IP Camera Buyer's Guide 2011

By John Honovich, Published on Oct 05, 2011

WARNING: This report is out of date and only left for historical purposes. See the 2014 IP Camera's Buyer Guide.

Before picking a specific camera or manufacturer, you should consider a few fundamental issues. The key ones we review are:

  • Resolution
  • Harsh light / bright light handling
  • Low light performance
  • Form Factor
  • PoE Support
  • On Board Storage
  • Analytics

Note: The manufacturer ratings come after the review of fundamental issues.

Image Quality

3 basic choices largely determines the image quality of a surveillance camera. These are:

  • Resolution (measured in pixels)
  • Harsh light/bright light handling (often called WDR)
  • Low light performance

These are not the only things but they are the big three.

Often people think that image quality = resolution but this is false. A camera with very high resolution can have really bad bright light or low light performance and you will still wind up with bad image quality. On the other hand, higher resolution does tend to increase image quality, just not always. Keep this in mind. We will look at the exceptions below.

Resolution

The most common number or metric marketed in IP cameras is their resolution - SD, SVGA, HD, 720p, 1080p, 3MP, 5MP, etc.

In the past, almost everyone used just Standard Definition (SD). Now, in 2011, the significant shift is to High Definition (HD - 720p, 1080p).

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What should you use? Let's look at the options:

  • SD (Standard Definition) often referred to as 4CIF or VGA: Avoid these cameras. They tend to be old and most likely will soon be discontinued. There's no real price savings relative to the next level up (SVGA)
  • SVGA (Super VGA): Use these cameras if you want to minimize spending but get modern equipment. Pretty much all the major camera manufacturers offer SVGA camera. They have about 50% greater resolution than SD but only half of HD. Getting SVGA rather than HD will likely save you $75 - $100 per camera.
  • HD (720p or 1080p): Use these cameras as the core of your deployments. Relative to SVGA and SD, improvements in image quality and details captured are substantial. Given the relatively low premium per camera, it is generally easy to justify.
  • 1.3MP or 2MP: These cameras are very similar to 720p or 1080p HD cameras. Indeed often cameras support both versions (e.g., a 1.3MP can do 720p HD). the main difference is that the HD format is wide (16 by 9) while the SD format is more square (4 by 3). For surveillance, many scenes are wider so the HD format tends to 'fit' better. However, this is a minor difference.
  • 720p vs 1080p: Prefer 720p. Within the HD category, there are two options. 1080p cameras have twice the pixels as 720p (2MP vs 1MP). In our tests, we do not see great practical quality differences between the two. 1080p is often modestly more money but generally not much more value.
  • 3MP or 5MP cameras: Use only for big, evenly lit, bright areas. These cameras only deliver modestly greater image details and then only in large locations (e.g., not an office or a lobby). Additionally, they cost more, have lower frame rates and tend to have worse low light and bright light performance. People love big numbers but if you really care about performance and value, 3MP and 5MP tend to be a waste.

Remember, resolution is only the first part of the three big elements.

Harsh Light/Bright Light

Most surveillance cameras have times of the day when direct bright sunlight shines at them. Whether it is the setting or rising sun or sun coming through a window or doorway, sunlight makes it very hard to get a good image. This is a major problem and camera performance differs dramatically in these conditions.

Below is a sample of 3 cameras with the same resolution but significant differences in actual performance when dealing with bright light:

Keep in mind:

  • WDR or Wide Dynamic Range is the feature camera manufacturers market for dealing with this problem.
  • The problem is anyone can say they are WDR and many people do regardless of true performance.
  • WDR is measured in decibels or dBs. Very good WDR cameras claim to be 120dB or higher.
  • The problem is anyone can say their cameras have any dynamic range they want. No one audits this.

Bottom line is that you cannot trust manufacturer's ratings for WDR or decibels. Just through it out the window.

