Keeping an eye on your kids, pets or your property via an app on your smartphone is something most people would like to do, and now that's possible - and affordable - thanks to the latest generation of IP cameras such as the HomeMonitor HD Pro.
This is the latest camera in the HomeMonitor range: a weatherproof outdoor camera which needs wall mounting. It's easy enough if you're handy with a drill, but you might want to enlist the help of a professional.
If you only need an indoor camera, then the HomeMonitor HD is probably what you're looking for - it's half the price (from Amazon) at £100. Both models have night vision, so they can capture video round the clock. Since they use infrared LEDs at night, footage is black and white rather than colour.
Both models have a resolution of 1280x720 - that's three times more pixels than older VGA IP cameras, which have a paltry 640x480 resolution. If you'd prefer Full HD 1920x1080, look to the UCam247-HDO1080, reviewed. Although it isn't shown in the image above, there's a large detachable antenna which you have to use for Wi-Fi operation.
As well as letting you watch the live feed, the HomeMonitor can record video clips when there's movement detected in certain areas. Both the live feed and recorded videos come from 'the cloud' rather than directly from the camera. This is because the video is routed via Y-Cam's servers before you see it.
There are pros and cons to this method. First, the live feed isn't actually live. It's roughly 15 seconds delayed in our experience. That's not usually a problem, though, even if something was happening that required you to take action, since you'll get a motion alert on your smartphone almost the instant motion is first detected.
Second, there's no alternative choice of storage. You can't put a memory card inside the camera as you can with the UCam247, nor can you set a NAS drive as the destination for recordings.
However, while that will bother some, for the majority it means the HomeMonitor is completely hassle-free. It saves the last seven days' worth of recordings for free in the cloud (where they're a lot safer from deletion or theft) and means you don't have to provide your own storage or leave a NAS drive running 24/7.
The downside is that the maximum quality setting is lower than the camera is capable of, as it's optimised for today's broadband speeds. You can download recordings and keep them, but you need to do this before they're more than seven days old.
Unlike older cameras which were a pain to configure and required expert network knowledge if you wanted to watch the video feed over the internet, the HomeMonitor cameras can be set up by anyone.
While you still need to start with a web browser on a laptop or PC, and a network cable connected between the camera and your broadband router, clear instructions make installation a breeze. You head to the HomeMonitor website, create a free account, type in the camera's unique ID and you'll then see the video feed there on the page.
Assuming you want the camera to connect via Wi-Fi, you select your wireless network, enter the password and then you can relocate the HD Pro to the place you want it to monitor.
Everything is supplied in the box, including a wall-mounting bracket through which the wires run. This does mean drilling a hole in your wall, but unless you already have a handily placed outdoor socket, you'll have to do this anyway. The HD Pro supports PoE (power over Ethernet) which is unlikely to be useful unless you're installing the camera at your business premises since most UK homes aren't wired up for PoE.
The final step is to choose the camera's settings, such as defining one or two motion detection zones and a schedule for motion detection. For outdoor use, it makes sense to leave it on permanently, but for indoor monitoring, you might want to enable recording only when you're not at home.
You can log in to your account on the HomeMonitor website to watch the live streams and play recorded clips, but there are also apps available for iOS, Android, Kindle Fire tablets and even Windows Phone 8 - a platform rarely supported by anything, let alone IP cameras. There's also an app for Roku streaming boxes:
The website and apps have a similar look and feel, and they're very easy to use. Taking the iPhone app as an example, the main screen shows the list of cameras with three buttons next to each. Tapping on the video thumbnail starts the live stream (there's reasonably good quality audio on the cameras too), and the buttons let you toggle the camera on and off, enable and disable motion recording, and choose whether or not to receive motion alerts for that camera.
Swiping right brings up a list of the last seven days, and you can tap a day to see the recordings for that day. Each recording clearly shows the time, camera name and duration of the clip, so if you have multiple cameras it's easy to see which one recorded the clip.
Image quality is pretty good, and virtually identical for both indoor and outdoor models. The wide angle of view means you can see plenty in the frame, and the frame rate is surprisingly smooth. It may lack some detail compared with the higher-resolution UCam247-HDO1080 but it's arguably better overall because of the smoother playback.
Colours are accurate during the day, and there's enough detail to easily recognise faces and car registration plates. That's as long as they're fairly close to the camera, of course.
At night, there's less detail to be had, and it's harder to recognise faces because of the infrared lighting. Number plates tend to reflect the light, too, meaning they're not readable, but these are both issues faced by all cameras which use infrared for night vision.
There's no difference in video quality whether you're watching over Wi-Fi or out and about with a 3G or 4G connection. Just be careful you don't burn through your monthly data allowance by watching too much video on a mobile connection.
As a package, the HomeMonitor HD Pro is the best wireless IP camera we've seen to date. Image quality could be better, but it's the ease of setup and clearly laid out apps and website which makes it so good.
There are just enough options to be useful without overwhelming less technical users, and the cloud storage system works well. It also proved reliable during our testing over several weeks.
The HomeMonitor HD Pro isn't the cheapest option but, with no subscription costs, it's still good value. The indoor version - the HomeMonitor HD - is even better value now that you can buy it online for just £100. That really is money well spent.