Netcam - The Network Camera with the Image You Really Wanted
Written: May 22, 2004 (Updated Sep 2, 2004)
a Very Helpful Review
by the Epinions community
Pros:True Megapixel resolution, powerful image control, quality construction, easy setup...and what an image!
Cons:Pricey, Slow frame rates, you'll begin to hate your other network camera images...
The Bottom Line: It's all about your image. netcam is expensive, but a quality build and powerful range of features put it in a class all its own.
If Mercedes-Benz were going to build a network camera, this would be it. When it's all about image, there can be only one. StarDot-Technologies has it.
netcam's true mega-pixel image dazzles web page visitors with deep, rich colors in resolutions all the way up to 1280 X 960. No other network camera I have seen comes close to the kind of image control you get with netcam.
It's pricey, it's slick, and while the competition promises similar megapixel quality in the future, netcam delivers it today.
The netcam is not a webcam. It does not attach to a computer.
It is a network camera that attaches via Ethernet cable to your home or office network and runs 24/7 independent of other computers on the network. (It can also connect to a modem or modem-equipped satellite telephone and automatically dial out for Internet access full-time or on a schedule you set.)
netcam's images can be viewed by any web browser
from within your network or anywhere via the Internet if you choose. It can be public or privately secured through the use of logins and passwords.
The netcam has its own Linux operating system and HTTP engine to serve up images as well as an FTP client that will upload images to a website (or FTP server) of your choosing. It will keep time via the Internet and can update Dynamic DNS addresses through a TZO account.
netcam comes in two models. One is a 1/3" CCD sensor capable of 640 X 480 images and the other, that we're reviewing here, comes with a 1/2" Sony CCD sensor that delivers 1.3 Megapixels of mouth-watering color.
netcam comes double-boxed and well-protected. Included in the package:
netcam camera with lens attached
Lens - 8mm, manual iris, f1.3
9 volt DC power supply
50 feet of "Combo" cable - Ethernet + DC power
Stardot Tools software on CD ROM
Printed User's Manual
Printed Quickstart Guide
Strong Plastic adaptor for permanent indoor mounting
The netcam itself is housed in an all aluminum casing (Thanks, StarDot, I've bought enough plastic!)
I've included some detailed set-up information in an appendix at the end of this review.
As I noted earlier, the downside of the netcam is that you'll hate your other camera images! In comparison to netcam they just don't cut it.
In a word, the image is awesome. You won't want to put it up at 320 X 240...it's a waste. With the Megapixel version of netcam a 640 X 480 image is the smallest you'll want to render.
I've experimented with 1280 X 960 but it's larger than my native screen resolution. Navigating that image in a browser gives you the feel of "zooming in" as you scroll across the detail on the web page.
In fact, this is what some network security cameras depict as "digital pan and zoom." Take a large, high resolution image and move around inside it. You're not really moving at all, you're just looking at different parts of the same image.
netcam's full image colors are deep and rich. Details you never thought you would see from a network camera are crisp and clear. The advantages of the Sony CCD sensor are readily apparent if you are accustomed to cameras with CMOS sensors.
WARNING! if you point your camera outdoors as I do, you must heed the advice of StarDot Technologies and close down the aperture of the camera to F16 (about the size of a pinhole.) This protects the expensive CCD sensor from damage. That also increases your depth of field (area that is in focus) and the camera will produce incredibly clear and rich images from sunrise to sunset and beyond.
FOCUSING THE NETCAM
Compared to other cameras, focusing the netcam and keeping it in focus was easy. At f16, you have good depth of field. The clear markings on the camera lens were accurate and even without the use of a laptop computer, I found getting this camera in focus was as easy as estimating the distance to the subject and setting the focus ring on the camera accordingly. I've never even had to lug a laptop along.
IF A PICTURE IS WORTH A THOUSAND WORDS...
Here's a link to my web pages where I'm keeping the netcam up LIVE during daylight hours...and where you can compare it to another, very different camera. There's also some photos and links. This is a good way to really see how it performs.
Do check out some of the images on StarDot Technologies' web site. Equipped with external housings and heaters, these cameras are in use from the North Pole to beach resorts. A netcam image of Old Faithful Geyser in Yellowstone is one of the most popular pages in the entire National Park Service.
VIEWING THE CAMERA FROM A BROWSER
This is the easy part. Simply type your Internet address in the address bar of any browser and add a colon and the port number. (If you selected 80 as your Port, you don't even need to add that Port number.)
