AXIS Wireless Network Camera
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You're working late and the kids are at home with a babysitter. Don't trust the sitter? No worries, you can check on them over the Web. Open your browser and surf to the address provided by the Axis Communications DNS service and take a look at the big (640x480-pixel) motion video view of the playroom being streamed from the AXIS 206W Wireless Network Camera you installed on your home network.
Wi-Fi video cameras like the 206W (about $300) make terrific sense for a whole range of surveillance and remote monitoring applications in the home and office. They let you place cameras where they're needed without worrying about having to run USB or Ethernet cables. All you need is AC power.
The 206W, released in August by Axis, a Swedish company, is state-of-the-art for a relatively inexpensive unit that doesn't feature remote pan-and-tilt capabilities (which naturally add significantly to the price.)
This one features a progressive-scan CMOS sensor that can stream full-motion (30 frames per second) video in up to 640x480 size and at several motion JPEG compression levels. In a daylit room, the camera streamed impressively clear, low-compression 640x480 images. Color was excellent. This is among the best pictures I've seen from a computer-connected video camera —even when streamed over the Internet (on a high-speed cable modem connection.)
The 206W works reasonably well even in low light —down to 4 Lux, according to Axis. How dim is 4 Lux? With one 60 watt light bulb shining in an otherwise darkened room at night, the camera delivered images that were quite grainy and noisy but would be useful for many applications. For comparison, high-end consumer camcorders can record at less than 2 Lux.
The fact that the 206W includes a built-in video server means you can access it and its images using a browser, whether on a local network or over the Internet. Simply surf to the IP address assigned to the camera by your local network's DHCP server, key in your user name and password in the pop-up security dialog —the server allows multiple users, as many as 10 simultaneously. The live camera feed displays in the middle of the browser window. Hyperlinks on the page give you access to configuration utilities.
Axis's free DNS service is a huge benefit. It takes about two minutes to set it up, once you've properly installed the camera on your local network. The company gives you a reasonably short URL created automatically from the camera's serial number, which you input during the registration process. When you surf to that URL from any Net-connected computer anywhere, you see exactly the same page as you do when accessing the camera on the local network.
The camera also ships with AXIS Camera Explorer, which lets you set it up and quickly access the images from multiple cameras, and an IP utility that automatically locates cameras and reports their IP addresses.
Set-up on my home office wireless LAN, powered by an 802.11g Netgear Cable/DSL Wireless Router, was very simple, although it's not entirely wireless. You have to use the supplied USB cable to connect the camera to a network workstation first. The camera appears as a disk drive in Windows Explorer. (You can also set the camera up on Linux, Unix and Macintosh OS systems using similar procedures. We didn't test this.)
Clicking on the camera/drive icon in Internet Explorer displays the contents of the camera's firmware. Click setup.exe and you get access to the simple set-up utility. You input the wireless network's SSID, indicate whether encryption is enabled (and type in encryption keys if it is) and tell the camera which IP address to use —either one automatically assigned by the local DHCP server or a static address you enter here.
That's it. I disconnected the USB cable, moved the camera to another room, set it up so it was pointing at the front door and plugged it in to the wall again. Then I used the included IP utility on my main PC to see which IP address the Netgear router had assigned. When I surfed to that address, the camera immediately began streaming video to the browser window. You have to go into the configuration utility to set the date and time and select to have it displayed below the image.
Later I used the Netgear configuration utility to reserve an IP address for the camera. For reasons still not clear, the router consistently issued the camera a different IP address anyway, which caused some confusion. I don't know whether this is a router or camera issue, partly because I haven't been able to connect with Axis's technical support. There is no telephone tech support, only e-mail —not a good thing —and 18 hours after sending a message, there was no response other than an automated one. [Axis notes that a toll-free number is available to the public, its in the manual, but reviewers are given a direct e-mail to one of the Axis technical people. The company says it got back to Gerry in one and a half business days after he sent e-mail, which was after this story was filed.- Editor.]
The camera on its own certainly has some utility. You could have it trained on valuable assets, entrances and exits or unsupervised work areas and have the live video feed displayed in a browser window on a standard Windows workstation. The AXIS Camera Explorer software lets you display feeds from multiple cameras in different sizes.
This is an 802.11b device. Axis only sent us one to test. I wonder how many cameras —and relatively high-bitrate video feeds —an 11-Mbps Wi-Fi network with one access point could support.
Axis also has software that lets you record video or still frames from the camera. It automatically detects motion in the feed, records frames only when motion is detected and sends alerts by e-mail when motion is detected. Now you don't actually have to have your eye on the live video stream to know what's going on. AXIS Camera Recorder ups the stakes significantly, however. It sells for about $775.
You can download a free time-limited demo version of the software from the Axis Web site. The interface is not very slick and there appears to be no integrated Help function.
This is a product aimed both at the low-end of the market where all you need is one camera that you use for viewing live video streams, but it also works for companies that need multiple camera positions and more complex surveillance and monitoring applications. Axis works with a roster of software developer partners that develop specialized and customized applications for different vertical markets and horizontal functions.
Our take: the cool factor is very high, but at $300 you need a real application to justify owning one of these.