What's the easiest/cheapest way to set up a home surveillance camera that will notify me and stream video for remote viewing/recording if somebody enters my home while I'm gone?
September 29, 2010 9:31 AM   Subscribe

What is the easiest, cheapest, most effective way for me to set up a single motion-triggered surveillance camera at home to verify whether I have a creepy situation going on while I'm gone? If triggered, I want it to alert me remotely, stream video for remote live viewing, and ideally record to the cloud rather than locally for later viewing. I'd like an easy web/desktop interface to control it all. Have you tried one of those kits from X10 for this and did it work well for you?

I would like to set up a surveillance camera system to prove or disprove that I have a creepy situation happening at my home while I'm gone. I have read all the threads here, many of which are old enough to probably be obsolete, and have scouted around on the web. I'm somewhat bewildered by my options. Based on what you know about IP camera setups, what solution would you recommend to satisfy the following requirements as cheaply and effectively as possible?

  • A single motion-triggered camera to watch the inside of my front door from an unobtrusive spot about 12 feet away (outside is no go)
  • Gets triggered if someone comes through the door
  • Alerts me of that immediately via email/text/etc
  • Streams that video so I can watch it online, live
  • Simultaneously records that footage in case I can't watch right away, preferably to the cloud but otherwise to removable storage or lastly to a local computer (I'd rather not have to leave a laptop running at home or buy a new wireless drive just for this if I can avoid it)
  • Ideally works with a web/desktop interface that would let me easily clear out the event I trigger each night when I come home, or else regularly auto-deletes those incidents after a set period each time unless I tell it not to.
  • Any required software is for PC, not Mac or Linux
  • Doesn't require me to buy my own website for the monitoring or online storage, i.e. there is some kind of turn-key solution or I dial right into a server on the camera somehow
  • I'd like to be able to remotely trigger it and watch online if I choose, as opposed to waiting for it to be triggered at the house.
  • The video doesn't have to be stellar, but just can't be 1995 webcam crappy. I need to be able to identify any faces that may show up.
  • Don't need pan, tilt, or other fancy camera tricks - just need to point it at one spot
  • I have a wireless router running all the time and I see mentions of interference with wireless cam signals. I was assuming they'd want to work together somehow, not compete, as in the camera would connect to the internet via the wireless router.

This $100 all-in-one system by X10 appears to do most of the above except a few things like record to the cloud or have an incident dashboard. But man does that website look scammy, and I've read some bad reviews about getting their stuff to all work together or to get any help from customer service.

I have seen various threads here and elsewhere that talk about what sound like manually-assembled systems using standalone IP cams like this D-Link or this Axis, with motion detectors built in or separate, all hooked into shareware like webcamXP, or somehow going directly to the cloud, etc. etc. It's hard to figure out whether those add up to a simple system for a low-mid-tech person to set up easily or whether they will do all or most of what I want.


Have you used this X10 kit or another system like it? Does it work? Is the video so crappy that you couldn't identify a person across the room?

Have you used any system like this that will record to the cloud so you don't have to leave a computer running at home to capture video? I've seen some three and four year old recommendations here but wonder what the latest and greatest is.

Do you know of an inexpensive way for low-mid-tech me to assemble a system like this as opposed to buying a kit like the X10 one?

Overall, what's your best recommendation for how to set up something like this?
posted by Askr to Technology (9 answers total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
I use iCam to watch my dog.

It will "record motion events" based on how sensitive you want it to be. And it streams live. You can stream live to an iPhone if you have one, as well. It will text you upon motion events if you want it to.

It's a free service. Other users can log in to see your stream if you give them your username/password.
posted by morganannie at 10:36 AM on September 29, 2010 [4 favorites]

I agree with glaucon that everything you've left out of this question is madly intriguing.

Putting that aside, I have several friends who have purchased and used X10 stuff for various purposes, and they have always been satisfied. From what I've heard, despite all visible appearances, and their history of vile pop-up ads - X10 provides a quality product that does what it's supposed to do.
posted by ErikaB at 11:22 AM on September 29, 2010

Best answer: I found the X10 stuff to be fairly infuriating to use, but perhaps I'm just an idiot (it didn't help that the laptop I was using to control it died on me, the manuals are confusing and signal range seemed to blow chunks).

