Keep watch: 5 cloud security cameras

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

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D-Link Day/Night Network Cloud Camera (DCS-932L)

D-Link offers a wide range of IP-based cloud security cameras for the consumer market in its Cloud Camera line. For this article, I reviewed the entry-level 932L, which is an older model in the D-Link line, with resolution of just 640 x 480 pixels. It uses MJPEG for compression rather than supporting the more efficient H.264 standard, and while the camera does include a microphone for an audio feed, it does not support two-way communication or sound-activated alerts, as some other models do. But the $80 price tag makes it by far the least expensive camera in the group.

D-Link Cloud Camera DCS-932L
D-Link Cloud Camera DCS-932L

The camera comes with a power supply, network cable and quick install guide. The installation process includes temporarily hardwiring the camera to your router to sync it, setting up a user account and password on the free Mydlink.com portal and configuring an additional password for each camera you want to access. As with other portals reviewed here, Mydlink.com also requires that you install a browser plug-in.

Mydlink portal

The Mydlink portal includes a My Devices page where you can select and view the feeds for up to four cameras and manipulate the most extensive list of configuration settings of any camera reviewed here. For example, there are settings not just for image brightness and contrast, but also for white balance, saturation and hue. You can set the days and times when you want motion detection active and you can set up different video profiles, each with different encoding, resolution and frame rates.

Some configuration settings in the portal are accessible only by clicking on the Advanced Settings button, which requires a second password before bringing up a separate browser window.

And unfortunately, finding the videos Mydlink.com has stored for you isn't easy. There's no visual timeline to review. Instead, you must specify a date and hour range to see thumbnails of the videos recorded during that timeframe.

On the other hand, you can also download the free D-ViewCam software (available for Windows only), which not only lets you monitor video streams but also records video clips to your PC's hard drive or network-attached storage device.

The D-ViewCam software installed easily enough on a Windows PC, but the process of getting it to initially recognize the cameras was not intuitive, and directions were not included in the quick start instructions. A staff person who answered the tech support line walked me through the process and then referred me to the manual, which must be downloaded from the D-Link website.

The 932L offers motion-based alerting by way of email (you'll need to know your email service's SMTP server and port information) and can be configured to send either a single frame or six frames -- three just prior to and three immediately after the trigger event. The newer 5222L and 6010L models can issue alerts when sound is detected, as can an upgraded version of the 932L, the 933L, which also can act as a Wi-Fi range extender.

You can restrict motion detection to defined zones within an image. The setup screen breaks the image area into squares that can be selected to tell the camera where to monitor -- and not monitor -- for activity.

D-Link's cameras do not offer email alerts that can attach or link to video clips. However, alert-triggered video can be recorded and stored to a Windows PC running the D-ViewCam program, which also supports simultaneous viewing of up to 32 video streams.

The free Mydlink Lite mobile apps for Android and iOS include buttons that let you take a snapshot, mute the camera microphone, zoom up to 4x and access camera information. A Mydlink+ app for tablets (99 cents) adds the ability to view up to four camera feeds at a time.

In addition, the mobile apps let you pick up the frame rate for the live stream. Using mobile phones over a 4G cellular network, my frame rate never exceeded 3-4 fps, which was about what the company said was expected. The maximum frame rate I experienced, with the cameras directly wired to the router and using Mydlink Lite over Wi-Fi, was about 19 fps.

D-Link Cloud Camera DCS-932L
The Mydlink portal include a live feed view and offers more custom settings for configuring the camera than any the other products reviewed here.

I hit a couple of snags with the 932L model. The microphone produced a static hiss in the portal's Live View page that I could not eliminate by adjusting the audio volume settings. With the night vision setting in the default automatic mode, the unit would flip in and out of night vision mode on a cloudy day, rendering everything in black and white and then in color. Fortunately, the sensitivity can be changed from the advanced settings area.

