IF there is a perfect price performance crossover – the spot on an axis in which price and performance intersect in just the right way – it seems DIY camera makers have failed to find it when it comes to home automation systems.

As installers know, there’s a point at which spending less on hardware buys you more trouble, not more margin. But consumers have a lot to learn, if a recent study by Argus Insights is anything to go by. 

“According to overall consumer feedback, there is immense room for improvement,” Argus wrote in its report. “Distrust from consumers about the reliability of connected devices is obstructing growth in consumer adoption (of home automation).”

The study found that while many consumers of security and home automation systems were happy with automation devices, smart light bulbs and intrusion detection capability, they weren’t liking the performance of their CCTV cameras. In many ways this is not particularly surprising. Getting a clear image in challenging conditions is difficult with a quality camera and lens. And while most users have no idea whether or not they’ve installed a PIR with a lens design based on the ripples in corrugated iron, they all have a very good idea what quality video looks like. 

That’s because when you switch between your 1080p copy of The Kingsmen and a $5 CCTV ‘camera’ on your TV or computer monitor, the differences are very plain to see. Even with the best digital movie cameras available, it’s impossible to completely avoid things like barrel distortion and flare. But the plastic lenses of every DIY camera I’ve handled take barrel distortion to levels not seen since Bilbo Baggins emerged from the River Anduin.  

When poor quality lenses are teamed with plastic housing windows that are not quite clear, there’s an certain oblique angle at which, when provoked by light, golden sunbursts can be conjured that are so spiritual in nature users forget what they wanted was situational in nature. And these starbursts blaze into supernovae when provoked by extremes of backlight from windows 20 or 30 metres away from the lens.

Installers can be forgiven for suspecting that cramming large numbers of low power LEDs onto the snout of a plastic camera represents a kind of technological surrender. All too often, it does. LEDs and mechanical cut filters cost much less than R&D but they don’t achieve the same results. Some of the DIY cameras we’ve seen with microscopic CMOS sensors go to monochrome at 50 lux. And IR, while it’s better than no light at all, is no substitute for the integrity of images provided by a camera actually designed to deliver images under 5 lux. 

The combination of impossibly wide lens angles engendered by a cost-driven need to reduce the physical mass of lenses till wafer-thin, combined with the tunnel effect of poorly designed IR arrays, renders a user’s loved ones with the curiously distended facial features of those creatures so lovingly portrayed in The Secrets of the Sett.

But it’s poor quality, low resolution sensors that are the worst. What consumers want is high resolution images that allow them to make out rich detail on the 1080p screen of their spanking new iPhone 6 Plus. They want to pinch and to squeeze. But the image streams they get look like a 6-8-9 TV episode of My Three Sons; viewed with rabbit ears, in full sun; in a paddock near Tullamore.  

It’s fair to say that bandwidth restrictions and the cost of cloud storage mean quality video is ‘not a priority’. But that argument comes apart when the kids are streaming TV into their bedrooms in full HD and over-subscription and under-investment contention has still not completely demolished 4G’s blistering upload and download performance. 

The question is, can installers find a sales opportunity in the inability of many DIY solutions to offer really serious security and surveillance? I would argue they certainly can. The performance of compact domes and bullet cameras from reputable manufacturers is generally outstanding. In any objective shootout, low cost board camera and lens combos typically used in DIY cameras will be blown completely away. 

I keep poking this issue and here it is again. The components of most DIY solutions are of very poor quality – whether they be cameras, movement sensors, sirens, reeds, or any of the rest. There are exceptions to this rule and these most often occur when serious electronic security manufacturers take their solutions to market through chain stores. 

Clearly, there is an appetite for home automation – 45,000 users took part in the Argus review. But when it comes to surveillance, they want solutions that offer high performance, dependable connectivity and reliability, not toys that offer standards that are precipitously sub-Vidicon. That's good news for security installers armed with the latest 1080p compact domes and bullets. 

By John Adams