We've all had that moment where we get a nagging feeling that something is amiss at home, whether it be that someone has broken in or that fido is in the process of ripping the couch to shreds. A wifi security camera lets you calm your worries, or take appropriate action, by giving you the ability to see a live view of your home at any time from any location with cell service. Some even let you sound an alarm or yell at fido to get off the couch (though we've found that dogs follow the 'if I can't smell you you're not here' rule).
After running 11 of the most popular models out there through a series of exhaustive, hands on tests, we've become experts in what makes a wifi security camera great in a number of different applications. Here we provide a step by step guide detailing how to choose the right camera for you, then discuss some of the finer points of owning one of these cameras.
These Cameras are Not a Security System Replacement
Before we dive into our decision guide we first need to clear up one of the biggest misconceptions about these cameras: they are not security systems. If someone breaks into your home all these cameras will do is start recording footage and send a notification to your phone. Best case scenario: you see and open that notification right away, sound an alarm on the camera itself to scare off the intruders and then call the police (but the key is that you must do these things, nothing happens autonomously). Mediocre scenario: the thieves run away with all your stuff, but you have some usable video of their faces to help the police identify them should they end up in custody. Worst case scenario: the thieves make off with your stuff and all you end up with is some video of the backs of the new owners of all your possessions (and there are plenty of real life instances of this happening).
If you have a traditional security system the police get notified the minute an intruder comes through the door or breaks through the window, even if you're blissfully asleep in a hotel room somewhere or sitting in a cramped airline seat cursing the fact that you didn't spring for the extra leg room upgrade. So, unless you're willing to stay glued to your phone every hour that you're out of the house waiting for a notification from your security camera, it won't be an effective replacement for a traditional alarm system.
Choosing the Right Wifi Security Camera
Step 1: What do You Want to Use your Camera For?
Now that we've told you that these cameras can't replace a security system, you may be wondering what they are actually useful for. Here is a list of their common uses and reasons people like them:
- Monitoring pets
- Monitoring driveways
- Checking in on children
- Making sure the kids got home from school okay
- Providing the peace of mind that comes with being able to check that everything ok on the homefront at any moment
- Augmenting a traditional alarm system
Activity Monitoring vs. Real Time Viewing
Largely these uses fall into major categories. The first is activity monitoring, or using the camera to detect and capture video of periods of activity. This includes things like keeping an eye on a vacation home, being alerted when someone walks up to your front door, and capturing video of any home intruders. We found that all the cameras we tested were able to consistently detect motion. In fact, It was much more likely that we'd get too many activity alerts (one every time a shadow was cast through the window) rather than too few (see step 4 for more on reducing nuisance alerts).
The second use category would be checking in to make sure all is quiet on the home front, that the pets are behaving, or that the kids haven't raided the fridge. In these cases you'll be more concerned with real time viewing and the quality of the livestream provided by your camera. If your needs fit into this category you'll want pay close attention to our real time viewing scores, where the[Nest Cam Indoor and Nest Cam Outdoor dominated.
Step 2: How Much Video History do You Need?
If you're using your camera to monitor activity you're going to want access to the video clips it records. Some cameras allow you to insert an SD card and record video locally. This is nice as large capacity SD cards are fairly inexpensive. However, if a thief steals one of these cameras, then they steal all of the video footage along with it. That is why most cameras save their footage to the cloud. However, individual manufacturers vary greatly in how much video is actually saved and accessible to you on the cloud.
How much video history you need largely depends on your situation. If you're confident you can sit down at the end of each day, review your footage and save any that is pertinent, then 24 hours is fine. If you want to be able to go on vacation, unplug, and then come home and still be able to download any useful clips, obviously you'll need longer. The NETGEAR Arlo Q provides a 7 day history available on the cloud of clips where activity was detected, and the Canary All-in-One records continuously and lets you view the entire previous 24 hours, both for free. This is generally the longest history available of motion activated recordings and continuous video recording, respectively. Generally you can get more if you're willing to pay for a subscription, which leads us to…
Step 3: Do you Need a Subscription?
Generally paying for a subscription gets you a longer available video history stored on the cloud and, in some instances, allows you to download those videos to save rather than only being able to take screenshots of them. So if you want a longer than a one week video history you'll need to look into subscriptions (see the chart below).
