Wireless Cameras That Can Be Viewed on Computers

By Jeff Grundy

With wireless networks, it's easy to view the contents of a digital camera on your computer.
i Rayes/Photodisc/Getty Images

The first webcams relied on slow parallel or serial cable connections to stream video to monitor screens. With the advent of USB in the late 1990s, webcam video improved considerably, but it was still tied to the computer because the cable required to connect the camera was relatively short. Modern wireless cameras let users break the wired chains and place a camera virtually anywhere; it's also possible to connect and view the camera from remote locations. There are several types of wireless cameras that you can view on a computer, and with a few easy-to-use gadgets and network devices, you can even make traditional wired cameras wireless in just a few minutes.

USB RF Cameras

The first wireless cameras designed for the PC were USB radio frequency devices and are still the easiest solution to implement for users without a wireless router or access to a Wi-Fi network. A USB-RF webcam works like a wireless keyboard or mouse in that it requires a USB base station transmitter that connects to a USB port on the computer. RF webcams use 2.4 GHz wireless radio technology very similar to that used in cordless telephones and could theoretically interfere with other devices in your home if they happen to be on the same wireless channel at the same time. This is rare, though, because like other 2.4 GHz radio devices, RF cameras continuously scan for open channel frequencies in the usable band. RF wireless webcams have ranges similar to those of cordless telephones, and you can generally use them reliably up to 100 feet or more from the computer. Nevertheless, walls or other obstructions might reduce the effective range of the transmitter. If using an RF camera in relative close proximity with the computer, there should not be any noticeable latency. However, as you start moving the camera further away from the computer, you might start to notice lag or delay.

Wireless IP/Wi-Fi Cameras

Wireless IP/Wi-Fi cameras work using the 802.11 protocol utilized by wireless network cards and routers, and these devices have been around about as long as Wi-Fi. Early wireless IP cameras that used 802.11b technology were not very reliable, though, and few companies produced them because of the relatively slow 5Mbps transfer speed cap with the protocol. When 802.11g became the standard for Wi-Fi in the mid-2000s, wireless transmission speeds increased ten-fold but were still too slow to stream live video reliably and still be affordable. It was not until 802.11n was released in 2009 that wireless data transfer became fast enough to make affordable wireless IP/Wi-Fi cameras a reality. With 802.11n transfer speeds exceeding standard Fast Ethernet wired connections, manufacturers began mass-producing wireless IP/Wi-Fi cameras for consumers. Connecting a wireless IP camera to a Wi-Fi router requires little more than turning it on and installing the viewing software on a computer connected to the same network. The camera can obtain an IP address dynamically from the router, or you can hard-code an address for the webcam using the monitoring software. Once configured, all computers on the network can access the webcam by entering its IP address in the monitoring application or a Web browser.

Bluetooth Options

Early versions of Bluetooth were generally considered too slow for anything but the occasional small file transfer operation or wireless printing of simple documents. When released in 2009, Bluetooth 3.0 changed all of that. Bluetooth 3.0 upped the maximum transfer speed from 3Mbps to 24Mbps and thus became viable for simple video transmission. A few companies toyed with webcams based on the technology, and Ecamm produces a true Bluetooth camera – the BT-1 Wireless Webcam – for Mac computers. Released in June 2010, Bluetooth 4.0 adds an 802.11n layer to the technology, allowing it to transmit and receive data at speeds close to regular Wi-Fi-enabled devices; however, it has not been adopted for use in video cameras or webcams at the time of publication. Many smartphones, such as the iPhone, and many Android-powered phones do use the technology, which means you can use them as webcams on a laptop or desktop computer with a Bluetooth adapter. To connect the phone to your computer and use it as a wireless camera, you must install a third-party app such as Mobiola or SmartCam (links in Resources).

Make a Wired Camera Wireless

If your objective is not so much to roam around your room with a wireless webcam but to connect to it wirelessly from multiple computers, you might not need a true wireless camera at all. Rather, you might be able to convert your current wired webcam so that you can access it on a Wi-Fi network. Some high-end Wi-Fi routers made by D-Link, ASUS and others ship with a USB port on the rear of the device, commonly referred to as a SharePort. Although typically used for printers and USB hard drives, the port does work for many common webcams as well. SharePort works well in Windows 7 but might require that you configure the Windows Firewall to accept connections on the port used for the USB device, which you can change and view in the router's configuration settings. The only drawback to SharePort-connected webcams is that only one computer at a time can view the camera display over the network, unlike true Wi-Fi or IP cameras that can stream to multiple PCs simultaneously. SharePort locks the webcam to the first computer that accesses the port, and then unlocks it after the PC disconnects or closes the camera-monitoring application. While not the ideal solution for a wireless network, SharePort does offer an affordable alternative if you don’t need to stream video from the webcam to several computers at once.