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Watch your home while you're away

  • Story Highlights
  • Surveillance cameras becoming more common in homes
  • Cameras can connect to wireless networks, be programmed to detect movement
  • Broadband Internet makes it easy to watch home from away
  • Video is recorded on computer's hard drive
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By Jason Carpenter
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This Old House

(This Old House) -- Someone has entered your house and stolen thousands of dollars worth of valuables. He's feeling pretty smug because he knows you're away. What he doesn't know is that your security camera has caught him in the act.

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The Wireless-G Internet Video Camera from Linksys can be added to a home wireless network.

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. This Old House: Wireless monitoring systems

"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. This Old House: High-tech locks

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).

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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.

Simple setup

Network cameras come in both hardwired and wireless versions. Hardwired systems require you to snake cable through the wall, and once installed can't easily be relocated. Wireless cameras, on the other hand, are quick to set up and can be moved from place to place. This Old House: WiFi versus your walls

"If someone already has a wireless network, nothing more is required," says Trevor Bratton of Linksys, which manufactures a line of network cameras. If you're going wireless for the first time, you need to be aware of the potential for interference from cordless phones, appliances, even walls between the camera and the wireless router. Those can degrade signal strength and diminish video quality.

Once you've decided where to put the camera, make sure there is a power source there (or have an electrician install one). After mounting the camera -- most come with the necessary hardware and mounts -- follow the setup wizard on the CD--ROM that comes with it. The software will walk you through setting up your computer network and creating a unique user name and password, two essentials for ensuring that nobody hacks into your surveillance stream.

Watching the playback

Network cameras record directly to your computer's hard drive. "They record just like TiVo," says Gregg Steiner, whose business of installing high--end home--video monitoring systems in Los Angeles has tripled in the last three years. To conserve space on your hard drive, you can set the camera to record only when it detects motion, leaving you with just a few minutes of video to sort through.

When viewing footage, the image can be as small as a 2--inch square or take up most of your computer screen. The smaller the video, the better the clarity, plus you'll be able to view several video feeds at once if you have multiple cameras.

It's worth noting that computers crash, which could prevent you from patching into your video feed until someone fixes it in person. By the same token, the entire system will go down if the power goes down. "If someone wants to break in bad enough, they'll cut the power, camera or no camera," says Steiner. But for peace of mind when you're far from home, an extra set of eyes is hard to beat. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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