In addition, the 932L uses its lowest resolution setting of 320 x 200 pixels by default. That's workable on a smartphone screen, but you'll want to bump that up to 640 x 480 (via Advanced Settings) for viewing on tablets or personal computers. At the higher resolution, image quality was good overall, although, as with other Wi-Fi cameras reviewed here, image noise created some pixilation on the image. I also could see some slight horizontal banding -- faint, wavy lines in the image that were most pronounced on darker areas.

Other cameras

I also tried out two other more feature-filled models: the DCS-5222L, a 720p (1280-x-720-pixel) camera that offers true pan/tilt capability with a 360-degree range, and the DC-6010L, which uses a fisheye lens to display a 360-degree view of an entire room and can break the image into 90-degree quadrants or 180-degree half-room views and "de-warp" the image to present different views of the area. No other vendor in the group offered cameras with similar features.

That being said, I didn't find the 6010L's curved, sweeping images to be particularly useful for seeing in any detail what was going on at a particular spot in a room. When placed on a tabletop the viewing angle tends to focus at an upward angle, as though looking up through a cone. This unit would work best when mounted on a ceiling, where it would point downwards and provide a general, not too detailed sweep of a room.

Since I tested, D-Link has added several complementary models: The 5020L, a pan/tilt camera, similar to the 5222L, with enhanced range for night vision and Wi-Fi extender capability; and the 933L and 931L, which are similar to the 932L and include those same features plus sound detection and alerting, a microSD slot and H.264 compression.

Bottom line

D-Link offers a wide variety of cameras with the most extensive set of configuration settings and controls of any camera I tested. They are a good choice for users who want more granular control over camera operation.

Dropcam HD

Note: This device is no longer on sale.

Everything you need to know in order to install the Dropcam HD Wi-Fi camera ($149) fits onto the single, two-sided card that comes in the box. You simply connect the camera to an open USB port on a Mac or Windows computer and follow the instructions.

Dropcam HD
Dropcam HD

In my case, it worked right off the bat -- which was a relief after the hoops I had to jump through getting some of the other cameras configured and working properly.

The Dropcam HD's 720p images were crisp and clear -- among the best in the group. It was the only camera I tested with location-based activation. If you have an iPhone, you can configure the camera to turn on when you leave the house (with the phone) and turn off when you return -- very cool. Unfortunately, this feature is only supported for iOS.

Dropcam's basic, free portal service allows for viewing of live video streams. But if you want to record and play back video you'll need to subscribe to Dropcam's Pro service ($9.95/mo.), which saves the last seven days of recording activity, or Pro HD, which saves a sliding 30-day window of recordings for $29.95/mo. The package includes a 14-day trial subscription to the Pro service.

The MyDropcams Web portal offers a clean and easy-to-use interface. It includes a MyDropcams page for viewing each camera's video stream and a MyClips page, available to Pro subscribers, for playing back scheduled or motion-activated recordings. Recorded video can be emailed, downloaded or uploaded to Facebook or YouTube. There's also a "Make Clip" button that will capture video on demand, assuming you subscribe to Dropcam's Pro or Pro HD service.

When I used the MyDropcams Web portal to view the videos, I found the 1280 x 720 streaming images to be clean and clear. Controls for mute, pause and full-screen mode overlay the image.

Other controls include a "talk" button that works in half-duplex mode. (As with a walkie-talkie, you can listen or transmit but you can't do both at the same time). The portal will store up to three hours of video clips for you in the My Clips area for Pro and Pro HD subscribers. Video clips are listed in chronological order and are not sortable or searchable. A snapshot feature is only offered in the iPad app.

Dropcam HD
The Dropcam portal includes both a timeline of video recordings and a MyClips area where you can view thumbnails to visually scan for the event you're looking for.

A variety of settings

Under Settings you can enable night vision, set motion- or sound-activation alerts, configure a 2x digital zoom feature and share the camera's video stream with others. Alerts can be sent to any email address as well as to any Android or iOS device running the free Dropcam app. In addition to alerting you when the camera detects sound or motion, Dropcam can let you know when the camera goes offline -- a nice touch. You can quickly turn alerts on and off using a toggle button. There's also an option to remotely turn off the camera.

