IP Camera Buyer's Guide 2014By Ethan Ace, Published Apr 28, 2014, 12:00am EDT
The 2014 IPVM IP Camera Buyer's Guide provides recommendations on the right types of cameras to choose, the strongest manufacturers to consider and the best overall values.
We explain what manufacturer's products have significantly improved or declined, in performance, value or both, identifying 9 specific manufacturers.
We explain the tradeoffs in resolution, low light and WDR selection and more specifically how 2 of these factors have changed significantly over the past 3 years.
We breakdown the key decisions to be made when selecting minidomes, full size domes, panoramics, box, integrated IR bullets and thermal cameras.
This Buyer's guide focuses on comparative performance (primarily video quality) and price (that is, who offers less expensive products for a given performance / quality level).
These two elements are the core foundations of purchasing decisions.
Other Personal/Local Factors
Performance and price are certainly not everything. Indeed, a number of personal/local factors often drive buying decisions that are beyond the scope of this treatment, including:
- Local sales support: An integrator may reasonably choose a product with somewhat lower quality or higher price if the manufacturer's regional sales person provides exemplary support. Likewise, an end user may do the same if they strongly trust an integrator for service / support.
- Regional technical support: Manufacturers vary in their technical support, even by region. A manufacturer who is quick to solve problems and goes the extra mile in repairing problems and customizing for personal needs may justify a decision.
- Existing infrastructure: Users may have extensive existing deployments of a certain manufacturer and may prefer to continue with that manufacturer to simplify ordering, maintenance / service. Alternatively, they may be forced in due to restrictions on third party support.
- Longevity of Service / Presence: Since surveillance equipment should typically last 7 years (and often longer), reasonable users may choose a more expensive option from a manufacturer who has demonstrated a track record of supporting customers long term.
Finally, 2 tactical considerations that, for better or worse, impact their integrator preferences:
- Margins/Discounts: An 'inferior' product may offer superior margins/discounts/incentives motivating the integrator to select those products.
- Rival Choices: An integrator's key local rivals may lead with or have superior pricing/support for a superior product. Rather than lose in a head to head competition with that rival(s), the integrator may seek out a lower quality but less widely available product to increase their differentiation.
Since our 2011 Buyer's Guide, the competitive positioning of the market has shifted significantly.
Here are the most notable manufacturers whose product/value has increased:
- Avigilon: While they strong already in 2011, they have gotten even stronger in the past 3 years, filling out their portfolio with super low light, integrated IR, mini cameras and PTZs. However, they are not as relatively inexpensive as they once were, simply because other companies have gotten more aggressive on price.
- Dahua OEMs/Hikvision: A few years ago, their quality was questionable. However, in recent tests (see our tests of Dahua and Hikvision), the performance gap between these lower cost brands and majors such as Axis, Sony, and Bosch has narrowed significantly.
- Samsung: Samsung has made a strong push in 2013 and 2014, where they were essentially a non-player previously. Their WiseNet III camera line offers performance comparable historic leaders such as Axis, Bosch, and Sony, though at pricing hundreds of dollars less.
- Bosch: In the past two years, Bosch has completely revamped its IP camera line, which previously very narrow, with very few megapixel options. In 2013, they released HDR and super low light models with strong performance. In 2014, they are positioned to release the first 4K UHD cameras, and build their "Starlight" low light technology into 5MP cameras, both with significant potential.
Still Strong But Weakening
Two companies that did well in 2011 still are relatively strong, but weakening somewhat due to competitive pressures:
- Axis: Axis has continued to add models to their line on the high end and in non-standard applications (covert, thermal, etc.), but their low end models remain priced above options such as Dahua and Hikvision, a potential weakness as users seek low end cameras for budget installs.
- Vivotek: Vivotek continues to improve their camera line, but their pricing is above that of low cost competitors Dahua and Hikvision, though performance is similar, weakening their position.
Here are the most notable manufacturers whose product/value has decreased:
- Panasonic: Panasonic is one of the last manufacturers to release a new generation of cameras (Gen 6 in spring 2014), and their previous models lag behind newer competitive cameras. Additionally, pricing remains high, even compared to other major manufacturers such as Axis, Sony, etc.
