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World Wide Webcam - An appraisal by Paul Taylor from the FT

It must be the voyeur in me...
Among my favourite websites are EarthCam, Webcam Central and Camscape ~ three sites that provide links to a huge selection of webcams across the globe.

I can watch the sun rise over Moscow's Red Square, the comings and goings in a carpenter ant colony in Michigan or the traffic in London's Trafalgar Square. Webcams have become part of the internet landscape, informing, entertaining and occasionally enlightening.

As EarthCam's website declares, this is where the world watches the world.

But, until quite recently, webcams ~ or network cameras as they are also called ~ were mostly bulky, expensive and difficult to set up. That has changed over the past couple of years with a new generation of network cameras designed for the consumer and small business markets.

These network cameras are small, reasonably priced and designed to be set up by those with little or no network experience. Increasingly, they are wireless devices designed to be integrated into a WiFi 802.11b network and to be monitored and controlled over a local network or remotely over the internet using a standard web browser anywhere in the world.

They can be used for basic security functions such as monitoring a home while the householder is at work or on holiday, monitoring an office for intruders or keeping a watch over children and pets.

I decided to take a look at the latest network cameras available from three vendors: Axis Communications (www.axis.com), a Swedish-based company that pioneered the network video camera market, Veo (www.veo.com) and D-Link (www.dlink.com), the home networking market specialist.

All the network cameras I tested are designed to work with a home or small office Ethernet network and work best with a router device and a high-speed broadband internet connection.

Most modern routers - including wireless routers such as the D-Link DL-624 I was using - come with four or more standard Ethernet ports and use a technology called DCHP (dynamic host configuration protocol). DHCP automatically hands out a unique network address to each device on the network - a feature that makes setting up any network device including a WebCam much easier.

Nevertheless, as I discovered, it also helps to be able to contact a techie expert when you hit an unexpected problem such as navigating a way through a security firewall.

The Axis 205, which costs about $200, claims to be the world's smallest network camera. It fits easily in the hand and is designed for indoor use only. The camera, mounted on a small stand, plugs into a home or small office network using a standard Ethernet cable, which, somewhat surprisingly, is not supplied.

I found the Axis 205 easy to set up - it is simply a matter of connecting the camera to the network, plugging the power adapter in and waiting for the status indicator on the front of the camera to turn green signalling that the camera has successfully received an IP address from the DHCP server.

You are then directed to visit the AxisCam home page and follow the instructions to complete the set-up. As part of this process, the camera receives its own Internet Domain Name, which you then use to view images from the camera remotely. The process operated flawlessly for me and the camera works with most systems including Windows, Mac OS and Linux.

Once set up, the Axis 205 delivers reasonable quality video at up to 30 frames a second and three different resolutions up to 640 by 480 pixels. The Axis 205's low price and easy set-up makes it a good choice if you want to set up multiple indoor network cameras.

For $100 more, if you live in the US or Asia, Veo's Wireless Observer camera is a somewhat larger wireless indoor device with pan and tilt functions. (Veo also sells a standard Ethernet wired version for $200.)

The Wireless Observer's built-in WiFi connectivity makes it easy to complete the set-up, provided of course that you have an existing wireless network. Like the Axis, the Veo unit streams 640-by-480 video at 30 frames a second on my local network, while offering limited pan and tilt via its web-based viewing page.

The set-up guide is adequate and deals with most, but perhaps not all, of the problems a user is likely to encounter. Nevertheless, the camera has some neat design touches, for example displaying its IP address in a small liquid crystal display. Software that comes with the camera can be set up to send an e-mail automatically with a snapshot image, view multiple cameras at the same time and capture snapshots and video to a networked personal computer.

The D-Link SecuriCam DCS-5300W Internet Camera is the newest product in D-Link's internet camera range and costs about $300 in the US - it is not yet available in Europe. The DCS-5300 is the most feature-packed and impressive of the three cameras I reviewed and the most solidly built, making it a good choice for a surveillance system.

It can be connected either to a wired Ethernet or a WiFi wireless network, comes with a high quality colour sensor and built-in microphone and has an excellent pan and tilt function that can be controlled from the web interface or from a supplied mini infrared remote control.

The camera can also be set up remotely in autopan or patrol modes to scan a room. The bundled software lets you archive streaming video to your hard drive, search and playback stored video, monitor as many as 16 cameras on a single screen and set up motion detection to trigger automatic recording or e-mail alert notification.

D-Link has clearly gone to a great deal of trouble to make the set-up procedure as simple as possible, using an easy on-screen guide. Equally importantly, the company provides free round-the-clock support for users who run into problems.

The only hiccup I encountered during set-up - and it is one that others may also experience - is that my cable-based Internet Service Provider blocks the port that is used by default to view and control the camera remotely. This means you have to tinker with the settings - something that turned out to be easy once the problem had been identified.

Overall, the DCS-5300W is an impressive product that delivers high-quality video and sound over the internet and shows just how far network cameras have come in the past few years.