If you’re the paranoid sort – and who isn’t these days – the idea of network-attached video surveillance will appeal. You can keep an eye on your hardware closet, rack, or IT nerve centre in an informal way that doesn’t require the sort of heavy-duty video and recording systems used in CCTV setups.

There are a number of products out there to do this for you but the Axis 206W network camera takes this to an especially convenient level by adding the feature of 802.11b wireless connectivity. This obviously means it can be put pretty much anywhere in a building as long as it can communicate with a local wireless access point.

The 206W is still an entry-level colour system – you don’t get zooming, or the ability to pan across a scene as you do on more expensive systems. It comes with fixed focal length and viewing angle only, but this is probably fine for the majority of static applications anyway. If you’re looking for something more advanced then see our review of another Axis product, the 2130 PTZ

Wireless aside, the Axis 206W looks pretty much like a glorified webcam, but appearances are misleading.

The product is simple enough to install that it could be done in a lunch break. Before actually locating the unit it has to be attached to a computer via the supplied USB cable for configuration. The first stage of this includes setting basic parameters such as deciding whether to give it a static IP address or set it up for DHCP, and turning on WEP encryption if that is being used by the base station. Once the IP address has been noted (this can be auto-discovered using a separate utility if using DHCP), the next stage involves setting the actual video and camera settings using a browser.

The camera sits quite happily on its sturdy metal base but it is better to attach it to the wall with screws (supplied) so that the ball and socket unit can be adjusted to put the camera at the required viewing angle. The only restriction is that camera has to be within roughly 8 feet of the mains as that is the cable length of the power adaptor supplied.

Keeping an eye out
Key to the 206W’s operation and management is that it incorporates a web server, complete with its own 32-bit RISC chip, 16 MB onboard memory and motion JPEG co-processor that can capture images at up to 30 frames per second (fps) at a resolution of 640 x 480. The image sensor used is a 300 Kpixel 1/4” progressive scan CMOS chip with a sensitivity down to 4 LUX.

We found image quality very blocky at the highest resolution but 320 x 240, 160 x 120 were fine once the compression rates had been adjusted. The actual rates in real-world conditions would depend on traffic on the local wireless LAN and LAN segment, but Axis quotes a rate of 20 fps as being likely when used at maximum resolution. The company also suggests that the unit will consumer 1-3 percent of available bandwidth on a 10/100 network.

Settings on the web console include specifying the camera’s name (multiple cameras can be managed with a software utility), adding the date and time overlay – including telling it whether to synchronise with an NTP (network time protocol) server, and configuring user and video settings. The documentation disagrees about whether a maximum of 10 or 20 users can access the camera simultaneously but most will be happy to restrict this to the administrator.

Axis offers the feature of registering the camera and getting a permanent “dynamic DNS” domain which can be used to view camera images across the Internet. This is a nice touch if you don’t want to assign it a permanent IP address and can’t be bothered setting it up to be accessible through a local router.

Despite being a basic product, it would have been nice if the 206W had more advanced event management. There is no active motion sensor, for example, so you can’t configure it to send an alert message if someone is sensed entering the viewing area. According to Axis some of this can be achieved by buying a separate software management system but this would add cost of course and may not be practical for small installations. Apart from that, the attractive street price of below £200 should make this unit popular.

OUR VERDICT

Before you buy this class of product ask yourself whether you really need something more sophisticated. Most will want the ability to use and manage multiple cameras (provided in the case of the 206W) as well as being able to pan, zoom (not provided) possibly record video streams (Axis and others have add-on systems that do this), and motion sensing is also useful. Some products have offered weak image quality so look for at least 1 megapixel resolution. Finally, before you get in deep also think about the impact of using multiple cameras on network performance and treat manufacturer’s optimistic estimates of this with caution.