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Foscam IP Cameras

Foscam IP Cameras

I've recently started acquiring a few Foscam IP Cameras. The quality is so-so, but the price and feature set is very good. For a low end camera I think it's at a sweet spot between the $20 webcams that need a computer and the $400+ security cameras out there.


Table of Contents
1. Why an IP Camera?
2. The Foscam FI8918W Indoor Camera
3. The Foscam FI8904W Outdoor Camera
3.1. Swapping Lenses
3.2. The Nightvision Problem
4. Viewing the Cameras
4.1. Using VLC
4.2. Android Apps
A. About Me

1. Why an IP Camera?

I've been looking for what could be considered as a home security system, but realistically it's more of a home monitoring system. Let's be honest, if you live in a high crime area the last thing you want to do is start placing expensive electronics out in the open to indicate that you've got stuff worth stealing. While there is a chance that I can happen upon someone breaking into my house, I'm much more likely to be able to watch the deer browsing my garden or to check to see if the snow is sticking to the driveway. No matter what your rationale, setting up a network of cameras can be a fun task, and that's what life is really about.

There are a lot of options for this. I had toyed with the idea of a full-fledged security system, Costco has one routinely on sale that includes 16 cameras and a multichannel DVR. The problem is the cabling. I hate pulling cable and even with an unfinished basement I'd rather not have to run lines to my garage, my front door, a couple of points in my house, and who knows where else. Granted, it's all coax so most cameras will be able to reuse the cabling but it's still a lot of work I know I'll never get to.

Enter the WiFi IP Camera. These are standalone webcams that don't need a computer. They also only need power to be run to them which is a big plus compared to power and a coax that needs to be sent to a centralized location. It also allows me to use one as a portable baby monitor, I can place it anywhere in the house without mounting hardware or cabling. The downside is that the image quality is fairly poor, night vision cameras with IR LEDs tend to really distort the colors (the sensor technology used in cameras is very sensitive to IR, by using IR LEDs you can get decent night vision but without a filter to block the IR you distort colors). Obviously the more you're willing to spend the better your quality will be,I'm starting off dirt cheap and if the fad lasts I can always replace the stuff that breaks with high-end cameras.

I chose Foscam because of a negative review augmented with a note saying that a custom firmware release fixed all the issues and turned the review around. Foscam is around the $100 price point and I have two models currently, so far I've been pleased with the support.


2. The Foscam FI8918W Indoor Camera

The Foscam FI8918W is a little gem of a camera. For a sub-$100 price range you get something about the size of a large webcam with pan and tilt functionality and IR LEDs to illuminate the scene at night. All this was advertised, but what I didn't see was that you also get bidirectional audio support. Yes, there's a time lag so it's not like you can use them to do video chats but that's not the purpose. At $100 they're cheaper than most video baby monitors plus you've got a wide variety of places you can view them (I have apps on my phone, a tablet, my computer, and I can stream it to my TV).

Setup is pretty easy, but you'll need to know the IP address it chooses. I'm sure the Windows software will help you through this, but I never bothered. I just logged into my home router and took a look at the IP addresses it had given out. Then plug the camera in and hook it up to your wired network. Refresh the DHCP leases and you should see a new item in the list. Open up that IP address with your browser and see if it's the camera. If you've missed that opportunity you can run nmap -sP 192.168.0.0/24 replacing 192.168.0.0/24 with your own subnet. This will get you a list of the IPs on your subnet and chances are the last one will be the camera.

The default login is Admin with no password. Please change this ASAP and don't use any passwords you actually like - the security on these things is pretty poor. I'd hate to see you log into your camera from Starbucks using the same password you use to access your bank account.


3. The Foscam FI8904W Outdoor Camera

The FI8904W is a little more disappointing after the surprises I got with the FI8918W. Still, it works mostly as advertised and I'm overall pleased with it. It's about the same price as the indoor cousin but it comes with a water resistant case. There is a single thick cable coming out of the back (fixed in place) which branches out into a power connector, an Ethernet cable, and a small reset button. Running the cable properly these should all be in a secured area so the only thing someone looking to bypass the camera can do is cut the power - not steal your Ethernet connection (easily - if they're good they can still cut the cable and splice in but that's a lot of effort to get access to what should be treated as a DMZ) or reset the camera.

