Security camera buying guide – CNET

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In the same way folks are ditching cable for contract-free subscription services like Netflix and video streaming viewers like the Google Chromecast or Amazon Fire TV Stick, security firms like ADT are being forced to share the market with an increasing number of do-it-yourself devices — and standalone cameras represent a significant portion of that growing subcategory.

While the shift toward DIY security gives consumers many more options, it also complicates the purchasing decision a bit. That’s why we’re here. We’ll address a bunch of topics and potential questions in this buying guide so you can figure out exactly what today’s DIY home security cameras offer. We’ll also take a look at the innovative tech that’s likely to define the future of the industry.


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Old-school security cameras

Internet Protocol, or IP cameras are the precursor to modern-day smart-home-style security cameras. Technically, these little numbers were the DIY competition for the ADTs and Vivints of the world long before today’s smart home was even a thing.

Here’s the problem: just like their clunky name suggests, IP cameras weren’t designed with simplicity in mind. And some of these so-called DIY devices are still kicking around today, masquerading as competitors to smart home security cameras like Nest Cam Indoor, Amazon Cloud Cam, Ring Spotlight Cam and others.

Foscam’s Plug and Play Wireless IP Camera (model number FI9826P) is one example. I reviewed this IP camera in 2014, and its web interface was ridiculously convoluted. Check it out for yourself:

Foscam’s web interface. Ugh.


Screenshots by Megan Wollerton/CNET

Sure, a relatively tech-savvy person could probably make sense of this, but today’s DIY security cameras are, in most cases, driven by simple mobile apps.

That puts pressure on companies to create cameras that are truly simple to set up, but it’s good news for consumers — and the mass market as a whole — since there are more buying options than ever before.

Taking matters into our own hands

Before getting bogged down by the specifics, think about what you hope to get out of a security camera. Here are some questions to consider:

  • Do you want to look in on a mischievous pet while you’re at work or are you more interested in protecting your property 24/7?
  • Will your camera stay in one spot or would you like to be able to move it around with ease (including outside)?
  • What about the app? Do you want to have access to your camera on your computer as well as on your phone?
  • Is a high-resolution video feed necessary or is it OK if the camera captures a simple standard-def clip or photo of a security event?
  • If you’re interested in saving video footage, would you rather use cloud storage or access your video locally (via a microSD card or a USB drive)?
  • How much are you willing to spend on a security camera?
  • Do you want your camera to work with other devices?

DIY security offers you the freedom to select from a bunch of different features, prices and styles. But, staring at a sea of options can be really confusing if you haven’t already sorted through what matters to you and what doesn’t.

Webcam or security cam?

There’s a lot to consider as far as security camera features, specs and general tech goes. The difference between a webcam and a true security camera is one important distinction. Webcams are often lumped under the security camera category because many of them offer some security features, but I would argue that they’re pretty limited if your main concern is security.

Take the Nest Cam Outdoor and the Canary View as examples. Both let you view a live video feed on your phone wherever you have an internet connection, but Nest Cam won’t alert you every time a potential security issue takes place (such as when the built-in sensors detect motion, etc.), whereas the View gives you a ton of customizability so you can receive alerts every time something happens, if that’s what you want. 

This may seem like a small distinction, but if you are going the standalone DIY security camera route, those notifications are the only way to approximate real-time monitoring (short of staring at the feed all day). DIY also often means that, unlike ADT and other providers, there’s no professional monitoring service behind your camera. That means, for better or worse, it will be up to you to contact the police if you see someone breaking in to your house.

If you don’t even have the option to get a notification every time a security event happens, you could easily miss the one time that a burglar snatches up that pricey piece of jewelry.

That doesn’t mean that there’s no place for webcams as security supplements, but they’re really best reserved for checking in on a pet throughout the day to make sure your favorite sweater hasn’t turned into a chew toy.

Camera features, specs and other tech

Here’s an in-depth comparison of what types of security cameras are currently on the market.

  • Connectivity and power source

The majority of DIY security cameras today operate on your home Wi-Fi network. That means that you need to situate them within range of your home’s router or wireless access point to function properly. This also means that an interruption to your Wi-Fi signal, whether due to spotty service or an electrical outage will keep your camera from working.

The Netgear Arlo Go camera works over a cellular network (today, compatibility is limited to AT&T Enterprise customers) and Canary’s Flex has an optional Verizon 4G LTE mount. Link-Union’s Link-U Hybrid SmartCam also works over a cellular network with help from an internal 3G/4G modem and a data SIM card (purchased separately).

You can even convert the flexible Flir FX into an action camera for recording in your car, but it can only save these on the go recordings to a microSD card and doesn’t have any sort of remote cellular connection capabilities.

Buy a separate mount to use Flir FX as an action cam.


James Martin/CNET

Most cameras are powered by a plug-in adapter. That doesn’t mean that you can’t easily move the camera to a different spot, just that you’ll always have to consider the location of an outlet when you’re selecting the install area (or keep an extension cord handy).

A growing number, though, can operate untethered. Homeboy, Netgear Arlo, Logi Circle, Netgear Arlo Pro, Flir FX, Canary Flex and even the Ring Video Doorbell 2 are all battery-powered (or at least offer optional battery power). Some have replaceable batteries, while others are rechargeable, but each one gives you greater control over where you install your camera (many devices come with hardware so you can mount your cameras to a wall, built-in stands so you can set them on flat surfaces and some others have magnetic bases so you can easily snap them onto fridges, filing cabinets and other metal surfaces for a quick no-fuss install).

Most security cameras today are accessible on either Android or iOS devices. Many also offer web apps so you can log in on your laptop to view the same video feed or tweak your settings. The app interface is pretty important because it’s your main point of access to your camera.

