Home Security Camera Considerations
Updated: Feb 5, 2021
So... thinking about putting cameras up around your home? Probably a good idea, but you should be at least somewhat informed before doing so. We'll try to help here. In this post, we'll chat about a few things to consider before purchasing and installing home security cameras:
Connectivity (Wired vs Wireless)
Power (Plug vs Battery)
Resolution & Quality
Storage (Cloud & Onboard)
Bandwidth (Your "Gigs")
Privacy & Security (Don't Get "Owned")
Features You Need or Want
Selection & Brands
So... What Do You Actually Need?
What About Home Alarms?
Most consumer cameras are designed to connect to the Internet (and your home network) wirelessly (via Wi-Fi). The reasons are simple; from a manufacturing standpoint, wireless is cheaper to make. And from a consumer standpoint, home owner's don't want to tear up their sweet pad to run a bunch of Cat 6 cable. I wont bloviate on wired as it's something that doesn't really apply outside of select cases, such as when you need more than just a few cameras. Generally, if you need more than a few, you're super rich or relate too well to Tony Montana. Other than that, most who go wired do such because of weak Wi-Fi (although an easy fix), are hyper-concerned about wireless security (i.e. too paranoid), or believe the government is programming their brains via Wi-Fi in their sleep. 🤡 If you do go wired, there are good consumer options like the "Arlo Q Plus" which has solid Cloud storage options. For those prosumer folks, the Axis brand is a good candidate, but you'll likely need something like an ONVIF compatible NVR to handle recording and distribution. In short, unless you're BFF is Manny Ray, you'll likely be choosing a Wi-Fi camera.
Your next consideration is power... plug (i.e. AC / USB) or battery. Battery tech has greatly improved in recent years allowing for cameras that don't require weekly charging, with many going months or more. However, the trade-off is functionality and capability. You'll get more of both in a plug-powered camera such as with resolution (quality), features, and often more responsive real-time (live) viewing. So, for most indoor use, there's generally a plug nearby so power is often not an issue. Additionally, most newer cameras are essentially USB-powered with little bricks and long cable options. However, it's often quite difficult to find power outdoors, therefore it's common for users to mix both plug and battery powered cameras for the overall best package. Many vendors, like Arlo, offer both types, all managed through a single app.
We noted resolution earlier... basically, this is how clear the image will be. The higher the resolution, the crisper the image and more detail that can be seen/realized. Additionally, higher resolutions allow for better digital zooms... focusing in on areas to get unseen or unrecognized detail not readily apparent with standard viewing. For most, selecting a camera that supports Full HD (1080p / 1920 x 1080 pixels) is a reasonable choice. There are many 4K and even 8K cameras out there which have great images and impressive digital zooming, however higher resolutions can lead to challenges, especially with storage and bandwidth... as we'll discuss next.
Your cool new security camera will likely store both video clips as well as event-based image grabs and/or thumbnails. So, where does it all go? Well, besides the small built-in (buffering) storage, for most, it'll go to the Cloud. You know, that mysterious place where all your stuff is... along with 15 year old hackers trying to "own" you. With that noted, there are quite a few cameras that offer "onboard" (i.e. local) storage, generally via an SD Card. Even the "Arlo Q Plus" noted earlier has SD Card capability. Generally, most consider local storage just a backup option in the event of Internet failure (for Cloud storage). Why not just local storage you ask? Well, without Cloud storage... if your camera is jacked in a break-in, all evidence is gone. For me (IMHO of course), I don't care about local storage and opt just for Cloud. Obviously, Cloud storage will cost you. Most plans have a price matrix using quantity of cameras, duration of recordings, quality of recordings, and real-time features. FWIW, if you are paying more than $2-$3/month per camera for 30 days of HD storage, you're likely paying too much.
Probably the single biggest security camera issue other humans ping me about is bandwidth... or more accurately lack thereof. If you read my article on Home Internet Service Basics, I was a bit aloof regarding upstream bandwidth as most of your use (like Netflix) is primarily downstream. BUT, nearly all the camera's bandwidth (when in use) is upstream... uploading your recordings to the Cloud or serving up your live (remote) viewing sessions. The average Full HD home surveillance camera will eat up around 1.2 Mbps in upstream bandwidth. So, if you're like me and have a 100 Mbps (down) x 5 Mbps (up) connection, just four cameras operating simultaneously will consume my entire allotment of upstream bandwidth making it difficult for other devices to upload. Now, it's unlikely all cameras will be active at same time, but it's a consideration to take in. So, you'll have to look diligently at your individual situation, allocated bandwidth, and desired number of cameras to determine if your network has what it takes. Another related aspect is your Internet provider's data plan... always check to make sure you're not using up more than needed resulting in unexpected overages.
