One of the most common questions I get about home automation, and a very popular technique from Smart Home Hacks, is how to use a Internet-connected camera to monitor your home, or pet, while you're away. Unfortunately, my tried-and-true technique used IP cameras that are no longer available, and for a lot of years thereafter, there just weren't good, inexpensive alternatives available.
But I recently discovered the Astak Mole camera and am happy to give it solid recommendation. It's easy to use, and has a surprising number of advanced features for the price. In brief, it offers full pan and tilt control, infrared night vision, Wi-Fi and ethernet connectivity, and more, for just $200. ($260 MSRP). This price is astoundingly low, typically a wireless pan/tilt camera would be at least $350. And most of those don't include audio, which the Mole does quite well. (In other words, you can hear, as well as see, the location you're viewing.)
But what moves this camera from the "FYI" to the "recommended" category are the extra features it includes, all of which make it quite flexible, if not fun. The first is built-in support for both Yoics and DynDNS. What this means in plain English is that you'll be able to connect to the camera from anywhere in the world with minimal hassle. Yoics is the easier choice, although in the long term is requires a $30 a year subscription fee. To see your camera feed, all you do is connect to the Yoics.net server and login. Yoics handles all the rest of the details for you. If you're a little more technologically adventurous, you can accomplish a similar result using DynDNS.com. (If you visit these links, don't be intimidated, the client software for these services is built into the Mole, so no downloads to your computer are required.)
Don't worry, geeks, if you're the type who wants total control of your network, as I do, you can easily set up the camera for direct access. It requires only a single open port.
In addition to live streaming video, the Mole can upload periodic snapshots via email or to an FTP server. If you turn on motion detection (it supports one 'watched area' that has appropriate sensitivity adjustment), you can have the camera upload a 30 second video to YouTube, allowing you to see what caused the motion. The videos can be marked as private so that only you can see them. Additionally, the camera can send a tweet that can, via proper Twitter settings, alert your cell phone to the situation. Wow, what a nice touch.
In addition to streaming and uploading video, or emailing snapshots (periodically or due to motion detection as discussed), the Mole also features local storage on an SD card. Shockingly, the camera even comes with a 2GB SD card (and an Ethernet cable!). What this means is that you can use the camera to monitor a location that does not have an Internet connection. Not in real time, of course, but the SD card will show you what happened while you were gone, when you return to view the card's contents. You can also view the card images remotely, if you do have an Internet connection.
See the Astak website for more features and live cameras you can demo.
Now, here's what I consider to be the deal clincher. The Mole uses H.264 HTTP streaming. Previously, many consumer-grade IP cameras were unaccessible using a Mac because they relied on an ActiveX or other proprietary software/codecs. The Mole, hower, can be viewed from virtually any web browser, including mobile devices such as iPhone and iPad. On the iPhone, the Mole even serves up an optimized mobile interface. This is fantastic.
There are some areas where Astak could make the Mole better. For example, if you have the night vision set to automatic, it turns on when the room is dark. But not just when the camera is active, the IR illuminators are on all the time. This seems unnecessary and could interfere with other IR controls. Also related to lights, I think the Mole has far too many "blinken lights" on it. There's a green light that indicates it has power, a red light that indicates an SD card is installed, and a blue light that flashes with network activity. Small pieces of black tape solved this problem for me. I'd also like the ability to define more than 3 user logins, and to be able to change the user name associated with the accounts. Finally, a note more than a complaint, the camera is not suitable for use outdoors. This is an indoor only toy, please.
So, if you're looking for an IP camera to monitor a pet, office, or a second home, the Astak Mole is well worth considering. I bought mine at my local Costco for $199, the box is shown above so you can know what you're looking for in the store. Also, Amazon sells them for the regular price of $250.