Veo Wireless Observer
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Rating: 3 out of 5
I'm always surprised there aren't more digital video camera products that support Wi-Fi. Considering the difficulties one can have stringing network cable for just a PC, let alone a wall mounted spy device, it would seem that 802.11 would be a no-brainer. D-Link has a nice product, and there are a handful of others. The latest is from a company called Veo from San Jose, Calif. It's a camera that tries hard, but ultimately falls short of perfection. However, for small offices or homes, it could be a nice addition to your security and piece of mind.
I'll get the negatives out of the way first. The Wireless Observer feels cheap. That's in part because it's light weight and made of plastic -- this is not a unit meant for heavy security use. Snapping the antenna off the top alone would take no more effort than could be expended by an asthmatic two-year-old. The product is based on the Veo Observer, an Ethernet version of the camera. In fact, the Wireless Observer seems to differ in only two ways: it has a fin-like antenna sticking out of the top, and no Ethernet port on the back.
The unit supports DHCP for automatically receiving an IP Address from your network router, or can use a static IP, your choice. However, it doesn't come configured for DHCP -- out of the box, you need to hook it to a computer for initial setup. And this is my biggest gripe about the Wireless Observer: To do the setup, you need to hook it to your PC via a Serial cable.
I'm of the mind that standard serial ports and the products that connect to them should have been done away with as soon as the specification for USB was completed many, many years ago. A lot of modern PCs don't even have the ol' RS232 Serial Port, and for good reason -- it slow and clunky and seldom "plug-and-play." Luckily I had a laptop that could handle it. I understand why Veo would make such a move -- it's got to save some money -- but I don't think USB interfaces cost that much more these days.
Oh, and be careful to read the names of the jacks on the rear of the camera -- the male end of the cheapy, plastic Serial cable Veo includes in the box can also easily slip into the plug for the microphone (imagine my 15 minutes of head scratching, wondering why there was not connection, until I finally did just that). While in this setup screen, you also have to set your WLAN's SSID, whether your network is in Infrastructure or Ad hoc mode, and any WEP settings. The camera comes set to use DHCP, but you can't skip the serial-port step since you need to set the SSID before it will connect to the WLAN.
Once you've setup the camera, you unplug it from the serial cable and its should be on your network -- mine was. The side of the camera features an LCD readout of three numbers, indicating the final three numbers of the last octet of the IP address scheme you use. So if your network uses 192.168.xxx.xxx as its IP range, and the camera's address is 192.168.0.102, the LCD says "102." A nice detail.
All of this setup is explained in a small pamphlet -- to a point. The full documentation is in an Adobe PDF file and also in a Microsoft Word document on the CD. The PDF covers both the wired and wireless Observer cameras. This PDF is setup for printing on 8x11 inch sheets. Still, for $299, I'd like to get a printed manual.
Much as the setup seemed to have issues, in actual use, the camera impressed me.
You can access it from any computer on the same network subnet via a Web browser when you type in the camera's IP address. You'll have to let the Web server built in to the camera feed up an ActiveX control that runs the camera -- thus, you'll need to stick with Internet Explorer. Click the language you want, enter a username/password to access the camera (it's user configurable, and you can setup multiple accounts to the camera, some with more priority than other), and voila, you're on the main viewing page.
Having only played with one other wireless camera before, the aforementioned $329 DCS-1000W from D-Link, I was quickly enamored with Veo's best feature: motion. You can tilt and pan this camera around and up and down to get a full view of 120 degrees around and 60 degrees up and down. It's easy to loose yourself in just playing with the pan/tilt functions. I was watching my dogs on a separate floor of my house for an hour.
Hook a cheapie microphone into the back, like the kind that come with almost all PCs, and you can also monitor the sound in the room, albeit not directionally, since it doesn't pan or tilt with the camera. Also, the microphone tends to pick up only the noise of the camera as it pans and tilts if you put it too close.
This camera is not necessarily meant for stealth-- as noted, it makes noise when it pans or tilts. Plus, when the power is on, a big blue light shows up under the Veo logoed power button on the front. However, the controls let you deactivate that power status light so you can at least try to sneak a peek without your subject knowing.
The images on the camera are quite nice in full-blown daylight. Night viewing of room is difficult if the camera has to deal with light sources like lamps in contrast to the darker areas. That muddies up the picture fast. Still, when it's good, it's very good. The fastest frame rate it can deliver is about 10 frames per second, not quite full motion but more than good enough for security/voyeuristic purposes. The camera can capture a motion AVI file of what you're watching, or take a JPG still image. You can zoom in on any subject, but it's a 2x digital zoom, not optical, so images just look like grainy, cropped versions of what you see normally. Images can stream at 640x480 pixels, 320x240 pixels, or 160x120 pixels. The middle range looked best.
While you're in these screens, you can also go into the setup files to adjust things like video properties, the usernames for those who can access the camera, and motion detection (which only works if you buy a separate $39.99 motion sensor from Veo).
All of the features you can get to on the camera via a Web browser can also be via the software called Veo Observer Studio (so those who refuse to give up their copies of Opera and Mozilla can still use the camera). The Studio software provides extra features like movie maker software and a Web homepage designer.
Wireless Observer comes with a bracket for wall mounting the camera, which is probably where it would be most useful. But since the camera requires AC power to operate, some of the more unique places you can mount it are immediately negated. It's nice that the AC power cord is 10 feet long, that helps, but isn't enough. I also would have liked if there was a way to mount the camera upside down on a ceiling, but there isn't, unless you want to stand on your head to watch the video it sends.
If it sounds like you're limited to viewing the camera only when you're on the same network, that's not true. You can access the camera from over the Internet if you're not home, but that requires knowing the WAN IP address of your broadband service provider, using port forwarding on your router to the Internet, and a few other tricks covered in the manual. If you have multiple cameras, you can see each if you assign each camera its own port number. Video quality over the web is adequate, but the frame rate drops noticeably.
It's hard to recommend the Wireless Observer for anyone looking for major security options that can use wireless. D-Link's cameras are sturdier, can mount anywhere, an Ethernet jack and the software it comes with supports multiple camera views at once -- but doesn't support sound. With Veo's product, you can have multiple cameras, but you'll need one browser windows open for each.
It's safe to admit that no one has come up with the perfect wireless video camera yet. It should be sturdy, mount anywhere, allow pan/tilt, audio, have controls for view single or multiple cameras both locally and remotely, and an option for Power-over-Ethernet (or even just batteries). Until then, take your pick of the two cameras here. Believe me, you'll have a lot of fun with the Veo's pan and tilt, and find it more than sufficient for general home or small office use.