On to privacy.... ugghhh! Home security cameras can be a privacy nightmare. Well, actually a dumpster fire to be most accurate. Oh, the stories I've read and heard. Often the first step is the most important, simply choosing a quality camera from a reputable (and well known) brand with a solid and long-term track record. So, for me, there are only about 4-5 brands I'd actually consider for my camera purchases. Next, always assume the absolute worst, and that your device WILL be hacked and someone WILL be looking in. So NEVER place or operate a camera which can leave you compromised. Bedroom cameras are just plain STUPID. So are home office cameras or those that overlook technology, as it's too easy for someone to see your screen and the password you're typing into your bank. Ooops!
After you diligently select a brand, you'll want certain capabilities... like being able to easily disable audio and/or video signals. I've shut off two-way audio on my cameras via the app, but also have put electrical tape over the microphone (I'm a bit paranoid). Additionally, when I want total privacy, I simply unplug or cover my devices. If you do cover a device because it doesn't have a shutter cover and it's still powered on, be sure it's vented properly with a non-flammable cover as cameras can get VERY hot. Bottom line, always assume someone is watching you. It's creepy, but it'll keep you safe. Furthermore, always assume someone has access to, and is watching your videos stored in the cloud. Again, just don't place cameras where you don't want footage exposed. Leaks, hacks, etc., just happen... it's sad and you don't have to like it... but it's a reality of the era we live in. Oh, also be sure your account has multi-factor authentication (MFA) enabled and you're using a very strong password. Also, keep the device updated. They release those security updates for a reason. Lastly, NEVER give anyone else access to your cameras. Don't be a willing victim.
So, now that you're afraid and paranoid of cameras... what features should you look for? Well, the camera maker's marketing department(s) will try to sell you a bunch of things you simply will never use. So, I'll note what I personally require and/or enjoy having. Firstly, real-time HD viewing... so I can see what's happening. Next, real-time push and e-mail event alerts along with 30-60 second event clips are important to me... I gotta see how far away the delivery person was when they tossed the package on my porch. Also, detection capability that's not just based on IR but also includes motion detection. Two-way audio is important, but more importantly the ability to disable it. Night vision is also critical for obvious reasons. The field of view (FOV) / angle should be at least 130 degrees. Oh, and a great quality mobile app with positive reviews is a must. For outdoor cameras, it must have a solid IP rating for weather resistance / resilience, along with battery life of at least three months. Lastly, the device itself should complement the surroundings while still being apparent to onlookers having a sturdy stand that won't fall over or collapse, in addition to other mounting options for flexibility.
As noted earlier, I feel the brand you choose is probably the biggest choice. No brand's product is full-proof or perfect. But when you hear about devices catching fire, failing, or having major security flaws, many times it's that super low-priced cheapo unit with no recognizable name purchased at a warehouse store or online outlet. You simply get what you pay for. Top brands like Nest, Ring, and Arlo will work harder to ensure production of solid products that enhance their reputation (and future sales). Personally, I'm happy to stick with those three brands for most applications. The Peephole Cam from Ring is cool, especially for renters. Arlo has a huge line of battery cameras along with the (wired) "Q" series noted earlier. Lastly, Nest has a huge fan base and is know for their range of solid products. Be careful around reviews though... many are based on affiliate arrangements where the reviewer is not necessarily promoting the best camera, but instead promoting the one that makes the reviewer the most money. BTW, I don't do affiliate agreements, so any brands I note are just personal preference.
So... what do you actually need? Well, probably less than you think. I currently have a camera covering the front of my house (including front door & porch), backyard, and main living area. However, the main living camera only operates while we're away. I have two additional cameras that I place when away overnight or on vacation. So, a total of five... and I'm actually quite paranoid about security. As you can infer, I don't want to be recorded in my house at all, but I'm setup for great visibility when not there. I find most people seem happy with three; 1) an entry / front door camera, 2) a backyard camera, and 3) an additional camera inside covering the main entry area, often to catch intruders that block the exterior entry but don't realize there's one inside. Since many packages are designed to add additional cameras, my advice is to start small and just add if, where, or when needed. Plus, the actual device and related Cloud storage are not cheap, so you'll likely just want to scale up carefully.
Lastly... yeah finally near the end... what About Home Alarms? Me, I believe a home alarm is among the most important tech to have in your home, and we'll talk about that in my next post. While cameras are like the police and mainly just deal with things "after the fact", alarms can be further preventive... discouraging intruders. I'm not devaluing security cameras for this aspect, but they can be very easy to defeat with a laser, spray paint, paintball gun, etc.. My alarm is set both at night and during the day... yep, even when we're home. If some fool decides to intrude... we'll know... immediately. 🤡 And, if I'm not home I can spin-up a camera to see what's what. So, you can imagine the combo of security cameras and a home alarm can work well together.
Well, that's it... hope you found this post interesting. If not, as noted before... sorry you can't get your time back... that's on you! 😧 Always feel free to e-mail me comments. You can find my info on the "Team" Page.
DISCLAIMER: I'm just a guy who's been around tech and knows some stuff. I always remind others that what I say is purely FWIW, IMO, FFT, FYI, and many other acronyms... so while I strive to convey quality deets... you get no promises on accuracy or validity. I'm sure a lawyer would say; information not guaranteed, actual results may vary, and use at your own risk.