”I always feel like somebody’s watching me” – Rockwell
The CCTV camera surveillance industry is the latest traditional “old school” stable business to be impacted by advances in technology.
With digital cameras available in everything from cellphones to computers, it’s no surprise giant efficiencies in design, engineering, and production are attacking the traditional security industry.
A full-blown security system includes many things. Devices such as door & window sensors, sirens, motion detectors, fire & smoke alarms, video cameras, and door locks.
I’m going to focus on only one function, but this is the big one: video surveillance capability.
CCTV camera defined
The classic CCTV (closed-circuit television) system is relatively simple – a TV camera connected by coaxial cable to a TV screen.
It’s called “closed-circuit” because the TV signal is sent down a private wire rather than being broadcast publicly.
Only the TV screen at the other end of the cable can see the live image from the camera.
The camera is pointed at an area of interest and a TV screen is placed where it can be monitored.
In the movies you see a security guard asleep in front of a row of screens.
”What’s new pussycat?” – Tom Jones
The CCTV camera products have continued to evolve, replacing analog transmission with digital. But the only real improvement has been adding a way to record the video instead of just viewing it live.
First video tape, now a computer with a hard disk is used that can record hours of video digitally.
As a specialized single-function computer, the DVR (digital video recorder) is a simple plug-and-play device.
The DVR is often controlled by front panel buttons and does not have any keyboard, mouse, or display attached.
I’m claiming ownership of this disruption of the security/CCTV market that is happening now.
It’s a simple concept – instead of considering the CCTV camera surveillance system as part of a larger security system, design it from scratch as a computer accessory.
This puts the emphasis on what we as residential consumers want instead of only the needs of the security industry.
The technology is straightforward:
Start with high resolution, low-cost digital image sensors (like the ones inside every cellphone camera)
Combine them with powerful miniaturized microprocessor computers
Add proven wired (Ethernet) or wireless (Wi-Fi) networking communications
Use computer storage technology – hard drives, solid-state disks (SSD), memory cards (SD Cards), or cloud storage
Create easier-to-use software for smartphones, tablets, & computers
Leverage manufacturing efficiency to dramatically lower the cost of everything
Witness the explosion in digital video cameras, IP Cameras, Webcams, Video Doorbells, and related products.
There are many products to choose from that it is hard to know what features are important.
Some products are more toy-like in their capability. A few are sold as a complete system, and others are purchased a la carte to be incorporated into a larger solution.
If We Chase Perfection We Can Catch Excellence – Vince Lombardi
CCTV camera surveillance products are the most challenging to work with.
Not for the reasons you might think. It is challenging because I haven’t found a single product or system with all the capabilities I consider necessary.
The selection of the appropriate CCTV security camera requires careful consideration and weighing of conflicting options and capabilities. It is definitely not one-size-fit-all.
I have evaluated products from many different companies and haven’t found a product that excels in all areas.
There are some good products worth purchasing. If you need a security camera now, you can find a system that will satisfy your needs.
Based on my research, discussion with clients, and evaluation, these are the key considerations:
Where and how will the cameras be installed? Indoor cameras can be placed on top of furniture, hung on the wall, or just about any place you want.
Brackets, a ladder, and other tools will be needed to mount cameras high up outdoors.
Don’t be tempted to point a camera through a window. Most cameras will pick up glare from the glass and may not be usable at all at night.
Wired or wireless?
Wireless cameras operate on Wi-Fi so you’ll need excellent WiFi coverage throughout the area where the cameras will be located.
Wired cameras require a lot more effort to run and hide the required wiring, but will operate much more reliably.
DIY systems may use proprietary or USB power cords which can be a problem running inside walls or ceilings.
I recommend looking at power-over-Ethernet (PoE) cameras. A single Ethernet cable provides both the power and the data signal. The single Ethernet wire is easier to install and uses standard wire and connectors.
Battery operated cameras have gone from a novelty to products that work. But still a nuisance to replace or re-charge the batteries on a regular basis.
If you are going to have more than one or two cameras, spend the extra money and install wired cameras. You’ll thank me later.
Live feed or video clips only?
