We get so many questions on what security camera to buy that we have put the answers into Wi-Fi Security Cameras 101.
Wi-Fi Security Cameras 101 discusses the main differences and issues for the DIY (Do it Yourself) market and does not refer to professionally installed DVR multi-camera or wired systems.
Wi-Fi Security Cameras 101
Why do you need Wi-Fi security cameras?
If you answer is to stop criminals breaking in – well, forget it. What you need is a professionally installed, integrated, wired, security system with motion sensors on windows and doors, loud alarms, multiple cameras, spot/floodlights, battery backup and preferably back-to-base monitoring.
And you won’t find that advice at any DIY security camera manufacturer. Instead, publicity will extoll the virtues of ‘crystal-clear’ vision (not), night vision (definitely not), two-way talk (absolutely not) and peace of mind (just as useful as taking a Bex [ aspirin–phenacetin–caffeine] and a cuppa).
While some systems are undoubtedly better and moving towards a semblance of a security ecosystem that may stop a bumbling amateur, drug-crazed, casual thief – none are fully there yet.
At best a Wi-Fi camera system will give you a motion/noise alert (push notification to your phone), take a few second video clip, and by the time you can do anything about it the thief has broken in, stolen and fled.
No, Wi-Fi security cameras are suitable for baby monitors (unless hacked like Ring), checking on your pet’s activities and if you are lucky, providing a visual deterrent.
So here are a few things you need to know.
Wi-Fi or Base Station hub
The majority are Wi-Fi connected – that means it requires a good Wi-Fi signal from your router. The pro is easy setup, but the con is that your Wi-Fi network may be the Achilles heel. Whatever you do, don’t overtax the Wi-Fi with too many cameras or devices.
In theory, 2.4Ghz Wi-Fi can go 100 metres line-of-sight but in practice drops off as it passes through walls, doors, floors, glass etc. – a more practical distance (for any 2.4Ghz Wi-Fi connected device) is about 20 metres.
The alternative is Arlo and D-Link OMNA using an independent RF base station instead of Wi-Fi. These need to be connected to the router by an Ethernet cable but they keep camera traffic off the Wi-Fi network and can do more on-board signal processing. As such they are more expensive.
The router is usually the culprit when it comes to performance
Most Wi-Fi routers regardless of speed, are very poorly placed. So much so that it is the single biggest complaint in getting good Wi-Fi coverage throughout a home. Routers emit a circular 2.4Ghz Wi-Fi signal out to about 20m. The signal gets progressively weaker as you move away or it passes through objects. So, the caveat with any Wi-Fi device is to check the signal strength where you place it.
If you use Android, you can download Network Cell Info Lite from Google Play and use your smartphone to check signal 2.4Ghz strength where you want to place the camera. If you can’t get a decent signal (-60dBm or lower), you can use a Wi-Fi extender.
Read our router placement and mesh guide here.
Cameras can be battery, solar or mains power operated. A few are POE (Power over Ethernet cabling).
On the bright side, mains powered means no worries about recharging batteries. On the dark side, indoor power and indoor/outdoor placement can be tricky.
Our advice is that mains power is best if you can juggle the tricky placement issues. Batteries will require recharging dependent on the number of activations, and you can expect 1-3 months life.
Solar is fabulous for outdoor placement, although some solar panels are better than others.
Camera placement should never be dictated to by the need to charge the battery. It should be where the image is best.
Field of View
Many brands tout a huge field-of-view – say 160° or more. These are fisheye lenses and they distort straight lines and destroy image details. Don’t believe that software can straighten images – it may appear to at the expense of even more detail.
Depending on your needs, around 100-120° is best and clearer.
Cameras typically come in 720p, 1080p, 2K and 4K. We don’t bother with 720p and 1080p is entry-level – its ¼ the resolution of 4K.
Most cameras downscale to a lower resolution, particularly if the Wi-Fi signal is weak or congested.
To be fair, 1080p is all you need if the camera is well placed – that means within two metres of the target. You want to be able to identify people’s faces, clothing colour and perhaps number plates.
I use 4K for larger areas like the driveway or back yard (and it has the resolution to digitally zoom in on details), 2K for vistas (like my ‘duck cam’ over the 70m jetty) and 1080p is fine at the door or garage.
Some cameras have integrated white LEDs to enable some colour night vision – or they may have IR for monovision.
But, let me tell you no Wi-Fi camera is crystal clear, colour accurate or properly exposed – the sensors are just too small to get anywhere near a decent video. Those using a Base Station can produce better images.
All have motion detection using PIR (Passive infrared) to detect body heat or light changes. Some use noise as well. These trigger a video clip (usually <30 seconds) and notification via SMS, email or push to your app.
But false alerts are often the bane of your existence. Look for those that allow you to set motion zones so that you can exclude hallways, pet areas, blowing trees etc. Some also have advanced object detection, can recognise several people etc.
All brands tout this, but, its efficacy depends on your Wi-Fi signal strength and Wi-Fi congestion. It is called two-way talk, but it is half-duplex (like a Walkie-talkie) – not quick enough to have a normal conversation. Once the signal strength deteriorates to -70dBm voice breaks up. Most also suffer from wind noise (there is no noise cancellation).
Again, base stations offer better two-way talk quality.
Some offer remote pan, tilt and move. Don’t be conned if the camera touts zoom. It will be a digital zoom, and it really only works well on 4K resolutions.
Most have a siren that you can activate once the app notifies you of movement. Most state 100dB but frankly it is not a deterrent – just makes the person aware they are spotted.
Some have the siren in the camera and some in the base station – at a mild 100dB who cares.
Cameras can be indoors or outdoors. If outdoors watch IP ratings – at least IP56 for adequate dust and rain resistance. None are weatherproof unless they have IP68 or higher.
App and recording storage
Most cameras have an app to enable remote viewing and voice assistance. The app also links to internal, external or cloud storage. It is good to have some local storage (micro-SD) if the internet is down, but cloud storage (that may be an extra cost) can enable more features like activity zones and face/pet recognition.
Most apps are reasonably comprehensive but look for ones that allow image flip, reverse image (if mounting the camera upside down), motion zones, scheduling, geofencing and more.
Remember that you can’t mix camera brands if you want to use the same app.
Any brand that supports voice assistants can cast images to a voice assistant screen. Here you can mix brands after setup.
Research well beforehand
Regrettably DIY means that you are at the mercy of salespeople as few places can offer real, unbiased advice.
I have been shopping at hardly normal places and received so much ‘guff’ about particular brands. I know the salesperson has never owned one, let alone used one and is making recommendations based on what they read and what commission they can earn from the sale.
Perhaps the best place to start is to go to a locksmith or security expert and look at proper systems if only to get a feel for capabilities and price.
Wi-Fi Security Cameras 101 – the best advice is to define your needs.
Most homes can be ‘covered’ (note I don’t use the word secured) by a camera at each major entrance/exit (and these can be internal), motion sensors on windows/doors – and that is it.
If you want external coverage, ask yourself why? Is it to record comings and goings or perhaps as a visual deterrent? Sorry that only keeps honest people out. I have some cameras placed outside purely for voyeuristic intent – I like to spy on the ducks at my jetty!
Also, look at ambient light. Regardless of IR vision, a camera with supplementary white LEDs is going to work better.
A camera/doorbell is a good option for close-ups of all comers.
Don’t put cameras inside the house where someone may inadvertently walk naked to get to the toilet!!! That is voyeuristic, indeed.