Testing MP USB Cameras for Video Surveillance

Author: Benros Emata, Published on Jul 25, 2010

A frequently cited downside of megapixel cameras is their cost. Even a 'cheap' megapixel network camera is $250 or more (compare that to cheap SD cameras which can be under $100 or analog cameras that can be under $50).

Recently, we were scanning online for USB cameras and were impressed to see how inexpensive even HD webcameras have become - less than $50 for a 720p HD USB camera. This piqued our curiosity and led us to buy a number of USB cameras from Amazon.

In this test, we share our results from tests of Microsoft LifeCam Cinema (720p) and Logitech 2MP HD Pro Webcam Pro 9000. We bought a total of 5 USB cameras plus (5) 5 meter active USB extension cables (to test maximum distance from the USB camera to a PC). We then integrated the USB cameras with a number of VMS systems.

In the video below, we overview our approach:

While our tests show that application is limited to small scale applications, we were impressed at the video quality and the relative inexpensiveness of using HD USB cameras for limited surveillance solutions.

HD USB  cameras versus MP Cube Cameras Comparison Table

A USB camera may be compared to a megapixel cube camera that has very basic functionality (fixed focal length, no mechanical IR cut filter, smaller imager, etc.) . If you are comparing the two, consider the following criteria:

Criteria HD USB cameras MP Cube Cameras
 Cost The two USB cameras we tested were both relatively inexpensive- $50 - $70 USD. Cost of USB extension cables is about $1 USD per foot. MP cube cameras can range in price from $250 - $400 USD. Cost of ethernet cable is about $0.13 USD per foot.
Distance Covered We achieved the total distance of 86' / 26.3m, using five, 16' / 4.9m active extension cables, including the USB cams integrated cable. According to USB.org, a maximum of 98.4' / 30m cable length can be run for a full speed device. 328' / 100m is the maximum length for 10/100 Mbps ethernet.
3rd Party VMS Support Many budget video management software support USB cams. Almost all 'professional' VMS systems do not support USB cams (eg. Milestone, Genetec, DvTel do not support). Broad support from 'professional' to 'budget' VMS systems. However, 'budget' VMS systems generally only support MJPEG.
Bandwidth Consumption No H.264 support for USB cameras, so default compression can get as high as 10Mbps or more, depending on scene complexity. Many MP cube cameras have multiple codec support, including H.264.
Image Quality Wide angle daylight images from both USB cameras look just as good as a MP cube camera. Low light environments are dark, but does not suffer from excessive camera noise.

MP cube cameras generally have good daylight performance, but lack in low light environments.

Power Power is provided through the USB cables by the USB bus on the PC. Advantageous for small deployments.

Most MP cube cameras do not support PoE, which require an outlet and extension cables. For PoE supported cams, purchasing a PoE injector would be required. 

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We recommend the use of HD USB cameras for small deployments (4 cameras or less) like a small office, convenience store, or household. The significantly lower cost in USB cameras ($50 vs $250), even after factoring in slightly higher costs for extension cables (say $50 for 50 feet) and shorter distances covered, can still save users $400 or more for a 2-4 camera deployment. Both systems currently require recording on a local PC, making this cost constant. Finally, setting up a USB camera will be simpler as power cabling is unnecessary and detecting USB cameras on PCs is 'plug n play' where IP camera discovery and configuration, in our tests, can be problematic.

Key Findings

Setup: USB cams were not difficult to setup, because of the plug n' play nature of USB. Consideration will need to be taken on wall or ceiling mounting, because of the non-standard mounts on most USB cameras.  In addition, a powered USB hub may be necessary if your USB bus is not adequately powered or if not enough free ports are available.

System Load :  On our 2.13GHz Intel Core2 Duo notebook, we were able to connect 4 USB cameras with active extension cables and record video at full resolution in the background, but the reported CPU usage was at 95%. Although system load was high, all 4 streams ran smoothly and exported video without problems. On the other hand, 95% system load caused issues with multi-tasking, so if your computer is not dedicated for surveillance, consider limiting the camera count to 2 - 3 units.

Bandwidth: We calculated the bit rate from 10 second sample clips exported out of a single USB camera, and found that the bandwidth can range from a simple indoor scene running at 3Mbps to a more complex outdoor scene at 10Mbps.

