One trend that is hard to ignore is the ever-decreasing cost of electronics equipment. In every market or product line I can think of, there becomes a high end and a low end, and the low end tends to get better and better. Sure, a high-end cellphone will cost you north of a thousand dollars, but the high-end cellphone of two years ago is the $250 phone of today. In our industry, nowhere is this more evident than with surveillance cameras.
Excluding HD cameras (for the sake of an apples-to-apples comparison), no-name fixed cameras have been dropping into the $50 price range, and we recently tried out a $150 pan/tilt/zoom (p/t/z) camera for our test bench.
Branded as Anpviz (and made by Hikvision but with different firmware), this camera offered 4-megapixel resolution (2560 X 1440), a 4x optical zoom lens, a well-hidden fixed IR illuminator mechanism and surprisingly good performance. It was easy to get running, and it made me wonder whether low-end cameras are “good enough” for some applications.
At the other end of the surveillance camera price range, we recently installed two current and higher-end Q Series p/t/z cameras from Axis, the Q6125-LE and Q6155-E. These cost significantly more, and each offers a distinguishing high-end feature as a calling card. For this Bench Test, we address the question of outside of price, what do higher-end cameras have to offer the integrator and end user?
The Axis Q6125-LE (Q25) and Axis Q6155-E (Q55) cameras are very similar in physical appearance, construction, configuration, software and features, with one notable exception. The Q25 features an IR illuminator that complements the camera’s optics, and the Q55 features a laser-based focusing system. Where appropriate we compare them to the Anpviz camera, recognizing there may be some differences in features between it and the Hikvision version.
Both cameras are the newer “dropped ball” style rather than the half-hemisphere style of traditional domes. This allows the dome to tilt from above the horizon to straight down, giving them a 110⁰ tilt range (+20⁰ to -90⁰), removing one of the last advantages of traditional pan-tilt mechanisms and increasing mounting flexibility as they can look uphill.
The lower-end Anpviz p/t/z camera, while slightly elongated in appearance, has a traditional 0⁰-90⁰ tilt range. The Axis cameras use slip rings to give them continuous rotation, while the Anpviz is limited to a hard stop at 355⁰. The Axis cameras both have 30x optical zoom with slightly different lens configurations as they are different camera bodies due to the inclusion of laser focus on the Q55. These differences are unlikely to be visible in operation, with a difference of less than 3⁰ in any specification.
One indication of quality in a p/t/z camera is the pan and tilt speed range, particularly at the lower end of the range. Good high-speed performance indicates a powerful motor; good slow speed performance is a reflection on the entire mechanical design.
The Axis cameras pan speed range is from 0.05⁰ to 700⁰ per second, while the tilt speed is 0.05⁰-500⁰/s. The higher speed is a good indication of how quickly a camera can resolve presets, while the low speed ensures that a camera can track a subject or make fine adjustments at the maximum telephoto extent of the zoom range (30x optical, 12x digital, total 360x).
By comparison, the Anpviz is rated at 0.1⁰-100⁰, which is fine for that small of a zoom range (4x optical, 16x digital, total 64x).
Looking beyond zoom range, optically the images provided by the Axis cameras were head and shoulders above the lower-end camera, to the extent that this may be a dealbreaker in many applications. At the widest angle, there is clearly a curve visible on the horizon (below left) on the Anpviz, while the Axis horizon is perfectly straight.
This distortion may be exacerbated by the lower dome on the Anpviz, but regardless of the cause a distorted image often comes back to haunt you when trying to use it as evidence or for identification.
Of particular note is how solid these cameras are. They are both NEMA4x, IP66, and IK (impact) rated (IK08 for the Q25 and IK10 for the Q55). With the included 60w midspan the environmental range is -67⁰ to 122⁰ F (nominal) with a maximum intermittent top temperature of 140⁰.
These ranges drop at the lower end if you use PoE or the 30w midspan. The Q25 IR illuminator performance gets dialed back without the 60w midspan too; more on that later. The Anpviz only works down to -4⁰, a significant difference that indicates there’s no heater in it.
The Anpviz camera includes a circular mounting bracket, similar to a smoke detector. There’s also an umbilical cord with an RJ45 connector and a power connection in case you’re not using PoE (no power supply is provided). There are a few optional mounts available or you can make your own, but if you’re looking for elegant and reliable mounting options, this is an area where the higher-end cameras shine.
