Wire-Free, Battery Powered Security Cameras : Pros and Cons

Wireless battery operated cameras are increasingly playing a part in the security industry.

People who are averse to learning a new technology or are not used to working with cables are lured in with the promise of wire-free operation while still retaining long battery life and 1080p video.

To the person new to purchasing security products, the benefits of battery cameras seem clear.

The Pros

Benefit #1 - Ease of Installation

The surest benefit to battery operated cameras is that almost anyone can install them because there is nothing they need to be connected to. All the storage power they have available is contained within the battery kit.

Benefit #2 - Lower initial costs

Another benefit is that wireless battery cameras have a lower upfront cost. While they’re initially less expensive (maintenance costs are much higher, which is something we’ll talk about later), battery powered cameras are usually made by taking a very cheap camera and then adding a battery.

The Cons

While the promise of a cheap and easy battery operated camera may seem enticing, as a long term solution they present some considerable drawbacks. These drawbacks are both in the product itself and the general ecosystem around them. They are significant enough that it often results in a disappointed consumer looking for a more professional and wired upgrade.

Drawback #1 - Battery Life

Most wireless battery operated cameras proudly boast months of battery life, sometimes even up to a year. These ratings are based on extremely, often unrealistic, use cases where you record just a few seconds everyday.

Battery operated cameras are most often installed in areas like front doors, where anytime someone exits or enters a house it will activate, causing battery drain.

Battery powered cameras come in two variants: ones that record a clip every time there is motion and ones that prevent recording a motion clip if another clip has just been recorded.

Battery security cameras that have an event delay to save battery, can cause important events to be missed. For those that record a clip anytime, a simple thing like a child or a cat playing on the porch can run your entre battery in a single afternoon. For all battery powered security cameras, anytime your kids run out the door, you have to let the dog out, check the mail, etc. that battery is going to drain. Most battery powered cameras make an assumption as to how often the cameras will record a clip, but they don't tell you what assumptions they are making. It is very difficult to tell who actually has a better battery.

We installed the most popular brand 1080p wireless battery operated camera at the front door to our office at Security Camera Warehouse. While this is going to produce more events and use than your typical home, we saw battery life go from 100% to 30% in less than 6 days.

While our front door may have more events than a home, a common theme in most reviews is disappointing battery life, with a notable portion of reviews claiming having to recharge cameras every couple of weeks, a far cry from the 6 months advertised.

Drawback #2 - Lack of Physical Security

One of the hard truths of physical security is that there’s a balancing act between convenience and ease of installation and security. Wireless cameras teeter the scales on the far end of the ease of install with essentially no security.

Most wireless (also known as “stick up”) cameras come with simple, magnetic bases. While these magnetic bases are slick and easy to install, they offer zero protection against anyone hitting the cameras or simply taking the cameras as there is no locking mechanism in place.

Most companies selling wireless battery cameras combat this by suggesting an install height of over 7 feet, but any objects such as bats, crowbars, even a hockey stick, can easily displace the magnetic mount.

Another major drawback of high install height is the reality that you’re going to capture more area, reduce the effective image quality, and likely create more false positives. More motion events mean less battery, which also means grabbing that ladder every time you have to recharge it.

Wireless camera owners go to extremes to keep their equipment from being stolen.

Drawback #3 - Video Security and Privacy Concerns

Just as with physical security, there are some serious drawbacks and decisions made that impact the security of video as well.

Most wireless battery operated cameras do not have a time stamp. In some cases, a time stamp may be necessary to be admissible for court use.

Another oddity is that on one of the most popular brand wireless cameras, you can delete individual incidents. This might be a convenient feature in some cases, but allows your crafty teenager who knows your password to delete the clip of them sneaking out of the house at midnight. This also present problems in court if your neighbor claims you did something you didn't do. With a normal surveillance system, you can't delete individual clips. Proving that something did not happen can be as important as proving that something did happen. Being able to delete files may make your video inadmissible, even if you have video of a crime. A skilled lawyer can easily argue "it would be prejudicial to show the jury this footage because you deleted part of it," even if you didn't.

The clips created by many battery powered cameras can be easily shared with others by giving them a URL. This is very convenient since you don't have to create an account to share clips, but this also means that anyone with that link can look at the clip. There's no privacy built in. Many battery powered cameras have had legal scandals related to employees improperly looking at footage.

Drawback #4 - Live View Delays

Battery operated cameras operate with a physical (PIR) motion sensor that activates the camera when motion is detected. This means there is no option for 24/7 surveillance.

Users can choose to view the cameras live, which sends a signal to activate the camera and send video. In our testing with the most popular brand out there - it took anywhere from 5-10 seconds to activate the camera and when the video came it had a 5-10 second delay from live.

This means that with a potential 20 second delay, if someone is trying to break in, you may not know it until they’re inside.

Viewing live will also significantly drain battery life, even if there is nothing there to be seen. Some options allow you to wire the camera and may even give an option for wired 24/7 operation - but only if you run a wire.

User review on motion delays

Drawback #5 - Disappointing Video Quality

Most battery operated cameras boast 1080p image quality and some are even now advertising 4K models. While on paper this sounds great, the reality with the models we tested is they often do not deliver the image quality people expect due to low bitrates.

