Blackmagic ATEM: The Good, The Bad & The Ugly

Now that the review I wrote for Church Production Magazine is out, I feel I can write up a post about the switcher. Everything I said in the CPM review is still true and I’m not going to rehash that content here. Rather, I’m going to focus on the things I couldn’t say due to space limitations. 

The Good

The ATEM 1 M/E is a small switcher. It is only two rack spaces high, and about an inch deep (save for the 3” deep heat sink that occupies the center two thirds of the back). It should fit just about anywhere. The picture quality was more than acceptable, lag was so low as to be unnoticeable, and for the price point of the switch itself, it offers a good feature set. 

I liked the output section a lot; HD-SDI, a down-converted SD-SDI, analog component (HD or SD depending on the working resolution of the switcher) and down-converted SD analog composite. You also get three aux mixes, both SDI and HDMI multi-view outputs, plus a dedicated preview out on SDI. 

The software interface is clean, very usable and responsive. I like the fact that I could control the switch from my iPad if I wanted to; I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been setting up POV cameras on stage and wished I could switch to them without trudging back up to the booth. In software, you have access to every function—both set up and operational—of the switcher. That’s good. 

I also liked the inclusion of one analog component input; that’s nice for hooking up older high-end equipment that doesn’t have SDI out natively. On the other hand, that leads to some of the bad.

The Bad

While the switcher is marketed as an 8-input switch, inputs 1-4 are HDMI, 5 is analog component or SDI, while 6-8 are SDI. In current versions of the software, it’s not possible to re-assign the crosspoints on the surface, so if you are working in a live environment and using the SDI inputs (which is most likely), camera 1 is going to show up on input 5. I’m told re-assigning is in the pipeline and will be coming soon. 

The inclusion of HDMI inputs is a mystery to me. When I asked Blackmagic about it, they said they wanted to open up the world of inexpensive consumer cameras to live production. Their logic is that if you take a cheap camera, run HDMI out of it into the switcher, you’re getting the full resolution of the sensor without all that processing. Full 1080 i or p for a few hundred bucks! Well, that’s technically true.

However, there isn’t a single camera that’s sold at Best Buy that’s suitable for IMAG. A 1/4” or 1/3” imager is not adequate, the lenses are going to be too short for all the but smallest rooms (that don’t need IMAG), rear controls are not available and forget about CCUs. In short, aside from producing a picture, there is nothing about consumer cameras that make them in any way suitable for live production. And sending an HDMI signal more than 20-30 feet is a bit of a crap shoot.

In my mind, those HDMI inputs are a waste of input space. Sure, you could always externally convert SDI to HDMI, but that adds delay. And in live production, delay is not good.

The ATEM has no up, down or cross conversion ability. That means that every single source you want to get into it has to be exactly the same. Don’t even think about feeding a computer into it via the HDMI inputs; they won’t scan at true ATSC rates and won’t be recognized. UPDATE: Sometimes you can get a computer to work. It will depend on your graphics card, and what adapters you are using. Brad Weston has had success with a Mini-Display Port to HDMI adapter, which would cause the Mac to output proper video rates. I was trying to go from DVI to HDMI, which did not work. Others have found similar issues; sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. You can probably get it to work eventually, but it may take some trikery, such as DVI Doctor or similar. END UPDATE You’re likely going to need a stack of external mini-converters for an install of any size.

Tally is not included. I asked them about this at NAB and they seemed surprised that it was a big deal. To make tally work, you need to buy an external box ($600) that connects via Ethernet. I get that they’re trying to hit a price point, but tally is pretty much a requirement for live production, so why not just build it in?

While it’s very clever of them to have made the switch so small, I’m not sure why. In normal operation, it got really hot and I’m concerned about the long-term viability of all those components running that hot so close together. Every rack I’ve ever seen is at least 12” deep, so I’m not sure why the switcher is so tightly packaged.

The Ugly

There were some very interesting design decisions made here. While the densely populated switcher itself sports a USB-B connector (3.0 for streaming out or 2.0 for control), the surface has a mini-USB connector on it. Why? Why do I need to have two different cables to update the two components? 

The switcher, which does all the work, has a single power supply connector; while the surface, which is essentially an expensive keyboard has two. Since I have to have a computer connected to the switcher to do any configuration or management, that would be my backup surface should the main one fail. But if the power supply for the switcher goes out, well the party’s over.

Speaking of power supplies, neither the surface or the switch came with the required IEC cord. Now, we all probably have a pile of those lying around, but really? The surface feels rather cheap to me, though to be fair it’s in the same league as other small switchers from Panasonic, For-A and Sony. Those all feel cheap to me as well. When I unboxed the surface for the ATEM, all twelve of the menu buttons had popped out of their sockets and had to be re-seated. 

It wasn't a big deal to re-seat these, but it's telling that they arrived this way.

As previously mentioned, you have to have a computer connected to it to do any configuration or management. The menu structure on the surface doesn’t allow any resolution, set up, naming or clip store management at all. I’m all about networking equipment for remote control, but it’s nice to do basic set up on the surface. 

Conclusion

At the end of the day, the ATEM is a mystery to me. I’m not convinced that Blackmagic really understands our market based on the design decisions they made. If all you want is a 3-4 input switcher (to switch identical sources), and you don’t have a lot of money, there is really nothing else out there. At all. For $2,500 you could switch 3-4 SDI-based cameras with a computer and it would work just fine. Though I’m still concerned about heat dissipation.

If you need more than the 4 SDI inputs though, you’re really out of luck. And to do more than a small show, you really need a surface and tally, which means you’re looking at $8,100. Add in some mini-converters to get your SDI sources to HDMI and you’re getting dangerously close the price of a Ross CrossOver Solo, which is far, far more capable. 

So I suppose you could say they captured the bottom end of the market with the ATEM. But if you need (or plan on needing) more capability, I think you’re better off looking at other options. 

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