So, I went and got the Panasonic BL-C131A. It's got a reasonably wide array of functions (adjustable sensitivity motion-detection, customizable trigger response, can cycle through target areas, etc.). Monitoring functions occur online via a service that comes free with the camera. I've found the online stuff to be pretty capable, even via an iPhone.

They have a variety of models, some wired, some wireless.
posted by aramaic at 11:45 AM on September 29, 2010

Best answer: dropcam.com or cam.ly are the two I've come across in my own research on this.
posted by mochilove at 11:45 AM on September 29, 2010

For fun I just created a motion sensing camera recorder app using Derivative's TouchDesigner for free in about five minutes. It uses whatever camera you can attach to your computer: I'm currently testing it with an old DV camera and a "PS3 Eye" infrared camera to see in the dark.

To meet your requirements, I'd have to spend a few more minutes making it upload the incrementally named files to the FTP site of your choice. But, hey, for free using parts you probably have lying around, it's pretty cool.

MeMail me if you'd like the file I created. Keep in mind this is not a product for sale, has no warranty, et cetera.
posted by lothar at 1:53 PM on September 29, 2010

Seconding the iCam. I also use it to spy on my dog. Funny, I thought I was the only one...
posted by WhiteWhale at 2:05 PM on September 29, 2010

Response by poster: Hi everybody, and thanks for all the information. I left out the story behind this question to prevent derails. It worked!

I don't know yet which solution I'm going to use, but I've best-answered the promising leads. Thanks for your custom app offer, lothar. That starts to sound a bit out of my comfort zone but I appreciate it.

The Panasonic BL-C131A looks the best so far, assuming it records somewhere. Since it doesn't say in the description, I can't tell if it records at all, much less whether it's onboard or online. Could you comment, Aramaic? Is it just a live monitor with no recording? That would explain the free online service instead of a subscription if so. The rest sounds good. No local computer to leave running. I like the privacy button and the fact that it lights up if someone is accessing it. I don't need to be able to pan and tilt and stuff, but it's neat to be able to control that kind of thing from a smartphone anyway. Zoom might be useful in that regard. Sounds like a few of the users had some trouble getting it to play nice with their router and that it doesn't like WPA encryption, which is bad news. But it can apparently be arm-twisted into using MAC filtering.

Cam.ly looks good. No local computer to leave running. 4GB/24hrs of storage built in. Supports WPA encryption. Skip straight to the action in recorded video online. Alerts you of motion events via emails and texts (doesn't sound like it sends jpg images with the emails, just text - not sure). I can't tell if you have to buy the service to get that functionality or if it originates from the camera's onboard computer. The site says your footage is viewable via mobile Safari. Presumably I could hit their regular site via a browser on an Android phone too, but I'm going to ask them. Bad news is you have to buy a service if you want cloud-recorded video, but there's no free lunch I guess. Otherwise it's just local recording. I can't tell if I can hit a server on the camera remotely through a browser if I don't subscribe to their service, or if I can view footage recorded on the local storage if I hit it remotely through a browser.

Dropcam looks good, but if you buy the camera without the monthly subscription service, you can have live viewing but no recording. I like the $0 aspect of it but the no-recording part is a dealbreaker. Don't want to pay for service and there's no onboard recording. It's nice that it works with WPA encryption. I like that I can watch via a browser if I don't have an iPhone. Presumably I could watch via a browser on an Android phone. The online interface looks simple and useful, particularly the little yellow blips in the timeline that indicate motion events. It seems unnecessary that it records 24/7 rather than just when motion-triggered.

iCam looks great if you have an iPhone and don't mind leaving a computer running at home to record footage. I don't want to leave a computer running at home just for this and I don't have an iPhone. I'm currently debating iPhone vs. Android for my next phone, so I'll still keep it in mind.
posted by Askr at 1:27 PM on September 30, 2010

The Panasonic records depending on how you set it up -- for example, it can FTP files to a location you specify, or it can email you snapshots. This is most useful (obviously) if you've got it set in alarm mode, where it will immediately begin recording & FTP'ing when someone activates the sensors. Some folks, amusingly, have theirs set up to send to their Flickr account.

