It has been a couple years since I set up Zoneminder for my security cameras, and I thought it was time to take another look. Zoneminder is pretty clunky, and lacks a lot of features. I manually added multi-camera review, but it remains space-inefficient in how it handles files (always using JPG’s), and there is no sort of search facility to find motion after the fact, only if set up ahead of time. Other tools seemed better.

So I embarked again on a search to see what is available now.

My criteria was much as before – I had 7 cameras, and wanted to record all the time, be able to search for events easily after the fact, and be able to review activity on all (or a subset) of cameras. Better motion detection which could alert me would be a good thing as well.

Oh… and cheap. I did this partly as a lark, and have maybe $600 in hardware, I do not want to spend more than $100-200 in software, and cheaper is better.

So I went looking again. Some I looked at just to see if they remedied their prior faults, some I looked more deeply into.  In no particular order (well, other than the last is what I chose):

Genius Vision:  this showed some real promise at first.  There is a free version for 16 cameras (though only 4 can have “Intelligent video”- more on that). It only ran on windows, and somewhere along the way I decided to look at windows when Linux versions did not work out.

The features are excellent, especially smarter ways to do motion detection.

The bad thing is it is flakey — it just would not work properly, at least not for long. It crashed several times, often it failed to work properly (panels that wouldn’t refresh for example).

I also could not figure out what the intelligent video was that was licensed — I had the community edition which had only 4, but I set all 7 up and it seemed to work. Does that mean it would stop later, or that the “intelligent video” was something different.  No idea.

But the last thing I need is something that fails to work every few minutes.

Also, their web page looks like some $2 template from a domain registrar, is poorly done, the documentation linked in strange ways.  Not just a language problem, but a presentation issue;  enough to scare someone away frankly.

Axis: Someone recommended this; but from what I could find it only is licensed (no free version), and I found estimates for licenses of $90 to $150 per camera.

This was one of many I looked at which had no online purchases; it requires you go to some distributor or reseller. Not only does this drive up the prices of course, but it makes it impossible to evaluate whether it is affordable without waiting to get in touch with some salesman (who will then pester you, probably). But this would cost far more than I was interested in spending, so did not look at it.

Sighthound: this product, which is not terribly expensive ($250 for unlimited), so I took a look.

On the good side they have really terrific video analysis tools, and I think one could build relatively low-false-alarm motion detection alerts. Far better than most others.

On the bad side, the video archive system is driven (almost) entirely by the idea their motion detection determines what to record as it is happening. The review tools are lousy, awkward. You can record continually, but reviewing what you recorded is difficult. Reviewing all cameras at once is not possible.

If you want a tool that does a good job of finding events of interest and ONLY recording those, this may be the best choice. My needs were different – I want to record everything, and be able to find events later. This is not the tool for that.  Which is a shame, as they have the technology, they just need to clean it up and improve the archive review.

Luxriot:  They have a complimentary edition, but it limits your resolution to HD, which seemed pointless.  Did not review.

AT Vision:  could not get it to work at all, could not enter a camera. Obscure UI, but it just didn’t seem to work.  Maybe my fault, but speaks to UI usability.

Herospeed: seemed a derivative of Milestone XProtect, but didn’t work well, lots of defects in playback, no motion detection visible in the UI but I may have missed it (quite obscure). I spent little time with it because it had some many failures.

Novosun Cyeweb: This appeared to have a good feature set with more analytic features. I was unable to tell from the web site how it was licensed, whether there is a cheap version or not. I tried it anyway, and had lots of issues.  The setup process is obscure, but once set up I still could not get parts to work. For example, the motion detection masks should lay over a preview screen, but despite showing the live feed on other screens, the preview never showed up on the motion detection mask screen. I also had the video disappear frequently from other screens (sure, IP cameras can lose communications at times, but other tools had my cameras rock solid).

Trassir: I tried this several times and could not get it to install at all, it requires a license despite being a “Trial” and there’s no visible place on the web site to get a license.

NX Witness (in the US known as Digital Watchdog Spectrum): This was my favorite product. It was fast, seemed full featured, and ran on Linux. It ran perfectly when I tried it, no bugs showed up, no flaky errors, it just worked.  And did I mention it was fast — the multi-camera review was exceptionally fast.

But… it’s not free. How much does it cost?  You would think that was easy to find out.  It is not.

First I asked at the NX Witness site, filling out a sales request form. Then when I had a small technical issue (which I solved before they responded – but they did respond promptly) I asked the technician. The technician let me know it was sold by Digital Watchdog, and gave me a contact there, and also sent a request to them himself. I followed up with an email – never got a response.  To be fair I was obviously not an installer, nor someone likely to spend a lot of money, but the courtesy of a response does not seem like too much to ask.

Then the sales request entry I put in yielded yet another contact from their team, who referred me to CCTV.Net.  Unfortunately they are a wholesaler only, and do not sell to end users. If you search their site it says “members only”.

