How to Choose a Hidden Camera
The top performers in our review are the SleuthGear Xtreme Life Wall Clock, the Gold Award winner; the SleuthGear Zone Shield Night Vision Oscillating Fan, the Silver Award winner; and the MiniGadgets HCBulb720, the Bronze Award winner. Here’s more on choosing a hidden camera to meet your needs, along with detail on how we arrived at our ranking.
Hidden cameras disguise themselves as any number of household objects so you can secretly capture video of potential wrongdoing in your home or business. Designs have improved over the years, so it's difficult for anyone to tell that your wall clock, lightbulb, desk fan or phone charger – all working devices – are actually hidden security cameras. You can place these secret cameras on bookshelves, nightstands, desks or anywhere else that doesn't seem conspicuous to protect your home, family and valuables.
The best hidden cameras function as both cameras and the devices they are disguised as. They also allow you to choose the recording quality and can record continuously, start recording when they detect motion or let you set schedules for recording. Hidden cameras can serve more than one purpose, too. They're excellent for covert surveillance, so they can work as nanny cams or home security cameras. However, if you're looking for something more specialized, you can find a camera made for your specific needs. Read about the top 10 baby video monitors if you want to keep an eye on your little ones. IP cameras work well as security camera or a way to monitor nannies and children, but they require a Wi-Fi connection. You can set up a video surveillance camera to help thwart theft by potential criminals.
When we set out to find the right hidden cameras for our review, we looked past many of the budget models we highlight in our nanny camera review. Our main goal is to highlight more expensive products suited for long-term surveillance in your home or business. With that in mind, we considered what the minimum requirements are for the best hidden cameras: a DVR, the ability to record color video, time and date stamps, and continuous and motion-activated recording.
With a DVR, or Digital Video Recorder, a device usually saves footage or data to an internal hard drive. In the case of these hidden cameras, the DVR saves video directly to an SD or microSD memory card, which is often the easiest way to access hidden camera recordings using your computer. Color video lets you see more detail on screen than black and white video, so it's easier to identify a person by their clothing or hair color – all of the cameras we reviewed have this feature. Time and date stamps are useful for a few reasons: It's easier to find a particular section of video you want to view; it can be helpful for legal reasons; and it provides a reference point for posterity. We also looked at recording triggers. All of the cameras we feature can record continuously until the memory card is full or until you turn the camera off. We made sure to choose cameras with motion detectors, as this is an excellent way to save space on your memory card.
Hidden Surveillance Cameras: Are They Legal?
A hidden camera can show you what's going on in your home or business, but you won't hear anything – most hidden cameras do not include sound recording because federal wiretapping law prohibits recording audio surreptitiously. Also, laws strictly prohibit the use of cameras in private places, and some state laws prohibit recording secretly altogether, so be sure to check your local laws to make sure you're compliant.
Home surveillance and monitoring people in your home to prevent abuse or theft are generally accepted as viable reasons to record video, but there are a handful of states that have specific laws against recording video in certain places. So, if you're using a hidden camera in your home, you should keep it out of places where people can reasonably expect privacy, such as bathrooms, bedrooms and locker rooms, just to be safe. Learn more about hidden cameras for the home in our articles on hidden cameras.
Hidden Cameras: What We Evaluated, What We Discovered
It's important to choose a hidden camera that's easy to use and makes it easy to view any footage it captures. In our hidden camera reviews, we break down each device’s specifications. The most important considerations when choosing a hidden camera may be features that are taken for granted because they're so often included, such as time and date stamp, a built-in DVR and high-resolution video.
Some features aren't necessary for a hidden camera to fulfill its basic job, but they make it easier for you. For example, a hidden spy camera with dual functionality has a much more convincing disguise, and a remote control makes it easier to start recording, especially if you place the camera far out of reach.