It does not record locally; there's some Windows software that can record to a nearby PC, but I never bothered installing it since I intended it to run without a local PC -- I was only interested in the remote FTP/Email functions.

The physical setup manual is here, which doesn't describe the various alarm/sensor functions, but it does at least allude to them.
posted by aramaic at 1:56 PM on September 30, 2010

Response by poster: UPDATE: Went with Cam.ly. I got it set up right away and it's doing what I want. It's a small unobtrusive camera, wired or wireless, and packs included SD card onboard. It watches the door for motion and doesn't record unless triggered (I think default is record 24/7). If triggered, it emails me right away. Then I can remotely view live footage or (under certain setups) footage recorded on the camera's SD card.

You can buy the camera standalone or your can buy it for a bit cheaper but sign up for a cheap monthly subscription to their service. Even if you just buy the camera, they'll still give you 10 hours of live feed viewing per month through their service, which is handy.

So if, in my situation, I got a motion triggered email from home while I was at work, I could immediately hit my account on their site and see what was happening. If I didn't notice the email right away, though, what I could not do is go back and view footage from 10 minutes ago, or anything other than live, because their site would not be logging my footage since I don't have an account. If I had an account I could easily replay older footage. The onboard SD card does, however, store the footage for those of us who don't subscribe to the service. And if you have a PC, you can hit the camera's IP directly instead of through the cam.ly service and view live or archived footage using Internet Explorer and an ActiveX control. I'm on Mac at work, however, so I can't do that. But I can check it on the PC once I get home.

You could if you want configure the camera to email you directly instead of the default setup, in which it emails cam.ly and cam.ly emails you. That way you're bypassing cam.ly completely and just working with your fully functional standalone IP cam. I find their site and interface handy though, and easy.

They tout support for viewing your camera's feed via any flash enabled browser, and by that they mean view it through their site, whether via your subscription or via the 10 hours/month you get free without a subscription. You can also view it via mobile Safari on iPhones. You can also apparently view it via Android if you have an RTSP viewer, though that's not something they advertise.

The cameras come from China and that shows in the user manual. It can be a bit difficult to understand what you need to do. But the Cam.ly people are very helpful and will answer your questions. If you don't hear back right away, don't sweat it. They answered me after a few days each time.

I thought the motion sensor function had horribly short range, so short that it was useless, until I realized you have to put your cursor on the preview video target area and draw a square to tell it where you want it to detect motion. It wasn't obvious to me, but once I did that it worked great.

Another not so obvious thing is that you have to hit a button on your Cam.ly account page to generate the local IP for your camera so you can access its interface via IE. For me, I guess for however my router handles things, this number is different each time in the last three or four digits. So my bookmarks from the previous visit don't work. So I have to go to the Cam.ly site each time and get a new one. Apparently this is something you can pin down in your router if you know how. That way it's the same IP each time. Not a big deal for me since I'm only going to access it if I get an alert email that I don't trigger myself, which should be rare or never.

Their SD card is formatted with some unusual format, and so I couldn't plug it into my SD reader to copy/move/delete files. They said I needed those protocols in order for it to show up as a readable drive. But I'm fine without it since it just records over old stuff once it's full. So I haven't needed to remove the SD card to view it using my computer - I just do it via the network. Whatever that format is, it's apparently something you can download so your computer will recognize the drive. Ask the cam.ly people if you need to know.

I'm loving having that motion sensor. When I get to work I've got the alert emails from the motion of me going out the door at home and when I get home, I've got emails triggered by me coming back in. So if any other action happens in there, I'll know it wasn't me and will be able to figure out what it was instantly or soon enough. You can encrypt the feed, but it's probably a good idea to cover up the camera or unplug it while you're at home if you too are forgetful and like to walk around in your underwear.
posted by Askr at 2:56 PM on December 6, 2010

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