Home Security

How We Test Home Security Cameras and Video Doorbell Cameras

From nighttime vision tests to mock-porch piracy, these are the tests we use to evaluate every video device we review.

We test security cameras and video doorbell cameras to help you make the best decision for your home.
Wyze

Safety and security products are among the most important to test hands-on, but some are harder to evaluate than others. A leak detector either works or doesn't, but what about a security camera? A video doorbell?

Some video devices are better than others, sure, but many cameras are just different from their competitors -- offering unique features, aesthetics and overall approaches to indoor or outdoor monitoring. And that's what you want! A pet camera should work differently from a nanny cam. Similarly, a floodlight camera should include different features from a video doorbell.

But at the end of the day, we at CNET have to tell you our picks for the best cameras no matter the use case. Here's how we use hands-on testing in real world scenarios at the CNET Smart Home to determine which home security cameras and video doorbells are best for you.

How we test outdoor, indoor and video doorbell camera features

Each time I test a security camera or video doorbell, I set it up using the included directions and test out all of the advertised features in a home setting for about a week -- all with the device's intended purpose in mind. For example, an outdoor camera should be weatherproof and have noise-dampening tech so you can hear the sounds you care about over rushing wind. That means I'll have to perform an outdoor sound check to see if I can hear my kids talking at different distances while I'm watching the live feed.

Similarly, an indoor camera should include privacy features, such as a shutter. That means making sure the features work as advertised, and the shutter, and whether it's open or closed, is appropriately easy to check. Finally, a video doorbell should have excellent two-way talk for chatting with visitors and delivery people. That means holding a conversation with my wife on the porch, and listening for clarity and latency.

There are plenty of other unique features on different sorts of security cameras. Once the device is set up and the features are all laid out, it's time to make sure they work properly. Some cameras allow you to determine motion zones, where anything moving in a specific frame will result in a mobile alert sent directly to your phone. I'll move around the motion zone to see when I get an alert and when I don't. The aim is to discover how precise those zones really are.

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Other such features include motion tracking for pan-tilt cameras (can the camera follow me passing by at walking speed?), two-way talk (can I hold a remote conversation with my wife?), live monitoring (how much latency does the feed have?) and event saving (are motion events saved in an easy-to-understand registry?). Plenty more features are out there, from facial recognition to motion-triggered messages, and each requires its own individual test to make sure it works as advertised.

Getting down to business: Testing resolution, night vision and latency

After I test the unique features of the home security camera or video doorbell camera, the examination becomes a little more demanding -- particularly when it comes to a camera's resolution, night vision and latency.

Plenty of cameras advertise 1080p or 2k resolution, but in practice capture muddy or pixelated video. To figure out how consistent a camera's vision really is, I do a vision test (the kind you might see in your optometrist's office) to see how clear the resolution really is at different distances. I stand a few feet from the camera, then step back once, then again to about 15 feet, then finally to a distance of 30 feet.

To see how reliable the night vision is, I administer the test again in the dark. I compare the results to direct competitors on the market, and offer my recommendation based on the results.

Finally, I tackle latency, since many people hope to use home security cameras and video doorbells to deter porch pirates or other would-be neighborhood nuisances (like the raccoons that treat your garbage can like a weekly buffet). If someone walks onto your porch, grabs a delivery left there and walks away, do you have time to receive the alert, pull up the feed and intervene with two-way talk?

nest-wireless-doorbell

Video doorbells are a type of security camera with their own unique features -- and you pretty much only put them in one place.

Chris Monroe/CNET

Typically my video producer Chris and I enact a mock porch piracy, testing the latency of the camera or video doorbell. Most cameras at this point aren't fast enough to catch a fleet-footed porch pirate in the act. But some are faster than others -- and the best ones capture and record the full act so you can see exactly what happened.

Determining the value of a security product

Once I finish all the technical tests, it's time to give the security camera or video doorbell a score and final recommendation. It's here that I factor in the features, the performance, the overall user experience (again, I usually use them in a home setting for about a week) and a product's value.

To determine value, I have to compare the price to those of similarly-featured devices on the market. In this category, a simple but reliable $30 smart cam outperforms a more fully-featured $100 camera -- or a $200 video doorbell that checks every box can beat a $60 competitor that doesn't quite wow me the same way.

Of course, no security camera or video doorbell will be perfect for everyone, so I also factor in a variety of use cases and budgets. No matter the use case or the price, you can be confident that any security device I recommend will offer a great value for what's on offer.

Recap

Testing home security cameras and video doorbell cameras can be pretty involved, but it essentially breaks down into a few testing categories. Here's what we look at.

  • The features offered
  • How the features perform
  • Whole product performance over a testing period of a week
  • Resolution, night vision and latency comparisons
  • Overall value

To see our testing in action, check out our recommendations for the best video doorbells, the best home security cameras and the best outdoor security cameras for 2022. You can also watch us administer some of these tests in our video reviews.