IP Cameras: Key Benefits & Features

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Today, it’s hard to find a home security camera that isn’t an IP camera–and with good reason. An Internet Protocol (IP) camera can connect to the web. And really, aren’t we trying to connect everything to the Internet these days?

Sure, having your coffeemaker and even your thermostat hooked to the web is certainly convenient. However, it’s not just web access that’s making IP cameras a popular choice among homeowners.

“The quality difference from IP to analog is substantial,” says Shaun Hansson, CEO and founder of home systems integration firm Logic Integration Inc., Lone Tree, Colo. “From a management point and maintenance, it’s a lot easier to maintain and upgrade. The power supplies for an analog system have no feedback versus an IP camera system, which is through a network switch that can be managed. We can manage the ports, the traffic, the voltage, and everything going on with that camera.”

Hansson says that he is upgrading his clients to IP cameras on a regular basis, because it’s not really a tough sell. In addition to good images and affordability, remote access is definitely a selling point. How do you know if IP is right for you? Let’s look closer at this popular option.

Is IP for Me?
Besides being able to peek in on your home when you’re away from home, IP security cameras offer a host of other benefits.

Quality: First and foremost, IP cameras can produce better images than their analog counterparts, no matter what size. Try to take an image from an analog camera and blow it up. Oh, the horror! (Or, at least, the pixilation.) IP cameras produce digital images with teeny tiny details. Of course, IP cameras vary in quality, but even the worst IP camera can most likely produce better images than a pricey analog unit.

Simplicity: If you have a home network, there are IP cameras that can be installed just about anywhere. Outside, in the hall, in the baby’s room, in the shed; if you have web access to those areas, there’s a camera for you. Web connectivity also makes it easy to get several cameras on one network. It can even make them easy to upgrade, since software updates are usually automatic, right over the web.

Remote Access: One of the biggest perks of owning an IP camera is the device’s ability to deliver a real-time look at your property. Because these cameras communicate via the web, you can look at images from the screen of a web browser, smartphone, and/or tablet.

Flexible: Don’t like your particular view of the backyard or having a camera in the foyer? IP cameras are easy to move, especially if they’re wireless. As long as you can put the camera on your network, it can be relocated–even taken with you should you move into a new house. Nothing is permanent.

Affordable: Many newer IP cameras can be had for around $100. While this may seem like a lot to some people, it pales in comparison to analog cameras, which also have a much higher installation cost and yield fewer benefits. “Security is a priority for households today. More and more consumers are investing in DIY solutions that will give them the peace of mind that big security companies provide–for a fraction of the cost,” says Carissa Belgen, product content manager at D-Link. “With the rising cost of living, consumers are looking for an easy-to-use home security solution with no contracts, no installation or monthly fees, that helps keep families and loved ones safe.”

What You Get
Now that you know why IP cameras are a smart solution, you need to know what to look for when shopping for one. “While key features are dependent on specific monitoring needs, there are several features that consumers should look for in a camera, such as alert notifications on a mobile device via an app, remote access and management (pan, tilt, zoom for viewing, change detection settings, etc.), image resolution, ease of installation and use, iOS and Android compatibility and, most importantly, secure access,” says Belgen.

Some of these options are becoming standard on IP cameras. However, there are several other features to consider. As mentioned earlier in this guide, night vision is important if you need nighttime surveillance. If you want to have footage stored for later viewing, you’ll need a camera that fits a memory card, can be paired with a network video recorder (NVR), or has cloud-based storage. Also consider a PTZ camera. This basically means that the camera has the ability to “pan/tilt/zoom” to provide a variety of different viewing angles. Of course, outdoor areas also need to have something that’s rated for outdoor use (weatherproof).

Another thing to think about is how you’re going to access the camera. Even if you have a monitoring service, you should still have the option for a remote peek. It can provide peace of mind, as well as alerts for when the kids come home from school, when the dog is jumping on the couch, and more. This may be dependent on whether your cameras are connected to a whole-house system or a monitoring service. However, as Belgen notes, almost every type of IP camera has some type of app these days. Make sure your choice has a solution for your platform (iOS, Android, Windows, etc.) Some solutions also offer touchscreens that can be placed in and around the house. For example, the SwannSecure All-in-One system has a touchscreen that can be taken on the go.

