Personal Tech

Safe as houses: CCTV for the masses

App equipped cameras all ready to keep an eye on you and yours

By Nigel Whitfield


Feature The technology to keep our homes safe has been remarkably static over the years. Most alarms still rely on the same tried and trusted techniques to work out if there's someone in your home when there shouldn't be. Typically they rely on motion detectors, door and window sensors, or pressure mats. Oh and you can have fancy light beams if you want a Mission:Impossible look to your flat.

Now you too can join in on the CCTV craze

All those bells and whistles feed into a box that makes a siren go off, or contacts someone by phone. That's less likely to be the police these days, and more likely to be a call centre. A more modern system might use a modem to do the notification, like my ancient BT Home Monitor, but the principle is still the same.

The alarm reports that something has happened, but you don't really know what. To find that out, someone needs to go and take a look. That could be a neighbour with a key, or a security patrol, and if necessary, they'll send for Slipper of the Yard. Even if the alarm has fancy lights, buttons and a modem, it's still a fundamentally old tech solution.

Meanwhile, more and more homes have always-on connectivity. Digital cameras are miles better than they were just a few years ago, and we all carry mobile phones with us. Small wonder, then, that security is one of the growth areas for the connected home. A connected camera can notify you when movement is detected, let you see what's happening, and help you to make a decision about whether or not to call for help.

I've been looking at a selection of cameras that all have at least that much in common – motion detection, video recording, notifications and an app. Beyond that, they all take different approaches, and have a slightly different focus. We'll look at a couple this week, and next week at two more, which have slightly more features and functions built in.

The first two offerings are Arlo, from Netgear, and Welcome, from Netatmo. The basic Arlo system we tested, with a base station and two cameras, is the VMS3230 and costs £280; you can buy a single camera version (VMS3130) for £190. Netatmo's Welcome costs €199, which is presently about £140.

Netgear Arlo

Arlo is perhaps the closest of these devices to what you might call a traditional surveillance system, in that it's based around cameras and nothing else. The cameras, of course, are HD and have night vision and motion detection, but there are no other sensors available for the system and no audio recording either.

As well as the cameras, Arlo includes a base-station which links to your home network

Our test system included two cameras and a base station. The latter plugs in to your home network via ethernet and is paired with the cameras by pressing a button on the base and then on the camera. The cameras are fag-packet sized and run on four CR123 batteries, so there's no wiring needed at all, one of Netgear's key selling points.

On the rear of each one is a small concave area, behind which is a magnet. The wall mounts are most gratifyingly like Dalek bumps. Pop a single screw in the wall, slide the bump over it, and then the camera just clings to the bump by sheer force of Dalek will. Or perhaps magnetism.

Is there a Dalek buried in this wall?

Basic use of Arlo is free; there's 1GB of cloud storage for clips, which are retained for seven days, and you can have one base station with up to five cameras. That should, frankly, be enough for most domestic users. For £6.49 per month, or £64 per annum, that can be boosted to 10GB and 30 days of storage, with up to ten cameras. The ‘Elite' level at £9.99/£99 will give you sixty days storage, and up to 15 cameras across three bases. Everyone gets all the same software features, but the paid levels get priority support.

Those software features include the use of rules, which allow you to specify the action of each camera when motion is detected. You can select whether or not notifications are sent by email. Rules are grouped into Modes, like ‘Home' or ‘Away' which can then be applied manually or have selected according to a schedule.

Different rules for Arlo can be applied according to a schedule

There are some niggles, though. For example, you can't be signed in to the app and the website at the same time. If you're using the app, and someone signs in to the website, you'll be signed out. And adjusting the sensitivity for the motion detection is a bit odd. In the app Settings there's a slider with a percentage. It turns out that a higher percentage is more sensitive, but you have to dig around the support site to learn that.

Making the rules

There's also a slider in the rule definition, which is labelled more helpfully. But it appears to be entirely independent of the one on the camera settings page, which is labelled “Motion detection test.” Presumably, you're supposed to use the test slider to work out the right setting by watching the light flash on the camera, then remember the number, and change the setting in the rule.

Netgear's Arlo app: two camera monitoring, rule definition and motion sensitivity tweaks

You can change the same setting in the Rules section of the website too, but that didn't appear to reflect changes in the app. So, overall, this aspect of Arlo seems a bit confusing, and I now have an awful lot of video of plants in the garden waving in the wind.