I did finally stumble across a license on B&H Photo, showing $675 for 10 licenses. More than I wanted to pay.

It’s interesting how this cost structure works — the actual vendor (Network Optix) sells to a distributor, who sells in turn to a retailer, who (well, maybe if they were interested) sells to me.  Each one probably doubles the price. I think that explains why it is so costly.  This would make sense if the ones in the middle were adding value, but all I wanted was a license — not to send someone out to install it (I assume all this is set up to give the final retailer the opportunity to up-sell me on additional services).

With a lot of regret – passed.

Blue Iris: this is a widely used and widely praised windows software, that is inexpensive and apparently quite reliable. I had tried it before, but gave it another go. To me it has one killer issue – you cannot review the archive of more than one camera at a time. It also still seems pretty CPU hungry, though I think that would have been OK. But I really wanted multi-camera review.

Xeoma (by Felenasoft):  I liked this before, and still do. Since the last time they added several features which are helpful including a multi-camera review.  It runs on multiple platforms (I wanted Linux). Its interface and setup is very different, but if you give it a chance I think it is better than most others, more intuitive.

But… the multi-camera review is slow, and review in general is a bit clunky.  There’s no digital zoom for example, which I find odd (consider if you had a camera whose resolution is better than your monitor, like on a tablet or cell phone). The multi-camera review would sometimes refresh in a couple seconds, but sometimes it was 10-15 seconds, once almost a minute.

The product also has issues with reliable connections. There are brief gaps all the time in monitoring the cameras, a few seconds, a warning on the screen. Yet other tools worked reliably; it was clearly the product not the cameras. The gaps were few enough and sparse enough this would not have stopped me from using it, but it is a concern.

Their support group said “we’re working on it”. I think this is really worth a look for anyone searching, but I decided with a bit of regret to move on at this time.

Milestone XProtect Essential+: this is one that last time I looked, as best I recall, had a free version but it had a 5 day limit on how long recordings could be maintained. Now the renamed XProtect Essential+ has an 8 camera license with unlimited recording and resolution, but some limitations on features.

The product is a small version of what is clearly an enterprise sized system; it has features that support widely distributed installations, and documentation that is detailed and wide ranging (including to their credit such topics as security hardening, GPU acceleration, etc.).

On the bad side, it was windows only (for the server), and the motion detection was mediocre at best. It has no analytics (at last available in the Essential+ version, but it was not apparent there is any, period). I also found that the web client is pretty modern, which means it will not work on older systems (for example I had an old iPad I was using as a door display screen).

But on the good site it was easy to set up, and rock solid in all my use.  Shutdowns, restarts, I even (accidentally) removed the storage disk on a reboot. Nothing bad happens, just alerts and recovers and restarts nicely.

The review process is reasonably fast (not quite up to NX Witness, but close), and is quite flexible including being able to search for motion on an ad hoc basis (i.e. not in regions you monitor for real time detection).  The review allows multiple cameras, saved camera arrangements, digital zoom in all modes, and a few different techniques. The storage management was limited in this version, but adequate, and allowed automatic archiving to another drive. It also nicely handles inadequate space, purging the oldest videos automatically.

The CPU load is almost negligible. Not sure how they are doing what they do so quickly, with so little load on the system (client or server, I looked at both).  Storage efficiency is fair. I increased my frame rate from 2 (with Zoneminder) to 4, set the highest quality and a fairly large bit rate (4mbs) and it appears I will get somewhere between 14-20 days storage (in about 4.5TB).  I think I can get a lot more with a reduced bit rate and maybe fewer key frames, but I wanted to start with similar quality settings to what I had in Zoneminder (+/- fps).

Fundamentally it was a solid, but dumb tool. By that I mean no analytics to improve the false positive rate. Clearly they have huge resources (just writing all those user manuals), it is a shame they did not put some into more innovation.  And windows only.

Still… it is solid, the price is right (free), it is fast.  In a week or so of experimentation it seems very reliable, it never had any gaps in recording, the UI never ran amok or needed restarting. The client was easy to use and fairly intuitive. There are tons of security and access control settings; not all that important for me, but indicative to a well thought out security model (I have yet to decide if I will expose this from outside my firewall for use on the road).

It is also vaguely programmable, they provide an SDK for plugins.  That gives me some possibilities to integrate with other software or the actual alarm system.

So this, for now, is my choice… I set up an older PC with Windows 10, and put in a pile of disk, and it is collecting images and working fine. An old Surface tablet replaced the iPad (that won’t work with it, sadly), and gives us a station by the front door.

The key disappointment is that it still is useless for alerts from motion — every time a cloud comes by, it sets off motion detection.  It would work well indoors, but outside lighting alone is enough to cause false alarms.

More to follow after I get a few months’ experience.