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Smart Home

Building the best security camera

We took bits and pieces from various security cameras to "build" our ideal model.

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Megan Wollerton/CNET

We've reviewed quite a few stand-alone security cameras as well as security systems with camera accessories. Although some have impressed us favorably with their image quality and range of features, none of them has been good enough to merit an Editors' Choice award.

What is the ideal security camera? Since we haven't found it in stores, I decided to perform a little virtual surgery on a bunch of different models to create the "perfect" Wi-Fi camera.

Of course, "perfect" doesn't mean that it will work for everyone, but I am surprised that all of these options haven't already been packed into at least one retail-ready model.

At least 720p, please

While your video-feed quality will vary based on your Internet connection and a handful of other factors like frames rate, compression and so on, the resolution does a lot to ensure that you're catching (or missing) key details in your live stream and saved clips.

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DoorBot, now called Ring, doesn't have the best image quality. Screenshots by Megan Wollerton/CNET

Some models boast 1080p video, such as the $200, £190 Dropcam Pro (not available in Australia), the $200 US-only Icontrol Piper and the $190, £160 Samsung SmartCam HD Pro (again, not available in Australia). That's great, but it also takes up more bandwidth and storage. So as long as you can dial down the resolution in your settings as needed, 1080p is currently the best option available.

Other models offer 720p: the $130, £130, AU$170 Belkin NetCam HD+ ; the $130 US-only Ion the Home ; and the $150, £90 Arcsoft Simplicam (not yet Down Under). These 1-megapixel images can still look very crisp.

When you dip below that, you can run into issues. Take the $200, £120, AU$215 BOT Home Automation Doorbot : its 640x480-pixel resolution really struggled to deliver.

App talk

Dropcam's Web app is accessible directly from Dropcam.com and it offers mobile apps for Android and iOS users. This may seem like a given for a Wi-Fi-connected camera, but the $220, £135, AU$230 Foscam FI9826P had a ridiculously complicated Web interface that involved so many more steps than its competition.

Since plenty of people would like to view live streaming and saved clips on a larger screen, it makes sense for companies to consider reliable Web and mobile interfaces.

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

Alerts, alerts, alerts

If you're going to drop at least 100 bucks on a security camera, you'd better be able to enable motion and sound alerts (at minimum) of the push and email variety.

The Foscam FI9826p disappointed here -- it was only able to send email notifications with a few snapshots (instead of a saved clip) and it couldn't send sound-based alerts at all (even though it had a built-in speaker and microphone).

I haven't fully reviewed the Ion the Home camera yet, but it's supposed to be able to send motion, sound and tamper-related push and email notifications. ArcSoft's Simplicam can send motion, sound- and face-recognition push alerts, but its email notifications were completely unreliable.

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Simplicam's push alerts worked well. Its email notifications? Not so much. Screenshots by Megan Wollerton/CNET

Storage wars

Some folks prefer local storage, while others like subscribing to a cloud-server-service. Why not offer both? And while you're at it, why not let people who opt-in to cloud storage save their clips locally as MP4 files?

That way, you could save footage on an SD card or go the cloud service route and still save your most important clips locally, as needed. Offering a free, or at least a reasonably priced cloud storage option is also key.

The Icontrol Piper lets you save up to 1,000 clips for free and the Ion the Home offers a free, rolling 24-hour cloud storage option.

But, the Foscam FI9826p in particular got this right -- it has an SD card slot and an optional cloud storage service with a free entry-point (30 clips or 100 photos).

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The Foscam FI9826p has an SD card slot and offers optional cloud storage. Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Got backup?

So, what happens when there's a power outage or your sometimes-spotty Internet craps out? Yep, all of the cameras I've mentioned in this post so far would either stop working entirely or be seriously limited in their functionality (aka no more push alerts). Interestingly, Link-Union has a solution.

Its Link-U Hybrid SmartCam is currently in the middle of an Indiegogo campaign, but it claims to have Wi-Fi connectivity with a cellular backup and an 8-hour backup battery. That means that it should be able to work well almost regardless of what happens. Intriguing.

Don't be in the dark

If you want a fully functioning, round-the-clock camera, you're going to want night vision. Icontrol's Piper is actually one of the few security cameras I've tested that doesn't offer this feature -- surprising considering its impressive performance in nearly every category.

You also won't find it in every security system with a camera accessory. For instance, the cameras in the $250, £200 Archos Smart Home Starter Pack (not yet available in Australia) don't have night vision.

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IFTTT

We've talked about the IFTTT service a lot, but it really is a great way to automate your home and connect products that you might mot be able to otherwise. Currently, none of the cameras we've reviewed work with IFTTT (except Manything ) and that's a shame. We can think of a bunch of different applications, such as, "If the Dropcam Pro detects motion, then turn on Philips Hue LEDs," or, "If Belkin WeMo Switch + Motion detects motion, then sound Piper's built-in siren," and so on.

A tall order?

While we haven't reviewed a camera with 1080p (or at least 720p) video, easy-to-use Web and mobile apps (for Android and iOS), push and email alerts (motion and sound), local and remote storage (with a free cloud service option), battery and cellular backup, night vision and an IFTTT channel, I'm not quite sure why. It certainly seems possible since these features already exist independently in several different cameras.

I haven't mentioned integrating the camera into a particular smart home platform like Apple's HomeKit or Samsung's SmartThings. One of those might eventually emerge as the platform to beat, but for now I'll simply ask for the camera makers to keep their software open so consumers can choose for themselves. Maybe you have a platform you think they should support, or you have some other must-have feature in mind. Let's hear about it in the comments.