Webcams used to be just for checking weather at the beach and Skyping with your in-laws. Now Internet cameras can easily record everything that happens around the house—they’re your domestic all-seeing eyes. Wireless home video security systems have really come a long way over the years.
This may sound a bit creepy. But there’s a certain appeal to do-it-yourself home security: My San Francisco neighborhood has had a spate of burglaries, and I’d love an inexpensive and simple way to know if someone is at my window who shouldn’t be. The question is, can a home surveillance webcameras really keep me safe?
For several weeks, I’ve had an arsenal of the newest home security video cameras pointed at my front door: a $199 all-in-one security system called Piper, the $199 Dropcam Pro, a new $150 model called Simplicam, and an old iPhone running the free app Manything. They’re all wireless, aside from power cords, and they alert the phone in your pocket when they spot activity.
The smartest of them, Simplicam, pulls off one important trick: recognizing a human face. That matters when you want a camera to alert you to a cat burglar, and not just a cat.
I thankfully didn’t have any break-ins, but a different problem emerged: The cameras’ alerts struggled to differentiate between my family’s daily routines and anything more sinister, instead annoying me with a constant string of non-alarms. I’m ready to take them down.The new Simplicam do-it-yourself residential security camera system claims it can only send alerts when it sees a human face. Personal Tech columnist Geoffrey A. Fowler puts it to the test with a cat.
For about $150 in equipment and $30 a month, a company like ADT sells security as a service, with motion detectors and a live human monitor to call 911 if anything isn’t right. But it also comes with an aggressive sales pitch and sometimes dated technology. Many people would probably settle for the ADT sign in front of the house.
Comparing Piper, DropCam, SimpliCam, ManyThing
The latest webcams promise an alternative—they might be useful for targeted purposes, like watching the register at a corner store, or watching your children play in the den. But anyone who wants to invest in one should be clear about what they can and can’t do.
All four cameras I tested let you peer into your house via an app or the Web. They also record everything, allowing you to rewind the day or skip to a moment when there was activity. It’s like a DVR for your life, but all the footage is stored in the cloud, so you can access it anywhere. All of this potentially intimate video is locked behind one password, so be sure to choose a strong password.
Dropcam and Simplicam both charge a monthly fee, depending on how long you want to keep your video archive. Manything plans to charge eventually but is free. Piper doesn’t charge any monthly fees; it stores up to 1,000 35-second clips of moments with activity.
The webcams use Wi-Fi to connect to your home’s broadband, but they will consume a lot of your outgoing bandwidth—up to 1 megabit per second for the Simplicam. You may not be able to support multiple cameras.
Installations & Setup
All are remarkably easy to set up with just a phone. None are designed to work outside. I set up Manything with a decommissioned iPhone 4 on a tiny tripod. While it is the budget webcam solution, it actually has advantages like a touch screen and battery backup.
Speed & Configurations
Piper steps closer to being a total security system by stuffing an alarm and additional sensors inside its box, including temperature, humidity and motion. It can also serve as a brain for certain other smart home devices such as door sensors and lights. These are great ideas, but Piper also had the only camera I tested that was sluggish to show its live feed and would occasionally drop its connection. The company says it is coming out with an update soon that should fix some of those problems.
All of the cameras took video of passable quality. Dropcam stands out from the pack for its range of tone, particularly in darker situations, and an Enhance feature that lets you zoom in and improve a live image in one particular area. It was good enough for me to see which magazines had come through my mail slot.
Good image quality is helpful if you’re using the camera to document the life of your cat or watch your baby play. (Be warned: Parents may soon start posting this kind of surveillance footage on Facebook. You could just use the cameras in this peek-only mode.
Here comes the really bad… bad stuffs
But as a security device, identifying the bad stuff and alerting you to it is what matters.
Cameras make people uncomfortable
The first challenge is that pointing webcams anywhere inside your home can be uncomfortable for family members and guests. I got lots of awkward questions and some requests to take the cameras down. Ideally, they’d only record when needed—like when no one is at home, or late at night. But how’s the camera supposed to know that?
One answer, available on Dropcam and Simplicam, is time-based schedules—but they don’t work for busy, unpredictable lives. Piper has home, work and travel modes—but I don’t always remember to open the app when I leave the house. Dropcam can track your phone’s location and turn the camera off when you’re home, but that won’t work for any other member of your household.
False Alarm Problem
The bigger problem is false alarms. When they’re active, the cameras dutifully ping your phone every time they detect motion. But you end up getting lots of alerts when nothing is wrong: a ping if a tree moves in a heavy wind, a ping if the mail arrives, a ping if Fluffy launches on a midday sprint around the house. An actual break-in could easily get lost in all the pings.
Some of the cameras offer piecemeal solutions to the problem, like tuning motion-sensitivity levels. Dropcam and the Manything app let you identify hot zones where you want alerts, but they were of little help in the layout of my house.What to do with all that video? To track down criminals, some people have handed it over to police, or even just posted clips directly to the Internet, vigilante-style. It might also help in the event you catch it live: a San Francisco police spokesman told me that people who observe a burglary in progress receive a higher priority than calls after the fact.
The webcam I heard from the least was Simplicam, which is why I think it is the smartest. Simplicam and its Closeli software are made by ArcSoft, an image technology company that’s spent years figuring out how to quickly identify faces in photos and video. You can tell its camera to only ping you when it sees a face—a much better sign that you have a break-in.
The company says it can even tell the difference between an animal face and a human one. It worked largely as promised with a cat in my tests, though it did once misidentify him as human.
In the interest of science, I also tried pulling a stocking over my face, and, yes, putting on a cat mask. Simplicam wasn’t fooled. A mask that covered all facial features would trick it, though.
ArcSoft’s success with face detection only made me realize the need for more recognition, such as identifying family faces vs. those of intruders. (The company says it is coming—but didn’t say when.)
Webcams exemplify our awkward moment in personal tech: It’s now possible to put the Internet in all kinds of things around the house that used to be expensive or difficult to automate—the thermostat, the light switches, even the Crock-Pot. But how these improve our lives remains a work in progress.