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Tell me about home-security cameras

Checking my Amazon vendor stats this morning, I discovered that somebody (I’ll never know who unless they choose to “uncloak”; thank you, Mysterious Stranger) just bought one of these: Wireless IP Pan/Tilt/ Night Vision Internet Surveillance Camera Built-in Microphone With Phone remote monitoring support.

Yeah, that’s a mouthful. But that’s also a lot of camera for $50.

Until recently, I’d never thought about getting home-security cameras because a) I have nothing worth stealing and b) not many bad guys are going to choose a house with three dogs. But just this week the thought crossed my mind that a camera at the front door and another at the back might not be a bad idea — if I could afford them and if I could set them up myself.

So I thought I’d toss this out for discussion.

Anybody here have experience with modern, inexpensive security cameras? Got recommendations? Any pitfalls to watch out for?

I would definitely want ones that would record sound as well as video (just in case I ever had to deal with a “We swear, honest, cross-our-hearts-and-hope-to-die we knocked and identified ourselves as police” situation). Motion-activated would be good for the front door. At the back door, it might just end up recording a bunch of dogs going in and out.


  1. MJR
    MJR August 30, 2012 11:37 am

    Unfortunately the CCTV market falls into the category of “you get what you pay for”. If you’re new $50 CCTV doesn’t have you pulling your hair out in a month, I would be totally shocked.

    1st issue is power… This wireless camera is going to have to have power no matter what. How do we get a dependable power source? You guessed it.. Wire! Now, if your CCTV system doesn’t have a wire for power, than it will probably have a battery compartment. Once you throw batteries into the equation, you will spend more time changing batteries than you will catching those teenagers that like to tee pee your house on Friday nights.

    2nd issue is interference… I don’t know about you but I do not want a system that is susceptible to interference or risk losing coverage due to poor technology. Wireless systems can be very finicky. There are some things to keep in mind before you decide to go wireless. Check out:

    I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but really drop the wireless. I know this day and age wireless products are the norm but the evolution of wireless CCTV has been stagnant at best.

  2. ff42
    ff42 August 30, 2012 9:34 pm

    I just bought one of these last Sunday. If it wasn’t me (or even if it was) please remind us how to setup Amazon to credit you, Claire.

    If one clicks through to the product page one sees that it also appears to have a wired option and I have the skills/equipment/plans to make it Power Over Ethernet (POE). I was looking for the cheapest pan/tilt and it just happened to also be wireless. I plan on connecting to one of my Linux computers and either continous snapshots or noise/movement activated. I’ll let you know in a month or two how well it works for me.

  3. -s
    -s August 31, 2012 7:09 am

    I’ve been using the Panasonic BL-C230A for the past few years.

    I’ve had no trouble at all with the wireless. I use them in a remote location where they go months at a time without me being able to touch them. The electric utility fails, but when it returns, the cameras come right back. You need a decent wireless network, but the cams work quite well. I have one where I know the wireless signal is marginal, but it works just fine.

    There are some limits. While the cameras capture sound, they don’t record it, at least not using older versions of IE like I do. There is an MPEG-4 streaming option that may include sound, but that seems to work with IE shipped with Windows 7, not earlier versions, so I haven’t been able to use it. So I get individual images and movies but no sound in the recordings. I can hear sounds just fine when I’m logged into the cam.

    There are a LOT of options and settings, and if you read the Amazon reviews, you’ll find a fair fraction of folks who butted their heads for a bit then gave up and returned the “defective” product. I buy those on eBay as open-box new items for a $70 discount over the Amazon price. Some have pretty messed up settings, but force a reset to factory defaults and you’re good to go.

    The night vision is not very good. If you want night vision, you’re either going to pay a lot more money for a real night cam or you’ll buy an IR illuminator, not much money, but sharp human eyes can see the glow of those things in the dark.

    These cameras work best with IE and ActiveX. They’ll work with other browsers, but you get full function with IE.

    The motion detection is quite useful. I set the cameras to both send emails when the motion sensor goes off and to store images internally. That way even if the camera gets swiped or unplugged the data has gone to the cloud…

    I have to agree with MJR about getting what you pay for. I have a few $50 cams. I even have a few $12 cams, where the memory card costs more than the cam. I can’t rely on any of those the way I can on the Panasonic units.

    Good luck! If you decide to go with these, or the slightly more expensive HD version, which gives a MUCH better image:

    give me a shout, I can hold hands across the internet 😉

  4. Claire
    Claire August 31, 2012 8:28 am

    Thank you for voice-of-experience, MJR and -s. Thank you for “uncloaking,” ff42.

    A friend who read this also gave me passwords to look through the eyes of his security cams. Very interesting and instructive.

    ff42, I’d be very interested if you ever want to post a follow-up on how that wireless camera works for you and how easy/difficult it was to use it with a Linux system. I’m thinking that MJR and -s are probably right on recommending more expensive cams (which aren’t going to be in my budget). However, it could also be worth a $50 investment just to get some hands-on experience.

