Streaming has become a vital medium for communication, with applications ranging from broadcasting live events to delivering educational content, but streaming live video typically requires a producer to use several different pieces of hardware and software. AJA’s HELO, however, offers streaming and encoding/recording capabilities in a compact, all-in-one package.
A standalone streaming and recording appliance with 3G-SDI and HDMI I/O options, AJA’s HELO is designed for live production, with multiple workflow options to fit any environment. The portable device offers simultaneous streaming to CDNs while encoding and recording H.264 files to SD card, USB storage device or network storage. Streaming takes place over Ethernet.
Its $1,295 price point makes it practical for use at a small studio or on the rack in a broadcast truck. HELO can accept input via HDMI or SDI up to 2K 60 (note that 2K video will be center cropped to 1080p) and output a stream up to 1080p60. Streaming and recording can be started or stopped via buttons on the front of the unit.
AJA recently started shipping HELO and I had the opportunity to test an early production model. Let’s take a look at the feature set.
HELO is small and weighs less than 1 lb., making it eminently portable, and it’s built to withstand the rigors of travel. The device is designed to reside on an Ethernet network. HELO can be set up, configured and updated with new firmware via AJA eMini-Setup software or HELO’s web browser interface. Connect to HELO from a host computer either via HELO’s direct USB port or over the network using HELO’s web server-generated UI.
Initial setup to a network requires connecting to a host computer and running eMini-Setup, where you’ll be able to set a fixed IP address or obtain one over the network via DHCP. Though the documentation does not explicitly state it, HELO must be connected both by USB and Ethernet during this configuration process. Once the IP address has been set, the USB can be disconnected. Thereafter, HELO can be configured via a web interface simply by typing that IP address into a browser. AJA recommends Safari on a Mac, while Firefox and Chrome are among the recommended PC browsers. I tested the unit using Firefox for Mac and did not experience problems. For those concerned about security, HELO can be configured to require a password to use the configuration web interface.
HELO has both HDMI and SDI inputs. Input source must be set in the configuration setup interface. It is unfortunate that the device does not auto-detect source video. Note that 2K inputs are center cut to 1080p and are only supported on SDI input. Furthermore, there is no switching capability between HDMI and SDI inputs. Any switching would require the user to add an external switcher, which would presumably be connected via SDI. I experimented with several HDMI and SDI cameras set to output 1080i—all of them worked seamlessly with HELO.
HELO also has SDI and HDMI outputs. Note, however, that this output is simply a pass-through of the input source. There is no monitoring of the encoded signal other than monitoring the web stream.
In addition to a record button and a stream button for one-touch access to these features, the front of the unit offers a USB 2.0 external storage connector and an SD card slot. HELO can send encoded video to either output in v1.0, though not both simultaneously. AJA plans to enable simultaneous recording to both outputs in an upcoming firmware release.
I am surprised that AJA chose USB 2.0 rather the 3.0 standard for its external storage port. No doubt USB 2.0 can support the bandwidth of H.264-encoded material, but the choice seems somewhat regressive in this era of higher transfer rate USB interfaces.
Rounding out the I/O options, HELO features embedded audio support and dual 1/8-inch audio jacks for audio monitoring.
HELO configuration can be complex—it is most definitely not a purely plug-and-play appliance. This is a sophisticated piece of professional gear that requires some knowledge of streaming protocols and of settings for specific content delivery networks. However, once parameters for a specific CDN or stream have been set, they can be stored as presets and then simply loaded by the operator as needed. Thus, less technically minded users can easily select a preset, launch the CDN interface and begin streaming immediately by pressing the stream button on the front of the unit.
HELO is an encoder first and foremost. Users should understand that HELO via Ethernet cannot be treated as an input source by a third-party streaming solution such as Telestream’s Wirecast. While not seen as a source in Wirecast, HELO works well with the RTSP input option, and it can also pull in RTMP streams with Wirecast Pro’s Webstream Capture. This could extend the versatility of HELO by allowing its output to be combined with other sources, virtual sets, titling and all of the other capabilities of Wirecast. It is possible to do so now by sending the SDI output (which is at input resolution) into a capture card, such as one of AJA’s capture devices, and using that input as a source. However, that would require using the host computer for encoding rather than the more efficient dedicated HELO on-board encoding.
HELO supports RTMP, RTSP/RTP, unicast and multi-unicast protocols. The documentation provides a basic configuration setup with several content streaming services. I tested with YouTube Live; while at first glance the setup was not obvious, the documentation helped. YouTube Live was a simple configuration—the manual notes that YouTube Live requires the HELO default H.264 Main preset. Experienced users will greatly benefit from the numerous parameter adjustments, including output, screen geometry, data rate and compression settings, among others.
I see a strong market for HELO in higher-end production environments, where there will be more than sufficient technical expertise available to optimize its encoding and output settings. Its 1080p60 capability makes it suitable for applications like sports that require both a broadcast feed and a high-quality web stream.
HELO gives content creators a straightforward and cost-effective appliance for both live streaming and recording of compressed content. Its embedded web server makes control and configuration simple. From there, it is literally push-button streaming.
Pros: A compact, lightweight and cost-effective all-in-one streaming and recording device. Streams up to 1080p60 and accepts multiple inputs up to 2K center crop. Push-button streaming and recording. Multiple record options.
Cons: Configuration can be complex. SDI and HDMI inputs cannot auto-select. No switching capability between HDMI and SDI sources. USB 2.0 external storage interface rather than USB 3.0. Strictly an encoder/recorder.
Bottom Line: The results make the configuration intricacies worthwhile. HELO offers both encoding and recording in a popularly priced device. It is useful for any streaming content creator but will be particularly useful in broadcast and high-end environments where 1080p streaming is a necessity.