- Sony: Sony was late in releasing their sixth generation of IP cameras, so were overtaken in image quality by other manufacturers such as Bosch, Axis, and Samsung, all delivering similar or better performance at prices lower than Generation 6.
Key Features - Resolution, Low Light, WDR
SD and SVGA have essentially disappeared, with many new series not even offering them as an option, since the price premium of going to 720P HD/1MP is trivial. We recommend not buying any SD or SVGA cameras at all and do not be tricked or confused into buying them for low light.
Most users are rightfully deciding between 1MP and 2MP cameras (including 720p/1080p). The detail difference between these two options, even in ideal lighting conditions, tends to be modest. Generally, for areas narrower than 20 feet wide, 1MP is fine. For larger areas, 2MP may have some benefits.
One upside of 720p over 1080p cameras is that they tend to have more advanced image quality processing, including true WDR and super low light performance.
5MP and higher still has limited value/application as low light and WDR performance remains poor. Plus products are not that much broader than they were a few years ago. Unsurprisingly, 5MP+ cameras tend to be used in large areas, but be careful if you need low light monitoring, 5MP+, even with added IR illuminators will tend to be no better than lower resolution cameras.
Readers may see our comparisons of 720p/1080p HD vs. multi-megapixel resolutions for more information on these issues.
Megapixel cameras have become much better in low light over the last few years, driven by the introduction of 'super' low light cameras and the integrated of IR into almost every manufacturer's camera lines. Deciding between these two technologies depends on the scene being viewed.
In low light scenes, 1-5 lux, super low light cameras are superior, with better details at close range and better detection performance at longer range. However, in truly dark scenes below 1 lux, integrated IR is a better choice, as these scenes are simply too dark even for super low light models. See our test of integrated IR vs. super low light cameras for more details.
Determining just how good super low light cameras are is difficult to determine from spec sheets, as there is no industry wide standard for testing minimum illumination. Worse, manufacturers often overstate low light performance in their marketing material. This means that unfortunately the best way to test low light performance is in the field, in the actual scene desired. Users may also see our directory of tests of low light cameras.
In IR cameras, the specification users should be most aware of is illumination range. This is often overstated by as much as 30-40%. Users should take this into account when selecting cameras, and be conservative about real world expectations, planning to add external IR where necessary.
WDR performance has improved significantly over the last few years. Back in 2011, true WDR performance was limited to a handful of expensive cameras (like Sony and Panasonic). Now, most manufacturers offer quality WDR cameras, at far lower prices.
The key issue/problem to navigate is what type of WDR the camera offers. Manufacturers have invented all types of weird marketing terms (see Axis WDR vs WDR?) that obscure what is actually being done, with some labeling their entire line as WDR, though most models offer only electronic WDR, adjusting contrast and exposure, which has little to no effect in strong WDR scenes.
For best performance, true WDR cameras should be used. These models combine short and long exposures to improve visibility in harsh lighting scenes, offering performance well beyond electronic WDR methods.
Our WDR Tutorial covers the differences between these types of cameras, and what to look for in WDR models.
These are the key factors to consider when looking at mini domes:
Size: Many prefer small camera sizes to conceal/downplay the presence of surveillance. However, manufacturers can stretch or misrepresent whether their domes are truly "mini." There is no set definition of what constitutes a "mini" dome versus a standard full sized fixed dome camera. Moreover, terms such as "micro" or "nano" are used by some manufacturers, though this does ensure that they are truly any smaller than others. Typically minidomes are 4-5" in diameter at their largest, with a small 1-2" bubble, and about 1-2" in height.
Hidden components: Some minidomes claim extra small size, but conceal electronics either above the ceiling (e.g., the Pelco IL10 Microdome) or in a separate "dongle" containing Ethernet and power electronics (e.g., the Avigilon Microdome). This can cause a problem in certain installations where room or surfaces are not available to put / hide these parts. Buyers should double check camera spec sheets and beware of these claims.
Lens options: Almost all minidomes are fixed focal length only. This can cause a problem if a user wants to optimize or adjust the width or size of the area covered. Minimally, buyers should clearly look at the listed lens length to make sure it is not too wide or narrow for their use cases. Widely available options frequently range from the very wide at ~130 degrees, down to narrower FoVs of 50 degrees.
