Buying Guide

Security camera buying guide

Start here if you're on the hunt for a DIY home security camera.

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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 Roku 3 , 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 sub-category.

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. And, we'll take a look at the innovative tech that's likely to define the future of the industry. (Please note this buying guide deals mainly with indoor DIY home security cameras.)

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 ADT's and Vivint's 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 , Piper NV and others.

Foscam's Plug and Play Wireless IP Camera (model number FI9826P) is one example. I reviewed this IP camera last year and its Web interface was ridiculously convoluted. Check it out for yourself:

Foscam's Web interface. Screenshots by Megan Wollerton/CNET

Sure, a relatively tech-savvy person could probably make sense of this, but today's DIY (which began when smart home products that emphasize seamless, smartly-designed Web and mobile apps, like the Nest Learning Thermostat , emerged on the tech scene), is going for a more universal accessibility.

That puts more 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 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.

ArcSoft Simplicam Nest Cam Dropcam Pro Piper Samsung SmartCam HD Pro
Price $150 $200, £159 $200, £209 $200, about £161 $190, £140
Color Black Black Black White White
Field of view (diagonal) 107 degrees 130 degrees 130 degrees 180 degrees 128 degrees
Video quality 1,280x720 1,920x1,080 1,280x720 1,920x1,080 1,920x1,080
Cloud storage Yes, starts at $5/month or $50/year for 1 day Yes, starts at $10/month ($100/year) for 10 days; (£8/month for 10 days; £24/month for 30 days) Yes, starts at $10/month or $99/year for 7 days Yes, saves up to 1,000 clips at no extra cost No
Local storage No No No No Yes, SD card
Glass lens Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Night vision Yes Yes Yes No Yes
Mobile app Yes, Android and iOS Yes, Android and iOS Yes, Android and iOS Yes, Android and iOS Yes, Android and iOS
Web app Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
2-way audio Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Motion and sound alerts Yes, and face recognition with cloud subscription Yes Yes Yes Yes
Protocol integration No No No Yes, Z-Wave No

Camera features, specs and other tech

The chart above provides a side by side comparison of five DIY 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 Wi-Fi. That means that you need to situate them within range of your home wireless network 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.

Link-Union's Link-U Hybrid SmartCam claims to work over a cellular network with help from an internal 3G/4G modem and a data SIM card (purchased separately). This product isn't available for purchase yet, though. You can also 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 smaller number, though, can operate untethered. Homeboy , Netgear Arlo , Flir FX , the cameras that come in the Archos Smart Home Starter Pack and even BOT Home Automation's 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 that you can login 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 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 fisheye 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 $99 Guardzilla and the $279 Piper NV are the outliers on either end of the pricing spectrum.

At $100, Guardzilla 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 in 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 is the newest Nest product and works with the updated 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. 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 Dropcam Pro and SmartThings has its own IFTTT channel.

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. Others, like Homeboy and Netgear's Arlo 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. Integrations that offer advanced voice control functionality, like Apple's HomeKit , upcoming Internet of Things operating systems like Google's Brillo and Nest's Works with Nest initiative are all exciting platforms that might bring a whole new degree of integration to DIY cameras and the smart home at-large.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Even traditional security firms are making changes. ADT and LG announced a new with a built-in camera that's due out later this year. And, AT&T's Digital Life platform is partnering 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 for you.