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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Netgear VueZone

Netgear's VueZone is the only cloud security camera reviewed here that doesn't require a power cord, but if you want to record video it does tether you to a service plan.

Netgear VueZone Video Monitoring System
Netgear VueZone Video Monitoring System

The basic VueZone VZSM2200 package ($200) includes a base unit that plugs into your router by way of an Ethernet cable and a tiny, egg-shaped, battery-operated camera that transmits a 640 x 480-pixel video stream wirelessly to the base station. For $290, the VueZone VZSM2700 offers two cameras, while the VueZone VZSM2720 ($300) includes the two cameras and a 4-in.-high stand with a plastic enclosure for outdoor use.

Netgear also includes spherical magnetic wall mounts that let you easily attach, position and remove the cameras. While the camera supplied in the basic package doesn't support night vision, Netgear does offer a similar model (the VZCN2060 for $130) that does. VueZone cameras do not include microphones or speakers.

Installation involves installing supplied batteries in the cameras, cabling the base station to your router, syncing the cameras with the base station by pressing a button on the base unit, and then registering on the VueZone Web portal. I had everything up and running in about 10 minutes. VueZone is the only product in this roundup that requires that you enter your telephone number and address before you can start using the product.

Portal service

The free MyVueZone portal service lets you view live video streams. It supports two cameras and allows for motion-based alerting, as do the free apps for Android, iPhone and iPad.

The portal includes Cameras, Library and Setup tabs. The first displays the live camera image and includes a wireless signal strength meter and battery level indicator for the selected camera. The Cameras tab also includes control buttons for recording video or snapshots to the cloud (which requires the optional subscription service), digital zoom, brightness and time-lapse mode that generates still images at a relatively crisp 1600 x 1200 pixels. You can also schedule a recording, engage motion detection or change the video mode from the Setup tab.

Setting up motion detection alerts is fairly easy: You enter an email address and choose to record a video or snapshot, select the length for video (from 10 to 90 seconds), adjust motion sensitivity and you're done. The email links back to a Shared Media Viewer on the Web that does not require logging into the MyVueZone portal.

The portal's image library lets you sort video clips and still images, view the thumbnails in a list or grid format, download a video, email a link to friends or upload it directly to YouTube or Flickr.

Netgear VueZone Video Monitoring System
The MyVueZone portal allows for basic viewing of video streams. An optional subscription service adds a Library feature with thumbnails and the ability to sort video clips.

For $4.99 per month, Netgear's Premier service adds video recording, the aforementioned library feature with 250MB of cloud storage, the ability to connect up to five cameras and motion-activated alerts. The Elite service ($9.99/mo.) supports up to 15 cameras in three locations and doubles the storage space. (The basic package includes a 30-day free trial to the Premier service.)

While you can view only one video stream at a time using the free portal, the VueZone mobile apps for the iPad, iPhone and Android can view up to 15 live feeds, which appear in a scrolling list. The mobile apps offer the same controls as the portal, and have an option to restart the base station if the connection is lost -- a useful feature given how sketchy Wi-Fi connections can be.

Bottom line

VueZone, the only battery-powered wireless camera in the group, is the way to go if you want a completely wireless setup. I was disappointed that the camera included in the basic starter package doesn't support night vision; if that's a requirement, you'll have to look for the package that offers on one basic and one night-vision camera. But Netgear's premium service also offers the best features for storing, finding, arranging and uploading and downloading the video clips you've recorded in the cloud.

Samsung SNH-1011 IP SmartCam

Note: This device is no longer on sale.

The Samsung SNH-1011n IP SmartCam (about $145) is similar to the D-Link DCS-932L in both looks and features; the freshly redesigned Samsungsmartcam.com Web portal, however, is much more streamlined than D-Link's portal.