The mobile apps have full access to the configuration options as well as live streaming and playback of stored video at Dropcam.com. On the iPad you can view up to four camera streams on screen at the same time -- a feature not offered in the portal or other mobile apps. Dropcam does not currently support location-based services in the iPad or Android apps.

Bottom line

The Dropcam HD is the standout among the Wi-Fi offerings for its simplicity and ease of use. The portal and apps were reliable and easy to configure, image quality was clear and crisp, and the Dropcam HD was the only camera to support location-based activation/deactivation tied to an iPhone.

If you need recording and playback capability, however, Dropcam's $9.95/mo. service is the most expensive in the group.

Logitech Alert 750n Indoor Master System

The Logitech Alert 750n is the only cloud security camera among the ones I tested that doesn't wirelessly connect the camera to your home router. Instead, Logitech streams data from the camera to its power supply, through your household electrical wiring and into a base station that then connects directly to your router by way of an Ethernet cable.

Logitech Alert 750n
Logitech Alert 750n

While that may sound complicated, it means that there's no fiddling around with finicky Wi-Fi connections, range limitations and interference issues when connecting the camera back to your router.

The 750n Indoor Master System includes the camera and power supply, and a second power supply block/base unit that plugs into an Ethernet jack in your router. A word of warning: The power supply blocks, at 3.0 x 4.0 x 1.5 in., are major space hogs on a power supply strip.

Setup was a breeze using a pictorial step-by-step installation sheet, and images remarkably crisp and clear -- among the most stable, smoothest images rendered of all cameras tested. I suspect that this is due not just to fact that the default resolution of the camera is 960 x 720, but because Logitech has eliminated Wi-Fi from the connectivity equation.

Viewing the video

While video can be viewed through the Alert.logitech.com Web portal, to record and view stored video clips you need to use Alert Commander, an included program for Windows or Mac that also lets you view up to six video streams on a single screen. Users of the free Logitech Alert Android and iPhone apps can view live video, take a photo and save the image to the camera's included 2GB SD card. The software only offers alert-based recording -- you can't click a button to record on demand.

Setting up alerts with Alert Commander was easy. The install wizard asks for your email address and uses that to send alerts. It also specifically asks for the email address so it can send text alerts to your mobile phone. To use this you need to know the email address format your carrier requires for emailing yourself a text message (For my Galaxy Nexus Verizon phone, for example, the format is phonenumber@vtext.com).

You can also configure Alert Commander to send a pop-up alert to your desktop when motion is detected, but this only works if your computer is in the same building as the cameras.

Logitech Alert 750n
The Logitech Alert 750n transmits the video stream over your home electrical wiring system. Because of that, the images didn't suffer the pixellation evident with the other cameras that used Wi-Fi.

Using Alert Commander, you can only play back stored MPEG-4 video clips on your personal computer. Stored videos appear as recording blocks along a visual timeline feature, so searching for a specific recording may involve clicking on and viewing the contents of multiple blocks within in a timeframe until you find the one you're looking for.

If you want to view recorded video from the Web portal or from your mobile apps you'll need to upgrade to Logitech Alert Web and Mobile Commander. The $79.95 annual subscription also includes an upgraded mobile app that lets you configure alerts and upload recorded videos to Dropbox or YouTube.

Bottom line

Logitech's approach combines good image quality with a level of stability and reliability that's hard to beat for remote monitoring. The 750n eliminates the complexity, potential interference and distance limitation/pixilation issues inherent in Wi-Fi cameras. The system is easy to set up and use, and requiring a wired connection doesn't limit your flexibility in most cases, since all but one competing Wi-Fi camera requires a DC adapter that needs to be connected to a nearby electrical outlet anyway.

Unless you need to place cameras in areas well away from any electrical outlets, or you need to record and playback video to the cloud and don't want to fork over $79 per year for that service option, the 750n is a good bet.

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