Advanced Features: Almost all minidomes lack advanced features such as WDR, super low light performance, auto back focus, audio, or I/O. Those wanting best in class image quality performance will likely be disappointed by choosing a minidome.
Integrated IR: Many minidomes have integrated IR. The benefit for this is increased visibility at night, something minidomes (without IR) are generally quite poor at (because they typically have high F stop lenses). However, the integrated IR in minidomes is typically short range only (typically ranging from 10 to 20 feet) and can cause overexposure / blooming on people near the camera. Additionally, while budget manufacturers almost always offer minidomes with integrated IR, premium manufacturers (Axis, e.g.,) lack integrated IR in their minidomes. For the cost conscious, who needs some monitoring in low light, integrated IR minidomes are often attractive and viable.
Mounting and aiming: Minidomes typically are designed to be mounted flat to the ceiling or wall, with separate wall or pendant mounts uncommon. This limits their use in areas where pole or pendant mounts may be required, and may result in off-level images in areas with sloped ceilings.
Price: Minidomes are one of the least expensive form factors available (second only to cube cameras that are rarely used professionally). Street pricing varies widely, from about $100 - 400 USD online.
Full Size Domes
When looking at full sized domes, here are the key points to consider:
Size: As with minidomes, there is no fixed standard for what is considered "full size" in domes. Typically, diameter is 4-6", or as large as about 8" in outdoor models. Height is usually much greater than minidomes, at least 4".
Size may be an aesthetic issue, depending on where the camera is mounted. Users typically desire indoor models be as small as possible (with recess mounting common), while in outdoor scenes size may be less of an issue and more overt surveillance preferred for its potential deterrent effects.
Feature set: Full sized domes most often include audio and I/O, features missing from most minidomes. Frequently, manufacturers offer multiple series of full size domes, with the higher end series including "super" low light and "true" multi-exposure WDR. However, many lower priced or more basic full-size domes lack these features.
Integrated IR has become relatively common as well, though bullets are often preferred by users due to illuminators potentially reflecting off of the inside of domes. Bullet cameras are typically used where the longest illumination ranges are required.
Lens options: Full size domes most often ship with varifocal lenses. However, motorized zoom has become more common in the past 1-2 years. Auto back focus is a common feature on full size domes, though not included in all models, typically limited to higher tiers of product lines.
Mounting options: A wider variety of options are typically available for mounting full size domes, such as pendant, wall, and pole mounts, allowing them to be used in more applications than minidomes. Recessed mounts are also available, conceailing most of the camera in the ceiling, exposing only the bottom trim ring and dome for better aesthetics.
Price: Since size, indoor/outdoor use, and feature set vary so widely in full size domes, pricing varies as well. On the low end, indoor domes without IR or WDR/low light capabilities may be found for about ~$200-400. Outdoor models vary more widely, with some selling for as little as $200, though average is closer to $400-600. High end models with super low light capabilities and WDR are more expensive, $800+.
The fundamental question when considering panoramic cameras is whether to use single imager fisheye cameras or multi-imager:
Fisheye: These cameras use one imager and lens to cover a broad area, typically 3-5 megapixel. Though they cover a wide FOV, details are low relative to typical cameras, and WDR/low light performance are notable issues.
Multi-imager: This style of panoramic uses multiple imagers (most often four) to cover 180 or 360 degree fields of view. They provide higher resolution over the FOV than single imager cameras (typically 8-12 megapixel), though with accordingly increased bandwidth and storage needs. Using multiple imagers generally provides better WDR and low light performance.
Those looking for more detail on the difference between these two may see our Panoramic Camera Guide for more information.
Here are the key factors for multi-imager cameras:
Resolution: Multi-imager models are available in a number of resolutions, from 8 to 40 MP. However, due to their high resolution users should beware of decreased low light performance and framerate in many of these models.
Limited availability: There are few options available for multi-imager cameras, with Arecont by far the most common. 360 or 180 degree models from Avigilon, Scallop Imaging [link no longer available], and a recent entry from Secubest are also available.
