Solved! This Is Exactly What to Look for in a Home Security Camera System Before Buying - Bob Vila

By Meghan Wentland | Updated Feb 16, 2023 5:47 PM

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Solved! This Is Exactly What to Look for in a Home Security Camera System Before Buying - Bob Vila

A: This is an absolutely valid concern, and not an uncommon one. Most people don’t want to feel like they’re being monitored all the time, and some people even hide from their own doorbell cameras so they don’t have to see what they look like! The thing is, security cameras that are placed well and connected to a well-designed system can add a lot of security to a home, and luckily, there is a happy medium. The wealth of options and choices that have opened up in the last few years means that there really is a good option for everyone—if you know what to look for.

In the past, security systems were expensive and could be somewhat intrusive. They consisted of a panel connected with wires to sensors on every entry point, along with cameras and professional monitoring of the entire system. The modern version of this high-level system can also include indoor cameras, outdoor cameras, smoke and carbon monoxide monitoring, motion-sensor lights, and voice-activated devices that can call for help. For some people, especially those who live alone, live in high-crime areas, or have been victims of crime in the past, this level of hardware and monitoring is exactly the right fit. These customers will likely be searching for the best power-over-ethernet (PoE) security camera systems to help them monitor the entirety of their home.

Other people, however, have seen too many television shows where potential criminals are tracked through neighborhoods and buildings by CCTV cameras, and they find themselves profoundly uncomfortable with that level of recording and monitoring. They may simply want to figure out how to install security cameras themselves and purchase a doorbell camera and a motion-sensing light or two. This end of the spectrum is fine, too, and will also add security to a home without causing the residents to feel penned in, though residential security cameras don’t have the range or detail that commercial types of security cameras do and aren’t as intrusive. Most people will find themselves somewhere in the middle. Perhaps parents of young children might like sensors on the entry doors so they’ll know immediately if their little one has tried to wander out to play in the middle of the night, while a single person living alone may prefer the comfort of a panic button and motion-sensor lights and cameras to brighten and monitor the path from the driveway to the front door during late-night arrivals. Others may like the best indoor security cameras to keep an eye on pets or children who have arrived home from school, or a home monitoring camera to check on elderly relatives who are ill or at risk of falling and injuring themselves.

The first step in finding the right home security system is to carefully examine what kind of tools are needed and figuring out where to place the security cameras. Common components include internal and external cameras, doorbell and entryway cameras, motion-sensor lights, door and window sensors, glass-break sensors, and equipment to sense hazards (including fire, smoke, and carbon monoxide). These components are usually connected using a Wi-Fi hub and can be controlled from a panel and/or an app (and sometimes a voice). Renters will want to take a look at the systems designed specifically for them, which can be moved to a new location easily without damaging walls and windowsills. What will it take to feel safe and also comfortable with the level of monitoring? Asking this question and answering it honestly can help when it’s time to start making decisions.

Opting to go with cameras? There are choices to make about the video quality. Early security cameras provided grainy black-and-white video with gaps of several seconds between frames and a tunnel-like field of view. Contemporary cameras can provide full-color video in a range of quality and night vision. In addition, frame rates (the number of images captured per second) continue to improve, with rates over 24 frames per second (fps)—a speed similar to that of TV shows—and up to 180 degrees of vision. And some move on command, allowing users to reposition the camera from an app to increase the field of vision. What’s the best combination? Again, it depends on what the customer is seeking. A 1080p security camera can capture images up to 1080 pixels in height and 1920 pixels in length, while a 4K camera captures images up to 2160 pixels in height and 3840 pixels in width—this results in a crisper and more detailed image. For most people, a resolution of 1080p is sufficient; this quality will provide enough detail to identify facial features and clothing detail, and it can be blown up on large screens without blurring. In terms of frame rate, 15 fps is the minimum to avoid the video jerking from frame to frame. For most people, approximately 24 fps will provide a smooth video without taking up more storage space than necessary. Aim for a field of view of about 130 degrees, or around 160 degrees on a video doorbell, which might need to take in a wider angle to see packages on the step or people standing to the side of the door. Outdoor cameras? Choose a camera that promises a range of more than 30 feet when in night-vision mode. The camera won’t help if it can only “see” 5 to 10 feet away.