As noted, the netcam is its own HTTP server. Within your Local Area Network (LAN) you could also enter the static address you gave the camera for a faster connection.
If you have a DSL line and your public Internet address is always changing, you can subscribe to the TZO Dynamic DNS service and netcam will keep your address updated for you. (See FEATURES below.)
Netcam loads a pleasant blue-background web page with their logo on the top. A live image is rendered on the page in the resolution you selected. At the bottom of the image, you can choose between loading the configuration pages of the camera (login/password required) or bringing up a pop-up window with just the image.
The pop up window is a nice touch because it allows people on your website to continue browsing in other windows while watching your image.
The netcam is all about image quality. The range of controls is impressive...even daunting, at first.
That's because netcam features many of the manual controls you expect with a full-featured Digital camera. Yes, you can click 'Auto' and netcam will do the heavy lifting for you. But if you really have an image you want to show the world, this camera gives you more manual 'tweaks' than exist on a lot of consumer digicams you can buy today.
As noted, all configuration is done via a web browser or you can use the StarDot Tools that you installed during your initial setup. Both display similar pages.
Some settings are applied as the image is being captured, others are applied as the image is processed. This two-tier approach enhances the power of the CCD technology and is why netcam can claim its position at the head of the class.
For resolutions, netcam has a complete offering:
Greyscale: 160x120, 320x240, 640x480
Color: 320x240, 640x480, 1280x960 (Megapixel version)
You can control the exposure, using times from 1/1000 second to 1/4 second. You can control image brightness and sensitivity. You can enable synchronization for fluorescent lighting.
As netcam processes the image, you control the color saturation, the RGB balance, Gamma, and more.
You can set the camera's JPEG compression level. The default, 70 on a scale to 100, seems to work very well.
One of netcam's most impressive tools is the EXPOSURE GRID. It empowers you, the user, to decide how exposure will be handled.
On the 'Image' page, you'll find a section with 25 small boxes and a button underneath labelled 'View Grid.' Click it.
The exposure grid shows you your image divided into 25 squares. By checking off the boxes that correspond to key parts of the image, you gain complete control over how the image will be exposed. This is an example of StarDot's dedication to image quality you won't find elsewhere.
I have my camera on an enclosed porch. Sometimes I point it so it's looking down on the swimming pool. Because light reflects off the water or off the decking, I want to minimize that glare.
So, like a spot metering system on a high-end digital camera, I can select the 'hotspots' to use for measuring exposure and prevent wash out. Yes, the greens of the surrounding trees and shrubs come out a bit darker, but you see the deep blue of the pool instead of glare.
Would you take your webcam to the Grand Canyon to capture that sunset shot? Of course not! But you might take netcam's megapixel CCD imager.
Conversely, what you give up with netcam are the kind of frame rates that approach moving video. There are some cameras out there that deliver 1 frame/sec. of good quality jpeg frames over the Internet at 640 X 480. netcam processes the image before transmitting it, contributing to a lower frame rate in the area of 1 frame every 4 or 5 seconds.
Increasing the resolution to 1280 X 960 will give you one frame every 8 seconds on your network, but again, it will be slower than that across the Internet.
netcam at 320x240 will update on the Internet at around 1 frame/second. Frankly, I'm after the image...not the frame rate, so I rarely use it at that resolution.
I've got a lot of webcams, another network camera and a lot of experience accessing them from remote locations. It's fun to check in on how the flowers (or weeds) are doing in the backyard.
The simple truth is that what was a 3 frame/second image at home turned into a 3 frame/minute image when connected over a satellite from Baghdad. netcam delivered about a frame every 10 seconds when I accessed it with a 640 X 480 resolution from overseas.
You can speed it up by increasing the amount of compression, but I find a file size of around 125KB to be the most pleasing. At that size, it's all about throughput on the Internet. My D-Link camera at the same resolution produces an image size around 60KB. Judging by the numbers, the D-Link is twice as fast. Judging by the image quality, the netcam is 1,000 times better.
netcam isn't the fastest image on the Internet. It is arguably the best. If you need high frame rates, StarDot Technologies and a lot of others make cameras that will deliver that.
But don't delude yourself. While you'll read ads for cameras that promise 30 frames/second at 640x480...what you'll get is 1 frame/second at 320x240 in the real world of the Internet.
I usually like to run through ALL of the features of a product, but that may have to wait until I do more experimentation. Here's an overview of what I like about this network camera.
