It has never been easier to keep an eye on your home, thanks to the ever-expanding market for connected home security cameras. These streaming video cameras connect to your home WiFi network to send alerts, video clips, and live video feeds to your smartphone, allowing you to monitor activity while you’re away. Many models even feature built-in spotlights or floodlights to shine a light on intruders.
In this home security camera buying guide, we’ll explore the different types of home security cameras, the benefits and limitations of each, and how we test home security cameras for video quality, data security, data privacy, and other performance measures in our labs. We’ll also look at the latest trends and some of the common features you’ll come across while shopping for a home security camera. And we’ll even reveal the best time of year to purchase a home security camera.
Your Security Camera Options
Home security cameras are usually DIY devices, meaning you set up and monitor them yourself rather than hiring a security company to do the work and the watching. While they can save you from installation and monitoring fees, you generally forgo a 24/7 response team and have to self-monitor through alerts and video feeds that pop up on your phone. But some security camera makers, such as Ring, SimpliSafe, and Wyze, have begun offering professional monitoring services for their cameras, where agents check for intruders if the cameras detect motion and notify the police.
Home security cameras are mainly available in two forms: wireless security cameras and video doorbells. Wireless security cameras connect to WiFi and can be plugged in for power or run off a rechargeable battery. (The term “wireless” in the name refers to WiFi, not the power supply.) Some models also work with small solar panels, which can charge the camera during the day to keep its battery from dying.
Video doorbells offer all the features of a wireless security camera while also alerting you if someone rings the doorbell. They do double duty: If you have a video doorbell, you probably don’t also need a wireless security camera watching the front door. And because most traditional doorbells run on low-voltage wiring, there’s a steady stream of power available for a video doorbell.
In addition to wireless security cameras and video doorbells, a third type of home security camera has begun to grow in popularity: floodlight security cameras. As the name implies, these devices combine a wireless security camera with the bright lights (and usually constant power source) of a floodlight to more easily monitor outdoor areas at night.
Regardless of the type of camera, we found that most of the models we tested don’t deliver the high-definition video quality their manufacturers promise under all situations. And many models require you to pay monthly fees for some of the most important features, such as cloud video storage and monitoring zones (the ability to focus on or ignore motion within a designated area of the camera’s field of view).
That’s not to say home security cameras can’t provide peace of mind, for example, by letting you see that your kids arrived home safely from school, the dog walker showed up as scheduled, or a package was delivered. And companies keep making these cameras smarter through software updates that add new features, such as package detection and facial recognition.
Types of Home Security Cameras
There are three main types of home security cameras: wireless security cameras, video doorbells, and floodlight cameras. Here are the differences.
Wireless Security Cameras
These unobtrusive security cameras connect to your home WiFi network and send alerts and videos to your smartphone. Some models need to be plugged into an outlet and others run on rechargeable-battery power, making them truly wireless. Certain cameras can store video clips locally on a memory card, but many don’t have that feature, forcing you to store them in the cloud—and allowing manufacturers to charge you a recurring fee.
Pros: They can be placed just about anywhere inside your home. Weatherproof models can be placed outdoors. You can check on your home and receive smartphone alerts from anywhere with cell service or WiFi.
Cons: Cloud storage fees add up over time. Some smart features may require paying a monthly fee.
Video doorbells are really just security cameras that happen to be built into a doorbell. Most use low-voltage wiring from an existing doorbell for power, though some models can run on batteries, which is handy if your home lacks a wired doorbell or is a rental. Battery-powered models require periodic recharging or battery replacement. These cameras send alerts and videos to your smartphone when they detect motion or when someone rings the doorbell. All video doorbells also feature two-way audio, so you can talk to whoever is ringing. Some models come with a memory-card slot for storing video clips locally, but most store video clips in the cloud, which usually requires a monthly fee for long-term storage. If you’re considering a video doorbell, scroll down to watch our video about how to choose the best one for your needs.
Pros: Most use doorbell wiring for power, negating the need to run a separate power line. You can answer your doorbell even when you’re not home.
Cons: They won’t work with an existing wireless doorbell chime, though some may work with an existing wired chime. Their connection to your WiFi may be affected by being outside the thick walls of your home. Cloud storage fees can add up. Some smart features often require paying a monthly fee.
These devices combine a security camera with bright LED floodlights to shine a light on potential intruders and scare them off, thanks to built-in sirens. Most models are designed to replace an existing floodlight, which means you have to wire them into an electrical box. Some battery-powered and plug-in models are available, though. In addition to their sirens, most floodlight security cameras feature two-way audio for speaking with visitors. Some models also feature memory card slots or internal memory for storing footage locally, but most require a recurring fee for cloud video storage.
Pros: By replacing regular hardwired floodlights, most floodlight cameras have a constant source of power, so you don’t need to bother with charging batteries. You can keep tabs on important areas around your home, such as the driveway and backyard, from anywhere with your smartphone.
Cons: Their WiFi connection may be affected by being outside the thick walls of your home. Cloud storage fees can add up. Some smart features often require paying a monthly fee.
Latest Trends in Security Cameras
The world of home security cameras has changed rapidly in the past decade. Speedy home internet, smaller camera sensors, and cheaper WiFi chips have helped these cameras gain mass-market appeal in a relatively short amount of time. And two relatively new categories—video doorbells and floodlight cameras—have given consumers more options than ever.
In addition to new products, manufacturers are competing heavily on price. It’s now possible to get a decent security camera or video doorbell for under $100 and a good-quality floodlight camera for under $200. Amazon-owned Blink makes a $35 wireless security camera, an $85 video doorbell, and a $100 floodlight camera. And the budget smart home company Wyze makes a $36 wireless security camera, a $30 video doorbell, and a $100 floodlight camera. Even brands that tend to skew somewhat higher-end, such as Arlo, Google, and Ring, have released wireless security cameras that cost less than $100.
More Brands Offer Local Storage
Many of these new, affordable cameras allow you to store footage locally on a microSD card, negating the need for cloud video storage subscriptions, which have become a healthy source of recurring revenue for manufacturers. (Cloud storage subscriptions range anywhere from $1 per month to $30 per month, depending on the number of cameras being used.)
Artificial Intelligence and Object Recognition
Manufacturers have found another way to attract customers to those recurring subscriptions: artificial intelligence. A number of camera manufacturers are now adding artificial intelligence and object recognition to their subscriptions, allowing their cameras to identify people, animals, vehicles, packages, and faces. Generally, these features work by analyzing footage that the cameras upload to manufacturers’ servers and sending results back to you in real time in the form of smartphone alerts. These features also have the added benefit of cutting down on nuisance alerts and recordings from animals, swaying trees, and more.
A few companies are even working on custom artificial intelligence features so that you can train your cameras to pick up on certain changes, such as whether a car is parked in the driveway. It’s unclear when this functionality will become widely available, though.
Starlight Sensors for Color Night Vision
Some camera manufacturers are also embracing starlight sensors, which can “see” color in extremely low-light conditions, allowing for color night vision without spotlights or floodlights.
Professional Monitoring Comes to Security Cameras
As mentioned above, a few security camera makers are now offering professional monitoring services for their cameras, where trained agents check your camera feeds if motion is detected and, if there’s an intruder, alert the authorities. some offering even allows the agents to speak to intruders via the cameras’ two-way audio. But these services can cost significantly more than regular camera subscriptions and sometimes require specialized cameras or hardware.