Kitchen Sink, Making a House a Home

How to Buy a Smart Security Camera

In The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Lisbeth Salander surreptitiously secures some sophisticated specialty security cameras so she can keep an eye on the Hedeby Island cabin she’s temporarily sharing with journalist Mikael Blomkvist.

If Lisbeth sought surveillance spy cams this year, she could have easily procured Wi-Fi cameras that recorded high resolution color footage with night vision instead of the grainy black-and-white footage Lisbeth managed with her gear, viewable from any smartphone instead of the proprietary viewer she was stuck with—all for a fraction of the money she spent.

Image of Surveillance Camera

Not only can you easily and inexpensively acquire your own Wi-Fi security camera or system, but you don’t need anywhere near Lisbeth’s technical expertise to install or operate it. Here’s what to look for as you shop.

AC or battery?

The vast majority of Wi-Fi security cameras need to be jacked into an AC outlet. While this AC power supplies continual, worry-free 24/7/365 juice for all your home surveillance needs, it also severely limits camera placement to the length of the camera power cord. Plus, a tethered-to-AC camera becomes more obvious in a room. Anyone who might be looking for your AC-powered camera can easily locate and disable it.

A small but growing number of security cameras operate on batteries that can supply power for up to a couple of years, depending on the model and your usage. While you will have to monitor your cameras’ battery levels—the app will let you know when the camera power levels are low—you’ll be able to hide, disguise or mount the cameras to make it more difficult to spot in a room full of tchotchkes.

One unique battery-powered camera system that Lisbeth might have chosen is the Blink system, whose compact cameras measure a measly 2.75 x 2.75 x 1-inch square and run on a couple of AA batteries for more than a year. Blink cameras can be bought individually or in groups of two, three and five.

Choosing between AC- and battery-powered cameras, therefore, depends entirely on where and how obviously you want to place them.

What can you see?

Image of a CCTV Security Camera

More recent Wi-Fi camera models record footage in high-definition color, either 1080p or 720p—either should be sufficient to make out details, such as faces, even if you digitally zoom in.

More important than resolution, however, is how much the camera can see. With only a few exceptions, Wi-Fi cameras can only see what they’re pointed at. How much of your room is visible is defined by the camera’s “field of view” (FOV), usually between 90 and 150 degrees. Obviously, the wider the field of view, the more the camera will see; conversely, the wider the field of view, the more fish-eye warped the image will be.

Many models let you physically tilt the camera on a hinge or pivot to refine its set viewing angle, while more advanced models let you remotely pan and/or tilt the camera via its smartphone app while you’re live-viewing.

One of the most unusual continual power and FOV solutions is the pending iCamPRO Deluxe from Dutch company Amaryllo. Instead of an AC cord, the iCamPRO Deluxe screws into a standard light socket—a table lamp or, even better, ceiling can. Available in either black or white, the iCamPRO Deluxe is one of several smart Wi-Fi cameras from the company with 360-degree auto-tracking—it follows whatever motion it detects wherever it goes in the camera’s view—or its swiveling can be remotely controlled from a smartphone.

A similar solution is the Sengled Snap, a 60-watt-equivalent ceiling can LED bulb with an integrated (but static) HD/140-degree circular FOV camera.

Understanding that sometimes you’ll be staring into a dim room, well-equipped cameras include night vision. But this in-the-dark viewing is usually limited to around 16 feet, depending on how dark the room is.

See and hear and speak

Image of camera view of baby sleeping

Most newer cameras include both microphones and speakers so you can hear what’s going on and even speak to whoever is in the room: your kids, the babysitter, the cleaning person, even to your dog taking advantage of your absence to illicitly ensconce itself on your sofa.

Something is happening, but you want to know what it is…

A security camera can be like a tree falling in forest—how do you know if anything is happening if you’re not looking at its live feed? Spend a bit more and pick a camera with motion and, if possible, audio detection. Once the camera detects a suspicious movement or sound, it’ll send you a text alert to let you know something may be amiss.

But you want to avoid false alarms—getting an alert because your pooch wanders through a room or the wind ruffles the curtains, for instance. More advanced cameras let you define what areas of a room to watch or listen to, or let you apply special situational settings to let the camera know which motions or sounds, or the intensity of either, to respond to.

Where does the footage go?

Having a camera is pretty much useless unless you can review the footage. Most camera apps let you record footage you’re watching. When you’re not watching, most cameras store a limited amount of footage—a day, a week, a month—for free, then charge a subscription fee for additional storage.

Some models include a microSD card slot so you can store your footage locally in the camera.

How much?

Prices of Wi-Fi security cameras range between $80-$200, depending on specs and features set. That’s a cheap investment to protect you and yours.


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Stewart Wolpin is a freelance writer and veteran gadget reviewer for more than 30+ years. Stewart writes about consumer technology for eBay, where you can find all the latest electronic gadgets for your home. Reach him on Twitter @StewartWolpin.

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