I had expected a lack of pan and tilt functionality and I was not wrong. It's not advertised as such and from the pictures I couldn't see much more than the potential for panning and that would have been a big surprise. More disappointing is the lack of any audio support. At the garage where it will live I'm not overly concerned, but I was hoping to use this camera at my front door where an intercom would be nice. Again, not a feature that was advertised so it would have been gravy. About the only real issue I have is the lens. While the Amazon listing claims a viewing angle equal to my FI8918W a longer range lens ships with the camera. The Amazon reviewers had tipped me off to that and I ordered a $15 set of lenses to compensate.

Other than that the camera seems wholly adequate. The color rendering is notably bad outside, but this would need to be fixed by removing the night vision capabilities and it's not like we should be expecting DSLR quality. There is a bit of a lip over the top of the lens to help prevent glare, but this prevents you from using the existing hardware to mount it upside down. Still, I was careful to put the camera under my gutter to keep it out of the way, protected a bit from the weather, and to keep it well-shaded as it's facing south.

It shares a lot of features with its indoor cousin, including a neat alarm function that will send me an email if the scene changes. More on that once I identify a non-SSL-enabled SMTP server (Google wisely requires it - I may need to configure one locally with ample filtering). The hope is to get an email when the UPS truck pulls up, but not an email every time the wind changes the shadow the tree is casting.


3.1. Swapping Lenses

As it ships, the lens just isn't very useful to me. I wanted to be able to see the wall by my garage to see if a package was left there, but also see if anyone was in my driveway. I could only see a small portion of the drive with the stock lens - I couldn't even see the UPS truck as it backed up to the house to deliver a package. I ordered a set of lenses from DealExtreme, in case the link changes the SKU is 15774. My experience was fine, but I'm used to Amazon's near-instant shipping and it took 16 days from the time I placed my order before it arrived via USPS from China. In reality most any lens with a M12x0.5 thread should work, I like a 2.8mm but many may want to up to the 3.6mm since the 2.8mm exhibits some vignetting in the lower corners.

The nice thing about the pack I linked is that it has a variety of lenses to try out. If you want to buy an individual lens you may want to have some idea of the angle of view. Something to consider is that the LED beam pattern is designed for a 6mm lens; go wider and you won't get illumination at the edges, go longer and the LEDs may not reach their target. Using auxiliary lighting can help. An approximate AoV table can be found below (please forgive me if my calculations are off - reverse engineering the 67 @3.6mm Foscam advertises I'm using a sensor size of 2.9mm by 3.8mm, slightly smaller than the 3x4mm of a true quarter inch sensor):

Table 1. Diagonal Angle of View of Various Lenses on the Foscam FI8904W

2.8mm3.6mm6mm8mm12mm16mm
AoV816743332317

Installing the new lens was surprisingly simple. If you've got strong fingers it may even be tool-less, but I ended up using a pair of needle-nose pliers to unscrew the lens (if you're concerned about the look of the lens you may want to invest in some Plasti Dip or similar. It's a latex-like liquid you can dip the tip of your pliers into to give them a soft grip and protect your lens from scratches. You can find it (or a comparable brand) at most hardware stores.

You'll want to unmount the camera and move it to a location where you can plug it in, view the output and, most importantly, someplace clean. You'll be exposing the camera sensor and if there's dust floating around it can get stuck on your sensor and leave unsightly specs on the images. If you do get the sensor dirty you may want to take it to a camera shop to have it cleaned. Blowing on it is a no-no since some saliva may get stuck on there. Canned air isn't good because the propellants can create a film (and that's if you don't accidentally freeze it). Pros use an air bulb like a Giotto's Rocket Blower but an unused ear syringe (a little bulb that you can find at a pharmacy, especially in the baby section) may be a good alternative. Realistically, this is a pretty crummy, er, cost effective sensor so it's not like you need to treat it with the same care I treat my DSLR sensor but it doesn't hurt.

