Studio711

Gadgets

Video Surveillance System

I’ve written quite a few posts over the years about the camera system I use around my house, but I thought I’d write up a new summary of everything that I recommend right now.

This stuff has kind of turned into a hobby for me, so the setup you’ll see later in this post is probably more than Joe Public is interested in. If you’re not looking to tinker a little bit, I recommend a package deal that includes the DVR along with a bunch of cameras. I bought one of the 8 camera Amcrest packages for church and we’ve been very happy with it. There are quite a few options ranging from 1080p up to 4k with varying numbers of cameras. You can see the full list on their site but there are a bunch of companies in this price range with similar packages. If even that is too much for you, companies like Simplisafe and your cable provider have camera packages but of course you’ll end up paying more for the convenience.

Ok, on to the more DIY solution that I have… all of the cameras I’ve ever owned have been from Amcrest. Are they best? Nope. But they work very well for me and they’re super cheap so I’m happy to replace them when they finally give up. I have one camera that is over 6 years old. I keep waiting for it to die because it’s only 640×480 resolution and I want to upgrade!

It’s possible to buy individual cameras and use the built-in web servers to access them remotely. I don’t recommend doing that. The security on those cameras is terrible and it’s very easy to accidentally (or obliviously) leave your camera open for easy access from the web. I kid you not, when I first was looking through the settings, I couldn’t believe the defaults. I did a quick internet search, typed in the default user name and password and bingo, I was watching a camera inside someone else’s house. Gross. The default settings have gotten better over the years but I still don’t trust them to keep up to date with every new exploit that happens.

To add a better layer of security I have a piece of software called Blue Iris running 24/7 on one of my machines at home. That software is then my entry point from the web or from my phone and that software has active development and updates. So none of my cameras are directly accessible from the web. Instead I fire up the Blue Iris website or app on my phone and then connect to my cameras.

The software also gives me a plethora of options (more than I’ll ever use) for doing things like triggering a recording and/or alert whenever motion is detected, recording the last N days of video, etc. I even played around with having it live stream one of my cameras to YouTube. The interface isn’t great but the feature you want is there somewhere. It might take a little while to set it up, but once you’re done, you won’t need to touch it much.

The other nice thing about having Blue Iris is that it supports a LOT of different cameras. So even though I have kind of standardized on Amcrest, I could easily buy one different brand tomorrow and throw it into the mix and I’d get the same standardized controls over the new camera too.

The final question is how do you want to connect your cameras to the Blue Iris software. The easiest is WiFi and generally that works pretty well. The catch is that you need to plug it into an outlet and if you’re doing outdoor installations, there might not be outlets handy. I’ve started moving to “Power over Ethernet”. To do this, you need a PoE switch that injects power down some of the unused wires in an Ethernet cable. As long as you get a PoE web cam, you can just run a single Ethernet cable to the camera and have a solid network connection and power all in one cable. That’s pretty convenient for those outdoor cameras.

How much does all this cost? Figure about $70-80/camera and then $70 for Blue Iris. There aren’t any ongoing monthly fees. That makes it pretty easy to dip your toe into the water with just one or two cameras to see how you like it. But they’re kind of like Pringles… once you pop you can’t stop! It’s easy to find reasons to add more and more cameras.

If you decide to go the Blue Iris route, I’m happy to help answer questions and guide you through the setup!

Mesh Networking

As I wrote back in 2016, our house is just big enough and the WiFi band is just crowded enough that we need two access points to get good coverage. Back then I chose to dive into Ubiquiti networking gear. You can kind of think of their stuff as consumer grade equipment with enterprise an level feature set (and learning curve!) I installed some of their stuff at church with great success and it worked ok around here, but I was having to reset it more and more frequently. Plus the router we had was also flaking out periodically. It was either time to beef up my Ubiquiti game or go a simpler route. For once in my life, I chose the easier, less geeky route.

Mesh networking is the hot new(ish) trend. Multiple devices are spread around your house and they work together to service all your wireless clients. They automatically hand clients off to the access point with the best signal. Some of the more popular brands are Orbi, Eero and Google WiFi. I chose… none of those. Instead I went for Synology’s offering largely because a group of people at work were singing their praises and it looked a bit more configurable and was cheaper to expand as needed.

For my main router, I chose the Synology RT2600ac and for the extra access point downstairs, I got a Synology MR2200ac.I think I could have saved a little money by just getting two MR2200’s but I opted for the beefier RT2600ac because I have a lot of wireless and wired clients in my house and I figured the extra horsepower wouldn’t hurt.