Licensing: Typically, multi-imager cameras require only one VMS license each. When they were first introduced, they often required one for each imager, but this has fallen out of practice. However, users should still confirm with their chosen recording platform so unexpected licensing fees are avoided.
Pricing: Multi-imager panoramic cameras typically sell for $1,200 and up, depending on resolution and features, with ~$1,500 an approximate average. This pricing is well above most fisheye panoramic cameras, which sell for $350-800, typically.
Manufacturer selections: Practically speaking, Arecont is the only option in multi-imager panoramic cameras. In their SurroundView line, the 12MP AV12186DN/AV12366DN are recommended, as they offer individual imager performance similar to their 3MP WDR AV3116DN, which performed well in our tests.
When considering fisheye panoramics, these are the key buying considerations:
Low Resolution: Since they are covering a very large area with only one imager, typically 3-5 MP, details quickly drop off as distance from the target increases, with facial recognition difficult even at 10-15'. This makes fisheye cameras best for monitoring generally activity or very small areas.
Imager performance: Panoramic cameras have typically had notoriously bad low light and WDR performance, limiting their usefulness in scenes were these are issues. Recent models have begun to improve, but are still well behind other form factors.
Client side dewarping: Panoramic images have most often been dewarped by the VMS client, with the full warped overview image sent from the camera. This allows users to operate the camera the same, whether looking at live or archived video, controlling the view with virtual PTZ controls. The downside is that not all cameras are supported by all VMSes, as each requires a unique dewarping SDK, which may limit available choices for users' chosen VMS.
Camera side dewarping: More recently, camera side dewarping has been introduced. This allows cameras to dewarp images on-board, sending one or more corrected images from the camera to the VMS. The advantage is that less integration is required by the VMS. However, since only dewarped views are recorded, there is no option to dewarp archived video for forensic use. Users needing an overview must record a second stream with a fisheye or panoramic overview.
ImmerVision vs. fisheye: ImmerVision's panomorph lenses claim better resolution than typical fisheye lenses, by using an elliptical image instead of round, which covers more of the camera's image sensor. Additionally, their SDK saw earlier adoption than most panoramic cameras, and even still is more widely supported. However, we have found limited gains in image quality with ImmerVision enabled cameras, as it depends on each individual manufacturer, or the camera used with their CS lenses.
Price: Fisheye panoramic pricing varies widely, from about $350 on the low end to a high of about $900. ImmerVision lenses sell for about $500 for the 1.3 MP version, plus the cost of a box camera.
Manufacturer selections: Samsung's SNF-7010 panoramic camera offered strong WDR performance beyond other competitive cameras we have tested, while priced below average (~$360). The Axis M3007-PV (~$550) was one of the best all around panoramic cameras, low light and WDR performance above average, and on-camera dewarping which integrated well with various VMSes.
These are the key factors in selecting box cameras:
Len options: The CS lens mount of box cameras allows for the most flexibility in lens selection, so users may select super long range, super wide, or low F-stop options as required. This is a feature very rarely found in full size domes, and typically not at all in other form factors, making box cameras the only option in these scenarios.
Feature Set: Generally speaking, manufacturers only include their best WDR and low light performance in box cameras (and full size domes to a lesser extent). Audio, I/O, analog outputs, and SD memory card slots are often included in box cameras when not present in other form factors in the manufacturer's line.
Aesthetics: Box cameras are the most overt form factor, which may be a positive or negative depending on the application. Retail and banking often prefer this overt surveillance for its deterrent effect, while many commercial and educational facilities prefer domes as they blend into the environment more.
Mounting: Box cameras have many different mounting options available, for hard or drop ceilings, walls, poles, etc. However, unlike other form factors which are available in outdoor models, box cameras require a separate exterior housing when they are exposed to the weather, increasing cost and installation time.
Price: Box cameras average $200-800, depending on features such as WDR, low light performance, resolution, etc. However, some high end models, sell for as much as $1,200+.
Manufacturer selections: Samsung's SNB-5004 1.3 megapixel box camera offers a strong combination of WDR and low light performance along with very low bitrates compared to competitors, at a price less than half that of models from previous leaders such as Axis and Sony.
