How to buy a security camera (Practical Guide)

by | Cameras

Buying security cameras requires a lot of research. To use the most of our security camera in addition to buying a good one, you need to think about how and where to install it, how can you see lifestream and record it while also integrating with you smart hub. Our simple, practical and comprehensive guide will walk you through main topics for an informed buying decision.
We will discuss the main uses of cameras which determines how many and where you should install them. We will also review main camera functionality you need to be aware of and explain options for recording and accessing the camera.

Security camera basics

When buying a security camera it is important to understand that for a camera to bring you the most value, it needs to be a part of the other devices performing a certain duty. Below are the main functions we need to to have in place in the smart home. Note that for simple setups a single camera with cloud storage and mobile application might be enough, but larger houses would require more planning in setting security system up.
1. Monitor
Camera
Constant view of feed both audio and video
2. Record
Network Video Record (NVR), NAS (Network Attached Server), Cloud or SD card
Storing the recorded video clips
3. Analyse
Camera, Smart Home Hub (like SmartThings or Home Assistant)
Notifications via SMS, Telegram, email; Trigger actions on motion (like switching lights on); Facetracking
4. Access
Smartphone, PC application (Blue Iris), or browser
View live feed or snapshots

Monitor

The key feature of the camera is to monitor audio and video feed. To maximize its monitoring ability, you can do the following:

  • Place the camera in the locations so all main living areas and entry points constantly monitored
  • IR (infra red) lamps to enable cameras to function in the dark

Record

Recording the feed from camera documents what is going on while you were away and in the unfortunate event of criminal activity helps law enforcement agencies to find criminals.

  • We will cover recording options in details later in the article, but it is important to consider for how long you will keep the recording and what is your preferred way to access it (PC, smartphone, separate monitor)
  • Cloud storage for your recording became a differentiating factor between brands and an additional service for some of them to sell you

Analyse

The most common type of analysis that can be done on video feed is identifying the motion (i.e. someone enters the door) or a loud noise (baby cries) which can trigger certain actions (like text notifications, siren, switching on lights)

  • Some cameras are capable of video analysis, but NVRs or smart home hubs are more flexible to configure and integrate for that
  • For motion detection, the majority of the devices allow you to specify areas which you want to use for motion alerts as well as specify noise thresholds for audio triggers.
  • To avoid false alerts, you can switch cameras or NVRs off when you are at home or use the built-in presence detection of your smart home
  • Cameras can use many notification channels. Most common is sending a notification with a picture or video clip of an event. We also strongly suggest using sirens in the case of intrusion.
  • You can also use the camera feed as motion sensor for your smart hub. This will save you money on a motion sensor and even able to track faces (so you can pause the TV when someone left the room while a movie is playing)
  • Face tracking is another advance use where some cameras like Nest IQ and Netamo can be taught to recognise faces and notify based on that

Access

The easiest way to accessing your camera is via your phone. You usually use the camera’s or a generic application like (TinyCam for Android; Icam viewer for iPhone) for that. The former is the easiest to configure, although in many cases they are not the easiest to use

You can also access the cameras via PC. There are number of options for that:

  • Browser – many cameras can be directly viewed from the browser, but in some cases would require an add-on to be installed
  • Designated surveillance programmes like Blue Iris

NVRs (Network Video Recorders) would also have their applications or programmes you can use with your PC

Where to install cameras?

Once you know how you can use the cameras, you need to decide what are main areas to cover. A number of cameras are dependent on the size of the household and other factors (like if you have children or pets).

 

Typical setup

Flat
1-2 cameras
Look after baby / pet
Notifications and live feed
Freestanding camera

Good NVR or cloud-based plan

Powerful mobile application

House
3-4 cameras (small house); 5+ (large house)
General surveillance
Presence driven notifications, recording
Bullet and dome cameras

Local NVRs

Common places to install

For flats owners, the best approach is to cover the entrance areas (hallway and balcony) and with the same camera ideally overlooking the lounge if you want to keep an eye on your children, dogs or cat.  Freestanding cameras would be the best choice for as no additional wiring or drilling required

For houses, we recommend thorough planning the location of cameras both inside and outside. Inside the house it worth covering:

