Category Archives: Technology

Mailing & Shipping 101: Label Printers

These are a bit of a luxury but well worth the expense if you ship more than one or two packages or flats a week. You just click “Print” and out comes a professional-looking label ready to use.

Types of Thermal Label Printers

A bit of terminology clarification is needed: there are two kinds of thermal label printers: direct thermal and thermal transfer. Direct thermal is what you want — the labels fade, but that’s not a problem for short-lived shipping labels, and importantly, direct thermal printers don’t require a ribbon. Thermal transfer printers are more versatile and produce longer-lasting labels, but require a ribbon, and are not needed for our purposes.

Label Sizes

There are many sizes of labels that label printers can print. You’ll want to stick with standard 4″ x 6″ labels. These are 4″ wide, and you need to make sure you get a label printer that will handle these labels. Most of the cheaper ones won’t print on labels that wide, and you’ll be asking for trouble if you try to get by with one.

Buying a Thermal Printer

The standard for these printers is the line of Zebra/Eltron printers. They are expensive but you can get deals on used ones on eBay. I bought three of them a couple of years ago for $40 and two of them were good. There are a bunch of models that all function pretty much the same — I go by the appearance of the printer. If it looks like what I want it probably will do.

There are people (including me — see below) who are selling these printers on eBay.  Most are junk, often sold in lots.  A few are tested and include the necessary adapter cables, power supply, and blank labels, and are ready to plug in and use.  Expect to spend $75 – $150.

Many of the used ones only have a parallel (printer) port interface. You probably don’t have one of these on your computer. But you can buy a USB-to-parallel adapter on Amazon or eBay for a few bucks.  I’ve written an article about these adapters to help you understand them, select the right kind, and get it working.  You can find it here: USB Parallel Port Adapters.

If you don’t want to turn this into a science project but are willing to pay a few hundred dollars for a new printer, here are some options:

Prices of course are constantly changing. If I had to choose one I think I’d try the $110 one, but mostly because I’m cheap, and have a high tolerance for having to fuss with things. If you want one that is likely to be trouble-free, go with one of the Zebra ones, or with a reputable seller on eBay.

The above links, and others scattered around, go to Amazon and earn me a small commission. There are also many other suppliers; Google the printer you’re interested in (or “Zebra LP2844”, the standard workhorse). But be careful; many label printers will work with Stamps.com but many won’t.

Sometimes I have label printers for sale on eBay.  If so they will be shown at the bottom of this post.

Buying Thermal Printer Labels

You’ll need a roll of labels. Unless you’re doing a lot of printing, just buy one or two rolls at a time. They typically hold 250 labels which will last you pretty much forever. The labels go bad if they sit around too long, more than a few months.

Here are links to labels on Amazon, both single rolls and multiple rolls (which are a bit cheaper per roll):


Note that there are several sizes of 4″ x 6″ roll labels. You want the rolls of 250 with a 1″ core. Bigger rolls might fit your printer, but I haven’t tried them, and anyways 250 labels is a lot.

Note the price per label: you have to figure it out, but using today’s prices, the most expensive labels cost 2.6 cents each. Compare that with sheet labels (or Stamps.com labels), and you’ll pay for your label printer from just the savings, before too long.

Drivers for Thermal Printers

You’ll also need a driver. There are a bunch of them floating around, and some work better than others. There are drivers by UPS, Zebra, Seagull Scientific, and others. Google “Zebra Eltron 2844 driver” and pick one. I keep switching from one to another to try to solve minor problems, and there isn’t really much difference.

There are a lot of different printer models, and you may not be able to match your exact printer to an available driver.  Don’t worry too much about this.  If your printer isn’t listed, start with “LP2844”, and then try others if that one doesn’t work.  For me it always does.

Look through the driver properties and set ones that seem like they might be useful, like “Intensity” and “Speed”. Check submenus too — these drivers have a lot of settings.

If labels are printing but aren’t positioned right, go into the driver properties and fuss with the label’s size, orientation, and margins. With some drivers these settings are located on submenus accessed from buttons on the main properties menu.

There are very often ways to define sizes for the various labels you use and give them names. Even if you only use one size of label (like 4″ x 6″) it sometimes helps to define that as a named label size.

If you’re getting the feeling that it may not be super easy to find settings that work, you’re right. But the good news is that once you get it set right it will stay that way. And sometimes you get lucky and it just works the first time.

If all else fails and you can’t find settings that work, try a different driver. There are several of them out there, and while they’re all similar, each differs in some ways.

Zebra/Eltron Test Print

If you have an Eltron (Zebra) label printer, you can get it to print a test page by powering it on while holding down the paper feed button.  It will start blinking red; when that happens release the button.  A test print cycle will begin.

The test print cycle skips a few labels at first, so don’t think it is running away and stop the test.  Eventually it will print a label with some details about the printer firmware.  When that completes the printer will be in dump mode.  In that mode it will print the raw data it is sent.  Press the paper feed button to end dump mode.

The most useful thing on the test print, aside from verifying that the printer isn’t dead, is the gray bar near the top of the test label.  It prints every dot over the width of the printer, in a stair-step pattern.  If it is a nice even gray with very few gaps, the printer is working well.  If there are visible gaps, the printhead is dirty or worn.

You can clean the printhead with an alcohol wipe.  Spend a minute or two on it; some deposits don’t come off right away.

Other Uses for Thermal Printers

By the way, these label printers are good for other things as well. You can print to them just like to any printer, and if you create a 4″ x 6″ page it will come out the way you want. I use this method to print labels for file boxes, for instance.