Integrated IR Bullets
Bullet cameras have gained in popularity recently, with most major manufacturers offering options. These are the key factors to consider:
Compact vs. Full Size: Some manufacturers off both compact and full size bullet cameras, similar to mini/full size domes. Compact models generally 4-6" long (not including mount). Full size models are typically 8-12" and include more flexible mounts, better for use in off-level surfaces and pole mounting.
In addition to size differences, typically compact models have shorter illumination range, lack smart IR features, and use fixed lenses only. Those looking for these more advanced features should look at full size bullet models instead.
IR range: Illumination ranges vary widely between manufacturers and specific models, and are often overstated by 30-40% or more. Even when specified ranges are reached, illumination power is typically weak, and targets may still be difficult to detect. Because of this, for example, if users need to view a target at 30m range, a camera claiming 45m or more should be used.
Smart IR: Smart IR adjustment features automatically increase and decrease illuminator power to prevent overexposure of objects in the scene, a common issue in IR cameras. Some cameras accomplish similar effects by adjusting exposure, but this is not as effective as the decrease in power, as it darkens the rest of the image.
The term "smart" IR may also be applied to motorized zoom models which change power and illumination pattern based on zoom level to best fit the scene. This helps to prevent hot spots and dark edges.
Lens Type: In most compact models, fixed lenses are used, though multiple focal lengths are often available for different fields of view. Full size bullet cameras normally use varifocal lenses, offering better flexibility when adjusting to fit the scene. Motorized zoom lenses have become relatively common in bullet cameras, as well, allowing the field of view to be changed remotely after the camera is installed, eliminating the need for a tech to visit the camera.
Price: Compact bullets sell for as little as $150, with an average around $300, while full size models sell for $300 to as much as $1,200+ depending on features.
Manufacturer selection: In our tests, we found the Avigilon H3 bullet cameras offered the longest IR illumination ranges, with their smart IR adjustment working well to adjust power based on objects in the scene, as well as zoom level.
Among lower end compact bullets, the Hikvision DS-2CD2231-I5 performed well. This model suffered from hotspotting in the center of the image, though much less than competitive models, with better illumination of the edges of the field of view.
Here are the key factors to consider when considering thermal cameras:
Resolution: Sensor resolution is the most important differentiator in thermal cameras. 320x240 and 388x288 are the most common sensors used, now considered "standard" resolution. High resolution models are also available, which use 640x480 (VGA) sensors for longer detection ranges, though this increase comes at a large price premium. Lower resolution models are also available, 160x120 and even 80x40, though no longer as common.
Note that while visible cameras moved into megapixel and multi-megapixel resolutions years ago, thermal cameras above VGA are not commercially available.
VGA vs. standard cameras: Unlike visible cameras, where higher resolutions produce more usable details, thermal cameras do not produce very fine details at all, regardless of resolution. At best, users may be able to determine general clothing type at very close ranges, but beyond this, only general outlines and shapes of objects may be seen.
Therefore, the main benefit higher resolution sensors offer is detection range. VGA cameras are capable of detecting targets at up to twice the range of 320x240 models. However, since few pixels on target are required to detect object in thermal cameras, this difference generally only applies to very long distances (1,000' or more). At shorter ranges (~500'), standard resolution cameras provide enough pixels to detect a human target.
Contrast and "WDR thermal": Since fine details are not provided, and thermal cameras are used for detection only, contrast is the key image quality factor of thermal cameras. Nearly all manufacturers allow fine tuning of contrast for specific scenes, weather, and temperature conditions. Additionally, some have gone so far as to claim "wide dynamic" thermal. While these features improve image quality moderately, note that this is a software image enhancement, not a true WDR implementation using multiple exposures.
Price: Typically, thermal cameras have sold for ~$4,000+ for 320x240 cameras, and $6,000+ for VGA. However, prices have dropped recently, with DRS Technologies selling their Watchmaster for under $2,000 with performance near that of more expensive models. Additionally, FLIR recently announced a line of thermal cameras starting at $499, a huge drop in pricing, though using smaller sensors other commercial cameras (80x60, smaller than even previous low resolution 160x120 models).