Samsung SmartCam 1011n
Samsung SNH-1011 IP SmartCam

In addition, Samsung's camera supports the more efficient H.264 compression standard and is capable of audio streaming and alerts. The SmartCam can't save snapshots and video clips to your local computer and doesn't offer a cloud storage service. But it can automatically upload video clips to your YouTube account, which is just as good -- and that service is free.

Samsung offers apps for Android devices and iPhones; personal computers access the SmartCam portal using a browser and plug-in. Image quality varied with the level of connectivity but was about on par with the D-Link 932L.

As with D-Link's cameras, you create a user account for the portal, install the browser plug-in and create a security code for each camera you're using (you can configure the portal and mobile apps to remember each camera's password).

The main portal window lets you select a SmartCam camera and view the live feed. Controls include a sound mute button; low-, mid- and high-speed network settings; brightness, microphone sensitivity and speaker volume sliders; a toggle button for night vision (off/on) and buttons to flip the image left/right or up/down.

An Event Alarm screen shows event recordings on a timeline. Hover over a date and it shows the number of alerts; click it and the portal displays thumbnails of each clip or image. You then click on a thumbnail to launch an event viewer that either plays the 30-second clip or displays the full-size image.

The portal has a separate setup screen from which you can configure motion- or sound-activated alerts and upload captured video clips and images to YouTube and Picasa, respectively. It can send alerts to the SmartCam mobile apps and the monitoring portal; to your Twitter account as direct messages; and to your Gmail, Yahoo, Hotmail or other Web-based email accounts. You need to have a Google account to store alert images/video clips and to send email alerts, which can include a still image and a link to motion-activated 30-second video clips.

Samsung SmartCam 1011n
The Samgsungsmartcam portal's buttons and sliders made setup and configuration easy. Unfortunately, the video streaming didn't always work reliably.

The SmartCam mobile apps for iOS and Android include buttons for taking a snapshot, entering high-quality (for mobile) 640 x 480 pixel mode, flipping the image, adjusting brightness and turning the microphone on and off. Two-way audio is not full-duplex: To speak into the microphone to someone in the same room as the remote camera, you must first click the microphone button, then push and hold the microphone icon that appears over the video image to transmit before speaking. You then let go of the button to hear, walkie-talkie style.

Trouble with setup

I had trouble getting the SmartCam to run optimally on my home network. While the SmartCam video feeds are supposed to go directly from the camera to your browser through an encrypted IP tunnel, during testing they went through Samsung's servers -- a fallback, called relay server mode, that the SmartCam resorts to when it can't establish a direct connection. When this happens, the words "relay mode" appear under the image, resolution drops to the minimum 320 x 240 pixels, there's no audio feed and the session times out after two minutes. Performance was slow and unreliable in relay mode, and I suffered frequent plug-in crashes and browser freeze-ups.

My wireless router attaches to a DSL modem in my office that also acts as a router, which a Samsung rep said probably interfered with the ability of the camera to reveal its IP address to Samsung's servers. However, when I connected the camera directly to the DSL router using an Ethernet cable, as suggested, it did not solve the problem.

I tried the Samsung on two other networks, with mixed results. I was unable to establish a link between the camera and a Belkin 802.11b Wi-Fi router in one location, but I did get it to work with a Netgear WGR614 in another. It operated without dropping into relay mode when accessed from the Web portal, and performance and the reliability of the connection were much improved.

I also experienced degraded relay mode connectivity when viewing the camera feeds remotely from my Android phone over a Verizon 4G connection. (The app alerts you to this mode by displaying a big "R" above the image.) And when I used the public Wi-Fi connection at a local McDonald's, the SmartCam mobile app didn't drop down into relay mode but repeatedly lost the connection. When I tried the same thing using my laptop, it connected only in relay mode.

A Samsung spokesperson said that this problem occurs in about 5% of all situations and usually is due to issues with the user's broadband, mobile configuration or cellular network issues; he also said that Samsung is working to improve the user experience in relay mode.

