster Mini 4K has two (2) gigabit network ports to connect TriCaster® to a myriad of other devices that may reside on the network.

 Figure 1: TriCaster Mini 4K back panel

This configuration of network ports, combined with incredibly powerful internal processing, allows the TriCaster Mini 4K to process up to eight (8) NDI connected video sources at any one time. What’s even more impressive is that these can be any (standard) video format, resolution, or frame rate from SD on up to 2160p at 60 frames (59.94) and with any combination of formats as the TriCaster Mini 4K will scale and convert mixed formats, resolutions, and frame rates automatically.

This is a huge deal when you think about the variety of sources that might be involved in a production.  Most everyday productions might include a wide range of sources from PTZ cameras with varying output resolutions and frame rates, to laptop computers, to cell phones.  The TriCaster Mini 4K makes handling of these different sources incredibly easy by scaling everything to match your desired output format. Mixing 480, 720, 1080, and 4K formats used to require a rack of converters, frame syncs, scalers, and more. With the TriCaster Mini 4K, these are now doorstops and boat anchors.

The TriCaster Mini 4K also has four (4) independent NDI outputs. Now, from this one little box, a show can be told to an in-house audience, while also routing a completely different feed to an overflow audience or driving different content to talent while also sending yet an entirely different mix to a cable channel.

If that wasn’t enough, the TriCaster Mini 4K can also send up to two simultaneous streams to a wide range of social platforms including YouTube, Facebook Live, Vimeo, and more.  Once configured, it is as simple as clicking a button. With continued restrictions around Covid-19 protocols, it has never been easier to produce a high-quality show while reaching your audience on the platforms they already know and use.

Setup and Ease of Use

For those of us who have been in the broadcast production space a long time, we still like to hold on to our BNC connectors, scopes, and patch panels. There was something comforting about twisting a connector to the back of a monitor and seeing video instantly. The thought of snapping an RJ-45 connector into anything was cringe-worthy because it meant that “IT” would need to get involved.

For those of us still hanging on, let’s get real for a little bit. The reality these days is that nearly every electronic device has an IP address, requires a network connection, and might even need to access the internet in order to function.

NewTek’s engineers have clearly worked hard to make the out-of-box experience about as easy as possible. From cutting open the box to working on a production is about a 10-minute process.  What makes NDI ® so special is that much of how it works by default is automated. The built-in NDI ports on the TriCaster® Mini 4K will automatically find any direct connect NDI device and assign it a unique IP address, even if the TriCaster Mini 4K is not on a network. This is great for fast setup remote productions where some PTZ cameras might be setup and connect directly to the TriCaster Mini 4K using standard Cat-6 ethernet cabling. With the built-in ports being PoE, no other power or network devices or configuration are needed (assuming the cameras are PoE and NDI capable).

Figure 2: TriCaster Mini 4K workflow chart

For devices that may exist on an established network, the two (2) built-in gigabit ethernet ports will give you plenty of flexibility to configure the TriCaster Mini 4K on an existing network where it can coexist with traditional data environments, although, in my experience I would prefer to keep my NDI devices on a separate VLAN.

Traditional Sources

So, you may be asking, “What if I have SDI or HDMI sources I want to still use?” Since not everything has an NDI port on it, NewTek includes two (2) Spark PlusTM IO 4K modules with each TriCaster® Mini 4K.  These are bi-directional conversion boxes that will convert HDMI to NDI or NDI to HDMI. For those with SDI sources, NewTek offers the Spark Plus IO SDI that does the same conversion, but for SDI devices.  Note that the SDI flavor of the Spark Plus only goes up to 1080p/60.

These devices can be direct connected to the NDI ports on the TriCaster Mini 4K or can be connected anywhere on the network for added connectivity of devices, or outputs.

UI and Control

One of the great things about NewTekTM TriCaster® products is that the user interface is the same regardless of the hardware platform. This means a user that might have experience producing an event on a larger platform, like a TriCaster® TC1 or TriCaster® 2 Elite, will have the same user experience on a TriCaster® Mini 4K.

For those who may have never produced a show on a TriCaster®, the interface may feel overwhelming initially because the product can do so much. The product is a switcher, streamer, recorder, graphics tool, scaler, and even has virtual sets. With so many features, it can be easy to get wrapped around the axle a bit when first starting. I can say that it doesn’t take long to get going though once you have some time to work around the interface and understand the tools available.

To help with control, NewTekTM recently added a premium feature called LivePanelTM to every TriCaster® Mini 4k.  LivePanelTM used to be a paid add-on that was part of NewTek’s Premium Access subscription service. With LivePanel, users can now control the TriCaster Mini 4K from any mobile device on the network, like an iPad or a smartphone.  Furthermore, LivePanel supports the creation of macro events so that complex switches, DVE moves, and camera angles can be pre-configured within the LivePanel setup interface and then executed by a single button press on a mobile device.

I really like this functionality in places like churches that depend heavily on volunteers to drive productions. Advanced operators can now create simple interfaces for novice users to produce professional-looking events all in an easy to use interface.

So Much More

There really is so much more to like about the TriCaster® Mini 4K than what we can cover in this review.  If you want to produce a professional event or show, record it, stream it, control it, and produce in a wide range of formats up to 4K, well, it is really hard to beat the value of this product. NDI is clearly a game-changer, and now with 4K support, anyone can tell their story, and look good doing so.

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