Once the video is recorded via the security cameras, it has to be stored somewhere. Some basic DIY security systems do have the option of live viewing of the camera feed only—users will be alerted when the camera triggers and can check the current view on a smartphone app, but they can’t record or save the video. This type of system can offer immediate peace of mind, but it’s less useful in the event that there is actually a crime on the premises, as the video can’t be presented to law enforcement for use in apprehending the offenders. And it’s only useful if the user is in a position to view the video immediately every time an alert occurs. Those wishing for a little more permanence need to consider video storage options.

There are two components to video storage: the amount a customer needs and how long they want the footage available for viewing. Some systems immediately save video to a physical storage unit—a digital video recorder, an SD card, or a computer. Other systems connect through Wi-Fi and store the images on a cloud server. Cloud servers tend to have slightly higher storage capacities. How much is needed? About 32 gigabytes of storage will usually cover a couple of weeks’ worth of video storage for cameras up to 1080p. If the cameras have higher resolution, the video will take up more storage space, so 64 or 128 gigabytes may be a better choice. A customer who has a system with multiple high-resolution cameras will want to look for a terabyte of storage. The length of time the videos should be stored is a matter of personal preference depending on how often the user plans to review the video feed. It’s a good idea to plan to store for a bit longer than seems necessary; many users plan to review on a regular basis but find that they don’t until there’s a reason to—a neighbor calls to ask if anyone has seen a missing package from the previous week, or law enforcement asks if anyone has video of a suspicious vehicle—so holding on to video for 2 to 3 weeks makes sense to allow time for a reason to review to present itself.

For indoor use, most people find that basic cameras are fine. The best outdoor home security camera, however, will need to withstand the weather and is much more useful if it can see in the dark, follow a moving target, and withstand the elements, so while a user may not need the very highest-end camera with all the bells and whistles, it’s worth looking beyond the base model to see if there’s an option that isn’t much more expensive but will be of actual use. For example, there are cameras that record all the time, storing the footage in the cloud for viewing later. This is great if it’s what the user needs, but it’s going to take up a ton of storage space, and most likely cost more in storage. Motion-sensor cameras might cost a bit more up front, but they will probably cover the difference through savings on storage costs.

Another feature that is worth seeking out is the ability to see live and recorded footage from the cameras when the user is away from home. Most home security systems are paired with a smartphone app that allows instant access to footage, and some systems pair with smart-home systems such as Google Nest or Amazon Alexa, through which users can access all the information they need about the status of their home and security system whether they’re at home, on the road, at work, or on vacation.

There are several options for powering a house camera. Traditionally, cameras are wired into the home’s electrical system, either with a plug or hardwired. This is an ideal option for cameras that are to be mounted on a high roofline or an area on the home that is difficult to access. Nobody wants to be on a 24-foot extension ladder changing out camera batteries in the winter or in a gale-force wind—and if the cameras are located that high off the ground, it’s worth looking into the cost of security camera installation by a professional for safety purposes. For indoor cameras that may need to be moved frequently without damaging walls, plug-in options are a good bet. These cameras must be placed near an outlet to function, or it’s possible that drilling through the roof or exterior walls of the house for wiring may be required. If that seems like too much commitment, there are plenty of options that are powered by rechargeable batteries, and many exterior cameras can be paired with a small solar panel to charge the batteries, making them convenient to install and maintain while avoiding potential roof damage.