  5. Claire
    Claire August 31, 2012 8:32 am

    Oh, and thank you, ff42. I’m sure that must have been your purchase showing up in my Amazon records.

    For anyone who wants to know, using this link when you enter Amazon …

    … will earn me a commission on anything you purchase during that visit while still preserving your privacy. People are sometimes unsure whether it’s working because once they move away from the entry page and start putting things into their cart, the “livifree-07-20” portion of the link goes away. But no worries; it’s still working.

  6. Scott
    Scott August 31, 2012 9:10 am

    As has been mentioned, it will need a power source, and also “weather resistant” may mean it only resists weather for a time. Place the camera where it’s protected from the weather, regardless of what the package claims. I tend to agree with MJR-get a wired version. It’s not that difficult to install. “Night Vision” cameras are infrared(most video cameras can “see” infrared-point a remote control at any video camera and press a button. You’ll see a flicker). Infrared LED illuminators are about $15 or so(and come with a wall wart power supply that needs to be plugged in). I installed a backup camera and illuminator on a truck-the range isn’t all that great.

  7. Mike Porter
    Mike Porter August 31, 2012 9:59 am

    Color me paranoid, but anything ‘wireless’ can be intercepted, and anything ‘internet’ is vulnerable to hacking. It’s not that outward facing cameras would necessarily be a treasure trove of personal information for a hacker… I’m just more comfortable with hard-wired feeds that go exactly where I had intended. I suppose this comes from several unfortunate experiences:

    One was with a garage door opener that had no selectable coding; a neighbor had a similar rig that opened my door from time to time. Nothing like coming home from work to find an open invitation to thieves. My solution was to plug the opener into a remotely controlled outlet so I could turn the damned thing off after closing.

    The second was a PC that got hacked through a weak firewall, the bastards trashed a lot of valuable data before crashing the machine. I now have all valuable and personal goodies on a stand-alone machine, and any internet activity happens on a separate ‘bare bones’ PC that could explode and I wouldn’t give a rats naked pink tail.

    But then, after reading about that new multi-billion dollar NSA super complex they built in the desert, I’m now about three taps of a ballpeen hammer away from slipping a cog and wrapping my entire house in a Faraday cage… so yeah, fifty bucks and easy installation sounds like a good deal to me.

  8. Dan
    Dan August 31, 2012 10:12 am

    This is how I set up my last security system.

    Harbor Freight has security cameras for around $40 each. I purchased a video card for an old computer that I had and I plugged the cameras into the computer.

    I installed a free program called zone-minder, which is security software. It does take some expertise to get the zone-minder and the cameras working together, but the results are well worth it. It is a dedicated program which uses Linux as it’s operating system, so it is not simply “plug and play”.

    Once the computer is operating the cameras you can have:

    motion detection

    inactive zones in the camera view, as in do not detect motion where the dogs walk, for that waving branch, traffic on the street, the part of the driveway where people are always turning around, etc.

    saving the video and also sending it to a remote site.(in case they steal the security system)

    notifications of activity sent to your phone, work, etc.

    logging in remotely to see what’s happening at your house when you are out of town, and other great and useful features

    The system worked great, but as I said it does require some planning and knowledge of computers and especially some understanding of how Linux deals with video hardware.

    Both the cameras and computer need a power source, and it is a wired system. That means running the video wire (telephone wire) and the power to the camera locations, and an uninterruptible power supply(UPS) is recommended so that the security system still works if the power is cut.

  9. Claire
    Claire August 31, 2012 11:16 am

    Dan — you can seriously do all that with $40 cameras — and a bit of Linux know-how? Whoo. Well, that and hardwiring.

    Mike Porter — thank you for sharing the wisdom of your bad experiences. 🙁

    Hardwiring … yes, hardwiring …

    I probably do have a few old laptops around here — mostly in pieces — that I could cobble back together to use as a command center. Big question is: do I really want to add this to my project list?

  10. Claire
    Claire August 31, 2012 11:27 am

    Oh, don’t worry, Woody. That one’s still good and a few people do use it. The “livifree” link is the one most people use these days, but both work.

    Thank you for using either of them. 🙂

  11. jed
    jed August 31, 2012 4:18 pm

    Well, there are a lot of ways to do the video capture thing with Linux. Motion capture and time lapse with a basic webcam will give you a cheap start, particularly if you have an old spare machine laying around. I haven’t tried it, so I don’t know how much of a project it’d be. Doesn’t sound too bad on a 1st read.

  12. jerry jones
    jerry jones August 31, 2012 5:25 pm

    We are on our second CCTV. The first was a low cost warehouse store deal.
    It was OK but not good.
    The Mrs. did the research and spent 350frns for a decent system with infrared night capacity. We like this one alot. We hooked it up to an unused monitor and we have cameras at the front, back and sides of the house.
    We get a four split screen view too.
    We live in LA so security is and issue.
    We never open the door unless its someone we know well.
    I’d tell you the brand but I’m not the family IT person, sorry.
    IIRC she told me that from her reading a good system starts at about that price. Anything cheaper and you buy twice.
    We certainly did.

