Is that summer downpour flooding your basement? Did Rover get into the garbage again? Is your 50-inch flat-panel TV still in place? Find out from anywhere by using your PC to create an affordable home surveillance system that you can access over the Internet, or even over your cell phone. A professionally installed surveillance system costs at least $2000, but you can set up an uncomplicated USB-connected Webcam such as Logitech's QuickCam Chat for $30, a wireless camera that can be placed almost anywhere for less than $200, or a complete PC-based monitoring system for under $1000.
A basic surveillance system requires three things: a camera; motion-sensing software to activate the camera and to store its video or still images; and software to send the images over the Internet. Adding a wired or wireless network expands your home-surveillance capabilities.
If you're on a tight budget or you don't want to deal with installing remote cameras, an inexpensive Webcam can serve as a bare-bones surveillance device. Many Webcams come with motion-sensing and remote-access software, but paying extra for a full-featured program may be worthwhile, especially if you want to use several Webcams of different makes (for two software recommendations, see "Cameras With Swivel").
The biggest drawback of a Webcam, of course, is that it's tethered by a USB cable to your PC. Powered USB hubs and USB active repeater cables allow you to double or triple USB's 5-meter length limit. Or you can wait for the convenience of wireless USB products, which should arrive soon. In fact, Belkin's CableFree wireless USB hub may be available by the time you read this.
IP cameras, on the other hand, can be placed anywhere there's a network connection, making them ideal for homes or offices that already have a wireless network. Since they connect directly to your router rather than through your PC, you don't need to keep the machine on to view the camera's image in a browser. Prices for cameras with such features as night vision, remote-control positioning (pan-and-tilt controls, for instance), and zoom lenses can quickly escalate past $1000, but less expensive wireless cameras like D-Link's DCS-5300G (about $500 online), Linksys's Compact Wireless G Internet Video Camera (about $100 online) and 4XEM's WLPTG Wireless Pan/Tilt IP Network Camera (about $390 online) have many of these extra features.
Cameras With Swivel
The pan-and-tilt capability of the 4XEM and D-Link units let me monitor my living room, kitchen, and yard (through a window) with one camera whose view I controlled remotely, rather than having to use two or three stationary cameras. If you have pets, attach a speaker to let them hear your voice from afar.
I installed three different wireless cameras on my wireless network, and though I struggled with the setup, after 5 hours I was monitoring my dog's water bowl, my front door, and my vegetable garden from my cousin's house across town.
Of course, your network camera will only be as useful as the surveillance software that runs it. If the software bundled with your camera is difficult to use, has too limited a set of features, or is impossible to install, you can ditch it and try one of the many third-party alternatives, such as DeskShare's $50 WebCam Monitor or iCode's $79 i-Catcher Sentry. I found both apps much easier to configure and more useful than the programs that came with several of the cameras I tried out.
Before you buy a camera-controller app, make sure its codec works with your cameras. IP cameras typically support either the MJPEG or the MPEG-4 codec, though some newer cameras support both. MPEG-4 cameras produce smaller video files, but at lower resolutions than MJPEG.
Here answers to some common questions about remote surveillance cameras.
How do I power a remote camera? If you want to place a camera somewhere without easy access to an electrical outlet, look for a camera that supports Power over Ethernet (PoE). PoE cameras can draw power from the CAT5 ethernet cable used to transmit data, eliminating the need for a separate power line. Some cameras feature built-in PoE support, while others, such as D-Link's $45 DWL-P200, require a PoE adapter.
What else can I monitor? If you need more than audio or visual confirmation that your home or business is safe and sound, Digi's Watchport Sensors monitor temperature, moisture, and motion. Each sensor connects via USB to a PC and comes with software that sends alerts via e-mail or cell phone. The sensors cost between $130 and $180 online.
Alternatively, Motorola's Homesight Wireless Easy Starter Kit HMEZ2000 monitoring system offers a turnkey home security system with modules for wireless cameras, window and door monitors, and wireless (but not Wi-Fi) temperature and moisture sensors. The starter kit costs about $250. Water, temperature, and window/door sensors cost between $40 and $80 each.
Where do I go for help? Don't waste too much time with a troublesome installation. Call tech support; 4XEM's excellent support line made my setup a breeze, while an hour with a D-Link support tech convinced me to try WebCam Monitor instead of sticking with D-Link's software. My most important lesson: If one quick call to tech support doesn't solve your problem, return your camera for one from a different manufacturer.
Setting up an external link to the Internet can be challenging on any camera. Check out the overview at networkcamerareviews.com and find several useful tips for installing and running an IP camera.
Print, But Save Green
If you print something every day, you probably waste a little something every day as well. The GreenPrint Home utility lets you cut down on wasted paper and ink by making it fast and easy to identify and delete unwanted pages, text, or graphics in print jobs. GreenPrint installs as a printer, so if you designate it as your default, it automatically pops up each time you print. At $35 (with a free 30-day trial), the program certainly isn't cheap--but given the price of ink and paper, it can pay for itself pretty quickly.
Send your tips and questions to firstname.lastname@example.org . We pay $50 for published items. Kirk Steers is a contributing editor for PC World and is author of PC Upgrading and Troubleshooting QuickSteps from McGraw-Hill/Osborne Press.