Home Surveillance Systems Review
Why Buy a Home Surveillance System?
The top performers in our review are Foscam, the Gold Award winner; Lorex, the Silver Award winner; and Swann, the Bronze Award winner. Here’s more on choosing a system to meet your needs, along with detail on how we arrived at our ranking of nine systems.
A home surveillance system is the best way to monitor your home with multiple cameras. Most of the systems in our review come in both wired and wireless versions that you can find online and at retail stores. To learn more about home surveillance systems, take some time to read through this article and our reviews for each company.
How We Chose Home Surveillance Systems to Test
Using representative products in our tests, we evaluated manufacturers rather than specific models to give you a general impression of the company's offerings. This allows you to look at our experiences with a company and choose a system with the storage options, resolution and number of cameras that fit your needs and budget.
To test the differences between camera systems, we limited our tests to systems with 720p resolution. This means that every system we tested records digital HD video rather than older, less precise analog video. One exception, EZVIZ, didn't have any 720p systems available at the time of testing, so we tested one of its 1080p systems using its 720p setting.
Aside from video resolution, all of the systems in our review have the following in common:
- Multiple cameras
- A mobile app
- DIY installation
- Night vision
- No-cost video storage included
We chose systems with similar pricing between $200 and $400. This is the low end for HD digital surveillance systems and a good starting point for a small home. This price point has a noticeable lack of truly wireless systems. In fact, these systems require at least one cable for power, video and internet connectivity. All wireless communication is done via each system's mobile app.
What We Tested
Throughout this guide we explain our tests in depth. However, the bulk of each home surveillance system's final scores falls under two primary measurements of quality: video performance and ease of use.
Our hands-on testing is designed to simulate normal, real-world experiences with the home surveillance systems. We got test models on loan from manufacturers and through retail purchase. The manufacturers have no input on our testing methodology, and we do not share our rankings with them prior to publication.
We developed a test chart to evaluate many factors that can make or break video quality. This allowed us to examine overall clarity, color accuracy, picture contrast, text readability, and whether a human face was recognizable with enough detail to make a positive identification. For each system's test, we placed the chart at distances of 10, 20 and 30 feet.
In addition to the test chart, we looked at each home surveillance system's ability to capture moving objects. If there was any lag or distortion, we took points away from the system. With regards to motion, all of the cameras produced excellent results in our daytime tests, but two failed our nighttime motion tests.
For our daytime video tests, we used the systems in a bright room with all of the lights on. We did not perform low-light testing with the lights off and ambient light from a nearby window. Foscam and Lorex tied for first in daytime video quality, and Amcrest came in a close second.
During our nighttime video tests, we stayed after hours to test the effectiveness of the cameras in near darkness. We used the same test chart as during the day, though clarity wasn't nearly as important as noise and brightness.
Noise that distorted the image and made it difficult to identify key details lowered the score more than anything else. Additionally, if a video was too dim or too bright at various distances, we deducted points. Our top performers at night were Swann, Foscam and Samsung Techwin.
Ease of Use
Although video quality is a major factor in a home surveillance system, it's a passive trait that works in the background. When you're controlling the system, ease of use is the most important factor. Systems with complicated installations or cluttered controls don't hold up as well as those that provide clear directions and simple options.
The biggest part of our ease of use score is each system's interface and how it performs in terms of menu navigation, playback controls and notification options. Although the mobile app was our primary interface, we also looked at how each system's web apps or onscreen controls differed.
An important thing to remember about installation is that it's meant to be a one-time event. This is why it makes up a smaller part of our overall ease of use score. To evaluate installation, we looked at how long it took and how difficult it was to set up each system. In this category, our top performers were Blink, Arlo, Foscam and Swann.
During this evaluation, we looked at the ways that you can control each home surveillance system. Since all of these systems have a mobile app, we used that first. A good mobile app is easy to navigate and learn. Additionally, it shows active cameras on the main screen when you open the app and keeps advanced controls hidden away to reduce confusion among novice users.
One of the benchmarks we looked for in the interface was whether a home video surveillance system sent out activity notifications when it detected motion or started recording. We also evaluated how easy it was to export video to a computer or smartphone.
Aside from the mobile app, most systems have web apps, onscreen controls built into the system's DVR, or a combination of the two. With the exception of Blink, which connects over Wi-Fi, every system in our review requires you to connect an Ethernet cable to your router to add internet.
For systems with onscreen controls, you can connect them to TVs and computer monitors over HMDI or VGA. This is useful if you don't need internet in favor of a traditional closed-circuit television system. Systems with this option often include a USB mouse that allows you to navigate the menu.
For the most part, the type of installation you choose depends on your budget and patience. Here's a brief rundown of what you should expect while installing wired and wireless systems.