Does the camera allow you to view what it sees live or only view clips that it has recorded?
A live feed is very useful if you want to keep an eye on things as they are happening.
Waiting for an important package or letter? Just open the live feed and watch your mailbox or front door.
Concerned about suspicious activity in your area? Watch the live feed and make sure that unknown car or person is not loitering around your house or street.
Do you want the capability to have continuous recorded video or just video clips of activity?
Cameras are constantly improving with motion detection, triggers, and other fancy tech. They automatically decide something important is happening and start recording it, but it doesn’t always work.
Recording only clips saves processing power and storage but you run the risk of not having important events recorded.
Continuous recording provides a foolproof record of activity, but requires more storage, electrical power, and robust operations.
If you want continuous recording, you will not be able to use battery powered cameras and will need a system that records locally to a hard disk or computer or be prepared to pay much higher cloud storage fees.
How does the camera determine what to record? some cameras use passive infrared (PIR) motion detectors which use the natural heat generated by human bodies to detect their presence.
Other systems use active sensor technologies with sound waves or other mechanisms to detect activity.
Newer systems are using image processing to analyze the video stream and detect people or other objects of interest. Some systems can perform facial recognition to actually the identify the people and tell you who they are.
The downside to all of these techniques is that you must carefully adjust their operation.
Too much sensitivity and lots of “false positives” will generate annoying alerts while using up precious storage space. Too little sensitivity and important events will be ignored and not recorded.
Unfortunately, this takes a lot of trial and error and working with sometimes confusing “motion masks”, “activity zones” and other confusing settings to try and make the system work the way you want.
Recording length and buffer zones
For video clip-based recording, what is the maximum length of a clip? 10 seconds, a few minutes, an hour or more?
Hardware, power, and other limitations means you’ll see quite a variation in the recording length features of otherwise similar products.
Look for advanced features like setting “before” and “after” time limits. This allows the camera to record video before and after the event that triggered the recording.
Did someone ring your doorbell? With a “before” setting of 30 seconds or more, you may be able to see them arriving by car or walking up to your door before the actual event that triggered the recorded clip.
This is why I prefer continuous recording systems. The better systems will generate alerts and clips of interesting events, but there will also be a complete recording you can review.
In the example given, if the stranger drove up and parked on the street near your front door and sat in their car for 30 minutes watching you house, only a continuous recording system would have the footage allowing you to see that.
Proprietary or standard CCTV camera interface
Must you buy the camera from the same company that makes the rest of the system or can you use any compatible camera?
This isn’t a simple decision. Systems that include everything will be much simpler to setup and operate and easier to expand.
Your choice of cameras (and prices) may be limited, but the added convenience and simplicity of operation can be worth it.
When you buy everything from one company, their customer service and support will be able to help with the entire system.
Nothing is more frustrating than hearing “sorry that camera is not working, but we don’t support that brand with our system”.
Getting a printer working may be difficult, but that’s child’s play compared to getting a 3rd party camera working properly.
Smaller all-in-one systems may be easier, but if they may not offer the choice of cameras you want.
Want an outdoor camera? Sorry! Need a better zoom lens, wider angle, or motorized tilt and swivel? Sorry! Better night vision? No can do!
“It’s all about the software, the software…”
Don’t just drool over the CCTV camera hardware. Look at the system and software needed.
You don’t want to spend hours installing the CCTV camera only to find out the software is total junk.
Don’t take any features for granted. Features and capabilities common on our PC may not exist in CCTV camera software.
The sad reality is that most camera manufacturers are primarily hardware companies; they throw together their software only because they can’t sell their cameras without them.
Much of the CCTV software supplied is simply the same terrible 20-year old software. Only the label slapped on the front is different.
The software quality is not related to the price of the system. Some of the least expensive cameras have the best software; some of the systems sold and installed by professional security dealers has the absolute worst software I’ve ever seen.
When evaluating software, try it on all possible platforms – Desktop, Mobile, and the web. Many systems do not have that flexibility.
More systems now are coming only with a mobile app. If you want to view a live feed from your desk, the only option is to grab your smartphone.
Choose a solution that gives you maximum flexibility with great software on all the devices you use.