Networked, or IP, security cameras are readily available and, with each new generation of products, increasingly sophisticated. Digging through the available options can be overwhelming though; read on as we walk you through the process with a handy security camera shopping checklist.
Rather than tell you which camera or camera system to buy, we’re going to help build a framework you can use to assess if a particular camera or stable of cameras is a good fit for your needs. Let’s start off by looking at the difference between networked and regular security cameras and then move on to specifications and features worth considering.
Once you’re armed with the knowledge in this article it will be easy to decide if the network camera offerings from the likes of D-Link, Google, and so on are a good fit for your home.
What’s the Difference Between Networked and Regular Security Cameras?
The first question most people have when contemplating purchasing a security camera system is what exactly the difference between newer Network/IP cameras and CCTV (or what most people would call “regular” security cameras) is.
Let’s start by talking about CCTV systems as most people are likely more than passingly familiar with the system whether they realize it or not. CCTV security systems, or closed-circuit TV systems, are designed to be, as the name implies, a closed system. Every camera is wired back to a central control unit by a power and video cable. Although the technology has improved over the years the basic system hasn’t changed much. Newer control units have added in network support for remote viewing and such but, almost universally, the network support and online component of traditional CCTV systems is clearly and afterthought.
Not to knock CCTV systems, however, as what they lack in modern networking features they more than make up for in reliability. The resolution might be lower, the picture might be grainier, and the Internet-access components might be clunky (or likely non-existent) but most CCTV systems are rock solid and once installed can run for decades. You’ve likely been in more than a few banks and stores in your life that have CCTV systems still going strong after 20 years. The biggest down side, besides the older technology, is the hassle of installation. You’ll be drilling a lot of holes and running a lot of cable.
The new kid on the block is the Networked or IP camera. The most significant change between the CCTV system and the IP system is that, as the name would imply, each camera in the Networked/IP camera system has a unique address on your home network and is distinctly addressable. This means control apps, cloud apps and services, and so on can all connect with and interact with your individual security cameras. In addition networked cameras almost always sport much higher resolution than traditional CCTV cameras, have a strong emphasis on network and cloud services and integration, and are typically integrated with a smart home/Internet-of-things type home system.
Network cameras can connect to your home network via an Ethernet hard line or a Wi-Fi wireless network connection. The downside to IP cameras is you do trade some of that old copper-wire reliability of the traditional CCTV system for the whiz-bang new features of the modern cameras and you do pay a pretty penny for it. Let’s take a look at both the specifications and features you’ll want to consider when shopping for an IP camera or camera system.
What Specifications Should I Consider?
There are two main categories to look at when camera shopping. The specifications (the actual specs of the hardware and what it is capable of) and the features (or what might be considered extras). Let’s dig into the hardware specifications now.
One of the biggest specifications people look at, rightfully so, is the resolution. This is one of the areas in which IP cameras really shine. While CCTV cameras can be HD-quality they rarely are whereas its extremely rare to find an IP camera that is anything less than 720P resolution. IP cameras are essentially built on digital camera technology and it’s not at all unusual to find very high quality sensors inside of them.
When shopping for a camera or set thereof we recommend not settling for anything less than 720P resolution. If you think your old DVD collection looks kind of fuzzy these days you won’t believe how bad low-resolution security footage looks. Stick with high resolution video so you’re not left giving the police a video clip of an unidentifiable blob burglarizing your home.
Right behind resolution in importance is night vision, or IR video, abilities. Nighttime is exactly the time you want the highest degree of visibility around and in your home and good night vision will help with that.
When looking at an IP camera’s night vision capabilities look at how many IR emitters are around the lens (and, if listed, how much light output they provide) as well as whether or not the camera has what is known as an “IR cut filter” which helps increase the clarity of the night vision recording. If need be you can, relatively cheaply, supplement the IR light provided by the camera with an LED IR flood lamp.
If you’re purchasing the camera for outdoor use then weatherproofing is a must. You want a sturdy and well sealed camera that will survive everything from summer downpours to winter snowfall. It’s typical for security cameras to simply be advertised as weatherproof, waterproof, or weather resistant but it’s even better if you can find a camera with an actual Ingress Protection (IP) rating.
Ideally you’d want a camera with an IP rating for IP66 or above; you can read more about IP ratings and how they apply to electronic gadgets big and small in our article HTG Explains: How Water Resistance Ratings Work for Gadgets.