In our tests, here is what we learned:

  • Sony and Panasonic PREMIUM cameras are the best at WDR. Note again, only the premium cameras marked as such for WDR. Of the two, Sony is better especially in really tough scenes.
  • Pixim is a well-known brand targeting WDR, but Pixim only supports SD cameras and their field performance did not match Sony and Panasonic.
  • Higher resolution helps improve WDR performance somewhat. It does not equal Sony or Panasonic's performance but it can help.

Sometimes camera vendors market backlight compensation but we find this to have little to no practical benefit in dealing with strong sunlight.

Also, do not try to adjust the brightness or light levels on the camera to deal with sunlight. This will not help much and will make video even worse during the other times of day.

Low Light

For any area where you want good quality at night, unless you have indoor bright lighting on constantly, you must select cameras with a mechanical cut filter. The marketing term for this is "Day/Night" sometimes called "True Day/Night". Make sure it has a mechanical cut filter as some vendors have 'electronic' Day/Night modes which are essentially fake. Good news is most surveillance cameras have a mechanical cut filter so this is not hard to find.

Secondly, throw out the minimum illumination specifications that vendors provide. Just throw them out, do not even consider them. Seriously. Theoretically, minimum illumination is supposed to tell users how dark a scene can be for a surveillance camera. Unfortunately, the numbers have little to no predictive value. They radically overstate true low light performance. Plus, it is impossible to compare cameras from different manufacturers as the measurement process is totally arbitrary. This might sound crazy as it throws away the only 'specification' provided. However, it is better than the alternative, which is a false guide likely choosing the manufacturer with deceitful self-specification.

Instead, ensure the following:

  • Make sure that the camera has a mechanical IR cut filter, i.e., True Day/Night (TDN). Our tests show repeatedly that these cameras perform better.
  • Prefer 720p HD or 1.3MP over higher resolution cameras. Generally low light performance gets worse at higher resolutions. Some buyers who really care for low light performance even get SD or SVGA cameras.

Next, beware of low light tricks. Most manufacturers set very slow maximum exposures which make the image nice and bright. This is a great thing UNLESS someone is moving. If a person is moving, especially if it is fast (car driving, person running, etc.) the image can ghost and become unusable.

  • If you are deciding based on a demo or test, make sure you check what the maximum exposure setting is (force it to 1/30s to normalize).
  • If you are deploying a camera, make sure you first try it out with fast motion. If it blurs, you may need to shorten the exposure which will resolve the blurring but make the image overall darker.

Don't believe us? Take a look at this image:

The image on the right above looks to be the better image, right? It's a trick though because we made the subject stand still. Now take a look at the image below when the subject is moving:

Adjusting the exposure can provide benefits but do not be tricked by manipulative marketing demos.

Finally, you can add lighting. Most people do not like to do this because it gets expensive, BUT it is the most reliable way to improve night time video quality. In the accessories section, we review options for built in lighting as well as add on lighting.

Form Factor

Like cars, cameras come in different shapes and sizes. Here are the key factors and most important issues excerpted from our in depth 'Choosing the Right Camera' report.

Cube

Cube cameras are generally the least expensive, lowest performing camera type on the market. Stay away from these unless your budget is very limited. Specific typical limitations include bad low light performance, bad WDR performance, no way to adjust Field of View and lower resolution.

Here is an example of what cube cameras look like:

[link no longer available]

Box

Box is the most common form factor and supports a wide range of features and options. Biggest dome and main reason not to choose box cameras is because of aesthetics. They tend to be larger and more conspicuous than the other top form factor choice - dome cameras.

Here is an example of what a box camera looks like:

Dome

Domes are very popular especially for users wanting a low profile, streamlined look. Compared to box cameras, they tend to be modestly more expensive (perhaps ~$100 USD) and have some limitations in what lenses they support and how far away they can view.

One thing to be careful of with domes is that the size of domes can vary significantly - from mini-domes to relatively big domes.

