Home Security Camera Buying Guide

It has never been easier to keep an eye on your home, thanks to a new wave of connected home security cameras. These streaming video cameras connect to your home WiFi network to send alerts, video clips, and live video feeds to your smartphone, allowing you to monitor activity while you're away.

Your Security Camera Options

Home security cameras are DIY devices, meaning you set up and monitor them yourself, rather than hiring a security company to do the work and the watching. While they can save you from installation and monitoring fees, you forgo a 24/7 response team when you do it yourself. You'll have to decide whether you will feel safer with professional monitoring or self-monitoring through alerts that pop up on your phone.

Wireless security cameras have become relatively affordable in the past five years, thanks to ever-faster internet, smaller camera sensors, and cheaper WiFi chips. More recently, startups such as Ring and SkyBell leveraged that same technology to create an entirely new product category—the internet-connected video doorbell. These doorbells offer all the features of a wireless security camera while also alerting you if someone rings the doorbell. As such, they do double duty: If you have a video doorbell, you probably don't also need a wireless security camera covering the front door.

And because most traditional doorbells run on low-voltage wiring, there's a steady stream of power available for a video doorbell.

While these new breeds of security camera offer greater convenience than ever before, they're far from perfect products. We found that most of the models we tested don't deliver the HD video quality they promise under all situations. And many models charge monthly fees for some of the most important features, such as cloud video storage and monitoring zones (the ability to focus on or, alternatively, ignore motion within a designated area of the camera's field of view).

That's not to say home security cameras can't provide peace of mind, by letting you see that your kids arrived home safely from school, or that the dog walker showed up as scheduled, or that a UPS package arrived. And companies keep making these cameras smarter through software updates that add new features, such as person detection and facial recognition.

With so many types of models and features, it can be hard to know what to look for. Here, we break down everything you need to know to find the right security camera to protect your home.

How We Test Home Security Cameras

Our comprehensive testing methodology builds on CR's expertise in testing cameras, televisions, and other connected devices. We focus our tests on how quickly a camera sends alerts to your smartphone when motion is detected—and for video doorbells, when someone presses it—as well as its video quality and smart features. These factors can make or break your experience with wireless security cameras and video doorbells.

For the response time test, we time how long it takes for the camera to detect movement occurring in its field of view and send alerts to its smartphone app. We also time how long it takes for a button press on a video doorbell to send a smartphone alert, which is critical if someone is waiting at your front door.

For the video-quality test, we set up a room with furniture, everyday objects, and mannequins as stand-ins for real people, and evaluate how clear the video is from cameras in good light, low light, and zero light (to test night vision). CR engineers designed this test to expose weak spots in the cameras, whether in their sensor, lens, or software. We also add different levels of backlighting to each lighting scenario. All these tests assess whether you would be able to clearly see people or objects in the frame, such as a potential intruder. The results of those tests appear in an individual video-quality score for each wireless security camera and video doorbell in our ratings.

When it comes to smart features, we assess a wide variety of capabilities depending on the type of home security camera. They may include monitoring zones, facial recognition, voice control (with Amazon Alexa, Google Assistant, and Apple's Siri), smartphone alerts, two-way audio, scheduling, and geofencing (which turns alerts on and off depending on whether the device reads that your smartphone, and presumably you, is nearby). All these features factor into our unique Smart IQ score for smart home devices, allowing you to see which cameras are smarter than the competition.

Since wireless security cameras can be used indoors, we specifically test them for data privacy and security. (Video doorbells are used in what are essentially public spaces, so we don't think that data privacy and security are as critical for those devices.) In these tests, we evaluate each model's public documentation, such as privacy policies, to see what claims the manufacturer makes about the way it handles your data. The tests include inspection of the user interface and network traffic from each camera and its companion smartphone app to make sure it's using encryption, adhering to manufacturer policies, and not sharing your data.

Finally, our test engineers take the results of these individual tests and use them to calculate our familiar Overall Scores for both camera types.

Types of Home Security Cameras

There are two main types of home security cameras: wireless security cameras and video doorbells. Here are the differences.

A wireless security camera.

Wireless Security Cameras

These unobtrusive security cameras connect to your home network and send alerts and videos to your smartphone. Some models need to be plugged into an outlet, and others run on rechargeable-battery power, making them truly wireless. Cameras with a memory-card slot can store video clips locally, on a memory card, but most don't have that feature, forcing you to store them in the cloud—and allowing manufacturers to charge you a recurring fee.

