Remote video surveillance has come a long way from the old days of tiny black and white CCTV screens, long cables and high prices that put these products beyond the range of consumers and many smaller businesses. These days, a fairly capable standalone Internet security camera can be bought for anything from £50 ($75) to £150 ($225) with additional cameras or add-on sensors extending this to sums ranging up to a few hundred pounds.
The long-term transformation has been the ability to control and view material over the Internet but it is only recently that cameras with a wide range of advanced features have become available at an affordable price. Within the next five years, the idea of installing an Internet security camera in a property along with other Internet of Things (IoT) security devices could go from something of interest only to the security conscious to a basic requirement of some buildings insurance policies.
An immediate hurdle for any buyer is the sheer number of products on the market, many of which appear from the outside to be very similar to one another. As for which features are important, confusion reigns. Does the user really need HD recording? Infra-red capability? Remote tilt, pan and zoom? What about the storage and retrieval of video?
Internet security cameras - Inside or outside
Decision number one is whether the camera will be used indoors (cheaper) or is weatherproof to the IP66 standard and has a sun-shade for use outdoors (more expensive). If being used outdoors, one aspect to consider is whether it should be visible to allow it to act as a deterrent as would a home burglar alarm would or whether it’s just for discreet monitoring. External cameras will usually support Power over Ethernet (PoE) which means they can receive power through the same copper cable supporting data and are therefore much cheaper to install. A £10-£30 PoE adaptor will be need to bridge this to the mains.
One camera or many
There is no answer about the best place to locate a camera inside or out but one solution is to use two or more and cover several areas at once, monitoring these through a single Internet account. This will potentially increase the volume of alerts, including annoying false alarms, which makes additional features such as face detection of motion sensing within specific areas of an image more important.
High-Definition or VGA
It’s tempting to think of security cameras as glorified webcams but this would be to ignore their underlying complexity. Factors that will affect their performance include angle of view (wide is a good idea but too wide and it distorts depth of field), light and colour sensitivity, frame rate and lens and audio quality. A more recent feature is high-definition and sound capture (typically 1280 x 720 from a 1 megapixel CMOS sensor), which increases image quality considerably over VGA (640 x 480) devices, with H.264 compression. VGA devices are cheaper, however and for many uses will still be perfectly adequate.
Next: Motion detection
Internet security cameras - motion detection
Traditional CCTV cameras were usually set up to record on a 24x7 basis, which makes storage an issue. By contrast, consumer monitoring cameras only record when a defined condition has been breached, usually a motion in the field of view. A few will also start recording if they detect sound while one, the Piper, has a built-in 105dB alarm to act as an extra deterrent.
Recording at night is possible on most consumer-level cameras thanks to banks of LEDs placed around the lens that emit infrared light. Cameras come with different numbers of LEDs and different rated ranges, usually form 10-15 metres in complete dark, so it’s worth checking whether this will be important.
Wi-Fi and wired
Wi-Fi up to 802.11n is the minimum a recent camera will offer by way of connectivity but getting a signal back to the router could be a problem in some buildings. Alternatively, most cameras offer an Ethernet port. Beyond that, the only limitation to placement is the need for a nearby mains connection.
Static or moveable
Cameras can be either static while a surprising number of inexpensive models now offer users the ability to remotely pan, tilt and even zoom them. This sounds like a good feature but a well-placed static camera with a wide-angle lens will cover almost every situation in a home or small business setting just as well.
Next: video storage
Internet security cameras - video storage
A key issue is where the images collected by the camera are stored and for how long. These days, a week’s worth of events will usually be cached in the cloud, possibly a month or more in some cases if the user pays extra. Alternatively, the user should be able to download an image or video from the account to their own drive. Some cameras offer on-board SD card storage, useful to cache video if the broadband link is down for a while. Video will usually be stored as MPEG-4 (MP4).
For a motion-sensing HD camera data transfer can be surprisingly high, up to several hundred megabytes per day depending on the number of video events if detects. A broadband account with a high or unlimited data and at least 1Mbps throughput is essential unless the threshold for a motion trip is set to a low level. It sounds like an obvious point but the usefulness of an Internet security camera is only as good as the broadband connection it is being used with. If there’s an outage the camera might not record everything although some now come with on-board cache - it's worth checking this.
