X10, known for its pesky ad campaign and unique home-automation devices, delivers a cheap alternative to high-end surveillance systems with the Ninja Pan 'n Tilt. This do-it-yourself home-surveillance kit combines a weather-resistant camera, a motion-control base, and USB video capture. While the video isn't the greatest, the reasonably priced Ninja does a decent job of monitoring wide areas manually or automatically via a TV, a local PC, or on the Web. We just wish X10 would lose those pop-unders. Truly a graduate from the mix-and-match school of merchandising, the Ninja system consists of several components that can be purchased separately or together. The complete system includes the XC18A wireless camera, the ZC15A Pan 'n Tilt base, the XM14A power supply, the CR14A manual remote control, the VR36A video receiver, the VA11A Video to USB adapter, and the CM19A RF computer interface. You'll have to download the PanTilt Pro software separately.
The XC18A camera isn't your regular Webcam; it outputs analog, not digital video. The tiny fixed-lens camera packs in a powerful 2.4GHz transmitter and a directional antenna. Mount the camera on the Pan 'n Tilt base, a robotic device that is controlled either by the PanTilt Pro software or manually with the remote control. X10 also includes a wall bracket and a tripod if you prefer to use them to mount the camera.
Setting up the Ninja base requires only a few minutes and a power source. Setup of the wireless receiver and the USB video adapter is also relatively easy, but you'll have to tinker to get a clear picture. While the camera and motion-control base are weather resistant, the power supply isn't, which, unfortunately, binds you to an indoor power outlet. The receiver needs to be positioned within range of the camera, and both antennae must be oriented to "see" each other. To connect the X10 camera to your PC, you must use the video-to-USB adapter. If you are using a single PC to control and view images from the camera, you'll need two USB ports: one for the video adapter, the other for the RF computer-interface module that the Pan 'n Tilt software application requires. Documentation is minimal, but in our tests, we didn't have any problems since the program instructs you to plug in the hardware at the appropriate times.
A word of warning: PanTilt Pro software does not work well with home networks--and sometimes it won't work at all with them. If your home network uses Network Address Translation (NAT) to address your machines, either from a router or modem sharing, you may be able to get it working through special port settings, but don't bet it'll come easy. The X10 wireless camera comes with a prefocused lens that's protected by a weatherproof plastic cover. Just remove the cover and twist the lens to focus. You can set image orientation by turning the whole camera left or right 90 degrees. The robotic base can pan left and right approximately 240 degrees and tilt up and down 60 degrees. For manual use or testing, use the handheld remote control to select, pan, and tilt up to four cameras. The programmable manual remote control can record up to four preset points for each camera, so you can either individually select them or sweep through all four automatically.
To view video, you have several options. The X10 receiver takes the 2.4GHz signal from the camera and outputs composite video via an RCA plug that plugs into a TV set or VCR with composite input. The VA11A adapter then accepts the composite input and converts it to USB for viewing on your PC with PanTilt Pro. You can also use your camera and USB connection with Yahoo or MSN Instant Messenger.
With the PanTilt Pro software, you can view video from your camera, control the Pan 'n Tilt base, and set standard picture properties, such as brightness, contrast, sharpness, and hue. In addition to viewing video from your camera, the software registers your machine on an X10 server so that you can access your camera from any Web-connected machine using your unique ID code and password. Unfortunately, getting remote access to work requires a fair amount of trial and error, and there isn't much documentation to guide you through the process. X10 says that it is working on improving its support; in the meantime, plan on a fair amount of head-scratching. X10 claims that this camera has a range of approximately 100 feet. We were able to receive a clear image (feeding it into a camcorder) at almost 400 feet from the house, easily within range for someone to monitor from the street. Since the camera moves, so does its antenna, which can degrade the signal as it turns off-axis with your receiver, which reduces range. Some wireless networks can cause interference, too. Overall though, the Ninja Pan 'n Tilt held its ground. Image quality is one area where the X10 camera system does not excel. The camera performs best in daylight, both in terms of exposure and color balance. However, image quality suffers in low-light situations, making it difficult to use indoors.
The lens exhibits a lot of spherical and edge distortion, which limits its resolution. As an analog camera, it can display 640x480 images on a TV and QCIF (160x120) images on your PC. In both cases, our test pictures came out grainy but recognizable. If you're using this camera for surveillance, you'll be able see if there's anything going on, but you won't be able to make out a face at a distance or grab a license plate number.