What Should I Look for in a Home Security Camera System?

Home surveillance cameras can add a reassuring layer of security and peace of mind, but it can be hard to know what to look for in a home security camera system.
Meghan Wentland Avatar
what to look for in a home security camera system
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Q: After a recent wave of property crime in my area, I’d like to look at adding a security system to my home. When I started looking at the options, though, everything felt very invasive—I don’t want to feel like a star in my own security camera footage! Is there a happy medium between no security at all and feeling like I’m constantly on camera?

A: This is an absolutely valid concern, and not an uncommon one. Most people don’t want to feel like they’re being monitored all the time, and some people even hide from their own doorbell cameras so they don’t have to see what they look like! The thing is, residential security cameras that are placed well and connected to a well-designed system can add a lot of security to a home, and luckily, there is a happy medium. The wealth of options and choices that have opened up in the last few years means that there really is a good option for everyone—as long as they know what to look for.

One place to start is by researching the best home security systems to see which may be a good fit. “Customer reviews – and even reviews from media – are a great tool when determining which home security system is best for you as they provide insight into the real-world use,” advises Tim Rader, senior director of product development at ADT. “Although, reading these reviews should only be one consideration when choosing a home security system; also take into consideration your personal needs, brand reputation, pricing, professional monitoring capabilities and more.” Here’s what to look for when choosing the best security system for your needs.

Determine the type and amount of protection you need and set a budget.

With so many video home security systems on the market, it’s possible for customers to find whatever level of home protection they desire to fit their needs. For those who live alone or live in high-crime areas, an advanced system with lots of features may be attractive. SafeHome.org reports that a home is broken into approximately every 15 seconds in America, which equates to around 5,000 home invasions per day, so it’s no wonder some customers want their home to have the maximum protection. These customers will likely be searching for systems that allow them to monitor the entirety of their home.

Others may be uncomfortable with that level of recording and monitoring and simply want to figure out how to install security cameras themselves and purchase a doorbell camera and a motion-sensing light or two. They may also want to add one of the best indoor security cameras if they have children who spend time at home alone.

The first step in finding the right home security camera system is to establish an equipment budget. In most cases, components can be purchased individually, or the customer can choose from a variety of kits. Those who opt for an ADT home security system can even build their own equipment package based on their needs. Common components of a home security system include:

  • Internal and external cameras
  • Doorbell and entryway cameras
  • Motion-sensor lights
  • Door and window sensors
  • Glass-break sensors
  • Hazard sensors (including for fire, smoke, and carbon monoxide)

These components are usually connected using a Wi-Fi hub and can be controlled from a panel and/or an app. Customers may want to start off with a few essentials and adding extra equipment as needed over time, or they might prefer to purchase a full system up front. It’s wise for a customer to figure out where to place the security cameras before purchasing to understand how many security cameras will be needed. Renters will also want to look for DIY-friendly options (such as a Ring home security system), which can be moved to a new location easily without damaging walls and windowsills.

Customers will also want to consider whether they are able to install their home security system themselves. “There are many DIY home security systems, including ADT’s Self Setup, that make it easy for homeowners to install the systems themselves without the need for a professional,” explains Rader. “This is often the more affordable option and allows homeowners to completely personalize their setup.”

Those who prefer professional installation will want to include this cost in their budget. “Professional installation takes the responsibility off the homeowner and better guarantees the correct placement of sensors and cameras so they can be the most efficient at catching suspicious activity and are less likely to result in false alarms,” explains Rader. “During professional installation, homeowners can also ask any questions they have about the system and receive advice on best practices around usage, maintenance, and additional security measures.”

what to look for in a home security camera system
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Determine the video quality and amount of storage you need.

When a customer is looking at all of the types of security cameras on the market, there are choices to be made about the video quality. A 1080p home monitoring camera can capture images up to 1080 pixels in height and 1920 pixels in length, which provide enough detail to identify facial features and can be blown up on large screens without blurring. A 4K camera captures images up to 2160 pixels in height and 3840 pixels in width, resulting in an even crisper image.

There have also been significant improvements in security camera frame rates in recent years. Generally, 15 fps (frames per second) is the minimum to avoid the video jerking between frames. Approximately 24 fps will provide a sufficiently smooth video without taking up more storage space than necessary. It’s a good idea to aim for a field of view of about 130 degrees, or around 160 degrees on a video doorbell, which might need to take in a wider angle to see people standing to the side of the door. Some cameras even move on command, allowing users to increase their field of vision. It’s worth choosing an outdoor camera that promises a range of more than 30 feet when in night-vision mode.

Once the video is recorded via the security cameras, it has to be stored somewhere. Some CCTV cameras immediately save video to a physical storage unit like an SD card or a computer. Other systems connect through Wi-Fi and store the images on a cloud server. About 32 gigabytes of storage will usually cover a couple of weeks’ worth of video storage for cameras up to 1080p. If the cameras have higher resolution, the video will take up more storage space. The length of time the videos should be stored depends on how often the user plans to review the video feed. Many users find that holding on to video for 2 to 3 weeks makes sense to allow time for a reason to review to present itself.

