Data Doctors: Using old smartphones as webcams

If yours is like most American households, you probably have a drawer with old smartphones collecting dust because you upgraded to a newer model.

These older smartphones pack quite a bit of processing power, and decent cameras. So a number of enterprising app developers have created an assortment of options for repurposing them as webcams.

Your specific needs will have a lot to do with which option makes the most sense for you.

On paper, this seems to be a great way to use that old tech, but if you’re serious about security, you need to understand the limitations.

Logistical considerations

One of the first things you need to think about is providing power to the old smartphone, so you need to use it somewhere near a power outlet.

The next thing to test is the strength of the WiFi signal where you plan to place it, since that will be the only way it can connect.

You’ll also need to think about some form of cradle, tripod or stand, so you can point the phone where you want to monitor.

Live video vs. monitoring

Getting an old phone setup for transmitting a live video stream is pretty simple, but if you’re interested in a security system, you’ll want more.

Most people want a system that watches for motion and alerts you with a text or e-mail message so you can pop on and see what’s happening as it’s happening.

What’s the goal?

Some apps only take pictures, while others record video; some include sound, while others don’t.

Some offer two way communication and can sound alarms when they detect motion, which may or may not be important for your situation (baby monitor vs. intruder detection).

Technical limitations

Most security-focused webcams these days include night vision, which your old smartphone won’t be capable of providing — so the lighting becomes critical.

The video quality may also be less than desirable, depending upon the lighting and the distance you’re trying to cover (Tip: Always use the back-facing camera; it’s always higher resolution). 

You’re also at the mercy of your Wi-Fi connection and won’t necessarily know when it goes down if you’re not home.  If you’re serious about security, a wired webcam is always better.

Recording Events

Guess why so many of the apps that offer this service are free?  They know that most people will want to be able to record and playback events, so just about all of them have a monthly fee depending on how long the videos are available or how much footage you want to store.

I’ve found the apps from Manything, Camio and Presence easy to set up and get running.

Some allow you to extend the system beyond your phone through services such as IFTTT or various sensors.

I wouldn’t consider this solution the best security system, but since they’re free to try, you can decide for yourself.

Ken Colburn is founder and CEO of Data Doctors Computer ServicesAsk any tech question on Facebook or on Twitter.

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