Here is an example of small and large domes:

Bullet

Bullets look like box cameras but are usually designed for outdoor use. They often come with built in IR illumination good for low light surveillance. However, bullet cameras usually allow limited adjustment of lenses and the IR included can only light up close areas (less than 50 feet away).

Here is an example of a bullet camera with integrated IR LEDs:

[link no longer available]

Common Feature Sets

PoE - Make sure PoE is supported. This is almost always available unless it is a super cheap consumer camera. PoE or Power over Ethernet makes powering cameras very simple. It is a no brainer. The alternative is low voltage power and separate cabling, which is a pain in the ass. Go with PoE 99% of the time (only a few niche cases will force you not to use PoE).

Storage - You might be able to use this but probably not. Most cameras today have SD card slots allowing recording of video inside the camera. However, most of those have no easy way to access the video or integrate it with a VMS. Also, SD cards usually will not enough storage for long term recording (typically no more than a few days). Only pursue this if you are an advanced user or have an advanced integrator working with you.

Analytics - Stay away from cameras with analytics unless you really know what you are doing. Most work very poorly.

Safe Choices

WARNING: This report is out of date and only left for historical purposes. See the 2014 IP Camera's Buyer Guide.

In alphabetical order:

Avigilon

Good Stuff: Generally good image quality, comparatively cheap, reliable, easy to use, young company but already a fan favorite among knowledgeable people

Bad Stuff: Most of their cameras use JPEG2000, an older codec that takes a ton more storage and bandwidth. Favor the newer cameras that support H.264. Also, only the newer cameras support 3rd party VMS systems. Use the older stuff and you are locked into Avigilon's own VMS. Avigilon is famous for their super high resolution cameras (now up to 29MP). Be careful, they are proprietary, low frame rate, bandwidth hogs. You are generally better off with less expensive HD cameras from Avigilon or other vendors. Finally, end users beware that Avigilon can only be bought through dealers. If you want to do it yourself, this will be a problem.

Bottom Line: Avigilon is a very attractive choice keeping in mind the limitations on their older models.

Axis

Good Stuff: The global top seller of IP cameras, has an incredibly broad product portfolio, supported by essentially everyone, reliable, feature rich

Bad Stuff: Axis is not cheap but they do have lots of options in their low cost lines. These are still generally modestly more expensive than comparable cameras from rivals. Many integrators and dealers do not like that Axis can be bought from anyone anywhere.

Bottom Line: Axis is the best safe choice. Every camera might not be the best overall but pretty much all models are competitively strong and should work reliably.

Panasonic

Good Stuff: High end models have really good bright light / WDR performance, broad line of cameras

Bad Stuff: Some of their high end features like face finding and face WDR did not do well in our tests. Be careful with their consumer models. They have limited third party support and are fairly expensive for their feature sets.

Bottom Line: Panasonic is a safe choice, though a little less safe than Axis.

Vivotek

Good Stuff: The best cheap choice, broad line of cameras, widely supported

Bad Stuff: UI/setup is somewhat clunky, image quality tends to lag the other safe choices

Bottom Line: If you want a cheap camera but want to minimize your risk, Vivotek is a strong choice.

Sony

Good Stuff: Great WDR in their high end models, broad line of cameras

Bad Stuff: Some history of firmware issues which may cause annoyances and/or major faults (day/night switching not working, privacy masks disappearing, etc.) 

Bottom Line: Sony and Panasonic are pretty close choices though we think Sony today is moderately better overall.

Acceptable Choices

These are cameras that should perform solidly but have some important limitation that makes us list them a level below the safe choices.

ACTi

Good Stuff: Inexpensive, fairly broad line of cameras, widely supported

Key Limitation(s): Not as broad of line as direct rival Vivotek, stumbled badly over the last few years, was once the budget leader, now lags.

Bottom Line: Not a bad choice at all, just a lot like Vivotek but a little riskier and a little more limited.