Step one is to remove the shroud from the camera. It just slides off; if you have the antenna attached push it off towards the front, if not you only need to slide it back about halfway. From there you can grab the front of the camera close to the glass cover and unscrew it. Now for the delicate part, carefully unscrew the lens. You'll want to move quickly here to minimize exposure of the sensor, as quickly as possible start threading the new lens into place but just a few turns for now. Now you'll need to adjust your lens.

Plug in your camera if you haven't already and pull it up on a viewer. I used my HP Zeen (part of the eStation C510 printer) as a nice wireless monitor for this process. Position the camera so it's facing something across the room and screw in the lens slowly until it comes into focus. You'll find that it will need to be most of the way in, but you can overshoot and need to unscrew it a bit. This can take some time, but you're better off doing it now and testing on whatever you can than you are waiting until it's mounted and the cables are dressed.

Now you're ready to screw the front protective glass back on and replace the shroud. That's all there is to it, me lecturing you about proper sensor safety for a $1000 DSLR and applying it to a $100 IP camera, slide off the shroud, unscrew the front, replace the lens, adjust the focus, and reassemble. I went from seeing a few feet of my driveway to seeing just about everything by the garage and all the way down.


3.2. The Nightvision Problem

When I first got my camera it worked great. I would set it up in my garage, walk back to my computer, log in, and everything would be fine. I then ran a temporary mount outside my garage and....got a blank white image back. After checking the cabling and realizing that I could get to the camera I tried putting a bag over it and I was able to see the inside of the bag. I suspected that it was stuck in nightvision mode so I sent an email to the seller.

The response was that the automatic detection of night vs. day modes was broken but they're working on a firmware fix. To manually set the modes, use 50HZ or 60HZ for nighttime viewing (50HZ is usually for people with fluorescent lights that flicker at 60HZ) and use "Outdoor" for daytime viewing. A viable workaround but still mildly annoying.

While switching the camera mode works fine, keep your eyes on the Firmware Download Page (thanks, Phillip!) to see if a version later than 2.4.9.14 is available for the FI8904/FI8904W.


4. Viewing the Cameras

The Foscams have a few methods of viewing. They are essentially little web servers and they have an ActiveX-based viewer for IE users as well as a standard system for the rest of the world. Under Chrome it works fine, but there is no audio support. You can, however, control the camera including pan and tilt and brightness controls.


4.1. Using VLC

You can stream from the camera using VLC or other media players by opening up a network stream at http://ipcam_address/videostream.asf. This will prompt you for a username/password, but the security on the cameras isn't all that great so you'll probably want to avoid using an important password and try to connect through an SSH tunnel whenever possible. If you want to bypass the username/password prompt you can use http://ipcam_address/videostream.asf?user=username&pwd=password. This will give you audio from the camera (not to the camera) plus video but you have no control over the camera at all. You will, however, be able to use the VLC controls to adjust the picture.


4.2. Android Apps

I use IP Cam Viewer because it runs on all major mobile platforms, it supports a wide variety of IP cameras, it's available in the Market but you can also get the free version or buy the paid version outside the market, and the feature separation between the free and paid versions is good.

Start with the free version, it should buy you everything but audio support (and a clean conscious - a well-paid developer is a happy developer!). You'll get support for pan and tilt functionality, brightness and contrast control, as well as a nice little grid for viewing multiple cameras at once. Springing a few bucks for the paid version of the app gives you two-way audio as well.


A. About Me

My name is Jeff Bower, I'm a technology professional with more years of experience in the telecommunications industry than I'd care to admit. I tend to post with the username jdbower on various forums. Writing these documents is a hobby of mine, I hope you find them useful and feel free to browse more at https://www.ebower.com/docs. or follow me on Google+ or Twitter.