Nest and Logitech also offer the ability to dictate where your camera does and doesn't look for motion when you buy their respective subscriptions. This feature is only useful if you're concerned with receiving activity alerts, which brings us to step 4.
Step 4: Are You Concerned With Activity Alerts?
If you are concerned with being notified in real time of activity that your camera senses you're going to want to make sure those alerts are meaningful. Possible scenarios include wanting to get a notification whenever someone walks through the door, or when the dog gets into a room it's not supposed to be in. If your phone is buzzing every 5 minutes because a leaf fell off the tree outside, then you'll start ignoring those alerts, meaning they've lost all of their usefulness. Most cameras allow you to adjust their sensitivity to motion, but it was a crapshoot as to whether or not these adjustments would actually lead to meaningful differentiation e.g. The camera sending you a notification when someone walks through the door, and not sending one when a squirrel runs by the window.
Models that really excel at these use some sort of activity zones. This allows you to define the areas where the camera does and doesn't look for activity, so you could tell it to look at the door but ignore motion outside the window. The Samsung SmartCam is the only model we tested that provides a feature like this without a subscription. While we did find that these 'motion zones' cut down on some extraneous notifications they were somewhat limited (zones must be a squares or rectangles) and weren't quite as effective as those available with other manufacturers' subscriptions.
Both the Logitech Circle and Nest Cam provide motion zones, and the ability to send you a specific alert when the camera detects a person as opposed to just motion. However, all of these services only come with a paid subscription. Both of these services were effective and better than those offered by Samsung, but we found the Nest Cam's was the best and would definitely suggest going that route if you're going to get a subscription service.
Step 5: Consider Your Camera Location
If you're going to set your camera up inside, you don't really need to worry too much about mounting styles and finding an outlet to plug into. If you're going to set your camera up outside you'll want to consider the mount and required cables more carefully. The Nest Cam Outdoor has a versatile magnetic mount and can be plugged into an outside outlet. The Canary Flex and NETGEAR Arlo Pro are battery powered and do not require cables, but must be charged periodically.
Step 6: Don't Forget Video Quality
All of the cameras we tested can provide 720p resolution or better. This resolution is generally adequate, and we definitely wouldn't call the video quality of any of the cameras we tested poor. However, if you can, we strongly suggest opting for a full high definition, 1080p model. It will make your viewing experience more pleasant, and slightly up the chances that a burglar running past the camera will produce some frames with a recognizable face in them.
Can These Cameras be Hacked?
The short answer is yes. How easily depends on a number of factors, and how prevalent such hacking is remains unclear. However, there have been documented incidents" of hacking attempts. Things like changing your camera's password and making sure the connected wifi network is secure can help deter would be snoopers, but this is definitely something to keep in mind when you consider exactly where your security camera will be pointing.
Friends and Family
While being able to watch what's going on in your home at any time can be a great and comforting thing, it can raise some privacy concerns for your family and visitors to your home. Obviously it is up to each user how they'd like to use their camera, and whether they'd like to share its presence with others. Unless you want to back yourself into some sit-com style situation where your family realizes you've been spying on them and everyone gets mad and slams their respective doors, it is definitely best you share the acquisition of a security camera with everyone who lives in your home. It's a bit more of a gray area as to whether you let people like babysitters and dog walkers know that you can see everything they do.
Some Terms and Vernacular
CVR vs. Motion Activated Recording
CVR stand for continuous video recording. Cameras that offer CVR can display everything that has happened in front of the camera for as long as it's been recording, even the boring bits where nothing is happening. Most cameras opt to save space by only recording when activity is detected. We found that any camera set on a high motion sensitivity won't miss much. However, clip lengths vary. Some cameras record continuously while motion is detected then stop when the motion stops. Some start recording when they detect motion, record for a predetermined amount of time, stop recording, and won't record again until after a reset period. This can lead to missing some action. The YI Dome is the worst offender in this regard, only capturing 6 second clips and then shutting down for upwards of 30 seconds.
Most cameras have home and away modes. Home and away refers to you, the owner. If you're home the camera will essentially go to sleep: home mode. When you're away it will start looking for activity and recording clips: away mode. Almost every camera has a scheduling program for you to dictate when it should be in home and away mode. Others acheive this through geofencing, which determines where you are via your cell phone's location and adjusts its mode accordingly. This can be a very useful feature, but its quality is largely dictated by how good your phone's location services are, rather than the quality of the camera.