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.
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.