App configuration varies by device, but it typically requires creating an account (username and password), logging in and entering your local Wi-Fi details.

Here’s a look inside the Nest Cam app on an iPhone.


Screenshots by Megan Wollerton/CNET

Basic features, such as motion and sound alerts, night vision, two-way talk (this relies on a built-in speaker and microphone combo so you can remotely confront an intruder, startle a family member or scold a misbehaving pet) and activity logs are typically found in security camera apps.

Some cameras offer constant access to a live feed (as long as the camera and your app are connected to the internet). This is called live streaming and it lets you check in on your home whenever you want.

Other cameras, like Homeboy, focus exclusively on recording a video clip only when motion or some other sensor is triggered. That means that these cameras don’t make sense if you want to look in on a pet throughout the day — they only operate as security cameras.

Video quality is also a major consideration. The clearer your video quality, the more bandwidth it takes up and the more likely it is to experience lag times and other annoying glitches. High-definition, or HD, video focuses on either 720 or 1080p streaming quality. Most have 1080p today, while others, like Homeboy, stick with low bandwidth 640×480 VGA video quality to keep the battery going longer.

If you do end up picking an HD option and run into lag times or other bandwidth holdups, most cameras give you the option to adjust the quality to a lower resolution. Some cameras even auto-adjust video quality based on your internet connection.

  • Storage and subscriptions

Not all video storage is created equal. There’s cloud storage, which sends your video footage to a remote server, and local storage, which relies on a separate accessory (typically a microSD card that has a dedicated slot on the camera) to hold any footage you’d like to save.

Remote and local storage are really a matter of preference, but some cameras, like the Flir FX give you both options.

It’s also common to pay an optional subscription fee (usually monthly) for cloud storage. Nest Cam charges $5 a month for 5 days of continuous footage; other models, like Canary Flex, Flir FX, Piper and Homeboy give you free cloud storage options.

How much do you want your security camera to see? Since it’s probably guarding a single area, room or point of entry, a larger field of view is generally more desirable. D-Link’s Omna has a 180-degree lens, although Foscam’s underwhelming IP camera has manual pan and tilt functionality that dramatically increases its field of view. 

Pricing varies a lot depending on the camera and its features, but most cost between $120 and $200 (not including any added fees for cloud storage). the $60 Tend Secure Lynx and the $230 Guardzilla 360 are outliers on either end of the pricing spectrum.

tendlynx-5.jpg

At $60, the Tend Secure Lynx is one of the least expensive cameras you can buy.


Chris Monroe/CNET

Beyond the basic live stream, alerts, night vision and two-way talk, there’s a whole other world of features and integration available. The Tend Secure Lynx, Netatmo Welcome, Nest Cam IQ Indoor, Nest Cam IQ Outdoor and select others offer facial recognition. Not only can these models distinguish between people and everything else, they can also tell you who they see from a database of friends and family members you add to your account. 

tendlynx1.jpg

The Lynx camera correctly distinguished among all seven of the faces I added to the app.


Screenshots by CNET

Some models also let you set activity zones, which means you can select a specific area within the camera’s field of view that you’d like it to either ignore or pay extra attention to. That way, it can focus on the spots that really matter, like a doorway, and ignore that nearby countertop your cat’s always jumping on.

If you want to get extra serious about home security, there are a handful of models, like the Canary All-in-One and even the free Salient Eye Android app (which can turn spare Android devices into security cameras for free), that come with built-in sirens and arm and disarm modes for a more straightforward security setup.

In addition, an increasing number of cameras respond to voice commands. Nest’s IQ Indoor works with Google Assistant; Canary’s cameras work with Amazon’s Alexa and Google Assistant and the D-Link Omna works with Siri via Apple’s HomeKit platform. 

More recently, we’re seeing integrations between cameras and the Apple TV or the Amazon Echo ShowEcho Spot or Fire TV so you can pull up your camera’s live feed on a larger screen. 

There are also smart home hubs like Wink and SmartThings, which are compatible with a variety of different protocol languages and help bridge the gap between two products from two different brands that speak two different protocol languages. Wink, for instance, works with Nest’s cameras and SmartThings has its own IFTTT channel.

Ask Siri to pull up the Omna camera’s live video feed.


Chris Monroe/CNET

Security cameras are supposed to blend in. For that reason, you’ll find a lot of cameras with simple white and black finishes. But, when you look closer, key details help distinguish a smartly designed camera from the rest of the pack.

Most security cameras come with built-in stands, while others have solid cylindrical constructions. If you’re interested in mixing up your camera angling, you’ll probably want to consider one with a stand that also lets you pivot the camera, like the Nest Cam Indoor. Others, like Homeboy and Netgear’s Arlo Pro have magnetic backings so positioning the camera angle is entirely up to you.

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On the horizon

There’s a lot to think about when you’re considering a DIY home security camera, but taking time to examine the characteristics that distinguish one model from the next will help guide you to the right fit.

Even so, the security industry is in flux, and there are a lot of upcoming innovations that are sure to leave their mark on the home security market. Face recognition is one intriguing new feature we’ve already noted, but there’s a lot more on the way. We look forward to new and innovative ways to use voice control with security cameras, as well as even more third-party integrations linking your camera to other smart home devices.

Even traditional security firms are making changes. ADT and LG partnered on a contract-free all-in-one security device. And AT&T’s Digital Life security system, as well as Vivint are working with an increasing number of third-party brands.

Regardless of the trends, start with what you want to get out of a home security camera. Given the rapidly growing market, there’s bound to be an option out there that works.



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