  • Entrance points (hallways and garden doors) for security purposes. Those cameras can also act as motion sensors for your lights
  • Living rooms – so you keep an eye on kids or pets
  • Nursery – where cameras can be used as baby monitors
  • Other rooms – to cover living areas with any valuable items

Outside of the house, we would generally cover:

  • Entrance points (porch and garden side door) for security purposes.
  • Outside play areas
  • Outside and inside of garage – it is a very common entry point for burglars and

Many ask if you need to buy a separate baby monitor camera. This can be an emotional question, but as a father of two, I would not buy a separate device. A good camera will give you all the functionality to look after your kids and you can repurpose and use the camera long after your children have grown up. True that cameras will not have a heart monitor or other fancy functionality, but in my experience, those are not essential.

Key camera functions

Cameras nowadays became complicated devices with many features and differentiating factors.

Form factor

The form factor defines some major uses and functionality the camera can offer.

  • Bullet cameras are non-moving cameras and usually cheaper compared to others. They usually require some drilling and would be the best option to install on ceilings to cover large areas
  • Dome cameras are covered by plastic domes making them less likely to be damaged or tampered with. Many come with the ability to turn the direction and viewing angle i.e. (PTZ).
  • Turret cameras are similar to dome cameras but they have more room for rotation, turn and tilt, but not covered by a plastic cover
  • PTZ cameras can turn 360 degrees and offer more flexibility in functionality like cruise route (camera would constantly turn). They can be used to cover very large areas with a single camera, but are more expensive
  • Freestanding cameras do not require to be mounted and can be standing on the table. This makes them very easy to install and use.

Wireless or wired

Two main options to connect cameras to your network are using a wireless  (wifi) or wired (cat5/cat5e/cat6 cables) connection. Each has advantages and disadvantages.

  • Wifi cameras are easier to install as no ethernet wires required (you will still need a power cable), but they dependent on your router’s signal strength and potentially prone to wifi network disturbance
  • Wired cameras are arguably more secure but require two physical cables (Ethernet and power supply) for cameras to work. This might be ok when you are planning the renovation, but not easy to retrofit without some DYI work.
    • PoE cameras are also wired cameras but they will be using a single cable instead of two

Resolution

Resolution determines the number of details you will be able to see in the video feed from your camera. For the indoor use 720p is the current minimum standard with 1080p resolution offering more details and better face recognition. You need to consider even higher resolutions for the outside cameras or large inside areas. Higher resolution will make sure you will be able to use the feed to recognise the faces and see fine details.

PTZ  or zoom

PTZ (pan–tilt–zoom) helps to move the camera to see more surrounding areas or focus on certain objects. You would need this functionality only if you able to constantly watch the feed which applies more for a commercial setup and not that relevant for home owners. It is more practical to spend the extra money that PTZ would cost on higher resolution cameras.

Night vision

Night vision allows to continue video monitoring during the night time. Night vision cameras are using IR (infra-red) lamp and sensors, but the feed will be usually less detailed and only black and white.

Lenses

Are also differentiating factors with wide-lens cameras allowing you to have a single camera to cover the whole room. Check the viewing angles of camera to ensure that it would work for your location.

SD slot

SD slot in cameras allows you to store the video recordings locally. This might be useful for couple of reasons. Firstly, as the redundancy for the primary recording option you use (NVR or Cloud). Secondly it is sometimes easier to grab NVR box rather than reach the cameras and extract SD card.

The size of the SD card required dependent on the resolution of the camera with the modern cameras accommodating cards up to 128GB.

Communication Options

The way you can connect to your camera is key to future proof it and to integrate the cameras to your smart home. We are looking at this in details below, but the most flexible cameras would have ONVIF compliancy specifically mentioned as a feature. This means that those cameras are using the open and consistent interface protocols to connect with other devices.

