On the raw capabilities side the MSC-400 is certainly no slouch: it uses an ARM7TDMI processor, employed by such products as the Apple iPod, Nintendo DS, Lego Mindstorms NXT and SIRIUS radio receivers, and comes with 32mb of SDRAM and 64mb flash memory that can store up to 32,640 macros with 255 steps each. The all-black component-sized device measures a rack-mount friendly dimension of 17.25” wide, 8.0” deep and 2.25” high (44.0cm by 20.4cm by 5.8cm). On the front the unit sports an array of 10 status indicators, an infrared learning port (yes, although not recommended, the MSC-400 can be used in a pinch to learn IR codes) and a USB port intended to update the unit’s programming. A laptop will obviously be a must for working with the MSC-400, since unhooking everything to drag it back to a desktop is rather inconvenient!
Spin around to the back and you’ll find a dozen addressable IR emitter outputs (6 of which can be switched to control RS232 devices), 6 video or voltage sensor inputs, a single IR input, RF input and output, two relay controls, a 12V output, plus a second USB port used for keyboard-based control of a computer. On the top are 12 dials used to adjust individual infrared emitter strength. There is no power button, so the unit is always “on”. Up to two MSC-400 units can be combined into a single system, effectively doubling the number of items that can be controlled (except for the loss of one IR/RS232 port on each unit used to link the two systems together).
All RF reception circuitry for the MSC-400 is housed externally in the RFX-250 RF sensor, which measures 3.75” wide, 2.75” deep and 1.13” thick (9.6cm by 7.0cm by 2.9cm). There’s also a flexible and adjustable 7” (17.9cm) antenna. By keeping RF a separate item from the base unit, URC has smartly made it possible to swap out the sensor in the future with improved models without having to replace the entire MSC-400. Already this has been put to the test with the MRF-300, where the stock RFX-150 can be replaced with an RFX-250 to improve the RF performance of narrow band remotes.
Other accessories that ship with the MSC-400 include an external power supply, a 9 foot (3 meter) USB programming cable, a serial cable to link two units together, a selection of plug-in screw terminals, plus a half dozen regular infrared emitters.
More than just RF... it’s a rack-mount remote!
Rather than thinking of the MSC-400 as a mere RF extender or IR routing device, think of it as an “MMM” system – macros, monitoring and mapping. It can completely take over (and enhance) all macro duties from compatible remotes, it monitors the status of connected equipment via power, voltage and video sensors, and it can map commands to specific devices hooked up to the IR and RS232 jacks.
So why would you want to buy something that does macros when the remote control already has them? Reliability and sophistication. When a macro is sent through a normal RF extender, the remote transmits each step of that macro separately to the extender, which then converts those steps from RF to infrared on the fly. The problem is that the RF frequencies licensed for remote control use are also licensed to just about everything else, so there’s a whole lot of background noise. And to make matters worse, more than a few pieces of modern A/V equipment emit quite a bit of interference in crucial frequencies – DVRs, HDTV receivers, HTPCs, HD-DVD, Blu-ray players and more. So, there are plenty of reasons why transmitting a macro this way might result in one or more of its commands being missed – and I’ve experienced inconsistent RF performance plenty of times myself.