As with the Axis 206W reviewed by Techworld a few weeks back, the IP Cam is one of a growing band of cheap network surveillance cameras that have the added feature of wireless 802.11g operation.

The wireless feature is more that a gimmick as it allows the camera to be put more or less anywhere, unconstrained by the need for a data port. This sounds like a small issue but the places that need watching over – a reception waiting area for instance – aren’t always the places cables are run to so it adds worthwhile convenience.

Such cameras are ostensibly aimed at small businesses on the assumption that these sorts of companies won’t invest in conventional CCTV systems, but there is no reason why they can’t be used in any size of business.

Other than wireless, the main attraction of the IP Cam is its ability to motion sense – something that required a software upgrade on the Axis 206W. It can be left pointing at a scene and will do one of a number of things, depending on how it has been configured, if it senses movement in its field of view. Most simply, it sounds an audible alarm if it detects motion (this can be adjusted for sensitivity). Alternatively, it will send the administrator an email with an attached screen dump and record the scene to hard disk for later review. If you want, it will do all of these.

Scheduled recording is also possible, useful if the secured location only needs watching at certain times of the day. The subsequent files can run up to 50 GB in size or a set space can be specified that is re-recorded over once the space has been consumed. One thing is pretty obvious: this system isn’t the one to choose if you need to review security footage months later because the volumes of video data would fill too much space.

The supplied Windows IP View software can be used to configure and manage up to four cameras at one time; ActiveX and Java support means the video stream can be accessed from any web browser once the unit has been configured with a static IP address.

The IP Cam’s rugged build quality promises longevity, as does the sturdy tilt-and-swivel steel base. Two features we liked: the focus can be set precisely by turning a focusing ring on the camera (some cameras come with a fixed focus) and the mounting thread on the top of the unit makes it possible to suspend it from a ceiling.

The camera itself is a pretty ordinary “sub-megapixel” colour CMOS design, and can manage up to 20 fps at a 320 x 240 resolution or 6 fps at 640x480. It allows 5 levels of image compression depending the level of network traffic reduction is desired. The image quality is pretty good once contrast and brightness have been adjusted for the local environment. It has its own integrated web server and CPU but this has only a half megabyte frame buffer.

Although it’s easy to set up, the software is a little rough around the edges. It’s not clear why the camera loads two utilities (IP View and Setup Wizard) under different groups in the Windows XP start bar for instance. You also need to read quite deeply into the supplied electronic manual to work out some of the unit’s features when they would be better signposted in the quick-start manual.

The bottom line
Overall, we liked this product. It isn’t designed to be used in a highly systematic way or as part of a large system, but can handle informal surveillance with minimal fuss. It’s cheap, easy to set up and manage, and should prove reliable. It will impose some demand on a smallish network or LAN segment but nothing to worry about. Whether products such as this actually protect company assets depends on the way they’re used but the deterrent effect of seeing one (make sure the power and link light stay on) should be more than enough to justify its use.

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 as well as being able to pan and zoom, possibly record video streams, and motion sensing is also useful. Some products have offered weak image quality so look for not much less than 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.