When to Say No to HD: When Buying a Network Camera

I’m no Luddite, but I confess: I haven’t paid much attention to the rise of high-definition webcams and network cameras. That’s because depending on how you’re planning to use a network camera, a high-definition feed might very well be unnecessary.

When I set up a monitoring system for my room using network cameras, this is one of the few times I preferred a low-def option over a super-charged, 1080p-resolution alternative. For starters, standard network cameras are less expensive. That’s a big deal if you’re looking to install a multi-cam setup. In that case, choosing high-def cameras is going to cost you some serious coin.

And even then, you might not end up with high-def footage! A number of network cameras that claim 1080p compatibility note — in the fine print — that the 1920-by-1080 resolution image only applies to still images. The video feed might default to a slightly less impressive 720p resolution. Now, 720p is nothing to scoff at, but it means that you’re paying top dollar for a feature (HD pictures) that you might not even use in your video monitoring network.

What’s more, the way a network camera translates its image to the Web for remote viewing can render even 720p video resolution unnecessary. Suppose you’ve set up a network camera in a room in your home and you want to use your wired or wireless network to pass its feed to a website like uStream or Justin.tv. If the host limits the resolution or bitrate of your broadcast, you’re wasting your HD network camera’s power: What good is a 1280-by-720-pixel feed that you can only view in a 640-by-360-pixel window on one of these sites? You’re better off shooting in the lower resolution — 640 by 360 — than having the site automatically discard your cam’s detail by forced resizing.

And don’t even get me started on the new world of bandwidth caps for mobile smartphone and tablet users. Do you really want to waste your precious mobile bits and bytes pulling up a high-definition network camera feed when a standard definition picture will serve just fine?

When you’re looking to buy a network camera, don’t be fooled by high-def claims. The best network camera is one that fits your home-monitoring needs. And don’t forget about features: A network camera might not be able to deliver an IMAX-like video feed, but if it can send you an email whenever it detects an intruder passing through an area, that’s a huge leg up on a network camera that can only snap high-definition stills.

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