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Buying Direct from China: 700TVL for $39?!

One of my more unusual “hobbies” is closely watching the mix of low-cost video surveillance products available from manufacturers, resellers, and wholesalers, which has expanded and improved over the past several years. From the exhibitors at the Asia Pavilion at ISC West, to the myriad options on eBay and Alibaba, there are literally hundreds of sources of inexpensive video equipment. Are there bargains to be found, or do the risks outweigh the rewards?

I occasionally purchase products through these channels – mostly out of curiosity – and thought I would share some recent experiences. First of all, a spoiler: I wouldn’t consider purchasing any of these cameras or DVRs in bulk without a substantial undertaking to ensure regulatory compliance (e.g. FCC), quality assurance, component validation, and the impact of shipping, taxes and duties on the final price. That said, when a 700TVL Sony CCD camera with OSD controls, IR LEDs, and a waterproof housing can be had for under $50USD delivered, my curiosity gets the better of me.

With the analog camera market shrinking, and consumer expectations around image quality rising, it makes sense that quality components would begin to creep into the lower-end of the product spectrum. It is a nice change. Over the past six or eight years, I have purchased about a dozen low-cost cameras from a variety of sources – including a few from U.S.-based distributors like SuperCircuits. Most had poor (or abysmal) video quality, mediocre construction, and a short lifespan, but if you expect too much from any of these off-brand units, you’re going to be disappointed. That said, the difference today – at least in specifications – is significant versus just a couple of years ago. There are a wide range of high-resolution (500-700TVL) color cameras for under $100, and if you can live with lower resolution, prices can drop below $20. Even cameras with more expensive features like varifocal lenses, wide-dynamic range, mechanical IR-cut filters, and dual 12VDC/24VAC compatibility are commonly found for less than half of what you would expect to pay – even at wholesale – from a reputable supplier.

I decided that it was time to upgrade my aging home surveillance system, and in the process, evaluate a couple of bargain cameras and a DVR (see separate post for a summary of the recorder). After combing through a field of options, I settled on two cameras that each had a difficult-to-believe combination of features and price. These were my selections, both from AliExpress:

My existing DVR was a GE StoreSafe Pro, a commercial-grade product that was popular with retail stores for its reliability and ease of use, but is now obsolete. The two cameras I replaced were of moderate quality – both were purchased from U.S. distributors and fit into the middle of the pack (among bullet and ball-dome IR equipped cameras) as far as cost and specs were concerned. Over the years, their LEDs began to dim and picture quality slowly degraded to the point that I had these views:

Front Door View:

Driveway View:

I swapped out the front door camera with the white “generic” 700TCL camera first. Here is the image on the GE recorder:

And here – as a preview – is the image captured by my new (very inexpensive) D1/H.264 recorder:

[4CH_DVR1]Ch0120121214135118

The image is already much better, despite some harsh lighting in the scene, but the overall quality of the image is still below what I prefer for such a close shot.

I will update this post with images from the Sony-chip camera as soon as I run some cable… I decided to keep the existing driveway camera and add backyard and front yard shots. More soon…

UPDATE 12-19-2012:  Still haven’t had time to run my new cable, but here are images from the unboxing of the Sony chipset 700TVL camera:
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cam_1

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