What's a bitrate? To give you a quick rundown on how digital video compression works, video is recorded by an image sensor and then is stored as data. Bitrate is the amount of data given to the image. If your bitrate is lower than your resolution, then the

There are two main compression standards, h.264 and h.265. H.264 is older and less effective, while h.265 is newer and significantly more effective.

This image is 1080P and was made by Arlo's 1080P camera, which has a processor rated at 512kbps (12.5% of what is needed for 1080P video).

This image is 1080P and was made by our Warrior 1080P camera, which has a processor rated at 4096kbps (4 megabytes per second).

The wireless camera model we tested uses h.264 and the 1080p at 15FPS (frames per second) and often clocks in at about 1Mbps (mega bits per second) of video data. For use on our NVR’s we’d highly recommend 1080p at 30FPS on h.264 to use 4Mbps minimum. The consequence of using less data means a blockier image and less clarity, meaning identifying someone further away from the camera is going to be more difficult.

Battery operated camera manufacturers are banking on the fact that you, the user are looking at this in your small smartphone, and this flaw in video is not easily seen. The reality is that they are legally providing a 1080P camera (because the camera has a 1080P image sensor), but the processor and data transfer of the image that is stores is actually 1/4 of 1080P. Not all 1080P cameras are created equal.

Drawback #6 - Internet Only

Most wireless cameras do not offer any ability to record without the internet - this means that cutting a single wire, the incoming data cable from your ISP, can turn off your security system.

This also means that people with slower or possibly unreliable internet may lose critical footage.

No Internet, No Recording

In some situations, adding additional cameras or if you have a slower/average internet connection, having multiple events can cause the internet to choke as it gets uploaded, reducing your overall network speed.

Drawback #7 - Storage

Most battery operated cameras operate on a Cloud platform. While some offer minimal free storage (depending on the manufacturer, anywhere from a few hours to 7 days), most require you pay a monthly fee to simply record and view video.

This method is similar to when you received promotional discs with a certain number of hours for dial-up internet.

Battery camera kits may also be cheaper than comparative professional wired kits due to the fact that the base station required by most wireless cameras does not include any outputs to control/view, or provide any storage for video.

Wire free camera manufacturers build their business model on enticing you with low upfront costs and bank on the fact that they will make it up by being able to charge you monthly cloud storage costs for as long as you have your system.

Drawback #8 - Terms subject to change

With any Cloud based solution your terms may be subject to change - meaning the price, features, etc may change over time. While most operators offer Cloud storage for cheap or even limited free storage these offerings may increase in price or terminate, especially once the battery operated camera market is settled and competition dwindles.

Drawback #9 - “If you go, I go!” - Service may discontinue

Another major drawback of Cloud only security cameras (battery powered or wired) is the real possibility that if the company goes out of business, decides to discontinue the services, etc - you may be stuck with a camera that’s attempting to record to servers that no longer exist.

Drawback #10 - Wifi

We have an entire article on the troubles with wifi security cameras, but they basically boil down to 3 things: 1. Wifi signals have a hard time traveling through load bearing walls (the density of the wall makes it so the signal gets dropped) 2. Wifi is less secure than wiring because it is susceptible to man-in-the-middle hacking attacks 3. Wifi can be blocked by wifi jammers.

What Do You Really Need: Security or Just to Check In?

Wireless battery operated cameras do have a place in the market. There are some situations where having a battery operated camera can make sense, indoor places like rooms or closets where people should very rarely be. Wire-free cameras may also be useful for checking to see when a child comes home from school or a package was dropped off at your home, but only if you don’t live in an urban area where lots of people might pass by and drain the battery in a few days. If your only goal is to check-in and see what is happening, they can be an acceptable solution.

The real problem with wireless cameras is that they weren’t really built with security as the main concern. Wireless, battery powered cameras are difficult to use in court. They can be admissible if they show the whole event, but since they have a maximum clip duration and then have a refractory period where they cannot record, they are often thrown out of court for more complex cases.

Due to the wake-up delay and the refractory period where your wireless camera cannot record, it is easy to present misleading evidence from a wire-free camera. Additionally, most battery powered cameras allow you to delete entire clips of footage. For this reason, courts do not often accept partial video evidence and a battery powered camera is a less than ideal solution for a true security need.

Here are some examples of battery powered cameras and the legal system:

1. A porch pirate steals a package from your front door. This is probably admissible if it shows the whole event - start to finish. If it properly captures the whole event, it could be used in court. A battery-powered camera’s wake-up delay may not make this possible, however, and it may only capture the back of the thief’s head. This would still be usable in court, but it may not be meaningful to the jury.

2. A dispute breaks out with you and your neighbor that results in violence. This situation is not resolved in the time period where the camera records. The camera only records part of the violence, which shows your neighbor as the aggressor. Most courts would throw this out, as you could have deleted footage that presented yourself in a bad light.

3. Your car is stolen. The video shows someone approaching the video and trying the door handles, however, the video times out before the car is stolen. The car is presumably stolen during the refractory period. This may or may not be usable in court. It will be argued about.

Using a wireless battery operated camera for true security is a less than ideal proposition. The fast battery drain, ease of removal, inability to use in court, delay in live viewing, internet burden, lack of storage and instability of market quickly pile up to force a consumer with real high level security concerns looking for a more professional solution.

Beginner's Guide