There are basic operating functions you can expect from a hidden camera, such as recording color video, continuously recording, and time and date stamping, which is what we consider the bare minimum for a good hidden camera. The best hidden cameras give you all of that and options to make recording and reviewing video easy.
Sometimes you just need to take a quick picture of an event and not take hours of video, which is why we gave more credit to hidden cameras that capture still images. When a camera also includes a remote control, it is quick and easy to snap photos.
One of the most useful features that almost all of the hidden video cameras we reviewed offer is the ability to adjust the recording quality. This means you can turn the quality of the resolution down to preserve space on your memory card. You can also bump the quality up to see clear, crisp detail in the recorded video.
All of the hidden cameras record continuous video, which means they record video from the moment you turn them on until you turn them off or the memory card is full. The best spy cameras are triggered to record in other ways to save storage space. On some devices, you can schedule recording – you set the time you want recording to begin and end. Some are even triggered to record by motion in the room.
As a bonus, look for a hidden camera that has dual functionality. This means that the hidden camera's disguise, such as an alarm clock or a fan, is fully operational, allowing the camera to further blend into its surroundings.
The inner workings of a hidden camera compose its design, and it’s these specifications that determine the quality of the images and videos the camera produces. It's important to choose a spy camera that records high-resolution video and has a high frame rate. The camera should have a wide field of view, and if nighttime recording is vital, a low minimum illumination.
You should look for a hidden camera that uses a high-resolution camera to capture fine details such as facial features. A hidden camera with the standard 640 x 480 is acceptable, but images may appear blurry and details can be difficult to make out. The majority of the hidden cameras we reviewed record video at resolution of 1280 x 720, which is also the highest resolution of the cameras in our review.
The frame rate per second, or fps, is the number of images a camera displays in a second. A high frame rate results in smooth video playback, while a low frame rate allows you to record more video but the footage appears choppy. Standard video records at 30 fps, which produces the smooth video you want. Most of the cameras in our review record video at 30 fps, but there are a couple that record at a much lower frame rate, like the MiniGadgets HCBulb720, which clocks in at 12 fps.
Minimum illumination is measured in lux – one lux is the equivalent light of a full moon – and cameras with low minimum illumination can record in low-light and completely dark conditions. One of the best cameras for nighttime recording is the Sperry West Smoke Detector with its .1 lux rating. The MiniGadgets HCAndroidDock performs better during the day than night because it has a high rating of 1.5 lux.
The definition of field of view is the same for cameras as it is for humans you – it’s what can be seen when looking straight ahead. A covert camera with a wide field of view has a better chance of catching activity in a room when you aren't around. Two of the top rated hidden cameras we reviewed are the SleuthGear Xtreme Life Wall Clock and SleuthGear Zone Shield Night Vision cameras – both of these spy cameras have a 140-degree field of view, which comes the closest to the horizontal field of vision you have at almost 180 degrees.
You can view photos or video from your hidden spy camera in two ways – from an SD or microSD card, which are storage devices, or by plugging a cord into your hidden camera and then into a computer or television. A hidden camera with a USB connector connects to your computer and allows you to transfer data directly to your hard drive. Alternatively, an RCA cable connects to your TV and allows you to view the security footage from the camera.
The power source is how a hidden camera draws electricity. Which source a spy camera requires may not be an important consideration for you, unless you want a wireless solution. Some hidden cameras run on lithium-ion batteries, which means you don't have to worry about wires, and the battery is long lasting.
Without getting too technical, video format is the container in which the video is held. The important thing to know here is that compressed digital video doesn't lose quality, but there is a benefit to video in standard formats such as MP4 or AVI. When footage is stored in these formats, it is easy to view on your computer, tablet or other device.
The best hidden cameras come with a memory card so you don't have to purchase one separately. Even better are the hidden security cameras that support memory cards up to 64GB and 128GB so you don't have to worry about wiping video from the card as often as you would with a smaller memory card. The amount of video you can store on an SD card depends on several variables, including the video resolution, compression, preloaded files and more. Approximately, you can expect to store about 5 to 6 hours of high-definition video on a 64GB card.