Wireless home surveillance systems have a simple setup, and placement is much easier, but you can run into problems if the camera requires a power cable. The trade-off for completely wireless systems is limited battery power and higher system purchase costs, especially if you plan to record continuously.
In general, wired systems don't require any special instructions to install each camera, run cable and connect it to the DVR. Despite the straightforward installation process, it takes longer to set up wired systems. The cost of installation can also increase if you require longer cables or hire an electrician.
Additionally, it's possible you'll spend extra time plotting cable routes, and tidying or hiding cables. This is especially true if you run cable through walls between multiple rooms or to the exterior of your home. In cases like these, it's best to consult an electrician so you're less likely to damage existing wiring or violate local building codes.
Regarding placement of cameras, it's not a good idea to put them anywhere in your home where family members or guests have a reasonable expectation of privacy, such as bedrooms and bathrooms. Depending on where you live, you might need to get consent from people you're recording. This is usually as simple as using a sign that says there are security cameras present.
Other Things to Consider When Buying a Home Surveillance System
The best home surveillance systems offer features that combine high performance and usability. In particular, it's a good idea to focus on recording modes, video storage, camera quantity, audio and customer support. Here are a few things we learned during testing.
Each system in our review saves video recordings to either a network video recorder, also known as an NVR, or a cloud video server. Although both options have pros and cons, this doesn't factor into our rankings, since the final decision comes down to personal preference. If you choose an NVR, we recommend a capacity of at least 500GB for a four-camera setup. Here are some features that can help you use video storage more efficiently on NVRs:
- Adjustable resolution or video quality
- Adjustable frame rate
- Multiple recording modes
For cloud storage, it's less about overall storage than it is about the number of clips you can store. Of the cloud storage systems in our review, both have free storage options, though some offer better storage for a monthly fee. Two systems in our review use only cloud storage: Arlo and Blink.
When a system has a variety of recording modes, you gain more control of video storage and increase efficiency. Here are a few common modes worth considering in your home surveillance system:
- Continuous – The system is always on, which is good for full coverage, but uses storage quickly, and older footage can be lost to free up space. Also, reviewing hours of video can be tiresome.
- Scheduled – The system only records during certain hours of the day, which is especially useful in off-hours. Anything outside the schedule is not recorded, for good or ill.
- Motion – Recording only happens for a brief period when movement happens in front a camera. This is a very efficient use of video storage, but it isn't always available on a system.
Number of Cameras Included
Not all homes and businesses are equal. Naturally, larger homes or more sensitive locations require more cameras, while small homes and apartments can get away with fewer. We didn't factor this into our scoring. It's up to you to decide how many cameras you need for your home surveillance system.
Maximum Number of Cameras
Sometimes you might need to buy additional cameras. For example, it's also possible to buy an NVR that supports up to four cameras but only comes with two. In these instances, you can usually order extra cameras from the manufacturer.
If you're adding wired cameras, it's important to make sure you also get the appropriate cables and to allot some time for installation. Also remember that your video storage might get used up faster, or, in the case of cloud storage, you might have to pay a subscription fee.
If you want a camera that can record audio in addition to video, you should not expect this feature to come built in. With most NVR-based systems, a microphone is a separate purchase that only works indoors. The sound quality will be similar to a typical phone call. As for the legality of recording audio, check your local or state laws before doing so.
Warranty & Support
For warranty coverage, it's a good idea to purchase systems with longer warranties. This can help you replace cameras that fail over time. If you have an issue, you should be able to contact the manufacturer directly.
Although we score each contact method the same, our experience has been most effective with live chat support, which typically gets fast or instant responses. With email support, you might wait a few days before getting a reply. Telephone support is the least effective because it often requires more of your time than other methods.
Our Verdict & Recommendations
Foscam is our Gold Award winner because it had the highest overall video performance score. The system tied for first in our daytime video tests and had the second-highest score in our nighttime tests. The nighttime video from this system is sharp and richly detailed with little to no noise. Although this didn't factor into our scores, Foscam is the only system in our review that uses Ethernet cables to power and get video from its cameras.
Our Silver Award winner, Lorex, tied with Foscam for best daytime video quality, though it wasn't as strong in the nighttime tests. The system is easy to use and offers strong customer support with a two-year warranty.
Swann, our Bronze Award winner, had the best nighttime video quality among the products we tested. Its video had less noise than the majority of systems at night, though it really stood out by accurately capturing motion and clearly showing facial features at each of the distances we tested.
In general, each of the manufacturers in our reviews has unique strengths and weaknesses that affect the overall scores. In fact, none of the products is perfect in all of the categories. We hope you can use the results of our testing to find a home surveillance system that fits your needs.