Testing Covert Cameras

Author: Benros Emata, Published on May 01, 2013

Covert cameras are regularly referenced in TV shows and undercover reporting. We ordered two of the most frequently sold covert cameras on Amazon - a Car Key cam and a PenCam, as shown below:

We then put them to the test, examining video performance in low light, WDR and evenly lit scenes. Plus, we investigated the usability of each device.

While the video quality of the PenCam was surprisingly good, it's 'covertness' was not. And, while the discreteness of the car key cam was strong, it's video and usability were fairly bad. 

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Comments (12)

Nice test. I always wondered what the video on those looked like. What kind retention time did they end up having versus what was advertised? Did they have motion or sound activation available?

There is no option for motion nor sound activation.

As for retention, obviously it depends on sd card used. The Pen cam had a built-in 2GB (not replaceable, though other models offered moderately more). The car key cam requiring using your own microSD card.

We only recorded up to 1 hour on each and it held that with no problem. Ben will check what percentage of the SD card was used for that ~1 hour.

But what about battery life?

You can get the fobs with audio. They are used quite often in undercover operations.

Maybe a good old 'pocket protector' would hold the camera in place, as well as reinforce the image of being a harmless nerd. Think I have one somewhere....

I have a pen cam. For me placement was on my T shirt under the chin. Those who know me recognize I usually have a pen there. So no questions or odd looks from them. Video was always clear. Although my chin whiskers occasionally showed. Other captured scenes. The spoon from the soup bowl to mouth. Graffiti above the urinal. More, if you let your mind wander. With mine, activation was a problem. On/off at the top. Then stepping through the indicator LEDs. (front and back?) Blue and orange and maybe green. Flashing also. As no lights when 'ON'. Sometimes couldn't tell if I cycled it off. Seems a timing delay of the lights when activated created a little confusion also. Charging it in the USB slot of a computer offered a flashing orange. And a steady orange/green? when charged. All of the above is from memory. And suspect. Age or data overcrowding? Dono. Probably both. Not used it in over 6 months. Rearranged a couple of rooms and haven't found it since. Seen them on sale recently. Might acquire another.

Update on retention time period: The Pen Cam, with 2GB of storage, looks to hold about 4 hours of video total (1 hour was ~500MBs). Battery life lasted 2 hours before needing a charge.

The car key cam has been acting weird. It does not run for very long before shutting down. We are not sure if this is our error or if that's just what happens with a ~$5 device.

I had a key fob one for a while - same short lifespan. I suspect that something shorted out as I was removing or reinserting the SD card, which seemed to want to miss the dock altogether and float around among the innerds.

Thanks for the update. I think those are helpful considerations pertaining to performance and reliability.

Here's some additional details on the cameras:

Battery Life - Under 2 hrs for both, car key cam closer to 1.5 hrs

Pen Cam - 1hr of video (very low motion) = 472 MB

Car Key Cam - 1 hr video (very low motion) = 1850 MB

Thanks for the research. I'm very open if anyone has thoughts or product knowledge on a good IP based covert camera. The product market from my research is very small. Most covert cameras are analog. The Axis product has potential but is a little expesnsive. Most of the inquiries I've gotten center around the following scope:

"I'd like a covert camera that I could easily setup after hours and not have to do a bunch of drilling and cable pulling to set it up. I'd like to be able to leave it in a location for a few days to a week, bring it back to review the video, and then be able to redeploy it somewhere else when needed. I don't want to have to pay a professional installer to send his techs after hours to install it and remove it. " (that could run more than the camera itself) "Battery power would be best, so I don't have to fool with running wires".

I'm not sure such an animal exists. Most of the time this is regarding a large organization, hospital, school, etc that need to catch some internal issues. Perhaps a low cost NVR with built in POE ports could be set some where and a long cat5 patch cable could be laid above ceiling tiles in the desired location. However this is not easy undertaking for an in house staff. Battery power would require a suitcase full of them to run a decent camera for multiple days. The products reviewed above to me have a limited use for personal short term surveillance.

Hi John, why do you want IP? If it's just going to be left there and picked up later, it wouldn't seem to matter.

We are not against IP. Indeed, we are setting up a test of the Axis P12 against traditional pinhole cameras.

For what you are describing, temporary surveillance, I think hidden cameras (e.g., embedded in clocks or teddy bears or smoke alarms, etc.), would seem to make more sense.

Any thoughts on that? btw, I think it's worth doing a test on hidden cameras to get a sense of how they perform.

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