No self-respecting security camera comes without a mobile app these days, although you’ll be lucky if this extends beyond Android and iOS. The app should offer a subset of the features of the desktop version, usually the ability to review live images and immediately view a still image of a triggered event sent to the owner by email.
Add-on security accessories
A growing number of security cameras are designed to sit at the centre of a range of proprietary accessories that might include door or window sensors, water sensors, door locks, and devices for switching lights and other appliances on or off. Don’t expect one manufacturer’s products to work inter-changeably with another’s although in the near future emerging standards should change this.
Internet security cameras - the future
Facial recognition is already a feature on one or two products on the market and in future all products will offer the sort of software intelligence to allow remote monitoring to ignore certain events at certain times or even individual people. They might even be able to work heuristically and learn what is ‘normal’ for the location that the camera is placed in, only picking up anomalies. Without such features, sophisticated home security that doesn’t generate streams of false positives will probably put people off, like the home or car alarm that only seems to work when nothing untoward has actually happened. Other developments will include better inter-operability and more integration with other Internet of Things security products, for instance between home security cameras and smart home locking systems.
These are Internet-connected devices and are therefore vulnerable to software flaws that afflict any class of device. This makes it important to choose a company that is attentive to the need to update firmware from time to time to fix flaws. We tend to believe that smaller, specialist companies have a bigger interest in doing a good job of this than larger networking brands with numerous products to worry about but this is just an informed opinion. Internet user accounts, another vulnerability, should also be properly secured with stored video or images properly encrypted while in the cloud.
Next: review of Y-cam's Home Monitor HD
Review - Y-cam HomeMonitor HD
Y-Cam’s UK-designed HomeMonitor HD is an indoor Wi-Fi video camera that features 720 wide-angle HD image, 30fps video with sound capture based on motion detection, Infrared night vision, and the ability to view what it videos remotely on a smartphone, tablet, Windows PC and even a Roku TV stick through a cloud portal.
We found it extremely quick and easy to set up (requiring only a physical Ethernet connection initially) and was impressed with the build quality and overall function despite a few glitches with the smartphone app. Covered in white plastic it is very conspicuous, which might or might not be a good thing depending on how it will be used. Power consumption on standby was under 3 watts, rising only a little when streaming images.
A typical HomeMonitor user would place the camera by a front or back door of a building, or facing a driveway or car park, using it to capture images of and video clips of varying lengths up to a minute or so when it detects motion. To reduce the number of false positives caused by pets or other innocent movement within the image area, the user can define up to two smaller ‘trip zones’ within the image field for the camera to focus on as well as adjust the sensitivity of motion detection upwards or downwards. The time and day can also be specified, for example only at night or at the weekend.
If the HomeMonitor detects movement within these parameters, it can send an email alert to the user showing a still image of the recorded video which can be viewed in full via their online account. This offers a live video and sound feed, access to an archive going back a week (a monthly archive costs £39.99 per annum or £3.99 per month), and the ability to turn the camera off and on and enable/disable motion detection in favour of live remote view.
Extra cameras can be added to the same account which can be placed in any geographical location. This would allow remote monitoring of two or more buildings at once.
Limitations: HomeMonitor HD can’t be used outside – Y-cam sells a separate weatherproof security camera for that purpose. Placing it behind a window may cause problems with the infrared recording at night and sunlight or car headlights can also create false alarms. Obviously, this is a motion-detection camera not a CCTV system and it only stores clips on an unlimited basis for seven days unless a subscription is bought. This also allows important clips to be stored permanently. Alternatively, any clip or image can downloaded by the user regardless of subscription.
The camera itself worked flawlessly although the mobile app sometimes struggled to offer us the archive of recordings. It did provide a video stream that seemed to have only a couple of seconds delay on the good Wi-Fi and broadband link we tested it with.
At £149.99 the HomeMonitor HD isn’t particularly cheap – there are similar models out there that cost less - although it does solve the whole problem with no obvious compromises. The motion-detection design works well and the trip zones feature is a good way of reducing unnecessary alerts. Image quality was perfectly acceptable for its purpose, including at night.
If there’s a disadvantage, it’s that the HomeMonitor is not yet a platform that supports other types of security monitoring device such as window or door alarms. Buyers wanting a more comprehensive integrated Internet-based building security system might look elsewhere.