It's also worth noting that, though push notifications were turned on, they only ever seemed to arrive when I had the app open. There was no problem with email notifications, though.

With clips stored in the cloud, it's easy to play them back via the web

Arlo allows you to invite other people to view your cameras, sending them a link to create an account, and you can allow different people access to different cameras, so a neighbour might only see the outside cameras, rather than an indoor one, for example, and they may not have administrative access.

Netatmo Welcome

Netatmo has a range interesting gadgets. The best known is probably its Weather Station, which we looked at some time ago. The latest is the Welcome camera. Like the Arlo, the camera is HD and has night vision too.

Designed to sit on a table with a view of your door, Welcome doesn't look like another security cameras

Like the Weather Station, it's a sleek aluminium tube, this time in the sort of gold finish that was popular with Marantz hi-fi in the 1980s. It's designed to be placed proudly on a table in the hallway, looking at your door and – aside from the USB power cable that trails out behind it – it's a look that most people should be able to live with. Certainly, Welcome doesn't look anything like a security camera.

Eye spy

The main thing Welcome does is keep an eye on who comes through the door, and alert you when people are seen. It can record video as well, which is encrypted and stored on a micro-SD card, rather than in the cloud. The clever bit is that it recognises faces. So, you can have a notification telling you that your wife has come home, or that the kids are safely back.

It's also possible to set recording options, based specifically on the faces that have been detected. It's easy, for example, to exempt your sexy au-pair from being recorded. Welcome decides if people are home or not depending on when they were last seen (and optionally, your phone's GPS). You can select whether notifications and recordings happen all the time, only when no one's home, or never.

You can choose whether recordings are done all the time, or only when you're away

I did have some initial setup problems, with the Welcome complaining that it couldn't reach Netatmo's servers, unless I turned off my router's firewall. The support team said that ports 500 and 4500 UDP need to be opened, and in the normal course of events, you would assume that means incoming traffic to those ports on your system. In fact, it's the other way round; you need to allow connections from UDP 4500 to come into your network.

While my network is a little unconventional (fixed IP range, with a router firewall, and then devices like Welcome behind an Airport Extreme providing NAT), Welcome is the only device of this type where I've had to tweak the rules to make it work.

Netatmo Welcome on the move: app screens for user profile, record settings and clip listings

Once the tweaking was done, setup was relatively straightforward. You can do it via Bluetooth from your mobile, or with a USB cable from a Mac or PC. In both cases, you tell Welcome which network to connect to, sign in to Netatmo's service, and then you can start teaching it.

Motion graphics

Welcome will let you know each time movement is detected, and when it sees a face. To start with, those will all be unrecognised, and a long tap in the app – you can't teach it faces via the website – lets you create users, or indicate that an unrecognised face belongs to an already known person.

Viewing video on the website is slow – clicking to download a clip resulted in a message from Firefox that it would take five minutes. It's much faster in the app, which presumably isn't round-tripping it via Netatmo's server. Playing video via the website is, frankly, best avoided and you can't view video directly from the micro SD card as the process of downloading it via the app or web site decrypts the content.

You can check in via the web, but accessing video is slow

There's one other part to Welcome that I wasn't able to test, which is called Tags. These are motion and vibration sensors, which are due to be launched in a month or so. You can put them on a door or window to let you know when it's been opened. Combined with the camera, they make the system much more like a traditional security setup. As with Arlo, you can grant other users access to your camera as well.

Watching brief

Both the cameras I looked at this week will let you keep an eye on what's going on in your home, in different ways. Arlo is clearly much more like a traditional CCTV system, and if your main concern is knowing when people come on to your property, or enter a certain room, it'll do the job. It might be the ideal sort of solution for a small office, and the cloud storage means that you'll be sure of access to crucial recordings, even if the worse happens.

Netatmo's different approach will better suit people who want to know when someone's home and it also records audio. It could be useful, for instance, as a way of checking up on elderly relatives, as well as children. Though with footage recorded on an SD card for privacy, there's surely a risk that before too long, savvy thieves will know that they should grab the camera on their way out.

That said, even if Welcome is disconnected, all events that occurred before that (motion or face detection), just a few seconds earlier, will be in the timeline (if the settings allow it). And if the device goes does get nicked, the app will have snapshots of these final events to view, rather than video.

Next week, I'll be looking at two more systems, from Piper and Swann, which both have their own unique take on home security and monitoring. Meanwhile, don't have nightmares. ®

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