How to turn your old Android phone or tablet into a security camera

There’s a pretty good chance you have an old smartphone or tablet sitting around in a drawer. Sure, you could always sell it for a little cash, but there’s another practical idea you could try: turning it into a do-it-yourself security camera.

Whether it’s to keep an eye on your home while away or just a new tech tool to add to your repertoire, it’s very much worth doing. There are several apps that can do this for you, with varying levels of difficulty and features. 

I took an old Nexus 7 and paired it up with a Nexus 6P and an iPhone (shudder) to get an idea of how this would work across multiple devices and platforms. In short, it’s pretty easy to do. But beware: this might serve as the gateway drug to more a more sophisticated setup with real cameras.

If you’re a complete newbie to this (as I am) then go with Perch. Even though it’s in Beta (and for now, Android only), I found it to have an excellent, easy-to-use interface and walkthrough for transforming an old device into a security camera.

Once you download the app onto your phone or tablet, you need to create an account (sadly, there's no ability to create an account with Google or other login options). But from there, it’s really just a couple of taps to get this started.

Just give the camera a name, and choose whether or not you want to turn on audio recording to hear what’s going on. You’ll see a preview view in a circle at the top of the screen. Then you need to download the Perch app on another device or sign in to the web portal (another thing I really liked—no download required).

Perch has a number of other neat tricks, too. It has a picture-in-picture video conference feature, in case you need to appear on screen and tell the kids to stop goofing around. 

You can also get push alerts when the camera goes offline or if movement is detected.

That was the only hangup I really found with it. Sometimes I didn’t get the push alert or email notice, no matter how much dancing, object-throwing, or other shenanigans were performed in front of the camera. 

But I was able to overlook that because of how reliable the camera performance was. Perch says that’s because it relies on WebRTC protocol, which is an open standard for rapid peer-to-peer connections. I left the Nexus 7 plugged in and connected during a few errand runs away from the house, and it was always recording. There are more sophisticated and feature-rich options than Perch, but it was my favorite because it held my hand through the trial process.

If you want something with a little more capability, check out Presence. It has more options than what you get with Perch, and there’s an iOS app in case you want to be able to use the camera feature with an iPhone or iPad as well as Android.

There’s also a pretty easy method to “share” access to someone else temporarily by scanning a QR code generated from the app. This way you’re not granting someone the permanent digital keys to your child’s bedroom.

If you’re a fan of IFTTT, then you’ll really like Presence. That’s because you can set up some “if this, then that” type rules and get push alerts about them. For example, you’re able to get an alert if the camera detects motion or gets unplugged. This way you could theoretically find out if something is awry at your house.

It’s also a good gateway to a home monitoring system with several other sensors as part of the family. While I didn’t test this, I can see the potential. Though you’re probably looking at a few hundred dollars to upgrade to a permanent security setup.

While Presence is free, there’s a $50 per month annual plan to upgrade the amount of secure video storage to 5GB. You do, however, also get the ability to get an alarm on your monitoring device if motion is detected from the camera. You have to rely on email alerts instead (which did work rather well in my testing).

Another good cross-platform alternative is AtHome. I most appreciated that I could start trying it out right away without the laborious account creation process. During the setup, you are walked through choosing whether you want to stream to a mobile device or computer and then get a prompt to download the proper app with a QR code. 

Use this opportunity to make sure you install the right app: there’s one for the video streamer/monitor and another to turn the old device into the camera. The streaming app can also stream the view from an IP camera connected to a computer. You’re able to control devices like the i8 Plus by tilting and rotating the camera remotely. 

You’ll need a software download if you’re going to use a computer to check in on your phone/tablet camera—there's no live streaming in the web yet. But it’s pretty straightforward, if not altogether slightly unattractive.

I did, however, like the two-way audio (which more than once I took the pleasure of using to confuse my cats) and the notification alerts for motion. It was actually getting the cats to move that was the challenge, more so than adjusting the alert settings.

Anytime you dabble into a DIY project, the best advice is often to go with what works for your particular needs. There’s no reason to buy an overly complicated setup and get frustrated. That’s why these apps are a great place to start. You can put any of them to use on an old phone without any upfront cost.

Depending on the age of your device, this solution may only last so long. Eventually all that time plugged in may degrade the battery or make you feel the need for a dedicated camera solution. But if nothing else, your cats, children, and the furniture won’t be safe from your watchful eye.


Derek Walter

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