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How to Pick a Security Camera

A security camera lens with a red background and slight bokeh

While a surveillance camera instantly improves the safety and security of your domicile or place of business, they can do much more than you might realize. Choosing the right kind of camera with the features that will accommodate your needs can be overwhelming. But we can help!

Update, 3/1/22: Verified content up to date.

Security Camera Basics

Most security cameras boast the same basic features, more or less. These are the basic common features that you will want to be aware of as you shop for a security camera for your home:

  • Camera resolution: Higher resolution is better … to a point. Higher resolution video requires better network throughput to present a smooth live feed without stuttering. This can be a challenge for some wireless networks. Also, when using a Network Video Recorder (NVR) to archive the footage on-site, higher resolution video results in less available recording time. This is because hi-res video consumes much more storage per minute of video.
  • Night Vision: The farther the night vision range, the better. But range quality is also important. Just because a camera advertises 90 feet of night vision range, doesn’t mean you can see clearly in the dark for that entire 90 feet. Manufacturers have a sliding scale of acceptable quality. If night vision is important to you, then pay attention to user reviews of night vision quality for the specific camera you are looking at.
  • Motion Detection: Motion detection is a standard feature in virtually all surveillance cameras. When someone or some “thing” moves in the video frame, the camera can do something with that information. It might take a snapshot and save it in on-board storage or the cloud. It might even store an entire video clip that shows the event. It will also have some form of alerting capability to notify the user that motion has been detected.
  • App Support: Complex features can be both a blessing and a curse. Look for a simple but functional interface that allows for easy camera configuration and also does a good job of facilitating notifications when motion is detected. Smart home integration is also a common app-supported feature.
  • Two-Way Audio: A fair number of security cameras also support two-way communication via the app. It is a fairly basic feature that can be quite useful in a number of applications. If this feature is important to you, be sure to observe reviews that mention this as well. Many cameras have poor speakers or introduce substantial delays during communication which degrades usefulness.
  • Pan and Tilt: Static cameras with a wide viewing angle are often sufficient and the easiest to manage. But the ability to manually or automatically pan the camera can be valuable.

Now that we’ve nailed down the basics, it’s time to dive into the more advanced features these cameras rock. It’s a lot to remember, but once you can wrap your mind around it all, you’ll be better prepared to buy the best security camera for your needs and budget.

Smart versus Dumb

A fake traffic sign with opposite directional arrows point to "smart" and "dumb"

Cameras with only the basic features above are basically standard or “dumb” cameras. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Perhaps you are more interested in a simple or less expensive solution. However, like many other gadgets in our lives, surveillance cameras are evolving to include more advanced features. Here are some of the other capabilities that smart cameras might include:

  • Advanced Motion Detection: Motion detection includes varying degrees of sophistication. Most include zoning to monitor specific “hot spots” or to block out unwanted alerts from a high motion area. The technology used in motion detection also varies. Cameras that only depend on infrared to detect motion won’t work well through windows. But they do help to identify animals and people by detecting differences in heat signatures. Some cameras do actual pixel comparison and aren’t subject to the limitations of an infrared sensor. There are also cameras that use both infrared and pixel comparison to add higher-level functions, such as supporting the ability to distinguish between a car, an animal, a person, or a package. A select few can even use AI to alert you when a specific person has arrived in the picture!
  • Motion Tracking: More sophisticated cameras not only detect motion but can actually use pan and tilt motors to track that motion. This allows for continuous monitoring of the motion source. Really handy for keeping an eye on that new kitten or puppy!
  • Smart Home Integration: Smart cameras typically support voice commands via Alexa, Siri, or Google Digital Assistant. As soon as motion detection alerts you that someone is on approach, rather than having to unlock your phone, open an app, and dig through a bunch of screens to see who it is, it can be much quicker and easier to just say “Alexa, show me the front door.”
  • Facial Recognition: It is actually possible to teach some cameras the faces of people you know. Using AI, over time, they even get better at recognizing specific faces. This allows for more meaningful alerts.
  • Climate Sensing: Useful in both indoor and outdoor climates, climate sensing can report changes to environmental metrics such as air temperature, humidity, and even air quality.

Wired versus Wireless

A man installed a security camera on a celling

Wireless cameras will always excel when it comes to ease of installation. Some wireless cameras even operate on batteries that last for a year or more. This means that deployment can be as easy as peeling the back off of a sticker before popping the camera up in a strategic location.

But wireless cameras can be subject to poor network performance due to wireless distance and interference. However, Wi-Fi is getting better with mesh networks and support for new Wi-Fi 6 standards that perform well at longer ranges and higher speeds. It is important to understand the quality of the wireless signal in the building before deploying one or more wireless cameras.

A wired camera will typically be more reliable. Simple—wired cameras only need a network connection and a power source. While they can often operate independently, they will more commonly be part of a larger solution that is managed by a Network Video Recording (NVR) device.

While a few NVRs still support analog video cameras over a coaxial cable, most are now digital recorders that use standard network cabling. The more advanced models will provide Power Over Ethernet (POE) to juice the cameras over the same cable that transfers the video stream.

A wired camera install will be more of a time commitment, as dedicated lines typically have to be run to each camera in the system. Again, using an NVR that supports POE is preferred here. Not having to worry about a camera power source makes running the cabling for the video cameras a little easier. The benefit of this labor is a reliable video feed that never runs out of batteries and never suffers from Wi-Fi interference or poor bandwidth. When video security is protecting high-value assets, wired cameras are a little more likely to capture that critical moment when the time comes.

Cloud versus Local Storage

A man watching multiple security cameras at once. Seriously, there's like...100 of them or something.

Both wired and wireless cameras will often support a choice between cloud storage or local NVR storage. But this is not always the case. Smart wireless cameras typically lean towards cloud storage only. Multiple-camera security systems tend to be less intelligent and may only support local video storage.

Local storage is beneficial for places of business or where security video is regularly monitored by a person. Viewing interfaces are suited to present multiple cameras at the same time. Also, extended storage allows the user to go weeks or months back in time to review old footage, all with no monthly cost. App support will still allow the user to view one or more cameras from anywhere in the world as long as the NVR is connected to the internet.

Cloud storage is better for those who aren’t security experts and need a simple solution. There is nothing easier than slapping a sticky-back wireless camera that runs on batteries onto a wall somewhere. Done. Another advantage of cloud storage is that intruders can’t steal your video storage device and prevent you from identifying who they are!

If you don’t need historical video storage, these wireless solutions are usually viewable for free. However, if you are looking for more advanced smart home integration and historical video storage, there will often be a fee. But with that fee, you get reliable video storage for one or more cameras and you don’t have to worry about complex network configuration or dealing with making sure video data is backed up.

Russ Houberg Russ Houberg
Russ is a 20+ year veteran of the Information Technology industry and has been that "techie" for a multitude of people and organizations over the years. He holds several professional certifications including Microsoft Certified SharePoint Master and Microsoft Certified Solutions Expert. As a published author, he enjoys freelance writing when he has the opportunity.   Read Full Bio »