Watch Your Front Door From Anywhere

Editor's Note: This is one in an occasional series of articles from Popular Science's How2.0 department. The projects have varying degrees of difficulty depending on a project leader's experience, ranging from dabbler to master.

Set Up a Networked Cam
Time: 2 Hours
Cost: $80 and up
Easy | | | | | Hard

Is that guy at my front door delivering the pizza I've been dying for, or is it one of those religious proselytizers who won't take "no" for an answer? With an audio-equipped networked camera, I can sit at the other end of the house and beg the delivery guy to wait—or release the hounds. And if I'm on vacation in Tahiti, I can find an Internet connection or cellphone and keep an eye on the babysitter.

Networked cameras are like webcams, except that they have their own Web server built in, so they send video over the Internet without a computer. An installation suitable for your front door used to run well over a grand. But now you can get a cam online yourself for as little as $80, while $500 will buy a weatherproof, vandal-proof cam that will pan, tilt, and even zoom by remote control. And as long as you have a router that's no more than a few years old, setup is typically just plug-and-play. Follow the steps [below], and find the best gear for three common scenarios.


Image Credit: John B. Carnett

  1. Power up the camera and plug in an Ethernet cable from your router. If it's a wireless model, use the installation program to enter your network details.
  2. Configure your camera's settings. Unless you have a very fast Internet connection, choose a low resolution and frame rate, and don't forget to set a password.
  3. If your router is more than a few years old, find its manual. You'll probably have to adjust some of its advanced settings to get your cam on the Internet.
  4. Aim the camera. If it's outdoors, keep direct or reflected sunlight out of the camera's field of view or get a lens with an automatic mechanical iris.
  5. If your netcam offers a service that lets you create your own Web address to tune into your feed (instead of typing in an IP address), sign up for it.

DIY Options
• Buy an indoor cam and build your own weatherproof case using a Plexiglas window, or a bubble if your cam can pan and tilt (try your local hardware store for supplies), or buy a pre-made enclosure ($100 and up; securityideas.com).
• Ditch the extension cord and deliver power to your camera over its Ethernet cable. Click here for instructions.

1. Front-Door Cam
Cost: $200–$600
Why you'd want it: To see and talk to whomever is ringing the doorbell while you're somewhere at the other end of the house or sunning yourself in the Bahamas. Most of these cameras can also e-mail you when they spot motion so that you don't have to spend all your time peering at a browser window.

What you need: Get a camera with an enclosure that can stand up to the weather, such as the Pana sonic BB-HCM331A (around $600; panasonic.com). Or opt for a cheaper model, like the Sony SNC-M1 ($130 at amazon.com), and build your own enclosure. To chat with visitors, you'll want two-way audio, but this means you'll also need a microphone and speakers on your computer. Ironically, audio isn't usually available when you're viewing the cam's feed from your cellphone.

2. Indoor Cam

Cost: $80–$300
Why you'd want it: To see if the dog is eating your shoes while you're at work, if the baby is awake or if the neighbor kid really is watering the plants.

What you need: Since these cameras will be indoors and stationary, you can get by with a much cheaper unit, but unless you want it to be an obvious part of your decor, go for something small and subtle. The Gadspot NC800 (gadspot.com) is a mere $80 and includes an infrared illuminator for watching what happens in the dark.

3. Vacation-Home Cam

Cost: $300–$1,200
Why you'd want it: To keep an eye on the cabin between visits.

What you need: To watch an entire property, look for a model, such as the Panasonic mentioned above, that allows you to network several cams and to view and control them all from one interface. Or go for a single cam with pan, tilt and zoom capabilities, such as Vivotek's PZ6112 ($650; vivotek.com). Some people even point a single cheap stationary cam at their thermostat to make sure the furnace hasn't quit.

Key Cam-Buying Decisions

  1. Networked or closed-circuit? Closed-circuit cams can broadcast a feed only to a TV but can be networked later with a small add-on box (from $180; 4xem.com).
  2. Where to record? Get a camera that records to a local PC instead of an external server. Sending a constant video stream out over your Internet line will clog your connection.
  3. Is it compatible? Not all cams work with all browsers or portable devices. Axis and Panasonic are known for playing well with others, but always check before you buy.
  4. Mechanical or electronic iris? If your cam is anywhere near direct sunlight, spring for one with an auto-iris lens, which will protect the sensor from burning out.

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