Daytime Performance: The daytime quality of both cameras are comparable to professional IP camera images. The Microsoft Lifecam and Logitech 9000 both excelled at outdoor and indoor daylight images, with the Logitech, being a 2MP camera, having a slight edge in clarity when compared to the Microsoft camera.  

Nighttime Performance: For both USB cameras, we had difficulty in making out facial details in an indoor environment with light levels at 1 lux and below, but at 1 lux, environmental details could be discerned.  Both USB cameras do not have a b/w mode or IR cut filter.

Third Party VMS Support: All of the budget VMS systems we tested had support for USB cameras, but the extent of support may vary by model/manufacturer. Most professional VMS systems do not include USB camera support, except for Luxriot's VMS.  Although Luxriot did support the Logitech, we were unable to get live video from the Microsoft USB camera.

Frame rate: Video from both cameras ran at 15fps when exported directly from their own driver applications. Results may vary depending on what VMS is associated (eg. On Blue Iris VMS system, both cameras ran at a maximum 10fps).

Product Overview

We verified the following product points while setting up and testing the USB camera system.

Microsoft LifeCam Cinema

With an MSRP of $79.95 USD and available for $49 online, our tests verified that:

  • 1280x720 maximum resolution
  • Integrated mount is only appropriate for a monitor; You need to fabricate a solution if you want to wall mount
  • Built in microphone
  • LED indicator on front of unit when camera is on; LED cannot be toggled off
  • 6' integrated USB cable
  • Luxriot VMS has driver issues with this camera; System was unable to view or record video
  • By default, focus is set to "auto" in driver settings, which makes it difficult to retain clarity in low light scenes; We recommend to turn auto focus off

Logitech HD USB camera Pro 9000:

With an MSRP of $79.95 USD, and $64 online price, we verified that the Logitech had:

  • 1600x1200 maximum resolution
  • Built in microphone
  • LED ring in front of unit to indicate camera is on; LED cannot be toggled off
  • Integrated mount will need to be custom fabricated for mounting on wall or ceiling
  • 6' integrated USB cable
Tripp Lite USB 2.0 Active Extension Cable
To achieve longer distance, up to 86 feet, we used a Tripp Lite USB active extension cable that has an MSRP of $39.99 USD, but may be purchased online for approximately $19 USD (note: we purchased them for $16 a few weeks prior to this).
  • Extension cable is 16'
  • 28/20 AWG
  • USB Type A male connector on one end, Type A female on other end
  • Female end has emits red LED light when connected to USB source
  • We tested five cables daisy-chained together for a total length of 80'

 Hardware / Software Setup & Installation Considerations

The following screencast details the all the equipment, hardware and software, that is necessary to integrate the USB cameras into a surveillance system.  

Key points include:

  • Some DIY procedures are involved
  • Although USB camera form factors vary, most have similar features
  • Mounting the USB cameras to a wall or ceiling may require a DIY solution
  • Required to have a modern PC with a fast USB 2.0 bus
  • In our tests, we were able to connect four USB cameras
  • USB camera cable length is generally limited to 6'
  • We daisy-chained five, 16' active USB extension cables together to create an 80' cable run (+ 6' from the cable of the camera)
  • Attach a powered USB hub if your PC system's USB bus does not have adequate power or is limited in free ports
  • Some VMS systems like Luxriot, auto-detects attached USB cameras
  • Some camera settings may not be available within the VMS; Access the manufacturer's driver directly for more settings
  • Some VMS systems like Blue Iris, does not auto-detect USB cameras and will have to be added manually and record manually
  • The Rogo system auto-detects and associates the attached USB cameras, but does not record full motion video

Image Quality Analysis

In the following screencast, we compare the image quality of the Logitech HD USB camera Pro 9000 and the Microsoft Lifecam Cinema USB web cameras.  We comment upon exported video clips taken in various environments and lighting conditions.

Download our sample clips (34.7 MB download)

Key points include:

  • In a daytime indoor scene, the Microsoft USB camera's 1280x720 image is crisp with good color representation
  • In the daytime indoor scene, the Logitech camera's 1600x1200 image is more crisp due to the higher resolution
  • In a low light (1 lux) indoor scene, in the Microsoft image, the subject's facial features can barely be identified, but details in the environment is visible
  • In the 1 lux indoor scene, in the Logitech clip, the subject is slightly darker, some artifacts are apparent, and facial features are difficult to identify

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