In our articles on setting up your own security system, we’ve talked about how important it is to start with the right cameras for your needs. I’ve been testing out a wide-variety of models that cover most of the waterfront, to help give you an idea of where to start.
Samsung SmartCam HD Outdoor
Samsung has approached the design of an outdoor camera in a novel fashion, with the electronics and microSD slot in a small base station, that is in turn connected to the camera unit over a proprietary cable. This allows you to secure your recordings somewhere protected, and only have the relatively-small camera visible. It can run wired or wireless (other than power), but is not PoE, so you’ll need to have the base unit near an outlet. I’ve had two of these installed for nearly a year, and they provide solid 1080p video, and have been very reliable. My only gripe is that Samsung disabled official support for LAN streaming in a firmware upgrade, but fortunately it isn’t too hard to manually connect to their RTSP streaming port (554).
Generic ONVIF models (GW Security, Hikvision, Amcrest)
There are dozens of “generic” security cameras that support the ubiquitous ONVIF protocol. Don’t expect much in the way of user-friendly software or setup documentation if you buy one, but you can often get a great value this way. You’ll just need to configure them using whichever streaming software you are using. I’ve been using a 5MP model from GW Security for nearly two years, that can stream up to 1920p and costs about half as much as the Samsung. The one I selected supports PoE, so we only had to run a single cable through our wall to the outside. For those not familiar with PoE, it allows you to power devices over their Ethernet connection — but requires either a switch that supports it or a dedicated PoE injector. This particular model camera even comes with a zoom and its bright f/1.4 lens can be manually focused. You’ll want to be a little careful if you go with a generic model, and make sure that the specific one you select lets you change its admin login credentials, as security cameras have become a possible vector for malware.
Amcrest also makes some very-impressive and reasonably-priced cameras. Somehow they even manage to get motorized panning into a sub-$100 model with full 1080p HD support. I have been evaluating a couple of these as part of looking at DIY Home video monitoring and have been impressed by both the video quality and the two-way audio. However, I found the vendor’s own software pretty lame, so you’ll be much better off using it with your own monitoring software, either running on your NAS or your PC. I’ve been using them with Synology’s Surveillance Station.
Plug’n’Play options: Nest, Ring, Skybell, iSmartAlarm
For those who don’t want to set up their own system, there are some very popular options. Keep in mind that these devices typically require monthly subscriptions to look back at your recorded video. For general use, Google’s Nest Cam is by far the best-selling. It has taken a step back in user approval since the original Dropcam version was acquired by Google, but has been improving over time. The newest versions include an outdoor-ready model and sophisticated-cloud-based object detection.
If you want a camera to see who is coming to your front door, the Ring is both best-selling and very popular with its users. Some report that setup can be painful, but nearly everyone loves the result. The same is not true of its security camera product, which isn’t as popular with users. Skybell is a less-well-known company that provides an even-more-fully-featured alternative to Ring’s doorbell, and is also well-liked by users. Ring is working to set itself apart with cloud-based software features like its new neighborhood sharing capability. Users can share video of suspicious events with other Ring users who live within in a specified radius of their home. Ring’s new Pro model is smaller than the original and has full 1080p. However, it requires constant power, so you’ll need to use it to replace a wired doorbell, not just as a replacement for the peephole in your door. Battery-powered cameras in general wind up being fairly limited, unfortunately. I wanted to review Netgear’s new Arlo Pro for this article, but they couldn’t provide a review unit in time, so that will have to wait.
While iSmartAlarm primarily sells a DIY home alarm system, they also have a slick, stand-alone, camera offering, the Spot. It doesn’t have all the features of some of its competitors, but it is easy to use, streams to the company’s app, and automatically records 10-second videos whenever motion (or optionally sound) is detected. What sets the Spot apart is the video service is free, with no monthly subscription. I’ve been using one since they first launched as a Kickstarter, and it has worked well. The base is even magnetic, so it is easy to attach. It does require external power, but that is typical of most units that have night-vision capabilities.
EZVIZ: A hybrid option of commercial cameras with consumer software
The success of consumer-targeted solutions (and their relatively-high profit margins) hasn’t escaped the attention of commercial camera vendors. Chinese industrial giant Hikvision has created EZVIZ to offer its cameras with an integrated online subscription service. The cameras are full-featured, and well-constructed. Their motion detection and IFTTT integration worked well in my testing. However, the EZVIZ cloud service is still fairly rudimentary, and current pricing seems somewhat high ($5-$10/month/camera) — but the first year of 7-day cloud storage is free. Fortunately, even though direct LAN access isn’t officially supported, I found I could (like with the Samsung models) simply login and grab their video stream off port 554, and use them with my choice of software.
EZVIZ makes three models, including both indoor and outdoor versions, so consumers can use them to create a full system. The Mini Plus is a particularly-impressive combination of features in a tiny package. It has 1080p, 2-way audio, a microSD card, and motion detection, in a package about the size of a deck of cards. My only complaint about it is that the ball joint you use to swivel the camera on the base has very-limited travel, and the charging cable is routed out the front of the camera instead of the back. The less-expensive mini has a similar form factor — although with better rotation — but only supports 720p. Their Husky model is a very-well-built outdoor camera that produces an excellent 1080p image. Here too my only complaint relates to mounting. The camera can be run over PoE, but the Ethernet connector is not removable, and is quite large, so you need a hole nearly 3/4-inch through your outdoor wall (or a sealed connection to your Ethernet cable). You can also use it with the included charger, but the connector for that also needs to go through the wall. Note that EZVIZ is part of a company (Hikvision — one of the world’s largest supplier of video surveillance gear) that is partially-owned by the Chinese government, which may concern some buyers.
Working around a lack of static IP address
For any camera you want to monitor, it is simplest if you can give it a static IP address. However, some consumer cameras that assume you want a plug-n-play install with cloud-only access, don’t provide a way to set a static IP — EZVIZ, for example. They rely on DHCP. That’s normally fine, but if you want to make them part of a video monitoring network by streaming them to a server, it needs a stable IP address to work with. If you can’t set it on the camera, you can usually log in to your router and create a DHCP Reservation for the camera using its MAC address — so that it always receives the same IP address when it asks for one.
Ultra-wide lenses mean plenty of distortion
If you’re used to the carefully-controlled image outputs from high-end video cameras, or even the corrected ones that come out of your smartphone, you won’t get that from typical security cameras. Their relatively-inexpensive wide-angle lenses do a good job with resolution, but they also have plenty of barrel distortion. For the most part, that shouldn’t matter if you are using them for security, but if you are hoping to get some other type of footage from them, you may find yourself needing to do some heavy post-processing.
Some personal choices about privacy
Looking at the various cloud-based solutions, there is more-or-less a choice of Samsung, Google, Chinese-owned companies, or little-known startups. Even if you choose a startup like Ring, it is quite likely that it will be part of Google or some other large corporation before long — as happened with Dropcam. Personally, at least for interior security, it makes me happy that I have my own LAN-based solution, and the video doesn’t have to leave the premises unless I need to look at it remotely.
The good news is that there are now dozens of models of cameras suitable for video monitoring and home security, with just about any combination of features you need. We’ve only had room to cover a few of them here, so if you have a favorite we missed please let us know about it in the comments.