Microphones are very uncommon on traditional CCTV cameras but not uncommon on newer IP cameras. If you want to capture both video and audio look for a camera that sports a microphone so you can tap into not just a visual peek at your backyard or kid’s playroom but an auditory one too.
Pan, Tilt, and Zoom
In security camera lingo, PTZ cameras are cameras which, unlike their fixed counterparts, can Pan, Title, and Zoom (PTZ) around an area for a more enhanced view. While such features are useful, they’re really truly the most useful in a manned-security station kind of situation where an operator is actively monitoring all the cameras and can pan or zoom in when the need arises.
Practically, for home use, it’s a lot more useful to have a camera with a wide field of view that covers everything you want to watch in one frame rather than requiring you to remotely move the camera round via the PTZ features to see everything.
Network Connection Type
Network cameras can connect to your home network in one of two ways: an Ethernet hard line or Wi-Fi. Do note, however, that it is atypical for a given camera to have both Wi-Fi and Ethernet hardware built in so you need to shop carefully given your needs.
Given that most people don’t have the exterior of their homes wired for Ethernet you can see the convenience of Wi-Fi. The downside of Wi-Fi, of course, is that whatever ails your general network (e.g. you have poor coverage or a flaky Wi-Fi signal) will also ail your security camera system.
In light of that it’s important to consider your home network when selecting your cameras. If you need a security camera on the side of your house that has poor Wi-Fi coverage you may need to either run an Ethernet drop to that side of the house or upgrade or extend your router to provide more uniform coverage.
What Features Should I Consider?
Once you’ve ironed out the hardware specs you need it’s on to considering the additional features layered over top. While there isn’t a huge degree of variation on the hardware side of things (there are only so many resolutions, so many network hardware configurations, etc.) there is quite a degree of variability on the feature side of things. We’d really encourage you to pay close attention to the additional features offered by your camera manufacturer as it can really make or break your user experience.
Many of us get security cameras so we can check in our homes when we’re away at work or on vacation. One of the primary benefits of an IP camera system is that the individual cameras are network addressable and very easy to get connected to your home network and to the greater Internet. Any system you consider should have a very solid remote access component where you can easily log into your cameras and view them from a remote computer via web browser. If this feature is frustrating to use or flaky it largely defeats the purpose of having the security cameras in the first place.
Paired closely with the remote access feature are mobile apps. These days people practically live off their phones and a good mobile app for viewing your security system is a must. You don’t want to wrangle with a web page that may or may not resize properly for mobile viewing; you want a mobile app that natively handles the video content and displays it neatly on your mobile device.
If you’re an iOS user you’re almost always guaranteed a clean experience if the company offers a mobile app, unfortunately for Android users security apps can be hit or miss as the company may or may not even have an Android app or might do a poor job updating it.
If a remote app is a priority for you it’s wise to stick with a larger company. While some obscure company you’ve never heard of like SuperSecureIPCamCo is likely not going to have a mobile app at all or they might have a very flaky and under-updated one, a large company like D-Link or Samsung is typically more on top of good mobile app development and updating.
While there’s a lot of emphasize and actively viewing the video like pulling up on your computer or iPad, equally important is how the video is stored. Where does the video go? Is it recorded locally to the camera itself? Is it stored, via companion application, on a computer on your local network? Is there a dedicated DVR tool that goes with the camera? Is there some form of cloud storage?
Video footage is useless to you if it doesn’t exist when you need it. Ideally you’ll have a local copy of the video to review and a cloud solution so in case the burglars make off with your camera and computer equipment too then you still have some evidence to give to the police.
Notifications and Motion Sensing
A final feature set to consider is that of notification and motion detect. It saves tons of space to only have your camera system record when there is activity going on the frame. Not only do you want motion-only recording but ability to tweak the frame and include or exclude motion detection is very useful. Let’s say the view from your outdoor security camera on your garage cuts slightly into your neighbor’s driveway; if you can adjust the motion detection and exclude any activity from that portion of the frame you’ll cut down on recording time and remove false alerts.
Speaking of alerts it’s very useful to have a camera system with a notification system built in. With such a system you can receive email, text, or mobile-app alerts when a motion zone is triggered and often get a photo sent along with the alert. That kind of instant and remote update is very handy as you’ll know immediately when the UPS guy drops off a package or when someone is prowling around your back door.
Researching a good network camera is a lengthy process, to be sure, but armed with our list you’ll easily find the right camera for your needs.
Image Credits: Mike Mozart, Nest, Ixlaf, D-Link.