We used the Axis T94A01D Pendant Kit for the Q25 and the T91L61 Wall-and-Pole Mount for the Q55. Both mounts included a keyhole snap-on mechanism, tether cable and three locking Torx screws to secure the camera assembly in place. There’s an integrated hook for servicing, and these mounts were clearly designed to allow a single person to install the camera.
There are a variety of ways to connect the cameras including Axis’ RJ45 PushPull connector (included) for waterproof connectivity, the option to punch down the Cat-5e/6 cabling or use an RJ45 plug in certain mounts (including the T91L61), or a premade umbilical cord, eliminating the need to make the special Axis adapter on a ladder or in a lift.
The wall-and-pole mount is interesting in that there’s a rear plate that is inserted differently depending on whether you want a flat surface (wall) or concave surface (pole). The mount is easy to level; there are offset holes that allow you to level the bracket even if you don’t drill the holes correctly.
In researching the mounts, I also noticed there was a T91G61 wall-mount that didn’t have the pole option but cost about the same amount. I asked Alan Paterson, our Axis A&E contact, why anyone would buy the less versatile mount and he explained that the T91G61 allowed you to install the midspan in the mount as well, eliminating the need for a separate electrical box.
Given that the midspan also includes an SFP slot for direct fiber optic connectivity, I could see that as both a cost and laborsaving advantage that would also provide a neater installation in many cases.
As previously noted, each of the two Axis cameras includes what we would call a defining feature. The Q25 has integrated, automatically adaptable IR LED illumination that adjusts based on the focal length and enables surveillance in total darkness, up to a distance of 200m (656 feet) or more.
This requires the use of the provided 60w midspan; without that, the range is reduced to a still impressive 150m (492 feet). In practice, this added visible clarity to a night scene, although the Q55 was still excellent when an A/B comparison was performed. This feature never hurts but only the darkest nighttime scenes will benefit. The Anpviz has IR illuminators but they are built into the base and tend to light up the foreground rather than benefitting distant subjects.
The Q55 features a built-in laser that provides instant focus in challenging lighting conditions and in complete darkness. Where this was most visible during testing was when the camera was focused on a mailbox about 150 feet away. As cars drove by on the road, the camera would instantly focus on the moving cars, reaquiring the mailbox focus as soon as the car was out of the image.
The camera never hunted for focus, and this feature got better as the scene got darker (see right). That said, the optical autofocus on the Q25 was excellent as well. In testing, it would easily and quickly acquire a bird approaching a birdhouse from well over 100 feet away (see below).
Another Axis feature I had heard of but previously dismissed is the Speed Dry function, which vibrates the dome for 30 seconds to remove water drips from the dome glass to provide sharp images in rainy weather. In theory this seemed silly; in practice, it allowed usable images immediately following a recent deluge.
Finally, these are the first p/t/z cameras I have tested that have an effective privacy mask feature. While OK on fixed cameras, this feature, which blocks off sections of the image to prevent viewing, typically falls apart when the camera orientation or image magnification changes.
Not so here; you can set up to 32 masks, and each one can be set to appear at a different image magnification. This allows monitoring of a building while preventing the operator from looking in windows, for example. The masks track remarkably well and the color of the mask can be set so it contrasts with the image.
Axis programming parameters are set using a web interface and there’s a utility for identifying and upgrading firmware on the cameras. We found the GUI and programming to be straightforward, albeit with a few quirks that are overcome with familiarization. Not all features are directly supported by every video management system, and you may find yourself going into the web interface from time to time to tweak features or performance.
That said, Axis is supported by virtually all VMS developers and the only way to get tighter integration is to use a proprietary software package developed by the camera manufacturer, such as Axis Camera Station. We tested with Salient CompleteView versions 4.8 and 5.1 and did not find any integration issues.
This Bench Test barely scratched the surface in terms of the features available in higher-end IP-based video surveillance cameras like the Axis Q6125-LE and Q6155-E. Given the performance advantage, construction, reduced installation and programming times, and ease of installation, we would be reluctant to play at the lower end of the range except for lower-end residential or small business applications where the owner is also a hobbyist.
If your business is video surveillance, we strongly recommend sticking with established manufacturers. If your project is financially challenged, we recommend looking at lower-end offerings from the manufacturers before going the “no-name” route unless experimentation and service calls are something you enjoy.
Products are tested and reviewed by R. Grossman and Associates Inc., an independent consulting firm specializing in electronic security products and projects. For more information, visit www.tech-answers.com.