Blank or black preview screen or “no frame rate” with Altair camera

We’ve had reports from customers of a black or blank preview screen, or “no frames in preview mode” particularly with the high-megapixel cameras. This is usually due to USB bandwidth limitations on the PC or laptop you are running the camera on, and is not necessarily a defect in the camera.

The frame count appears “stuck” and is not incrementing:

frame rate NOT incrementing

When it should be incrementing like this:

frame rate incrementing

Tip: If your exposure duration is set too long it may appear as if the camera is stuck when it’s actually waiting for the next frame. First try reduce the exposure time to about 30ms and see if the frame rate changes.

We’ll explain the solution shortly but first we should explain what’s going on. The Hypercam 183C  for example, has a 20mp sensor which by astronomy standards is very large. What makes this camera special is that it can be used for solar system imaging in video mode (outputting a video file) as well as deepsky imaging (subframes). The video data is not compressed like a DSLR (which is a good thing) and the camera produces .FITS files too (a very good thing) but this can put a high demand on your USB bandwidth because each RAW frame contains a lot of data about the object you’re imaging – a lot more than a conventional camera.

Here’s an example of the amount of data used to describe a single video or still image frame: Hypercam 183C has a resolution of 19,850,560 pixels. In RAW8 and MONO8 mode, (planetary imaging) that would equate to 19,850,560 bytes (at 1 byte per pixel). In 12 bit RAW and MONO modes (although, the sensor ADC can only produce 12bits), the final frame is stretched to 16bits to work with standard image processing software. Therefore it could be up to 39,701,120 (2 bytes per pixel for anything more than 8 bit depth). In RGB mode it would be 59,551,680 (3 bytes per pixel) in .FITS file format. That’s a pretty big frame by any standards. Therefore, in some situations, the PC cannot accept the current frame, before the next frame is due.

Symptoms: This causes the preview window to show a blank black square in video mode,  dropped frames, or a halt in the capture sequence in deepsky image sequence mode. Often you’ll be able to “jog” the camera back into action by disconnecting other USB devices on the same Host controller (an internal device which manages your USB connections) or by reducing the resolution using the ROI, or resolution with dropdown menus for example. If reducing the resolution results in the camera restarting, then you know it’s a bandwidth issue. Tip: Bear in mind the longer the exposure and the higher the bit depth, the slower the frame rate in video mode! If nothing ever appears in preview, no matter what settings you try, we recommend you check you’ve got the latest drivers running, try swapping cables, or try another PC, just to make sure there isn’t a larger issue.

The solution: There is a Frame Rate control panel in AltairCapture, which reduces the USB speed. If you’re getting a black screen, dropped frames or halts in imaging sequences, reduce the Frame Rate until the camera is operating smoothly and the frame counter starts to increment again. You can do this in video mode. As an experiment, try increasing the speed until the camera preview halts. This speed is the most your computer can handle at that resolution. Reducing the resolution, using ROI or binning can get the camera running at a higher frame rate than normal full resolution. Removing other USB devices and making sure the PC is not in USB standby mode can also solve the problem. Tip: Remember that if you choose a faster frame rate, or less “gaps” between your images in a sequence, you are putting more “pressure” on the computer to download the frame before starting the next one, so testing in video mode should be done with exposure duration of 1 millisecond.

AltairCapture Black Screen

AltairCapture Black Screen Problem with Hypercam big-megapixel cameras.

Computers and hardware:  Generally but not always, machines made in 2013 or later, with an Intel xHCIv1.0 USB3.0 host controller are the fastest and the most error-free. Helpful astronomy enthusiasts have been gathering data for various machines on the Altair Google Technical Support Group. Check out the sticky post here.

As a general rule, machines with the Renesas v1.0 and v0.96 host controllers (common in pre 2013 computers) have been found to have to USB bandwidth issues. Avoid them if possible. Here’s how they appear in Device Manager:

Dreaded Renesas controller


Renesas Extensible USB Host Controller

This is because the USB3.0 device drivers only came out in 2012 and many PC manufacturers didn’t update their hardware drivers in-life. Some older PCs can have their device drivers updated to 1.0 which helps. For example, in our experience Lenovo W520 workstations with Renesas host controllers can have updated drivers installed which improve compatibility with high bandwidth USB3.0 devices, but Lenovo W510 workstations cannot, because the updated drivers do not exist for that model.

This Intel USB Host controller is a better option:

Intel extensible USB controller

With desktops, it’s cheap and easy to update your PCI card with a more modern chipset and drivers. Even a cheap USB card installed in a desktop can outperform an expensive top of the line gaming laptop USB system.

Note: Additionally we’ve found that machines with multiple host controller architectures appear to work better than single host architectures. Perhaps they have better bandwidth.

Using the very useful free USBTreeView software (link opens new window), you can get a picture of what they look like:

Single USB Host Controller shown below:

single USB host controller

Multiple USB Host Controller shown below: 

multiple USB host controller