Manufacturer selections: The DRS Watchmaster line is a strong choice for commercial installations. We found its performance similar to other manufacturers in temperate conditions, though priced ~50% lower.
Here we outline the competitive positioning, good and bad, of some of the most popular camera manufacturers:
Good: Broad line of cameras in variety of form factors and resolutions up to 10 MP, inexpensive compared to most.
Bad: Image quality is average, integrators cite quality and reliability concerns, focus issues on multiple models tested, no longer lowest cost compared to others such as Dahua and Hikvision.
Bottom line: ACTi is not a bad choice, but other lines provide similar or better image quality at lower prices.
Good: One of few makers of multi-imager panoramics. Above average WDR performance. Fairly broad line up to 10 MP.
Bad: Quality and reliability remain a major concern. Image quality issues, especially desaturation and white balance.
Bottom line: The SurroundView multi imager cameras fill a underserved need in the industry, but for everyday use, lower cost and more reliable options exist.
Good: Solid cameras with average to above average image quality, lower than average pricing, integrated IR bullets have some of the longest illumination ranges available.
Bad: Not widely available, sold only through dealer channel.
Bottom line: Avigilon is a solid choice in cameras, especially attractive to integrators looking for a product line with limited availability. End users may have limited selection of integrators and fewer options to procure product.
Good: Very broad line, with multiple models available in all form factors. Excellent low light and WDR performance. Very broad third party support. Easily available from numerous sources.
Bad: Few truly low cost options. Top tier models among the most expensive cameras available. Some integrators take issue with unprotected sales channel.
Bottom line: Axis is likely the safest choice available in IP cameras. Some competitive models may outperform them in some categories, but performance overall is above average, and no others are so broadly supported.
Bad: Few low cost models. IP camera line not as broad as some competitors.
Bottom line: For low light and WDR scenes, Bosch has some of the best performance available. In applications not requiring this high performance, or budget-conscious installs, other options may satisfy requirements at lower prices.
Good: Average to above average image quality, on par with more expensive mainstream brands, at prices 50-75% lower.
Bad: Sold only through OEMs in North America with no direct sales, representation, or support under the Dahua name. Most OEMs do not carry full line of cameras, limiting options. Low light and WDR performance are average, but not exceptional.
Bottom line: Dahua (and their OEMs) are one of the best available low cost options, though their limited availability in North America limits choice in models.
Good: Broad line of cameras in most form factors with solid image quality and WDR performance. Prices well below average.
Bad: Some reliability and stability concerns.
Bottom line: Along with Dahua, Hikvision is one of the best available low cost options. Unlike Dahua, however, Hikvision sells and supports product in North America via their own name, eliminating that key limitation.
Good: Solid quality/performance.
Bad: Image quality not exceptional. Significantly higher than average pricing. Few options outside of standard cameras and form factors.
Bottom line: Panasonic offers average performance at prices above average, making other manufacturers a more economical choice.
Good: Excellent WDR and above average low light performance in SureVision 2.0 line. Broad camera line overall.
Bad: Overall higher than average pricing with few low cost options.
Bottom line: Pelco offers some standout models, but overall average performance at high prices.
Good: Excellent low light and WDR performance in Wisenet III models. Panoramic model with strong WDR performance. Low bitrates, especially in low light scenes. Low pricing compared to other top performance brands such as Axis, Bosch, and Sony.
Bad: Narrow IP camera line compared to others such as Axis, Sony, Hikvision, etc.
Bottom line: Considering their high performance at prices lower than average, Samsung is a strong choice in cameras, though their smaller line may limit them in some applications.
Good: Excellent image quality, with strong WDR performance and above average low light performance. Wide third party support.
Bad: Expensive overall with no true low cost options. Generally high bitrates, with a VBR implementation that still does not include a cap.
Bottom line: Other manufacturers, such as Axis, Bosch, and Samsung offer similar performance at prices at or below Sony, though without limited VBR support, a key bandwidth issue.
Good: Broad line of cameras at below average pricing. Wide third party support.
Bad: Image quality tends to lag other options. Pricing is no longer lowest compared to others.
Bottom line: Vivotek is a safe choice for low cost cameras, but others such as Hikvision and Dahua may offer similar or better image quality at moderately lower prices.
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