Pros: They can be placed just about anywhere inside your home. Weatherproof models can be placed outdoors. You can check on your home and receive smartphone alerts from anywhere with cell service or WiFi.

Cons: Cloud storage fees can be expensive. Some smart features require paying a monthly fee.

A video doorbell.

Video Doorbells

Video doorbells are really just security cameras that happen to be built into a doorbell. Most use low-voltage wiring from an existing doorbell for power, though a few models can run on batteries, which is handy if you don't have a wired doorbell in place. Battery-powered models require periodic recharging or battery replacement. These cameras send alerts and videos to your smartphone when they detect motion or when someone rings the doorbell. All video doorbells also feature two-way audio, so you can talk to whomever is ringing. Some models come with a memory-card slot for storing video clips locally, but most store video clips in the cloud, which usually requires a monthly fee for long-term storage.

Pros: They use doorbell wiring for power, negating the need to run a separate power line. You can answer your doorbell even when you're not home.

Cons: They won't work with an existing wireless doorbell chime. Their connection to your WiFi may be affected by being outside the thick walls of your home. Cloud storage fees can be expensive. Some smart features require paying a monthly fee.

How to Choose a Home Security Camera

1. Choose Your Camera Type
The type of camera you'll need really depends on where you want to place it. If you want to place one inside your home, there are many home security camera options. If you want one outside your home, you'll need to decide whether you want a wireless security camera or a video doorbell.

For monitoring a front or back door, consider a video doorbell because they can be powered through your doorbell wiring. If you want to monitor another area of your property, you're better off with a wireless security camera. Keep in mind that while all video doorbells are designed to survive the elements, not all wireless security cameras are weatherproof. So be sure to check the specs of a camera you're considering if you want to put it outside.

2. Pick Your Power Source
Battery-powered wireless security cameras and video doorbells offer the most flexibility in terms of placement in and around your home. Depending on the camera and how heavily it's used, you'll need to recharge it anywhere from weekly to once every few months to once or twice a year. Hardwired cameras and doorbells neatly sidestep the recharging problem but may limit your placement options, unless you're willing to run an extension cord or hire an electrician.

Keep in mind that the power source you use could limit the number of models you can choose from. This is especially true of video doorbells because there aren't many battery-powered models on the market.

3. Compare Cloud Storage Plans
Before you pick the camera or doorbell you want, be sure to check how much free cloud storage it comes with and how much additional storage costs. Most manufacturers opt for cloud storage—where the footage is remotely stored on a server—instead of memory cards because the video files are large. Without cloud storage, if you miss an alert for a potential intruder you'll have no idea whether someone tried to break in. Many of these cameras also won't let you download clips to send to authorities unless you pay up.

The amount of free online storage and cost of storage plans can vary drastically by manufacturer. For example, Netgear's Arlo cameras come with seven days of free cloud storage, which stores the most recent seven days of motion-triggered video clips. They charge $10 per month or $100 per year for 30 days of storage. Ring video doorbells offer no free storage, but Ring charges only $3 per month per camera or $30 per year per camera for 60 days of storage.

Keep in mind, most of these plans store only video clips triggered by motion, not continuous video feeds. One notable exception is Nest, which offers only continuous video storage (with a 30-day storage plan costing $30 per month). Netgear also offers it at higher monthly rates, and Zmodo gives you both clips and continuous video in its storage plans.

4. Consider Your Privacy
While these cameras provide peace of mind, it's worth remembering that to do that they provide a view into your home and connect to the internet. If you can watch your home from your phone, it may be possible for someone else to take a peek, too. The manufacturer also may have access to the video.

"There have been cases of companies deploying these with weak security that can be circumvented," says Justin Brookman, director of privacy and technology policy for CR Advocacy. "Don't use default credentials. Make sure you set up your own unique username and difficult-to-guess password." Read our story on creating strong passwords to make sure yours are as hack-proof as they can be.

Some cameras also offer two-factor authentication, an additional layer of security that sends you a onetime-use passcode via a text message, phone call, email, or authentication app that you input in addition to your username and password when you log in. That way, if a hacker cracks your password, they still won't be able to access your camera unless they also gain access to your onetime code. If your camera offers this, be sure to activate it. You can also find more advice in our story on preventing security cameras from being hacked.

These security concerns don't mean you shouldn't buy a home security camera, but if privacy is something you're worried about, you may want to keep these devices out of the bedrooms.

Home Security Camera Features

Home security cameras come loaded with many features that take advantage of their internet connection. These are the main features to look for as you shop. 

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