Review: MultiScreen

In this post I review the MultiScreen in-house TV System.

My school recently bought a system called MultiScreen, it’s a system that connects up to multiple TV’s to play promotional material, it consists of a Server Box purchased directly from MultiScreen with multiple AV outputs and the TV units which were purchased through a local electrical supplier.

Our setup consists of Two 42″ 1080p Plasma TV’s mounted onto the wall with the MultiScreen unit stored away with our servers. To connect the TV’s we ran coaxial cable and used the AV outputs on the MultiScreen box. One TV is about 10meters away while the other TV is about 50-100meters away.

The image quality leaves a lot to be desired, running on the 42″ Plasma TV’s we’re getting a slight fuzz to the picture and poor colour. This isn’t affected by the distance either, as both screens offer similar image quality. To make this worse, the MultiScreen unit is outputting at 800×600 resolution and ontop of that there is a black border around the screen that takes up about 1/5th of the screen on each side. Note that this isn’t “normal”, the MultiScreen guy who came out to do training advised me to contact their help desk, however I haven’t heard back from them (was only a few days ago).
Another notable thing is that the users manual suggests that images be resized to exactly 672×504 pixels, now imagine stretching that out to fit on a 42″ Plasma…. Click on the picture to see how big it is.Cat-ExploringtheFields
Note that there is no option for displaying different information on each screen, it only allows one single video output.

The software seems a little… Strange. It’s as if someone who has never used a computer has designed the software. Sure, it’s good if you’ve never really used a computer, but if you’re like me, you’ll be hunting around trying to work out what’s going on.
In the software, you build sequences of screens, each screen consists of a Background image with text you can put on top. It doesn’t support things like Layering or Transparency (the ability to display multiple images on one screen) though it does come with a load of transitions.
One of the interesting things I found was to do things like animations, you would create each frame in Photoshop, then display them one frame after another. Other than that, there’s no support for Animation (also note that it takes about a minute to set each frame up with no transition and to set it to show for 10th’s of a second).

As for displaying Video on it, you have to burn your Video to a DVD here’s what the manual says about it:
“Each programme on the DVD must be a separate title, from 01 to 99 and should have one second of black at the end. There must be no introductory title (ie. first play or auto play).”
That’s pretty restrictive, limiting you to only using DVD’s you’ve created especially for this purpose.
There’s no option to play video from a file, however I’ve been told that it is coming in a later version.

Onto the point of updates, I was told that to get the new version when it comes out, I would probably have to get a new MultiScreen Unit. Seeing as it’s really just a software thing, I can’t see any reason why they would need new hardware to run it, other than if the current hardware isn’t good enough.

The MultiScreen team seems to be very focused on Support, from the moment I got the machine, they were calling me again and again to plug the unit into the network so it could access the internet. It’s a company policy to not allow remote access to third parties into our school, I told them no, they called back and asked if we were sure where I told them no again, then the Network Administrator told them no as well. After that they didn’t complain 😉 Their reasons for network access was so that they could perform “remote diagnostics” and provide support.

Most users don’t need to worry about this section, it’s only covering potential security threats and worst case scenarios.
With the machine, it has 3 types of remote access software installed:
LogMeIn – Used to remote control the screen from anywhere in the world
UltraVNC – Does exactly the same thing (Wait, what?)
Hamachi – Zero Configuration VPN software.
Now, LogMeIn is relatively secure, it requires the administrator to log in to the LogMeIn interface online to get access, however if not good if you don’t trust the Administrator.
UltraVNC isn’t a threat as it requires open ports.
Hamachi on the other hand gives them complete access to the machine, they could use Hamachi to tunnel in to use UltraVNC as well. It’s similar to LogMeIn in terms of what they’re capable of doing, but could also allow an attacker access too if they could get onto the Hamachi network.
All of these may or may not have the capability to bypass our Proxy server, but haven’t been tested.
While I would love to rip into it and pull the whole thing apart, two things are stopping me: The licencing agreement (stating that I’m not allowed to disassemble/play with anything) and the fact that there’s no restore media. If I break it, I have to get them back in to restore the whole lot.

The MultiScreen unit is a Windows PC running Windows XP SP3, it has a Pentium Dual Core 2.5ghz, 1gb RAM and an nVidia GeForce 8400GS. Along with the MultiScreen software installed on the machine, it included LogMeIn, Hamachi and UltraVNC.
As for connections, it has: Ethernet USB, VGA/DVI/SVideo (On the nVidia 8400GS), Video/Audio In/Out (RCA Plugs), Video/Audio Out + RF Connection (On another card) and 2xRJ45 connections for Assessory Keypads.

I’m not really a fan of it. The low quality of the graphics, the poor usability, lack of flexibility, paid upgrades and especially the bugginess of it all detract from what would be a great idea.

I would have liked to have commented on the price of the unit, however no one is willing the answer me on the price, I’ve emailed MultiScreen and got an answer along the lines of “It depends on what you’re doing” (followed by “What does Duklabs do anyway?”), I sent them a scenario (1 Unit, 1 Screen, no extras) and they have failed to get back to me. The only indication of price was from the training guy who simply said “It costs a lot.”

For more information on the MultiScreen, please see their Website here.

I’ve thought of a way to do the same thing that includes: Full 1080p video playback on every screen, wireless transmission of the video/screens, very high scalability, minimal signal loss, no “Central Core”, completely open source and all at a cost of about $400-$500 per screen (not including the price of the screen). If you’re interested, comment on the blog or chuck me an email and I’ll discuss what I have in mind.

As always, any questions about it, just send me an email or comment on this post and I’ll get back to you ASAP.


EDIT: After a bit of to and froing with Multiscreen, their prices are about $95 a week for a relatively simple setup (say, running a few screens off one box). This works out at a bit under $5000 per year.
EDIT2: I’ve looked into another product from a competitor called SpinetiX. Their units are buy outright, support high definition video, different video on each screen and the software looks nicer.
The RRP of SpinetiX is $2999 per unit, though they offer discounts for anything, after talking about giving it a trial run, they offered $2200.
I really would love to get an evaluation unit from them to give it a shot and post a review.
(And strangely enough, it took about 10 emails back and forth to even get a price from them. What is with companies these days not wanting to tell you the prices of their products?)

EDIT3 – 3rd Feb 10:  After waiting 5 months for a solution to the Black borders around the screen problem, it got fixed in an update. We were also informed that the ability to run video off the hard drive would be an extra cost, thankfully before I could rage at them, they decided to throw it in free because we waited so long for the update (I thought I’d also add, they’re using the K-Lite Mega Codec pack to provide the codecs for the video).

EDIT4 – 22nd November 10: The LCD Screen supplied with the unit died (BenQ screen). It’s a simple warranty job, I contacted them via email and received no response, I contacted them via email and their web contact form but still received no response.