A Closer Look at Security Cameras

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Panasonic’s Outdoor Wireless Pan/Tilt Camera can be controlled via a Web browser - no PC required.

Residential security cameras have become a popular home accessory. Use this guide to match a camera and system to your security needs.


Mar. 12, 2008 — by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

The home security camera (also known as a surveillance camera) is a hot home security accessory. There is great comfort in knowing your home is safe, especially when you have visual proof. Interior cameras can monitor the goings-on of the family or nanny, and exterior cameras can alert the homeowner of a visitor both wanted and unwanted. Choosing these devices is a process driven largely by one’s needs. The list of options is long, but budget, desired solution, and some other factors should help to quickly narrow the choices down. 

Packaged Solutions
The easiest way to bring video surveillance into the home is to purchase a packaged solution. Invariably a video surveillance security system will include the following: cameras (with necessary wiring), receiver/gateway/router, transmitter (for wireless cameras), and software. Not all solutions will require everything on that list, but consumers should expect at least two or three of those four. ADT’s latest Safewatch® VideoView® video surveillance packages start at just under $600 and includes a camera, a gateway, and a router, all of which are professionally installed. “Customers get a free security review, or ‘needs analysis,’ to determine what their video application needs are,” says Tim McKinney, the Head of Custom Home Services for ADT. Each camera in the system is hard-wired and connected to the gateway, which in turn connects to the internet-enabled router. Once installed, the VideoView® user can access their camera’s feed simply by logging on to their personal myadtvideo.com website from any internet-enabled laptop, PDA, or cell phone. “The site is encrypted and password protected, and ADT does not have any access to your video,” adds McKinney, who went on to suggest that consumer education on remote access is a key step in acceptance of the feature. VideoView® users can also connect a TV or separate monitor to the gateway to get in-home access to a camera feed, and the feeds can also be connected to a DVR for storage or stored online through their myadtvideo.com account. 

Although ADT’s VideoView® package can be purchased and installed as a standalone system, it is best incorporated into a comprehensive ADT home security solution that might include window and door sensors and the ability to set up triggered events. When the VideoView® solution integrates with the rest of a home security system, home owners can get notification by email or SMS when an event has triggered (e.g. doorbell set off, pool gate opened, etc.) and can log onto their video access site to then see what is going on at home. Even better, the option to record the video feed will enable the homeowner to review surveillance footage to identify, say, the would-be burglar who broke a first-floor window and set off the alarm. “We strongly encourage our customers to go with a full security package that incorporates VideoView®,” says McKinney. 

The ADT package is one of many, and the consumer need not feel like the big-name company is the only solution. Standalone surveillance packages exist from many security device distributors; many of these solutions achieve the same or similar results as VideoView®. The CLEARVU1 is a “Web-ready DVR system” package that includes four indoor/outdoor night vision cameras, a 160GB DVR with built-in hi-res LCD screen, a remote control, power adaptors and installation cables. The system can record up to 40 days of feed, and hovers just around the $1000 price. 

When exploring the security package option, be sure to have an idea as to the number of cameras you will want to set up. Many of the DVRs included in security packages have a set number of channels – one channel per camera. Consider purchasing a DVR with more channels than cameras, to allow for eventual expansion of the system.

Camera Options
Selecting a camera to pull security duties requires a little knowledge of the many features and configurations available. There are a few phrases and specifications that the consumer should understand when making purchases, as they can greatly impact camera performance. 

Configuration – A quick glance at a distributor’s list of cameras can verify what most people know already: cameras come in different shapes. The configurations that the consumer will most often see sold as security cameras are dome, bullet, and pinhole. The dome cameras are exactly that – a camera within a dome enclosure that often installs on a ceiling. They make for discreet surveillance solutions, particularly when the dome enclosure is tinted to hide the camera from view. Bullet cams are usually longer, cylindrical enclosures, often installed under eaves or in corners. Pinhole cameras are often also called “spy cameras.” A pinhole camera is a very small camera and lens, usually hidden inside a nondescript trinket or made to look innocuous, like a motion detector. Pinhole cameras are good devices for surreptitiously monitoring indoor activity; one will often see them referred to as “nanny cams.” The dummy camera is as it sounds – a fake camera that does not actually record or monitor anything. Its mere presence is meant to create the illusion of surveillance. Dummy cameras can make good supplements to a real surveillance system. They are cheap (as low as $20), and some feature a blinking red LED to better ward off the would-be intruder.

Indoor or Outdoor – Camera application is a key consideration. Outdoor cameras are vulnerable to the elements, and as such can be outfitted to survive. “Weatherproof” is a description often accompanying the outdoor camera, but different climates will require a little more attention to this detail. For some high-end surveillance jobs, McKinney has seen outdoor solutions that really went the distance: “The cameras had weatherproof housing, heater blowers, windshield wipers, the whole deal,” he says. The average consumer might not be able to afford such camera amenities, but the weatherproof enclosure on an exposed application is a must-have, regardless of region. One should look at the “Operating Temperature” or “Operating Environment” of the camera as well.

Color or Black & White – There are cameras that are one or the other, and there are some that switch automatically to B/W when the light-level is low, to preserve image quality. It is recommended that a B/W camera be used in low-light situations. B/W cameras make the most financial sense – they offer a better resolution, are sensitive to infrared-light, and can operated under low-light settings. Matching a B/W camera with a motion-detection floodlight is an affordable, effective solution. Color is only needed in a security camera when determining uniform color or car color is important.