Powering your camera

There are a number of options available to power your camera:

  • Generic or USB power adapter is the most common way that cameras powered.
  • Battery powered cameras give you more freedom in choosing the places you can install them. The downside is that you will need to replace battery (every 6 months or less) and those cameras would also be limited in some functionality (like resolution or night vision)

The best options for battery powered cameras are Blink or Logitech Circle

  • PoE (Power over Ethernet) cameras need just one wire to operate. This is possible as you can inject required electricity in your ethernet cable to power the cameras. In addition to PoE cameras themselves, you will need to buy a PoE injector, PoE Router or PoE NRV.

Other functions:

  • Two-way talk means that you can listen to audio and respond using the camera speakers. In theory this might be useful for baby monitor cameras, but similarly to PTZ it will be used in very few situation and not worth the extra price
  • Passive motion sensors reduce power consumption and allow for cameras to work only when the motion is detected
  • Face recognition – This is ongoing trend we see where the smart home technology is starting to taping to the benefits of the AI. Face recognition is a new feature of the cameras like Netgear and Netamo where the camera’s brains are capable to be taught the faces of your home members and not only provide names with notifications but also to be configured to only alert if a stranger enters the house.

How to connect to your camera

Ease of camera connection is important for two reasons. You need to be able to access the camera feed easily on your phone for live steam viewing or to simplify the configuration process of NVRs / smart home hubs to record and integrate. The second reason is for integration purposes so you can use the cameras for clever automation rules (like sending the picture to your phone if somebody pressed the doorbell and you are not home) and motion detection (based on picture upload)

The best option is to make sure that the camera that you are buying is ONVIF Compliant. ONVIF is an attempt by a number of tech companies like Bosch, Sony, and Axis to standardize the interface to IP-based products including cameras. It has its drawbacks, but as of now, ONVIF is the main open, interoperable and standard protocol. If camera producer states that the product is ONVIF compliant, you will likely to have no issues in connecting camera to any network recording and storage devices.

If the ONVIF compliancy is not specifically mentioned, you can potentially still connect locally to those cameras. A good sign is if a camera description states that local access (not only recording) is possible. If not, you can use the following resources to check the available option:

If no direct streaming is possible, you can still use the camera through FTP. It means that you can use File Transfer protocol to upload the video clips or pictures to your preferred local or internet server. You will obviously need a server and skills to configure it, but might be a viable option in some cases.

Recording camera feed

Above we described the ways you can integrate your camera to other devices and ability to record the video stream is even more important.

Overall there are three main ways you can record videos:

Cloud storage is the easiest way to record and access video files. It is an important revenue stream for the camera producers so connecting cameras to the cloud is usually a very easy process. Your video files will be stored on the cloud server so it will be very easy to access them from anywhere (although not as quick as in local network). Two main disadvantages of cloud storage are the prices and security. The prices will vary from free option from Arlo to record motion triggered clips for a week, to $9.99 for a month for Canary plan or $10 per month for Nest Aware. Security risks arise as soon as you transfer your files to the cloud you lose control over them. Many recent security breaches in internet companies are not filling with confidence that your information is 100% secure

Storing video stream in the devices in your local network is the second option. It can be done in three different ways:

  • Network Video Recorders (NVRs) are the designated devices which sole purpose is to record the video feed. The advantages of this are reliability (as the device is only used for video recording), easy configuration and simple use. Our recommendation is to use the most universal NVR (Armcrest) or more expensive Ubiquity
  • Network Attached Servers (NASs) are a slim down version of the home server with the primary purpose to act as the networks storage (duh…). Some NAS product like our favorites Synology 2 bay NAS DiskStation DS218+ and QNAP TS-251 both have a very sophisticated NVR plugins that would work well for camera feed recording
  • Home Server is the designated server (usually more powerful than NAS servers) that can be used for various reasons. Configuring the home servers is a more complicated process but offer richer functionality. We recommend using HP Microserver Gen10 as a good starter kit
  • Using your PC is the other option and it requires your PC to be always on (which is not most energy efficient way). You will also need to install the software (like Blue Iris) to control and record videos

The last option is to use SD card slot that some cameras are coming with. It is a good option to have a redundancy storage solution as in some cases it is more difficult to access the camera and its SD slot then NRV (or NAS). SD storage is easy to maintain with a camera built in functions usually allowing you to specify if you want constant monitoring or autodelete once the SD card is full.

More practical advice on smart home devices:

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