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Everything you need to know about home security cameras

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In the same way that some folks are ditching cable for contract-free subscription services like Netflix and video streaming viewers like the Roku Streaming 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.

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, Nest Cam Outdoor, Piper NV 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 Nest Cam Indoor (or Outdoor) and Piper NV 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 Piper NV gives you a ton of customizability so you can receive alerts every time something happens.

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.

Comparing Nest Cam Outdoor and Netgear Arlo:

Nest Cam Outdoor Netgear Arlo
Price $200/£150 $180/£135/AU$240
Color finish White White
Power source 25-foot extension cord 4 CR123 lithium 3-volt photo batteries
Resolution 1080p HD 720p HD
Live streaming Yes Yes
Continuous recording Yes, with Nest Aware No
Cloud storage Free 3-hour event-based snapshots (Optional 10-day or 30-day continuous recording and storage with Nest Aware subscription for $10 or $30 per month) Free 7-day event-based video clip storage (Optional 30- or 60-day event-based video clip storage with Arlo subscription for $10 or $15 per month)
Local storage No No
Mobile app Yes, Android and iPhone Yes, Android and iPhone
Web app Yes Yes
Night vision Yes Yes
Alerts Motion and sound (Person Alerts added with Nest Aware) Motion only
Activity zones Yes, with Nest Aware No
Operating temperature range -4 to 104 degrees Fahrenheit (-20 to 40 degrees Celsius). 14 to 122 degrees Fahrenheit (-9 to 50 degree Celsius)
Third-party integrations Works with Nest, IFTTT IFTTT

Camera features, specs and other tech

The chart above provides a side by side comparison of two DIY outdoor security cameras that are widely available today. As you can see, they share a lot of similarities, but there are also some subtle differences. Here's a more in-depth comparison of what's 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 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 camera to a wall, built-in stands so you can set it on a flat surface 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 fix).

  • App

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.

  • Video

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 720p, while a few like Nest Cam, Piper and Samsung SmartCam HD Pro offer full 1080p video. Others, like Homeboy, stick with low bandwidth 640x480 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. The Oco HD Wi-Fi camera even has an included feature that auto-adjusts the video quality based on your internet connection.

Nest Cam and Dropcam Pro side by side.

Screenshots by Megan Wollerton/CNET
  • 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 $10 or £8 a month for 10 days of continuous footage, while ArcSoft's Simplicam charges $5 per month for 1 day of storage; other models, like Canary Flex, Flir FX, Piper and Homeboy give you free cloud storage options.

  • Field of view

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. Piper has a 180-degree fish-eye lens -- the largest of the models we've reviewed, although Foscam's underwhelming IP camera had manual pan and tilt functionality that dramatically increased its field of view. Simplicam, on the other hand, has a lower 107-degree field of view.

  • Price

Pricing varies a lot depending on the camera and its features, but most cost between $150 and $200 (not including any added fees for cloud storage). the $70 Ezviz Mini and the $280 Piper NV are the outliers on either end of the pricing spectrum.

At $70, the Ezviz Mini is among the least expensive DIY security cameras.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET
  • Advanced features

Beyond the basic live stream, alerts, night vision and two-way talk, there's a whole other world of features and integration available. If you spring for ArcSoft's cloud storage, you'll have access to its facial recognition feature. This feature didn't work particularly well when I tested it, but other models, like Netatmo Welcome, are also introducing this feature and it will be interesting to keep an eye on this trend.

Setting up Simplicam's facial recognition feature. Screenshots by Megan Wollerton/CNET

Some models also let you set activity zones, which means that 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 Homeboy, Piper 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, cameras like the Belkin NetCam HD+ and Nest Cam provide integrations with other Belkin and Nest products. Belkin's NetCam is accessible on the Belkin WeMo app so that you can easily control your Belkin WeMo Switch alongside your Belkin security camera. Nest Cam Indoor and Outdoor models work with the Nest app, which can be used to control your Nest thermostat, Nest Protect smoke and carbon monoxide detector, Nest Cam, Dropcam Pro and original Dropcam cameras. You can even enable a Home and Away setting that automatically turns your Nest Cam off when your Nest thermostat is set to Home mode and back on when it's set to Away mode.

Other cameras even have third-party integration capabilities, meaning that they can work with another brand's products and services. Specifically, Homeboy and Manything (a free iOS app that turns space iPhones and other devices into security cameras) have IFTTT channels. IFTTT is a web and mobile service that connects various devices and online services to each other so that you can perform more advanced automations.

Automations created on the Homeboy IFTTT channel. Screenshot by Megan Wollerton/CNET

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 Cam and SmartThings has its own IFTTT channel.

More recently, we're seeing integrations between cameras like Nest Cam and Canary Flex and the Apple TV so you can pull up your camera's live feed on your TV. While voice control integrations through Amazon Alexa devices, Apple HomeKit and the Google Home are becoming increasingly popular in the smart home industry, security devices have been slower to adopt them. That's partly because you don't want it to be too easy for someone to control a security product via voice, and partly because cameras aren't particularly interactive (unlike lights or a thermostat).

D-Link's HomeKit-enabled Omna is leading the voice control charge for the security camera category. With Omna, you can ask Siri to open the related iOS app to view the camera's live video feed. We haven't seen anything quite like this (yet) with either Amazon Alexa devices or the Google Home.

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

Chris Monroe/CNET

Design

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 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 that 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 a security camera, 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.