Basler

Good Stuff: Small form factor box cameras

Key Limitations: Narrow line, claims to have great low light performance but we have not seen that in our tests, not cheap

Bottom Line: If chosen, cameras should work well but the company just does not stand out for being better nor cheaper than the more broadly available safe selections

Bosch

Good Stuff: IR integrated cameras, optional add-on analytics

Key Limitations: narrow IP camera line, weak third party support, imaging OK but not great, not cheap

Bottom Line: Bosch got in to IP cameras late and they just are not real strong for most applications today. If you want an IR integrated camera, a really good choice but for regular IP there are both better and cheaper options.

IQinVision

Good Stuff: Broad line, broadly supported, supports add-on analytics

Key Limitations: Company has stalled the last few years and just turned over most of its management team. While the products are solid, they are not particularly cheap nor outstanding (relative to our safe choices).

Bottom Line: We see too much uncertainty when there are a number of lower risk, high performance alternatives available.

Mobotix

Good Stuff: Outstanding advanced technical functions, reliable outdoor products, comes with free VMS software

Key Limitations: Limited 3rd party support, complex to setup and use. 

Bottom Line: While Mobotix is a top selling IP camera manufacturer and one of the first entrants, there are now lots of competitive options at similar cost with similar image quality but easier to use and easier to integrate with others. Unless you really like advanced camera configuration and enjoy technical complexity, many other options are preferable.

Pelco

Good Stuff: Historically strong technical support.

Note: They claim to have the world's best IP camera (the just started shipping SureVision) but we have not tested it yet so can not offer an opinion.

Key Limitations: Not as broad a line as Axis, Panasonic or Sony and not as broadly supported by third parties.

Bottom Line: Not a bad choice but just moderately better options available. There is also some company risk as Pelco continues to be absorbed into their parent conglomerate.

Risky Choices

These are manufacturers we recommend you either stay away from or exercise extreme caution before buying:

American Dynamics

Risk: Limited 3rd party support, narrow line from a company in decline; There's just little reason to choose them when so many good options exist.

When to Use: You are an existing American Dynamics customer but even then you might be wise to loosen their grip.

Arecont Vision

Risk: Poor reputation for reliability and support, company known for bad attitude, buggy, hard to use configuration software, requires frequent firmware upgrades to fix problems

When to Use: Arecont Vision is a top selling megapixel camera manufacturer and may be the most polarizing company in the market. Some people love them for their cheap products, others will not even consider them because of their various quality issues. There most attractive products are the 8MP and now 20MP multi-imager cameras. 

Cisco

Risk: Very limited line, limited third party support, high costs, questions over Cisco's long term commitment to surveillance.

When to Use: Cisco's medianet integration with their switches could be interesting to end to end Cisco networks. Otherwise, hard to justify on real technical or operational grounds.

Hikvision

Risk: Buggy, poor image quality, clunky setup

When to use: When they prove them can deliver a quality product at comparable levels to other low cost entrances such as Vivotek and ACTi. Hikvision is a huge company and a leader in DVRs but they are relatively new and immature in the IP camera market.

IndigoVision

Risk: Only the most recently announced new cameras have any 3rd party support

When to use: When using IndigoVision's VMS system which is a first rate system but only now starting to open up to other camera vendors.

StarDot

Risk: Small company, limited camera line, key employee defected earlier this year to rival

When to Use: It's fine to use if you already have them as they are solid products but their future is unclear at best. With so many other choices with far less risky, little reason to choose.

Verint

Risk: No third party support, no features stand out

When to Use: If you choose Verint's VMS or NVRs, otherwise lots of just as good or better options from more open and widely used providers.

VideoIQ

Risk: Physically big and aesthetically unappealing, expensive if you do not need analytics or long term edge recording

When to Use: Only if you want to do analytics or have an application where you have to have long term storage at the edge. The analytics are high quality but if you just need a camera, VideoIQ does not make sense.

WARNING: This report is out of date and only left for historical purposes. See the 2014 IP Camera's Buyer Guide.

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