What You Need to Supply
In many cases, IP cameras are insanely easy to set up. Of course, this doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll be off the hook once you plug it in. There are things to consider.

Other Essential Features
Today’s IP cameras go beyond giving you a remote look at your home. Here are a few features that are becoming standard on today’s security cameras:

Motion Sensors: Several cameras now include motion sensors, which can trigger recording and smartphone alerts. Some can even instantly contact emergency personnel.

Recording Options: If you don’t want to deal with a DVR, make sure you have a camera that offers local storage on a memory card. There are also plenty of cameras with cloud storage, typically for a monthly fee.

Two-Way Audio: Many cameras include a built-in microphone and speaker. While you’re not going to be able to rock out to this thing, you will be able to hear what’s going on in the house–and often speak to whoever (or whatever) is in front of the camera.

Alert Notifications: Instead of peeking into the live feed every 2 minutes, some cameras send text, email, or push notifications, alerting you to movement and potential danger.

Night Vision: If you plan to put the camera outside or even in a dark hallway, night vision is an absolute must. This feature can deliver clear images, even under low-light conditions.

The “I” in IP stands for Internet, which means you’re going to need a web connection. Assuming that you have some type of networking setup at home, if it’s hardwired, you’ll need to make sure that you have cable available everywhere you want to put your cameras. The length of the cable could raise an issue. “If you have existing Cat5 and it’s longer than 230 feet, there are some things to consider,” says Hansson. “The quality of the signal can be an issue. Are you going to get 3 megapixels across 500 feet of cable? Probably not. You’re probably only going to get like 1 megapixel.”

Hansson says that lengthy cable can also lead to voltage issues. “If there’s a long run all the way up to a gate over Cat5 over copper, you may not have enough power to power that camera on that long of a cable. You have to think about doing local power and sending the network signal down the cable.”

Of course, some cameras don’t even need a power supply–sort of. Instead, they get all of the juice they need via Power over Ethernet (PoE). This means wiring or an Ethernet jack will be needed. Even if you opt for a wireless camera, most are not completely wireless. There are a few battery-powered cameras available, but most wireless cameras will need an outlet or a USB connection nearby.

If you’re planning to put cameras on your home’s Wi-Fi network, make sure you have a solid connection in the places where it’s needed. Sometimes a Wi-Fi connection doesn’t extend out to the deck or the driveway. Consider getting a Wi-Fi extender, booster, or other add-on device to strengthen your home’s Wi-Fi signal in some of those hard-to-reach areas.

Also worth noting: If you’re considering putting cameras outside, make sure that the cabling is just as weatherproof as the rest of the products in your setup. Standard cables can’t withstand the elements and may fray or cease working altogether.

Security for Your Security
You know that you are able to watch your home when you’re away from home. But who else is watching? Safeguarding your security cameras from peeping Toms and hackers has become a concern for many shoppers.

Of course, if you have a monitoring service, you are basically inviting others to peep. However, Hansson says that his company, Logic Integration Inc., can only be allowed to inspect a client’s residence up to a certain point. There are options to lock out certain cameras and even access to the digital video recorder (DVR) or network video recorder (NVR). “It comes down to trust,” he says about the overall option.

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Now, you may expect your monitoring company to look in on occasion. In fact, you’re paying good money for it to do this. To keep others out, Hansson says that the company relies on quality routers, lengthy passwords, and other security measures. Some of these options can be carried over into DIY solutions as well. When buying a camera, know your options. For instance, Carissa Belgen says that D-Link Wi-Fi cameras are double-password-protected with an encrypted web portal to prevent attacks from outside threats. That’s definitely something to look for, as are cameras that offer security upgrades via the web.

However, don’t just hope that the manufacturer offers upgrades; make sure upgrades are available and that you can install them. Also look for cameras with WPA2 encryption and ones that offer password protection. And make sure to change that password regularly–and make it lengthy! EH

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