Context Sensitive Help - Each configuration page has a 'Help' button that actually works! You'll get useful advice on each and every setting. Kudos to StarDot for thinking about the users.
Overlay - Insert a small message or identification at the top of your live image with assorted fonts and all kinds of variables from the date and time to the internal temperature in Celsius of the netcam! Also show the exposure settings, frame number, or uptime of the camera.
FTP Client - Use this to send images to a website or your own FTP server. Capture the last 10 images and overwrite them, constantly update a single image on a web page, or use netcam's advanced file naming variables to create files specific to the date and time they were captured. Capture only on the days and times you want at intervals you specify.
Java Applet Viewer - Choose to display your image at half-size, full-size or double-size. Choose where a visitor will be taken if they click on the image. Delay your updates and put a countdown to your next image in either the browser status window or along a line at the bottom of your pop-up window. Customize fonts, colors and backgrounds for the countdown.
Dial Out Internet Access - With the arrival of cellular phone and satellite access, this feature enables netcam to send images from anywhere on the planet. Maybe it's just a remote server site today, but when these services become cheaper and more common, this camera is ready.
Back Focus Adjustment - This is quality. netcam comes with a very capable and sensitive lens. But if you want to add a lens for variable focal lengths or perhaps wide angles, being able to adjust the back focus means it's really going to work.
The camera uses industry standard C or CS lenses so you have a wide selection. Backfocus is an adjustment to locate the back of the lens a specific distance from the CCD sensor and it is very sensitive. netcam's User Guide gives you step-by-step instructions. It will make keeping the image in focus a whole lot easier. This is something usually found on high-end cameras. Most manufacturer's just skip it...I'm glad StarDot didn't!
Added Ports for Accessories
There are a number of I/O ports on the back as well as an L-E-D to tell you the camera is connected to the Internet (solid green) and when someone is viewing the camera (flickering green.)
There are two serial ports - used for connecting a weather station (very cool, check out StarDot's site for the North Pole cameras...) automation controllers or modems that can access dialup Internet accounts.
There are also ports that can be used to attach the controller for a lens with an automatic iris and zoom.
Combo Cable - At first, I thought this was just another ho-hum feature. But the more you use it, the handier it seems. Both your DC power and Ethernet cable combined in a single cable. Very handy if there's no power where you want to place the camera. You can get this in lengths up to 300 feet...longer with special adaptors. StarDot can also supply you with "outdoor" Combo cable that you can bury underground.
Dynamic DNS Service - If you have a DSL line that always changes your IP address (like I do!) this will interest you. You can set up an account through TZO.com that will allow you to have a "fixed" name associated with your address. When your ISP changes your actual IP address, netcam will update that change. The cost is TZO's standard $25/year. That's cheaper than keeping a computer up. You get a name like:
Many of the newer routers already incorporate this kind of service...but if yours doesn't, this is convenient.
REBATE! - This is clever enough to make the feature list. If you buy a netcam and put it up on your website, StarDot will give you a $100 rebate for displaying a banner ad or link next to the image that takes visitors to their website. I think their logic is that most people will be so amazed by the image quality, they'll want to know more about the camera.
Nothing is perfect and this camera is no exception. There comes a time in the life of every Internet appliance when you need to do a factory reset.
For most of us, that time will come when we lose our hard drive and all the passwords with it. (I could be speaking euphemistically about old age but I won't admit it.)
I looked the netcam over very carefully but couldn't find a reset button. Nope. No hole for a paperclip, either.
That's because you have to open up the case that is well-buttoned down with tiny stainless steel set screws to reach the reset button!
So you may want to put a piece of tape along the bottom of your netcam and scrawl something on it like "The name of grandma's dead cat -- the mean, gray one!"
I actually found out about netcam through my review of another network camera. As readers commented about the quality (or lack thereof) of various manufacturers' images, one Epinions visitor wrote to say we hadn't seen anything until we visited StarDot Technologies. I did. That's where this review was 'born!'
At $900 ($800 with the rebate) this camera isn't cheap. That is, however, a very competitive price. Many cameras in this high-definition class cost hundreds of dollars more but their images fail to measure up.
Clearly, it is because of the way StarDot processes each frame that delivers such a remarkably clear and crisp image. No other offering I have seen gives you the kind of image control that you can have with netcam.
At the same time, it's easy to set up and configure and you can just click on "Auto" and expect great results.
