SAFARI Montage

It's always a pleasure when new products live up to their billing. In the case of SAFARI Montage, this video-on-demand appliance exceeds expectations. Built on a standard server chassis, the unit comes fully loaded with more than 1,000 video titles from publishers such as A&E, PBS, National Geographic, Scholastic, Schlessinger Media, and the BBC.

Montage comes with a large selection of video from well-known publishers.

Company: SAFARI Montage/Library Video Co.;
System Requirements: School or district network
Price/Grade: Hardware starts at $2,495; content licensing starts at $1,000 per year/K-12
Pros: Easy setup, reliable; reasonably priced; exceptional selection of broadcast-quality digital media; intuitive dashboard; ability to integrate and stream homemade media.
Cons: Requires some administrative management; users experience several-second delay between selections within a play list; somewhat slower than buffered streaming media or locally stored files.

Installation was nearly plug and play; the only configuration necessary was assignment of an IP address and administrator password, which were taken care of by SAFARI's local installation technician.

The user interface, called the dashboard, is well designed and easy to use. All functions are controlled through a Web browser. The user can search for media by keyword and limit the search with any combination of grade level, publisher, or copyright date. Educators can also search for titles by subject or state standards. Some titles have additional materials, such as teachers' guides, prewritten quizzes, or data sheets for use in the classroom available. The ones I reviewed were of good quality.

After selecting a video, the dashboard changes to reveal the various available video segments. The user can use the entire video, preselected segments, or select a custom segment that can then be saved in a playlist. Additional segments from the same or other videos can then be added to the playlist, allowing the educator to create custom video presentations of any length.

For example, the system had a PBS program about Chicago in its original form of five episodes. I could choose to play the whole piece, but I could also play a single episode, such as the one about how engineers changed the direction of the Chicago River.

If I wanted to narrow it down to the environmental effects on Chicago's downstream neighbors, I could single out that segment.

According to the manufacturer, one Montage server can support as many as 55 simultaneous streams, assuming a minimum 100 Mbps network backbone (which is the configuration of my school's system). A WAN version is also available for district-wide use, which features a larger server and support for Gigabit networks. Access can be managed independently or by using an existing lightweight directory access protocol. The video comes in Windows Media Player and Quick-Time formats; both can be installed as an option. Server hardware is purchased, and content is licensed yearly.

An optional add-on feature, Creation Station, allows users to store and stream their own original digital content. This feature plugs seamlessly in to the Montage operating system, letting educators upload digital content and enter their own searchable metadata for later retrieval. This is an elegant method of sharing homemade videos such as sporting events, training sessions, lectures, or student productions.

Although Montage's overall capabilities, reliability, and price are impressive, there are some trade-offs to consider. The clips are all DVD quality with stereo sound, which makes them bulky compared to smaller, lower-resolution files such as a buffered streaming media clip. Montage will not allow the user to download clips — though you may purchase the video on DVD — and all streaming content is stored at the server. That may result in a net loss of speed. (A file stored on a local computer is always faster and smoother than one streamed.)

That said, Montage's controls and video are usable at their native LAN speeds, making this product useful for high-quality spontaneous and playlist presentations. The real value, though, comes from the server's wide variety of publishers and the ability to add homemade media.

Paul Jackson is the director of technology at Bishop O'Dowd High School in Oakland, California.