network camera
Photo: Tim Bradley
Someone has entered your house and stolen thousands of dollars worth of valuables. He's feeling pretty smug because he knows you're on vacation. What he doesn't know is that your security camera has caught him in the act. The camera, which you cleverly concealed on a bookshelf, is so small that he doesn't notice it, yet it's powerful enough to zoom in on his face and clearly identify him.

Traditionally associated with public places like airports and retail stores, surveillance cameras are turning up in more and more homes. Thanks to rapid advances in video technology and the fact that more than 120 million people in the U.S. have access to a broadband Internet connection, homeowners can be across town—or across the globe—and still keep real–time tabs on their house.

"They've realized broadband is more valuable than for just checking e-mail," says Paul Alfieri of Motorola, which recently launched an out–of–the–box home monitoring system called Homesight (about $300 for a starter kit). "As the technology has advanced, we can make an affordable camera and also give you color video and sound–recording capability."

There are plenty of good reasons for having one of these gadgets, and they're not all about the fear of intruders. Maybe you want to make sure the kids got home safely from school, or to see whether Fido recovered from his breakfast of purloined cherry pie. Most systems allow you to watch and control the camera from any Internet–connected computer through a simple Web browser; others let you give commands and view images via cell phone. Some will even e–mail you video clips at specific times you set, or when the camera detects motion.

Camera Features
Depending on how much of your house you want to see (and on how much you're willing to spend), choices range from simple, fixed cameras to James Bondian models equipped with night vision and sensors that can detect suspicious objects based on size. But most so-called "network cameras" offer some combination of three basic functions: pan (side–to–side movement), tilt (up and down), and zoom (close-up).

A camera with 360–degree panning, for example, works well if you want to be able to monitor several areas at once. Mounting one of these on the ceiling in the center of an open space provides an effective, if not aesthetically pleasing, means of surveying an entire room or floor.

The more tilt capability a camera has, the more you'll be able to see, especially when it's combined with a pan feature. A camera with at least 90 degrees of pan and tilt is perfect for a corner of a room, allowing you to see floor to ceiling.

If you want to be able to read the license plate on a car parked across the street, you can get a camera with up to 42X optical zoom, but 4X is plenty to get a good look at somebody's face, even from across the room.

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