By Joseph Moran
October 26, 2006
Price: $299.99 (MSRP)
Pros: Bargain price, pan/tilt controls, motion detection feature
Cons: Serious connectivity problems with WPA-encrypted connections; unrealistic color reproduction; scant documentation; browser video plug-in doesn’t work with Firefox.
The inexpensive and now ubiquitous webcam is a great way to keep in visual contact with far-flung friends, relatives and colleagues. But the downside of a typical webcam is a fixed position that (barring manual adjustment) gives it an extremely limited field of vision, and this makes it less than ideal for tasks such as surveillance, where camera mobility is extremely helpful, if not an outright requirement.
A camera better suited for that sort of duty is the $299 Linksys Wireless-G PTZ Internet Camera (model WVC200), an 802.11g wireless network camera with built-in audio and motion-detection capabilities. The PTZ here stands for Pan/Tilt/Zoom: the WVC200 can see much more than just what’s going on directly in front of it.
Design and Specs
Owing to the space requirements of its PTZ motor, the WVC200 is somewhat larger than a regular webcam, though at about 9 inches tall (including the antenna) it’s still relatively compact. The WVC200 features a small LCD screen that displays the device’s IP address plus whether the address is fixed or dynamically assigned. The LCD isn’t backlit, so it’s pretty much impossible to read from any position other than one inch directly in front of it, but chances are you won’t need to consult it very often anyway.
The WVC200 can deliver video in either MPEG-4 or MJPEG (Motion JPEG) format, and supports three levels of resolution up to a maximum of 640 x 480. The camera mechanism is housed behind a clear plastic dome, below which is a condenser microphone with a maximum range of about 9 feet. (If you’d prefer to use your own, there’s also a MIC IN jack provided.) You can set the camera into an included desktop stand, or wall-mount it instead.
After I plugged in the power and Ethernet cables, the WVC200 came to life and picked up an IP address from my router via DHCP. From that point, I used the included Linksys utility to set up the basic IP and WLAN configuration, and went to a browser-based control panel for advanced settings and more comprehensive administrative control. For obvious reasons, it’s preferable to assign the WVC200 a fixed IP address once you complete initial setup.
Unfortunately, I had some serious issues getting the WVC200 to work properly over a wireless network. Although the connection was always rock-solid via wired Ethernet, things got dicey when configuring the WVC200 to use the WLAN. The camera supports WEP or WPA Personal (PSK), but attempts to use a WPA encrypted connection between the camera and my Netgear WPN824 router rendered the WVC200 inaccessible or resulted in a connection so flaky as to be essentially useless. In this scenario, the camera rarely responded to pings, and on the few occasions it did, latencies were in the three to four second range. I’m not inclined to blame the Netgear router, since a host of other wireless devices consistently have no difficulties connecting to it.
Disabling encryption remedies the problem, but I also had better luck with WEP or swapping out for another router on hand (coincidentally, a Linksys WRT54GS). I don’t consider any of these to be practical solutions, though — as far as I’m concerned, WEP no longer exists (too bad a lot of vendors still act like WPA doesn’t exist). The upshot is that there may be problems using the WVC200 with WPA, especially with non-Linksys hardware.
Using the Camera
Connectivity issues aside, interacting with the camera is fairly simple. When you want to view the WVC200’s video feed, simply point your browser to the camera’s IP address. The default port for both local and remote network access is 80, which could be a problem if you host your own Web server, but fortunately it can be changed. (Unfortunately, the browser plug-in necessary to view video on the WVC200 doesn’t seem to work with the Firefox browser, only Internet Explorer.)
The WMV200’s camera can move in eight different directions, and there’s a button to promptly return the lens to its home position. You can configure preset positions for the camera to follow, or instead simply have it automatically pan back and forth. You can flip or mirror the video feed, and although there’s a 2x digital zoom provided, it’s not terribly handy given how it distorts the image — an optical zoom would have been more useful.
If you want to access the camera from outside the local network, you must naturally create a port forwarding rule in your router. Remote access can be a pain when your ISP-provided address changes regularly, so the WVC200 comes with a 90-day trial for SoloLink, a Dynamic DNS service that will instead let you access the camera by a consistent name. (A one-year SoloLink sub will set you back $19.95, but the camera also works with TZO or the free DynDNS service.)
Another way to access and manipulate the WVC200 (from either the local network or the Internet) is through an included utility that you can run on Windows PCs. This is far more flexible than the browser-based access, since it can control up to nine cameras and view multiple video feeds in a variety of split-screen modes.
Given that a camera with no one watching it is of limited usefulness, this monitoring utility can also be set to record video, either manually or at scheduled intervals. One of the nice aspects of the WVC200 is that although you need the Linksys utility to set up video recording, it’s not required for playback. All camera videos are saved in WMV format, so they’ll work in Windows Media Player. (You can also label and time/date-stamp a feed.)
You can even configure the WVC200 to start recording when triggered by motion, but setting up the detection spots and thresholds is tricky, and the documentation is of little help. In fact, the WMV200’s documentation is quite sparse overall, offering only cursory explanations of most configuration options. The motion detection feature can also be unintentionally triggered by changes in lighting.
The WVC200 provides a variety of access and administration options, and many of the customization options pertain to video quality. In addition to setting the video codec and resolution, you can also control things like the maximum bit and frame rates as a way to conserve bandwidth. This is important, because even setting the video stream at a relatively modest 320 x 240 will suck up much if not all of the roughly 300 Kbps of upstream bandwidth you get with a typical cable/DSL connection. (Bandwidth is less of an issue if you don’t need to access the video feed over a relatively slow broadband link.)
You can also tweak other visual quality settings like color balance and sharpness, though the WVC200’s color reproduction was quite poor no matter how we adjusted it — most hues were extremely washed out and bore virtually no resemblance to reality. This may not be a problem if you’re using the WVC200 for security purposes, but then again, it might be a huge problem.
Accessing the WVC200’s browser-based feed requires a username and password, and you can create up to 20 user accounts on the camera, though only 10 users can be logged in at a time (the more people that are logged into the camera simultaneously, the lower the video quality). For each account, you can specify whether the user will be able to operate the pan/tilt controls or change camera settings.
A nice use of the WVC200’s motion detect feature — if you can get it working satisfactorily — is that it can e-mail alerts to up to three addresses when any movement is detected. Thankfully, the camera supports authenticated e-mail servers (most are, these days), and can even include a short video clip as an attachment. Interestingly, the alert feature only works if you use MPEG-4 as your codec.
The Bottom Line
The Linksys Wireless-G PTZ Internet Camera WVC200 suffers from a host of maladies, any one of which may a deal killer, depending on how, and with what, you plan to use the camera. Most of what ails the WVC200 is probably fixable via a firmware upgrade (we used the most recent version available at the time of testing, 1.0.1). If the WVC200 has a saving grace, it is its $299.99 price tag, which is roughly 1/2 to 1/3 the cost of most other PTZ network cameras. Therefore, if you can live with the camera’s shortcomings, it can be an economical — if imperfect — way to conduct wireless surveillance.