Henninger Media Services is always on the lookout for hot new technologies that can improve the services we offer, so I welcomed the opportunity to test the Anystream Agility workgroup encoder with open arms. Henninger uses encoding in many aspects of its production cycle, whether for review and approval or for viewing footage for shot selection on PCs, so I was intrigued to see how this high-speed, automated software could hold practical benefits for us. Specifically, we had an interest in evaluating whether Agility could lower the cost of services that we provide to our political, government and trade association clientele.
My preconception of Agility Workgroup is that it is probably like Cleaner, only on a big dose of steroids. While I always knew that Agility would deliver speed and capacity - it outputs more formats and data rates than you can imagine - I welcomed the opportunity to run the product through its paces and see if there was more to it than performance.
What you'll need to get started
Agility Workgroup is optimized for dual-Pentium systems (PIII or greater) with at least 256 MB of memory, running Windows 2000/NT. Even though Agility Workgroup only runs on the Windows operating system, it provides support for Macintosh users by enabling encoding job submission to the Agility Workgroup server via their bundled Mac client. Agility's installation was pain-free, and I was up and running in no time.
From the very beginning, you know you are working with a different animal. Agility is not just an application (like Cleaner) that can be used by one person, but it's also a fully networked server solution allowing many users to submit jobs for encoding (hence the name "Workgroup").
To use the system, you need to set up profiles for your jobs that cover much more than just encoding settings. They also cover preprocessor settings, the output encoders you'll use, notifications, distribution options (such as custom file naming for completed files), where the final files should be sent, and how they should be transmitted. The system comes standard with a wide range of profiles, so you can experiment with those as well. Once you have your profiles, your team can simultaneously submit many jobs to the system and associate specific profiles to each. Agility's profile system delivers huge time savings for your editors who can now reuse profiles created by your encoding experts for similar projects or clients.
Agility in action
I tested Agility Workgroup SE, Anystream's lowest priced model that is perfect for our Avid editing environment. The SE version only inputs media in digital file form, while the CE version can capture directly from tape and live feeds, and the XE throws in live Webcasting and everything but the kitchen sink.
Mirroring a typical Henninger project cycle, I exported a QuickTime reference file from an Avid-edited documentary into an Agility watch folder. Agility's folder attendant, which enables profiles to be associated with file folders (directories) for unattended processing, automatically picked up the job and matched it with the profile I'd selected. Agility applied color correction and cropping, encoded the 30-minute segment into MPEG-2 (2 Mbps), and posted the finished file to Henninger's intranet where anyone on our editing team could review the source footage from laptop computers. Agility worked like a charm and even sent me an email letting me know that the job was done.
Next, we teed up a bunch of short clips and built profiles that required more extensive preprocessing (inverse telecine, temporal smoothing, noise reduction) and nine separate outputs (Real, Microsoft, QuickTime in 56, 100 and 300 Kbps each). The result? What had taken us six hours to render on our Avid's took Agility Workgroup a little over twenty minutes , leaving our Avid's free for billable editing work. This tremendous speed - coupled with boutique-quality output, had our encoding guys doing handstands.
A few of our favorite thingsâ€¦
There are several features that are sure to get your team jazzed. Let's start with preprocessing once for multiple outputs - this is a terrific timesaver over having to repeatedly preprocess for each encoder. You'll also love Agility's preprocessing preview window, which provides a side-by-side comparison of how your video will look "before" and "after" you actually apply the preprocessor settings. Automatic timecodes were another plus. Instead of having to encode and post an entire event and burn the timecode in later, Agility lets you add the timecodes during the encodes.
About the only thing that left me flat was Agility's dull user interface. While it's extremely functional and feature-rich, the company could work on making the product sexier looking. Another nit was somewhat cryptic error messages, which Anystream's support team resolved nicely but should be documented in the online help.
But can we afford it?
Another downside to Agility has always been the price tag. The good news is that Anystream is listening to the market as has taken good strides on the affordability front.
The folks at Anystream have wisely taken steps to price Agility Workgroup for those of us whose encoding volume will never reach that of its high-end customers, like CNN or Exodus (formerly Digital Island). Agility Workgroup now starts at under $15,000 for the SE version (the product we tested for digital file input - ideal for Avid workflows like ours) and rumors are that the company will unveil lower prices as soon as this month.
The bottom line: Agility Workgroup is so fast, reliable and efficient that I know longer wonder why its users are such fanatical devotees. If all you do is use Agility as a delivery alternative to couriering tapes or DVDs around town, the system will pay for itself in weeks. Agility gives you the speed, cycles and capacity to do this worry-free, all the time.