Top Ten Reviews seeks, whenever possible, to evaluate all products and services in hands-on tests that simulate as closely as possible the experiences of a typical consumer. The companies had no input or influence over our test methodology, nor was the methodology provided to any of them in more detail than is available through reading our reviews. Results of our evaluations were not provided to the companies in advance of publication.
Hidden Cameras: What Else You Should Look For
In addition to the recording options, design and storage, you want to choose a hidden camera that comes with a long, strong warranty and several ways to contact customer support. A user manual, whether it's in the box or available as a digital download on the company's website, is also a valuable piece of help when you're looking for answers.
Help & Support
The safety of the people and items you care about is a top concern when choosing a hidden camera, and having a strong support system to back up your purchase can give you peace of mind. The best hidden cameras are backed by an excellent warranty of a year or more that protects your investment against any defective parts or workmanship. Three hidden cameras we reviewed surpass this and have lifetime warranties. So, for as long as you own the product, the company will repair or replace your hidden camera should it prove to be defective.
A user manual is handy to have around when you install your hidden camera and if you have questions later on. You may need to refer to it again and again when you want to change settings, when you're ready to download or transfer video, and when you need to find warranty information.
You should look for a company you can contact in a variety of ways. If your question or concern isn't urgent, email works well – especially when you want to attach a photo or video to show the problem you have. Other times, only the phone will do because you want to talk to a person about your issue. Live chat on manufacturer websites is becoming a more common customer support option, but it still isn't the norm. All of the hidden cameras we reviewed offer email and phone support.
Our Verdict and Recommendations
The best hidden camera we reviewed is the SleuthGear Xtreme Life Wall Clock. This wall clock has dual functionality, so people won’t suspect it's recording their every move. This device's pinhole camera has a field of view that's 140 degrees, which is a wider view than most of the hidden cameras we reviewed. It includes a remote control, so you can easily snap photos without cluing anyone in that you're using a hidden camera. The best hidden spy cameras work well in low lighting, and this one is no exception; with a rating of .5 lux, it can capture video at night.
If you want a hidden security camera with excellent video resolution, you should consider the SleuthGear Zone Shield Night Vision Oscillating Fan DVR – our Silver Award winner. It's disguised as a working desk fan, which is an unusual and unlikely place for a hidden camera, so it's a convincing costume. This hidden surveillance camera can record video day and night, and it saves the footage on a microSD card of up to 128GB, which is the most storage of any of the hidden cameras we reviewed.
Another great hidden camera is the MiniGadgets HCBulb720. It includes the most important features necessary for a great spy camera. This camera lets you choose the recording quality and can take still photos. It is a working lightbulb, so even if your nanny, housekeeper or family member inspects the device, they're not likely to suspect it's also a hidden camera. You can choose to use the included remote control to turn on the infrared LEDs so you can record at night.
If you're on a budget but still want a hidden camera with dual functionality and crisp, clear video, consider the MiniGadgets HCAndroidDock. It's the least expensive hidden cameras we reviewed, and it records video at 30 fps with a resolution of 1280 x 720. The minimum illumination is 1.5 lux, so it doesn't work as well in low lighting as other cameras.
The hidden camera that works best at night is the Sperry West Smoke Detector. With a .1 lux rating, it can pick up more detail in the lowest lighting settings than any of the other hidden cameras we reviewed. Keep in mind that it isn't a working smoke detector, so you can’t rely on it for anything other than recording video secretly. This is the priciest hidden camera on our list, but it also includes a lifetime warranty.
Your home and family may need protection beyond deadbolt locks and secure windows. A hidden camera lets you know whether caretakers are providing the best care for your loved ones or if everyone who comes through your home is honest. Regardless of which model you choose, our hidden camera reviews detail all the top 10 cameras’ features and options so you can decide which one is best for you.