The system was pretty simple to configure (though not as straightforward as products like Orbi) and I have been happily roaming around my house for a few weeks without ever dropping my signal. I have great coverage everywhere inside, out in the driveway (useful for checking traffic while I’m sitting in the truck) and out in the cul-de-sac. Oddly the only place I’m having trouble is on the back patio. I’m not sure what the deal is there but I’ll have to either place with the placement of my devices or add a third access point to completely blanket my property.

The interface for the RT2600ac is very impressive. It’s basically a full windowed desktop environment inside your browser. You can enable plugins, get traffic reports emailed to you, and toggle feature switches to your heart’s content.

If your existing wireless setup is working well for you, don’t bother changing it, but if you’re in the market for a new system, this Synology gear gets the thumbs up from me so far.

Cell Phone History

We’ve had our Galaxy S7 phones for over 2.5 years now and they’re holding up amazingly well. I do notice deteriorating battery life, but the wireless charging makes it pretty easy to keep up with that. The features and performance are holding up much better than any cell phone I’ve had before. It’s still tempting to get something newer, but with the top tier of cell phones weighing in at around $1000, I think we’ll have these for a while longer (and I’m also getting more intrigued by the mid-tier phones that have very impressive specs.) Plus, now that Verizon finally has separated the price of the phone from the price of the plan, it makes more sense to hold onto a device for longer.

It got me thinking about the various cell phones that I’ve had over the years. I did a little research and was able to find models and dates for almost everything. Here’s the list:

Sanyo SCP-4000 (?)
May 2001
LG 4500
April 2004
Motorola Q
September 2006
HTC Touch
May 2008
HTC Touch Pro 2
January 2010
HTC Trophy
June 2011
HTC 8x
December 2012
Nokia Lumia Icon
January 2015
Samsung Galaxy S7
October 2016

Computer Upgrades

It dawned on me recently that my main home desktop is coming up on seven years old. SEVEN YEARS. I used to be happy if I got four years out of a computer and here I am at 7 years and I can’t come up with any reason why I’d need to upgrade. I took a look at CPU benchmarks and stuff in my price range would only be a ~30% increase of what I have now. Increases in RAM speed and major increases in SSD technology would definitely give me an improvement but I can’t say that I’d notice it much with my use case. I love getting new computer gear, but I think it’s going to be a while before that happens again.

This seems like a good excuse to update my computer ownership history though. The ones in italics are still in use.

  • 1998 – Gateway Pentium 2 350 with a 10GB hard drive and a tape backup.
  • 2002 – Dell P4 2.4GHz with 512MB RAM and an 80GB hard drive. $900
  • 2006 – Dell Core 2 Duo E6600 2.4GHz with 2GB RAM and a 250GB hard drive. $1200
  • 2010 – Core i7 860 2.8GHz quad core with 8 GB RAM. $1000 (Replaced motherboard and CPU ins 2014 for $260)
  • 2011 – Lenovo Thinkpad Edge $700
  • 2012 – Core i7 3770 3.4GHz quad core with 16GB RAM. $1400.
  • 2013 – HP Pavilion Touchsmart 15-b154nr AMD A8-4555M quad core 1.6GHZ and 6 GB of RAM. $550
  • 2015 – Dell XPS 13. $800
  • 2016 – Intel Core i3-6100 CPU with 8GB RAM. $360

I suspect that the next thing we’ll replace is the laptop only because that gets more abuse than the desktop machines. I’ve been very happy with the XPS 13 though. It has held up much longer than our previous laptops and isn’t showing any signs of impending doom.

Cord Cutting the Super Bowl

We canceled cable last summer and for the most part, our antenna has filled our needs. We get great reception on FOX, but not great on NBC. CBS and ABC are somewhere in the middle. Since we host a party every year, reception of the game is kind of important.

CBS had been working fine in the days leading up to the game so I wasn’t too concerned, but then it started snowing (for the first time this year) a couple hours before the game. Since we’re kind of on the fringe with our reception, the snow was just enough to start messing with the signal a little more. If it was just me, I wouldn’t have worried about it, but it’s not fun having 20 people watching a glitchy signal.

Thankfully CBS was streaming the game for free and they even supported Chromecast so I used that on the projector. Our experience there was generally good but it probably buffered 10 times and once I had to restart the stream completely. Downstairs I needed it on the Roku so I signed up for a free trial of CBS All Access. (I used a privacy.com temporary credit card number so that I don’t have to worry about forgetting to cancel my subscription!) I didn’t watch that TV but the people downstairs didn’t ever see it buffer and didn’t realize that it wasn’t a “normal” TV feed.

So it was definitely not as easy as traditional cable, but it was pretty good. I think next time I’d use my Xbox to stream the game through a paid service (like CBS All Access) instead of using the free stream from the website and I suspect that would have gotten rid of the few problems that we did have.