How will the videos captured by remote cameras transfer to storage for viewing? There are two options. When applied to security cameras, the terms “wired” and “wireless” determine how the data transmission will occur. A customer looking for a home security system that doesn’t use Wi-Fi will want to look into wired security cameras. These cameras instead use coaxial or Cat 5/Cat 6 cables to directly transmit the images to a physical data-storage device. The images are of high quality and are much less vulnerable to hackers, as the video isn’t traveling over airwaves, so as long as the storage device is secure, the images are as well. However, wired systems do require wires to be run from each camera to the recording device, which means either running cable through walls or choosing several storage devices to place near each camera or group of cameras to avoid cables snaking across the walls.

Wireless cameras transfer data to a physical or cloud device using the home’s Wi-Fi or, in some cases, Bluetooth. Providing that all the devices and the cloud server are well secured against intrusion, this is a reliable way to transmit images without worrying about wires, but it does increase the importance of a battery backup for the cameras and the home’s router, as the video can’t reach the cloud without the router functioning properly. Wireless cameras still need to be plugged in or wired to the home’s electrical supply.

Wire-free cameras are battery-powered cameras that connect to data storage via Wi-Fi. They require no wires of any kind, but again rely on the home’s router for data transfer.

Lights, cameras, keypads, and siren alarms are all excellent tools, but who is paying attention? Many systems on the market today offer users the option of self-monitoring, which means an alert will flash on an app, smart device, or smart-home system. The user can then confirm whether or not there’s a problem and seek help from first responders if necessary. More traditional systems include professional monitoring, in which a monitoring company is on standby should the security system post an alert. The monitoring company can then confirm the emergency via the system itself or by getting in touch with the resident, and can then summon help if necessary.

This type of monitoring is often something users initially shy away from, either because of the cost or the sense that it means someone is “watching” them. Home security costs, however, have come down significantly in recent years, and safeguards are in place so that monitors can only access the systems if there’s an indication that something is wrong—they don’t have access to simply watch through the cameras unless the user has hired a company for surveillance, not monitoring, which is usually only an option for businesses. A security camera with monitoring by a professional is preferable to self-monitoring for several reasons. First, professionally monitored systems often garner a significant discount on the user’s homeowners insurance policy. Homeowners insurance companies know that a home security system is a real deterrent to criminals and that a professional monitor can often summon assistance faster than a panicked resident. This in turn will likely reduce the damage and loss, thus reducing the financial impact the crime has on the insurance carrier. Second, professional monitoring can save precious seconds in a true emergency—knowing that the pros are calling the fire department or police can leave a home’s residents free to swiftly collect pets, children, and other family members and get to safety faster, rather than fumbling for a panic button or cell phone. And professionals can handle situations when the residents are away: Imagine a homeowner getting an alert that there’s a flood or fire while away on vacation, and desperately flicking through a phone trying to find the long-distance emergency number for the police or fire departments in their hometown. Professional monitoring is simply a higher level of security.

But self-monitoring has its merits, the greatest being cost. Many people do find that self-monitoring is sufficient for their needs and are comfortable with the added responsibility of keeping an eye on their own system. Often users will choose self-monitoring to see how they feel about having a security system at all and then upgrade to professional monitoring. In the end, the best home security cameras will be those that the residents are comfortable using, so they’ll want to choose a home security system that best fits their family’s level of comfort.

Before purchasing a security camera system, the customer will want to take stock of their home, looking at the areas of the home and yard that are dark or concealed from the street view, and consider where adding lights or cameras would increase the sense of safety. They’ll want to check out the entry doors and windows—are some more vulnerable or concealed than others? There’s no need for residents to turn their home into a fortress, but a few well-placed lights, cameras, and sensors can go a long way toward deterring criminals and securing the home, especially when paired with monitoring. The best home security system for each customer will create a safer space and provide a better night’s sleep. Considering top trustworthy companies like Vivint, ADT, SimpliSafe, and Frontpoint can also all but ensure that a home is well-protected and secure.

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Solved! This Is Exactly What to Look for in a Home Security Camera System Before Buying - Bob Vila

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