    So, dogs, guns, CCTV, vigilance. Security is like an onion, it has layers.

  13. Claire
    Claire August 31, 2012 7:23 pm

    jerry jones — That sounds interesting. Any chance you could ask your household tech whiz for info on the brand and model?

    jed — Not sure I have quite the tech savvy for converting a web cam into a security cam, but perhaps somebody else reading this will make a project of that.

  14. MamaLiberty
    MamaLiberty September 1, 2012 7:29 am

    Dog – soon! 🙂
    Guns – check
    Solid doors – check
    LOCKS – engaged – check

    Never had any sort of cameras like this, and don’t see a need for them here…

    But I just had to comment on the motion detection thing. 🙂 My back deck light is a motion detector sort. One night I was standing at the kitchen sink and looked out the window when the light came on suddenly. Leaping OFF the deck was a deer! Pesky mooching neighbors.

  15. ff42
    ff42 September 1, 2012 4:39 pm

    I received the cam this morning, plugged it in (to validate that it is working – never messing around with wireless), built a POE (power over Ethernet). The included 5V transformer loses too much voltage over a 25′ drop to engage the pan/tilt motors so I had to reach into my spare parts and hook up a 6V transformer – yes I know about amperage, fuses, etc – The 24g wire is sufficient for 300mw.

    I’ve mounted it upside down (using the reversal and mirror settings) at the top of my front door frame, which is in an 3′ alcove with a 2′ eave (so I’m hoping it is sufficiently protected from the weather), but I’m a little worried about the upcoming Rocky Mountain winter.

    I hooked it to my switch, did a “sudo netdiscover” from my linux box, (It was configured as, open a browser to, changed IP (I’ve got a 192.168.1.* network) and admin password, created an Operator (pan/tilt and view) and Visitor (view only) users – all very trivial and straight forward (never needed the manual) and opened a port forwarding in my firewall to reach it from the outside.

    I have not yet played with the alarm/motion sensor settings and will not be using audio (appears to be activeX/windows only feature). The only drawback (so far) is that it can NOT ‘look’ through a piece of glass/plastic at night because of the IR reflection is blinding, so I had to mount it outside rather than in the front window.

  16. Claire
    Claire September 1, 2012 5:14 pm

    Thanks for the update, ff42! It sounds pretty good for a $50 camera — and though the Windows/ActiveX problem is annoying (I’d definitely want sound), it also seems to be a common “feature,” even with more expensive camera systems.

    It was good to hear that it was so relatively easy to set up.

  17. LibertyNews
    LibertyNews September 1, 2012 8:11 pm

    I have a relatively complex setup. Dedicated Linux server using ‘motion’ to capture frames from the cameras when there is movement. I use 2 Foscam WiFi cameras and 4 CCTV cameras connected to a dedicated video capture card. I pretty much got what I paid for, meaning I spent around $600 and while I can see things that have happened in the past the resolution of the cameras is such that unless they stand in front of it I wouldn’t expect it to help in prosecuting anyone.

    Cameras have a hard time with distance, light and movement. The further away it is the less pixels there are to represent it (my cameras are all 640×480). And the faster the object is moving the harder it is to identify it. In low light situations this gets worse, even with IR LEDs that many outdoor cameras come with.

  18. jed
    jed September 1, 2012 8:19 pm

    Hmmph. Didn’t realize on 1st reading, but this cheap cam implements its own web server, and serves up pages with Active-X controls? What a load!. If I had $50 to spare on random experiments, I’d be curious to snoop the network traffic and see if there’s a simple URL one could use to get to the sound stream — it seems likely to me, that after whatever fussing around happens with Active-X, the end result is an http request similar to what you’d use to connect to a streaming radio station.

    Apparently, at least some cams do support audio w/Linux, but you’d be getting into $200+ neighborhood.

    I used the Amazon thingie. I assume it worked, but it’d be nice if Amazon put some little note in the order verifying it.

  19. 12bitphoto
    12bitphoto September 4, 2012 10:52 am

    If you’ve got a computer you’re willing to dedicate for the purpose, you can easily set up two cameras for less than $100. I use $8-$12 webcams I purchased from Amazon, and Blue Iris software ($50) –this is my backup system but it works great and is easier to review than my primary system. I bought my primary at Harbor Freight for $300, and it came with a DVR and built-in software that is pretty good, 4 cameras, and the wire needed for each camera (wired system). The same kind of system is available on Amazon for the same or less cost. I let the primary system record 24/7 on all cameras but the backup is motion activated.

  20. 12bitphoto
    12bitphoto September 4, 2012 10:57 am

    BTW, I also bought from Amazon a wireless video camera for around $20. It has a microphone and video camera in about a 1.5″ cube and a receiver that connects to a RCA video input on your TV. It’s not a high resolution image but it’s adequate for viewing –I use it to see what’s going on at the gate to our country property. The main limit is power –the camera/transmitter can run off a battery, but it doesn’t last long and isn’t practical, so you really need a 120V outlet somewhere nearby.

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