I do wish it had better frame rates. I'm told StarDot will have a new camera that addresses that issue. But I want the image quality...that AND higher frame rates are going to be hard to deliver over long range connections.
Judging from StarDot Technologies' web site, there are a lot of commercial interests who use netcam as a way to draw visitors to their place of business. Ski resorts, beach bungalows and even Bourbon St. in New Orleans use the camera to graphically depict what they taught us in Business School: It's location, location, location!
If there's something in your life that makes you happy just to see...and you want to share it live over the Internet...this is the camera that will deliver it in breathtaking color and detail.
APPENDIX - CAMERA SETUP/CONFIGURATION
This is a more detailed look at how the camera sets up for operation. If you're curious about network cameras and how they work, you might find this interesting.
Install the StarDot Tools Software
The first step is to install the software from the CD-ROM. It's a no-brainer. An icon named StarDot Tools appears on the desktop when the software is successfully installed.
The Quickstart Guide gives you a detailed view of how to connect your hardware for an initial test and configuration session.
For the initial setup, it's important to know if you have DHCP enabled on your router. If you do, all you need to do is connect the camera to one of the ports of your router,
If you don't have DHCP enabled, then netcam wants you to connect a serial cable from a computer to the AUX serial port on the back of the camera in addition to the Ethernet cable to your router.
Next, you attach the power. You can use the supplied 'Combo' cable or just plug in a patch cable and attached the power unit directly.
With everything powered up and connected (check the L-E-D on the front of the camera) you just start up the StarDot Tools program and use their wizard to access the configuration settings.
There are 8 pages of configuration topics within the camera. You don't need to fill out every single one of them in the first session. But you do need to fill in some essentials. Each page is saved separately by pressing the 'Apply' button.
Image - Exposure (Auto/Manual,) Resolution (160x120 through 1280x960,) JPEG Quality (Compression) etc. There are literally thousands of settings that can be applied on this page.
Overlay - Name your camera, insert detailed information about its state.
FTP - All the details about when and where you want to send or store images and how you want to name the files.
Applet/Web - How you want live viewers to see your images and more.
Date/Time - Do set your time zone. You can choose to set the time manually or use a Time Server on the Internet. (Press the 'Help' button for the addresses of well-known Time Servers.)
Dial Out - If you will be using a modem to connect the camera to the Internet, this is for you.
Security - Set your password for 'admin' so that only someone with permission can access the configuration pages.
Network - This is the one page you need to fill out carefully if you are connecting your camera through your home or office LAN.
netcam can use DHCP (which means it lets the router automatically assign it an address each time it connects.)
Experience tells me it's much better to give the camera a 'static' IP address on the network. It will make things much simpler when we go to forward ports for Internet access. On the netcam Network configuration page you would click on 'Manual' for IP Assignment.
A Linksys router would configure 192.168.1.1 as the gateway and the DHCP default address range would be something like 192.168.1.100 to 192.168.1.150
Give your cameras static addresses OUTSIDE that range. For example: 192.168.1.25
Subnet mask is 255.255.255.0
MAC address is automatically entered.
Hostname is netcam
Gateway is 192.168.1.1 (Your LAN gateway to the Internet)
netcam automatically found my DNS servers and put their addresses in the three boxes for Name Servers. (Nice touch, StarDot.)
You will also want to assign a Port for the camera to use to stream out the images. The default is 80.
Because that port may already be in use with a webserver or another network camera, you may have to change it. If you're going to be viewing this from another location (say, your office) and they have firewalls in place, it's good to know that ports 80 and 8080 are almost always open on those commercial firewalls.
All other configuration with the camera can be done later from a web browser by typing in the address you gave it earlier...like http://192.168.1.25
I've reviewed the D-Link Wireless Internet Camera here on Epinions and I must say that the Stardot Technologies netcam setup was much easier. I've learned a bit since then and the whole process took less than 10 minutes from the time I opened the box.
IMPORTANT: For your netcam to be seen on the Internet, you'll need to FORWARD whatever port you entered in your router to the IP address you assigned the netcam. You do this in the router, NOT netcam.
Using the above example, you would go to http://192.168.1.1 in your browser. On a Linksys router, you select the 'Advanced' tab and then select the 'Port Forwarding' tab in your router's configuration pages. Then, enter 80 (or some other Port number) as the Port to be Forwarded to 192.168.1.25
Save the settings in your router configuration page and you're done.
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