Some basic DIY security systems only offer live viewing of the camera feed only. This type of system is less useful in the event that there is actually a crime on the premises, as the video can’t be recorded to present to law enforcement. And it’s only useful if the user is in a position to view the video immediately every time an alert occurs. Those wishing for a little more permanence will want to consider video storage options.

Decide whether you want basic security cameras or want extra features such as motion sensing or night vision.

For indoor use, most people find that basic house cameras are fine. The best outdoor home security camera, however, will need to withstand the weather and is much more useful if it can see in the dark, follow a moving target, and withstand the elements, so it’s worth looking beyond the base model to see if there’s an option that isn’t much more expensive but will be of actual use. According to Security.org, customers will want to choose a camera that works in -5 degrees Fahrenheit up to 130 degrees Fahrenheit in regions with lots of weather variation.

There are also cameras that record all the time, storing the footage in the cloud for viewing later. This is great if it’s what the user needs, but it will most likely cost more in storage. Motion-sensor cameras might cost a bit more up front, but they will probably cover the difference through savings on storage costs.

Another feature that is worth seeking out is the ability to see live and recorded footage from the cameras when the user is away from home. Most home security systems are paired with a smartphone app that allows instant access to footage. Some systems pair with smart-home systems such as Google Nest or Amazon Alexa, through which users can access all the information they need about the status of their home and security system whether they’re at home or away.

what to look for in a home security camera system
Photo: istock.com

Choose the power source for the cameras; wired cameras plug into an outlet, while wireless cameras are battery-operated

When experts refer to wired vs. wireless security cameras, they are using these terms to describe how the videos captured by remote cameras will be transferred to storage. A customer looking for a home security system that doesn’t use Wi-Fi will want to look into wired security cameras. The best power-over-ethernet (PoE) security camera systems use coaxial or Cat 5/Cat 6 cables to directly transmit the images to a physical data-storage device, which also acts as a power source. The images are of high quality and are much less vulnerable to hackers, as the video isn’t traveling over airwaves. However, wired systems do require wires to be run from each camera to the recording device, which means either running cable through walls or choosing several storage devices to place near each camera to avoid cables snaking across the walls. If drilling through the roof or exterior walls of the house for wiring is required, it may be worth homeowners looking into the cost of security camera installation to get this job done safely.

Wireless cameras transfer data to a physical or cloud device using the home’s Wi-Fi or, in some cases, Bluetooth. This is a reliable way to transmit images without worrying about wires, but it does increase the importance of a battery backup for the cameras and the home’s router, as the video can’t reach the cloud without the router functioning properly. Wireless cameras are slightly more vulnerable to hacking, so it’s best to use secure passwords and two-factor authentication as additional protection.

what to look for in a home security camera system
Photo: istock.com

Decide whether you want to monitor the system yourself or pay for professional monitoring.

Many options, like SimpliSafe home security systems, offer users the option of self-monitoring, which means that they will be alerted about unusual activity, and then prompted to confirm whether or not there’s a problem and seek help from first responders if necessary. More traditional systems include professional monitoring, in which a monitoring company is on standby should the security system post an alert. The monitoring company can then confirm the emergency via the system itself or by getting in touch with the resident and summoning help if necessary.

Users may initially shy away from professional monitoring, either because of the cost or the sense that it means someone is “watching” them. Home security costs, however, have come down significantly in recent years. Additionally, safeguards are in place so that monitors can only access the systems if there’s an indication that something is wrong.

“I recommend professionally monitored systems, as they are equipped with 24/7 surveillance by professionals who will alarm emergency services for you, removing this responsibility from the homeowner,” says Rader.

A security camera with monitoring by a professional is preferable to self-monitoring for several reasons. First, monitored home security systems can often lead to a significant discount on a user’s homeowners insurance policy since providers know that these systems can deter criminals and reduce the potential for damage and loss. Second, professional monitoring can save precious seconds in a true emergency, and professionals can even handle situations when the residents are away.

Self-monitoring also has its merits, the greatest being that it is a cheap home security system option. Many people are comfortable with keeping an eye on their own system and will choose self-monitoring to see how they feel about having a security system at all before upgrading to professional monitoring. In the end, the best home security cameras will be those that the residents are comfortable using, so they’ll want to choose a home security system that best fits their family’s level of comfort.

Once you know what you’re looking for, you can find the best home security system for your needs.

Before making a decision on the best home security cams, the customer will want to take stock of their home, look at the areas of the property that are dark or concealed from the street view, and consider where adding lights or cameras would increase the sense of safety. There’s no need for residents to turn their home into a fortress, but a few well-placed lights, cameras, and sensors can go a long way toward deterring criminals and securing the home, especially when paired with monitoring. The best home security system for each customer will create a safer space and provide a better night’s sleep. Considering top trustworthy companies like Vivint, ADT, SimpliSafe, and Frontpoint can also all but ensure that a home is well-protected and secure.