Resolution – Like a digital camera, a security camera’s resolution determines the clarity of the images captured. The higher the resolution, the greater the image clarity. You’ll often see an analog camera’s resolution denoted in “TV lines of resolution,” or “TVL resolution.” 400 or 420 TVL is a common resolution for an affordable analog cam. Digital security camera resolution – like all digital cameras – varies by pixel.

Tilt/Pan/Zoom – The ability to adjust the camera’s aim remotely is a fun feature, but it may incur a greater cost than is necessary. Most recorded events are not watched as they happen, rendering the T/P/Z feature a bit superfluous for an outdoor application. It makes more financial sense for a consumer to purchase two standard fixed cameras that cover a 180 degree field of vision than a more expensive T/P/Z camera whose 90 degree field is limited but adjustable. The exception might be in a “nanny-cam” situation, where the homeowner wants to be able to scan about an entire room, or in a residential setting that employs a full-time security guard on the premises.

LUX – A camera’s LUX (also Lux) rating indicates sensitivity to light. A lower LUX rating means that it will take less light for the camera to reproduce an image. Indoor cameras that will always have readily available light may register in the 10 Lux range, while extremely low-light cameras can be as low as .001 Lux.

Infrared – It is very common to find cameras that incorporate infrared sensitivity. An IR-camera can basically “see” in the dark, provided there is enough infrared light illuminating the scene. Some camera models have infrared illumination built-in, while others might require a separate infrared illuminator (basically an infrared spotlight) to flood an area with enough infrared light for the camera to record in dark conditions. IR light does not extend very far, however. Although the IR-camera can operate at 0 LUX, the IR light illuminating the area fades significantly over a short distance, leaving subjects at greater distances less visible.

Motion Detection – Cameras with motion detection capability can be programmed to record images only when motion is detected in the field of view. This can save on battery life (if battery-operated) and storage space, if the camera feed is stored to a DVR or PC-hard drive. Cameras with this feature can also allow for “time-stamping” of the recorded incident, allowing homeowners to determine exactly when an event occurred.

Audio – Built-in microphones bring audio-capture to some surveillance cameras.

Power-over-Ethernet – The PoE standard applied to video surveillance enables the PoE camera to be powered over the Ethernet cable that connects the camera to a PC or internet connection. Many fixed-IP network cameras use PoE, as it reduces wiring needs and brings greater flexibility to the installer, who won’t be limited by proximity to an outlet or power source.

Camera Lens– Consumers will have to choose from a few lens options. This will depend on the distance from the camera to the scene that will be viewed. A fixed focal length lens will come in millimeter designations (e.g., 4mm, 8mm, etc.). A 4mm lens gives about a 72 degree viewing angle, while a 16mm lens has a 20 degree angle but greater zoom capability. A varifocal lens can be adjusted, and will come in focal ranges (e.g., 8~15mm). An auto iris lens will automatically change the lens aperture according to lighting. Auto iris lenses are recommended for outdoor application, as the lighting changes throughout the day.

FPS (frames per second) – indicates the number of still images captured by the camera every second. 30 fps is considered “real-time.” Adjusting the fps of a camera can save space on a DVR or hard-drive, but a lower fps might not capture important actions occurring in the cameras view.

IP/Network Cam – The IP camera acts as a camera and a web server. By connecting the camera to the home’s internet, users can access the camera remotely simply by typing in the camera’s specific URL into a web browser. Security passwords prevent unauthorized access to the camera’s feed.

Wired vs. Wireless
When choosing to go with a wireless camera, consumers will have to choose between an analog and a digital solution. The analog solutions come in GHz designations, and use RF technology to broadcast the signal. Analog wireless cams operate on a very narrow spectrum that is used by numerous devices, and therefore can be prone to interference and a “snowy” signal. The other option is to go with the digital wireless solution. Also considered “IP” or “Network” cameras, these cameras use the 802.11 standard, and each camera acts as a two-way access point, or web server. They connect to the home’s wireless network, and can be accessed for live viewing from within the home or remotely by typing in the camera’s specific IP address into a web browser. Password security prevents unauthorized access to the video feed.

Consumers should know that a wireless camera will still require a power source. Although battery power is an option, these tend to run out quickly. Snaking a power cord to the nearest outlet is also an option, but Todd Morris, President of BrickHouse Security, recommends spending the extra money to have an electrician hardwire camera. “If you are spending $800 on a wireless IP camera, you might as well spend the extra $200 on an electrician,” says Morris, “rather than nailing extension cords to the side of the house.”

On the wired side of things, the video-over-powerline concept is fast gaining ground in security camera application. ADT is poised to roll-out their version of a camera that sends video feed over the home’s existing powerlines, and a few other options are available to consumers as well. “The PLC (powerline carrier) technology is fantastic,” says McKinney, referring to both the reduction of wires needed for such a technology and the tested reliability of the concept. BrickHouse Security’s “PowerVue” line of security cameras transmit real-time, high-res images over the home’s electrical wiring, using HomePlug 1.0 standards and a decoder that converts powerline data signals to standard Ethernet network connection. 

Custom Cameras
Homeowners who don’t want their homes looking like prisons have turned to the custom camera solution. These custom enclosures can integrate a surveillance camera into ordinary household objects, like lamps or doorknockers. Todd Morris sees a growing trend in these “stealth cams,” and finds that a one or two-camera solution is enough for many households. “Homeowners can point one at the front door and one at the back door, and have them record only when there’s motion,” says Morris. Some of the niftier models have the recording device built right in, storing recorded footage to an SD card that can hold up to 10 hours of video. The high resolution, covert housing, and all-in-one video and recording design might come with a $400 price tag, but the homeowner is saving on a lot of wiring and additional equipment, not to mention preserving exterior aesthetics.



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