Keep watch: 5 cloud security cameras

row of houses icons on computer screen with security locks
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If you want to make sure nobody's making off with your valuables -- or that your dog isn't chewing up the furniture -- try one of these cloud-based cameras

Whether you feel the need to keep an eye out for intruders at home, keep tabs on the baby in the other room or just want to see what your pets are doing when you're not around, cloud security cameras can help.

These cameras offer more flexibility than do regular webcams because they typically use a Web portal, rather than a laptop or personal computer, as the monitoring and control hub, allowing you to check in from anywhere -- including your smartphone.

But keep your expectations in check. While you can use the cameras to get the gist of what's going on at home, the quality of video can be downright awful when streamed over your home Wi-Fi, through the public Internet and over the cellular data network to your smartphone.

Web-based security cameras with motion capture video can let you in on what your pets are up to when you're not around.

Cloud security cameras and services all take slightly different approaches and offer a variety of features. I tested five models from different vendors for this roundup: the D-Link Day/Night Network Cloud Camera (DCS-932L), the Dropcam HD, the Logitech Alert 750n Indoor Master System, the Netgear VueZone Video Monitoring System and the Samsung SNH-1011 IP SmartCam.

Which one might work for you? Before I get to the reviews, I'll start by telling you what you need to know -- and what to expect.

Facts and features

Most of the cameras reviewed here offer wireless connectivity to your home's broadband router, save one -- the Logitech 750n -- that uses your home's electrical wiring to transmit the camera signal back to a base station that connects to your router. While some cameras require a personal computer for initial configuration, all offer a Web portal that allows remote viewing and configuration from any device with a Web browser.

In addition, all offer apps for Android and iOS mobile phones. All but Samsung offer an iPad app as well. These apps can display live video feeds and let you take snapshots of what you're viewing at any given time.

All of the models include hardware for mounting the cameras on a wall or ceiling, and all offer infrared "night vision," either standard or as an option. I highly recommend this latter feature, because it not only enables you to see clearly what's happening in dark rooms at night, but also makes it easier to see what's going on in dimly lit rooms on cloudy days.

All of the cameras I tested offer motion detection, which generates an alert based on the sensitivity level you select. But some also let you receive alerts when the camera detects a sound. D-Link lets you restrict motion detection to specific parts of the image, so your pet won't trip the camera every time he walks through the room. And some cameras include both a microphone and a speaker, so you can chat with your burglar or yell at your dog to get off the sofa.

When you do get alerts, they generate either one or more still images or a link to a video clip that typically lasts about 30 seconds. There are several ways to view and/or store these images, and different devices offer different combinations of these features.

Most cameras offer a Web portal, which effectively acts as a personal closed-circuit TV monitoring service for your camera; some vendors offer a feature that lets you view multiple camera streams simultaneously on a single screen. (Keep in mind, though, that while it's possible to install 10 or more cameras in your home, too many video streams can bog down a wireless router and degrade the performance of the cameras, your Netflix account and any other service or device that's connected to the Internet.)

Some camera models can store recorded video on a microSD card (which is great, unless the burglar steals your camera).

Some let you view images on the hard drive of the computer that's running the vendor's monitoring software.

Finally, a few devices let you store images in the cloud. While some vendors require a monthly subscription service for the use of a storage option on their Web portals, Samsung allows you to upload video clips and images from its SmartCam camera directly to your personal YouTube or Picasa account.

For security, all cameras require a user account name and password, and some require an additional password to access each device. Two-factor authentication, however, is not an option. That means less protection against security flaws that could put your home video streams at risk -- such as those recently discovered in D-Link's cameras.

Making the connection

The challenge for cloud security camera makers is how to get you in touch with your cameras when you log in to your Web portal account. There are two approaches.

In the first, all video streams from your cameras go through the portal before arriving at your mobile device or personal computer. The Web portal acts as the intermediary, relaying video feeds and in some cases storing video clips to its own servers. Because the Web portal sends out the email alerts, all you need to do is supply the email address to which you want the alerts sent and you're done.

In the second method, the portal acts as a connection broker, a kind of switchboard operator that connects your mobile phone or personal computer directly to your cameras and then steps out of the way. Theoretically, this approach should improve performance, but it can also add complexity to the user experience.

Why? First, since you're accessing each camera directly, the "direct connect" method requires that you log in once to access your Web portal account and then present an additional password for each device you've registered to your account before you can access it.

This approach can also make the initial configuration of email alerts more complicated. A direct connection means that each camera acts as its own video server and has no email service of its own. Therefore, it must use yours to send you an email alert.

With the D-Link models, for example, you need to provide your email username, password, SMTP server address, port number, the type of encryption to use and the email address where you want the alerts sent. In addition, users aren't informed, for example, where to find out what the correct SMTP server name and port would be for a Gmail or Yahoo webmail account. That's unfortunate, because it's likely that many buyers of these cameras are not highly tech savvy.

Image quality, performance and more

There are other factors to consider. All of the cameras offer digital zoom rather than optical zoom, which means that images break up as you zoom in. And some cameras offer a virtual pan/tilt feature, which carves up the image from the camera's wide-angle lens into different viewing segments. This can be useful, but it offers a more limited field of view than does a true pan/tilt mechanism that actually moves the camera lens to pan the room.

Dependence on Wi-Fi may be a convenience, but it's also another potential gotcha. Although all of the cameras that use Wi-Fi also support pushbutton Wi-Fi Protected Setup (WPS) for quickly establishing a connection to your wireless router, I found that getting the cameras and monitoring software to work wasn't always as clean and easy as it should be for a consumer device.

Two more caveats: Video streaming can require significant bandwidth, and Wi-Fi signal strength can drop off quickly as you move away from the wireless router, particularly if the signal must travel through multiple walls or around metal objects such as a kitchen full of appliances. If your cameras are several rooms away or on the other side of a laundry room or bathroom, you may need to upgrade to a high-end wireless router (I used a Cisco Linksys E4200 dual-band router with six antennas), add a range extender (some D-Link models double as range extenders) or even run a wired Ethernet connection to get enough bandwidth to use your cameras. (For some tips on how to upgrade your Wi-Fi network, check out our article Wi-Fi tweaks for speed freaks: 2013 edition.)

Even then, end-to-end connections -- from the wireless camera to the router, through the Internet to the portal and out to a personal computer by way of broadband or to a mobile phone via cellular connection -- can be slow, noisy and brittle. Low bandwidth at any point in the chain can result in degraded image quality, lower frame rates and dropped connections. On more than one occasion, I experienced issues with broken connections, some of which required resetting the camera. But when the camera is remote, you can't just walk over to reboot it.

And while some models technically support full-motion video at 30 frames per second (fps), I typically experienced real-world end-to-end throughput in the range of 9 to 20 fps with a wired Ethernet connection and as slow as 3 to 4 fps when using wireless, particularly when monitoring from a mobile phone app. I also sometimes experienced delays as long as 10 seconds when using a smartphone app -- even when using the phone in Wi-Fi mode in the same location as the cameras.

One more tip: According to vendors, you'll get best performance from cameras that support the H.264 standard for video compression, which is more efficient than the MJPEG format.

If all that isn't enough to scare you off entirely, there are some great benefits to these cloud-based security cameras. Read on for a full hands-on review of each model.

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