Megapixel Camera Comparison 2010By John Honovich, Published on Feb 22, 2010
Megapixel cameras are clearly 'hot' - the fastest growing segment in the industry for multiple years now. Which should you use? What makes one megapixel camera better than another? In this groundbreaking comparison report, we provide novel insights into these issues. We leverage over 500 hours or original testing of over 10 leading megapixel cameras (see our directory of megapixel camera tests for details).
Key Questions To Consider
As we completed and compared our test results, a number of key questions arose:
- Do More Pixels Always Provide More Value?
- Are Tricks Confusing Low Light Performance?
- How Much Savings Does H.264 Really Offer?
- What Impact Does Lighting Variances Have?
- How Important is Camera Focusing Features?
- What Can I Really do with On-Board Storage?
While cost, VMS support and frame rate impact all IP cameras, we found these questions above to be the key differentiators among the megapixel cameras tested.
Inside our comparison and across our almost 1 hour of video screencast, we examined the following key area to demonstrate key issues and differentiators amongst cameras:
- Pixel Count / Resolution
- Low Lite Video quality
- Daytime Video quality
- WDR Video quality
- Bandwidth Consumption
- Camera Tuning / Focusing
- 3rd Party VMS Support
- SD Card Support
From our testing, we believe the 5 issues below are the most important, under-emphasized elements in selecting and comparing megapixel cameras.
- Beware of Overdoing Higher Resolutions: We see clear visual advantages moving from SD to 720p or 1.3MP resolution. However, moving from 1.3MP to 2MP or higher has questionable benefits. Two key reasons: (1) optics shipped 'standard' with megapixel cameras are often insufficient for higher resolution megapixel cameras; (2) low light scenes will eliminate the benefits of megapixel cameras as visible resolution degrades substantially
- Carefully Determine Exposure Settings for Low Light: The biggest differences we found in megapixel low light performance came from variances in the default exposure setting, rather than intrinsic superiority of cameras. Once exposure settings were normalized, performance was quite similar. The one feature that did provide enhanced low light performance was the use of a mechanical cut filter - common in most megapixel cameras.
- Check for WDR needs: Performance in wide dynamic range scenes (where bright light and shadows exist in the same image) showed the broadest range of performance amongst the cameras tested. If you are using megapixel cameras in these scenes (common in surveillance of indoors with windows or outdoor areas), be careful about your choice of megapixel cameras. Cameras with WDR modes did perform better but exhibited poorer performance in low light scenes (when the WDR mode was enabled).
- H.264 BW Savings but Far Less than Claimed: Many megapixel cameras provide H.264 encoding which is clearly more bit-rate efficient than MJPEG. However, the efficiency is not as great as marketing material claims. Furthermore, depending on the streaming mode (constant or variable bit rate), the overall bandwidth consumption and quality can vary substantially.
- Determine Value for Focusing/Tuning Features: There are 4 major options provided by megapixel camera providers for focusing/tuning cameras. These options can impact the time to setup cameras and the risk that cameras go out of focus over time. However, more sophisticated tuning/focusing features result in significantly higher cost. This tradeoff needs to be considered.
Megapixel Comparison Presentation
This section provides the core findings from our research.
In the screencast below, we examine:
- The need for using lux meters
- Low lite video quality
- Daytime video quality
- Wide Dynamic range video quality
In the second part of our presentation, we examine:
- Bandwidth Consumption
- 3rd Party VMS Support
- SD Card Support
- Pricing Final Recommendations
As with all cameras, using a lux meter is essential to making comparisons and understanding how well cameras will work. this is especially important in two of the most common and challenging conditions for surveillance cameras: (1) low light and (2) wide dynamic range scenes. In the screencast below, we provide a video tutorial of using a lux meter.
One of the key issues in selecting or evaluating megapixel cameras is how much additional visual resolution or details that megapixel cameras provide. Our test results show that more pixels does not automatically mean better image quality. In this screencast, we show how we examined this and what we found.
Focusing / Tuning Options Tutorial
One of the major differentiators emerging in IP/megapixel cameras is advanced ways to focus and adjust the Field of View. In this screencast, we examine the 4 key approaches offered.
Camera Performance Analysis
The sections below provide highlights of the key elements that positively (standout) or negatively (watch out) differentiate cameras.
Standout: H.264 VBR support (low bandwidth with little motion and well lite conditions), Low price ($750, without lens), broad 3rd party support
Watch Out: Limited 'bells and whistles', no analog out or auto back-focus, VBR bandwidth consumption spikes under high motion or low light
Standout: Easy of focusing/setup (built-in optical zoom), broad 3rd party support (even for a H.264/MP camera) and H.264 VBR support (low bandwidth with little motion and well lite conditions)
Watch Out: High price ($1300, includes lens) and VBR bandwidth consumption spikes under high motion or low light
Standout: Small form factor
Watch Out: Low frame rate for H.264, unmet marketing claims for low lite superiority, default maximum exposure of 1/8s higher than other cameras, expensive for what it provides ($1100 without lens), no analog out nor auto back-focus
Standout: Inexpensive ($450 without lens), analog out
Watch Out: Configuration difficult and undocumented, low light performance poor (no mechanical cut filter)
Standout: Moderately inexpensive ($700 including lens), broad 3rd party support
Watch Out: MJPEG only, no bells and whistles, no analog out nor auto back-focus, low light performance poor (no mechanical cut filter)
Standout: Auto back-focus, Super Dynamic mode improves WDR performance
Watch Out: When Super Dynamic mode is on, low light performance is materially worse than when it is disabled
Standout: Auto back-focus, tight integration and bandwidth benefits when integrated with Pelco's own VMS
Watch Out: Expensive ($1200 without lens), limited 3rd party support
Standout: Built in 10x optical lens, daytime picture very 'life-like'
Watch Out: Relatively inexpensive for its features ($900 including lens)
Standout: Inexpensive ($520 without lens)
Watch Out: no analog out nor auto back-focus