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.
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 webcam really keep me safe?
For several weeks, I've had an arsenal of the newest home surveillance 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.
For about $150 in equipment and $30 a month, a company like ADT ADT 0.55 % 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.
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 one!)
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.
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 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.
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.
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.