Bottom line

Samsung has done a great job of making it easy to quickly create and configure alerts and alert notifications, and using YouTube and Picasa accounts to store motion-activated recordings could save you money when compared to the cloud storage service subscriptions offered by some other vendors in this space. The user interface is clean and easy to use, and configuring email, Twitter direct message and pop-up alerts for the portal and mobile apps is painless.

Unfortunately, I experienced too many issues with inconsistent performance and reliability of Samsung's portal, apps and plug-ins to recommend the Samsung SNH-1011n IP SmartCam at this time.

Conclusions

The D-Link 932L is the least expensive camera of the test group while offering the most robust set of configuration options. The flip side of that is that the portal software wasn't as easy to use as some other offerings. But if you're okay with a 640 x 480 pixel images, the 932L is a good value.

The $149 Dropcam offers 1280 x 720 pixel image quality, worked reliably in tests and was very easy to set up and use. It's an excellent choice for basic video security monitoring, especially for the less technically adept.

Samsung's portal for the 640 x 480-pixel SmartCam SNH-1011N was also easy to use, and its ability to upload video clips directly to your YouTube account could save you money on a cloud storage subscription. But the camera is quite a bit more expensive than its closest competitor, the D-Link 932L, and I experienced technical glitches when using the portal and mobile apps.

Logitech's 750n, which uses home electrical outlets and wiring as its network, avoids the interference and range limitations associated with relying on Wi-Fi. Given that mobile users will also be dealing with bandwidth issues and propagation delays associated with cellular wireless, the value of eliminating Wi-Fi cannot be overstated. The camera's software also allows for recording and playback on a PC or Mac without the need to pay a monthly subscription service.

The VueZone is your best bet if you need to place cameras in areas where a power outlet isn't accessible. It offers the only service that can monitor the location of your iPhone and turn itself on and off when you leave and return home. And if you're planning to keep many images and video clips, the sortable library and image thumbnails provided by the premium subscription service make finding stored videos much easier than trying to pull them off a timeline.

5 cloud security cameras

D-Link DCS-932L Dropcam HD Logitech 750n Netgear VueZone Samsung SNH-1011N
Price $80 $149 $300 $200 $145
HARDWARE
Base station required? No No Yes Yes No
Maximum resolution (pixels) 640 x 480 1280 x 720 960x720 640 x 480 640 x 480
Maximum frames per second 30 30 15 7 30
Snapshot mode (highest resolution) 640 x 480 1280 x 720 960 x 720 1600 x 1200 640 x 480
Snapshot format JPEG JPEG JPEG M-JPEG JPEG
Lens size (mm) 5.0 4.5 17.5 3.6 3.2
Lens f-stop f-2.8 f-2.0 f-2.0 f-2.8 f-2.0
Viewing angle (degrees) 45.3 107 130 110 58
Zoom 4x digital 2x digital 3x digital 4x No
Pan/tilt? No No Digital Digital No
Set motion detection zones within image Yes No Yes No No
Microphone? Yes Yes Yes No Yes
Two-way talk? No Yes No No Yes
Night vision? Yes Yes Yes No (available w/other camera) Yes
FEATURES
Wireless connectivity 802.11n 802.11n NA Proprietary 802.11n
Wired connectivity 10/100 Ethernet No 10/100 Ethernet No 10/100 Ethernet
Video file format AVI MP4 MP4 M-JPEG MP4
Motion-activated alerts? Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Sound activated alerts? No Yes No No Yes
Push alerts (to mobile/desktop) No )planned for June 2013 release) Yes Yes (via SMS) No Yes (via mobile apps)
Email alerts Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Record video to local PC Yes No Yes No No
Record video to local NAS device Yes No No No No
Records video to camera-attached storage No (available in model 942L) No Yes (microSD) No No
Record video to cloud No (planned for Q4 2013) Yes, w/ subscription Yes, to Dropbox or YouTube w/ subscription Yes, w/ subscription Yes, to YouTube, email, Picasa, Twitter
Android/iOS app Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes

Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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