One of the fastest growing sectors in consumer technology is video monitoring. The floodgates opened with the launch of the popular Dropcam, and has kept going with a rash of competitors from both startups and established competitors. However, while most of them let you view the camera feed for free, the ones you hear about the most require a subscription to look back in time at your recordings. That also means that the company that makes the camera has access to your comings, goings, and video. Fortunately, if you want to set up your own video monitoring system, it keeps getting easier. In this article we’ll walk you through the steps, and give you some ideas for specific products.
Selecting your cameras
Your video system will never be any better than the cameras you use for input. Many of the brand name models charge a lot for slick packaging and access to their cloud backend. If you’re doing your own system, you don’t really need any of that. Instead, you’ll want to focus on the features of the camera.
There are a few specs that every camera you consider should have. Look for:
- 1080p HD or better resolution
- Powerful IR emitters if you need a night mode
- ONVIF (you’ll see why)
There are other specs that depend on your use case. You may also want:
- Power over Ethernet
- Waterproof Housing
- Audio (1-way or 2-way)
- Pan Zoom
- microSD card for local recording
You probably won’t benefit from:
- Battery-powered (won’t last for 24/7 use, but battery backup can be helpful)
- Camera vendor’s viewing app (unless you plan on sticking with one vendor)
You also need to think about the focal length of your camera. Super-wide-angle cameras are great for seeing an entire yard or area of a home, but they won’t yield enough detail to get a good look at faces or license plates. Longer focal lengths are of course the opposite. Panning and zooming can help with this, but only if you’re actually watching the camera to control it.
Our article on home video monitoring provides some more tips on choosing cameras. We also plan to do another security camera roundup featuring some of the newest products. Look for it soon.
Setting up your server
To do your own local recording, you basically have three options for a server. You can purchase a dedicated network video recorder, repurpose a PC, or use a NAS (one you have already, or one you buy for this purpose). Each approach has pros and cons. Since we’re in DIY mode here, we’ll focus on the PC and NAS as possibilities. Even if you already have a PC to use, the odds are that it will consume more power than a NAS. It may also not have a RAID controller for redundancy, or server-rated hard drives that are designed to run 24/7. So re-using an old PC might actually be more expensive in the long run. However, it does mean you can administer it with familiar Windows tools, and use any of the many software options available.
Having a NAS provides a more power-efficient, server-class, solution, but costs can add up. After all, you need the base unit, plus a couple of server-quality hard drives, and your cameras. High-performance drives, designed to run constantly, are essential for continuous recording. As far as software, NAS units like those from Synology and QNAP do come with licenses to monitor and operate two cameras included, which is helpful.
One way to get everything in one package is Synology’s bundle of their DS-216j (2-bay) or DS-416j (4-bay) NAS with Seagate Ironwolf (NAS-ready) hard drives and Surveillance Station software, as well as Amcrest HD cameras, available through Newegg. I brought one in-house to see for myself, and indeed all the pieces are there. However, there isn’t much in the way of step-by-step instruction, so you’ll want to use this article and others to help guide you. Unlike most inexpensive cameras, the Amcrest IP2M-841 HD models have a nice motorized pan and (digital) zoom. I found the pan feature in particular surprisingly useful for tweaking the field of view for ones that were set up in hard-to-reach places.
Software for viewing, streaming, and recording
If you’re building on a NAS, like Synology or QNAP, you can get started with their own software. Typically you’ll get a license for 2 cameras, and additional licenses can be purchased for about $50. Historically, this approach has suffered from performance issues because of CPU-eating plugin video viewers. Synology is now testing a native desktop client for Mac and Windows that fixes this problem. The screen shot in this article shows the monitoring of four cameras that only uses about 35% of my 2.8GHz 6-core AMD CPU (it looks like it each stream ties up most of one core).
If, instead of a NAS, you’re using a PC as your server, or want to look at alternatives, there are quite a few. For example:
- Owlr is a lightweight and free IP-camera viewer for your mobile devices. The company is looking to provide premium services for a fee over time.
- iSpyConnect for PC, Web, and mobile has a solid feature set, and is free for local use. Remote access requires a subscription.
- Blue Iris is a commercial application, but is quite reasonably priced, at $30 for one camera and $60 for up to 64 cameras.
Your camera probably also comes with some software to access it and stream its video. However, unless you’re only ever going to have cameras from one company, it’s probably best to relegate the vendor software for use in setup and debugging. If your cameras are supported by the software you choose, or support ONVIF, then it is quite possible your software can find and configure them automatically.
Getting your camera streaming
It surprises me how many camera vendors don’t support direct streaming from their units over IP. When asked, most have one of a number of similar excuses. Usually they claim it is a security issue, but without much reasoning. Mostly, it seems like they want you to purchase either their proprietary Network Video Recorder device, or a hefty cloud subscription. Samsung disabled network streaming in its otherwise excellent SmartCams the same day it launched a commercial cloud service, for example.
The good news is that there are plenty of companies, ranging from very-high-end to generic Chinese vendors, that support IP streaming. Once you know what software you plan to use, you can see if it has specific support for the cameras you want, but even if it doesn’t, ONVIF (originally Open Network Video Interface Forum) provides a solid, vendor-independent way to get at the major functions of cameras that support it.
Getting remote access safely
As long as you keep your cameras private and hidden behind your firewall, there isn’t any more reason to worry about them than any other device on your LAN. You’ll want to take the usual precautions of changing the default password, and making sure they aren’t running any software that opens up a port in your router, of course.
However, once you want remote access to your video, you’ve got to be more careful. You can brute force it using port forwarding from your router, but then you’ve got a full-time hole into your network. A better option is to use some type of service (often based on DDNS) that works by letting both you and your camera attach to it as needed. Many camera vendors provide their own proprietary version, although if you mix and match cameras, using them means you’ll be stuck with several.
Fortunately, there are some multi-vendor approaches, depending on the server hardware you use. For example, Synology’s NAS units ship with support for its DSCam system for remote monitoring. Likewise, competitor QNAP also offers both a Surveillance Station app for its NAS units and Vmobile for remote access on mobile devices. PC software like Blue Iris also supports a wide variety of cameras for remote streaming. Depending on the solution you choose, it may have support for customized alerts and other features as well.
Important points to keep in mind
- Think about how you will power your cameras. Power over Ethernet is a great alternative that also gives you guaranteed connectivity.
- Watch out for cameras that only record to their proprietary cloud (or an SD card). They lock you in to a subscription fee.
- Remember that your server will be running 24/7, so think about power and reliability.
- If you are monitoring a site for security, make sure your server is someplace hard to get to.
However you implement it, there isn’t anything quite like the power and flexibility of having your own full-time, real-time, video monitoring solution. You can look at video when you want, from where you want. In particular, I’ve found that sometimes several days go by before I realize I need to go back and review footage from a particular time frame of interest. With a full record, it is a simple matter to go to the timeline, scroll to the appropriate section, and review at high speed until I find what I’m looking for. If instead you are relying only on some motion-based clips in the cloud, you don’t have any way of knowing what you missed.
Check out our ExtremeTech Explains series for more in-depth coverage of today’s hottest tech topics.