Also, if you are trying to print labels from a website or program other than Stamps.com you may get labels formatted for printing on regular letter-sized sheets. First see if there is a setting for printing to label printers, and if not use the following technique.

Print the label sheet to a pdf file (or scan a printed page), use a pdf-to-jpg converter to make a jpg file (Google it), and finally use an image-editing program like paint.net to make the part you want to print be 4″ x 6″. You can then simply print the image on your label printer. It sounds complicated but it’s faster than cutting out a plain paper label and taping it to the box.

Label Printers I Have for Sale

Here are any label printers I’m selling on eBay.  They come with everything you need: the printer, a roll of labels, a USB interface, a power supply, all cables, an installation manual, and drivers.  This article can also help you get it working.

 

Installation Instructions

I have prepared a package consisting of drivers and a manual that I supply with label printers that I sell.  You can download it here.

Mailing & Shipping 101: Stamps.com

I sell a lot of stuff on eBay and have a pretty good system for shipping and mailing stuff.  I thought I’d share how I handle postage…

Internet Postage Suppliers

The first thing you need is an account with an internet postage supplier.  These services are the greatest thing since, well, stamps.   I use www.stamps.com but there are others, such as www.endicia.com.  I’ve only ever used Stamps.com but I like it and it meets my needs well.

The remainder of this post refers to the Stamps.com service, but other services are similar; please post a comment if you have suggestions for use of other services, if you have suggestions or corrections, or if you just find this useful.

These services all have a monthly fee.  For Stamps.com it is $15.99 a month for the basic service, which will have all of the features you need.  If you’re now using a postage meter, this fee will seem like a bargain.  If not, you’ll have to justify it by the time and money you’ll save, and by the value of the convenience it gives you.  I find it very much worth the cost.

Overview of the Stamps.com Service

There are basically two ways to use the Stamps.com service:  to print NetStamps, which are just like stamps but you get to specify the value; and to print postage directly on mailpieces or letters.   There are also two versions of the Stamps.com software you can use, an online web-based version, and a version that you install on your computer.

If you use NetStamps you lose much of the value of the service.  You don’t get any discounts on postage, you can’t easily allocate postage expense to categories,  your mail is processed more slowly, and you don’t get free tracking on packages that qualify for it.

In addition, the Stamps.com software has a pretty good address book, so it is easy to specify an address to be printed when you’ve sent mail there before (which for me at least) is almost always the case.  When sending packages to strangers, as is typical with eBay, it is very easy to cut-and-paste an address all at once (not one line at a time), and there is also an automated way to ship out eBay packages where the details are filled in directly from eBay.

Further, for packages you can enter an email address for the recipient, and Stamps.com will send an email with tracking information.

I rarely use NetStamps, and also do not use automation such as links to eBay.  It is easy enough to cut-and-paste the address for the few eBay packages I send out a day, and I like the opportunity to look things over that it gives me.

I prefer to use the Stamps.com software rather than the web-based version.  Maybe it has gotten better, but when I’ve tried to use it in the past I’ve run into too many limitations, especially with printing.  On the other hand, the locally-installed software does everything, and I recommend using it for everything.

What You’ll Need

Most important is a good scale, preferably one that interfaces with the Stamps.com software.  I use an oddball brand (Elane) that has software available (for a small fee) to connect it to the Stamps.com software.  However most new Stamps.com accounts get a free scale, which I presume will connect to the software automatically, so that problem is solved.

Secondly you’ll need a way to print labels.  There are basically two options, though each has variations.  The easiest way to print labels is with a thermal printer, which prints those 4″ x 6″ labels that you see on packages from most any business.  The alternative is to print on letter- or legal-sized sheets, either plain paper or labels.

For NetStamps, you need to print on special (and expensive) label sheets sold by Stamps.com.  For everything else you can use plain labels, although Stamps.com has their expensive labels available for most things, if you want to get fancy.  Ten years into my use of Stamps.com, I’m still using the two NetStamps sheets that I got when I signed up.

Printing on plain paper is cheapest, but you’ll have to cut out the label and then use tape to stick the label to the package.  It’s OK in a pinch but not fun if you have to do it a lot.

There are a wide variety of laser/inkjet labels suitable for use with Stamps.com.  They will give you a professional appearance, and are only slightly more difficult to use than thermal labels.  Here are some options:

Label Printers

These print those 4″ x 6″ labels you see on most packages from “real” companies.

They are a bit pricey bit in my opinion well worth the cost.

I’ve written a separate post about them because there is a lot to say:  Mailing & Shipping 101: Label Printers

Customizing Stamps.com

After you’ve learned the basics, you’ll probably want to customize the way Stamps.com prints envelopes and labels.  You can choose your own font for addresses and return addresses, and can include a logo in some layouts.

Custom Accounts

You can also set up custom accounts to charge postage to, and then get reports telling how much you’ve spent for each account.  This is good if you’re using Stamps.com for business and personal mail, or if you want to be able to bill postage expenses to clients.  Getting reimbursed for some of your postage expenses can easily pay for your Stamps.com subscription.

Hidden Postage

On many types of shipping labels, you can choose to not print the postage amount on the label (it’s still hidden in the bar code so the Post Office knows that you’re paying what you should).  If you sell things on eBay you’ll find this feature useful, especially if you charge for shipping and mark it up.

Printing on Envelopes

You don’t want to use NetStamps for mailing envelopes, except in very unusual circumstances.  Print your envelopes with postage, the recipient’s address, and your return address, all at once.

For office use, this is what you will do most often.  Get a cheap box of 500 #10 business envelopes. and use them for everything, except when you need to use letterhead.  Much of what you will be mailing will be bill payments and such that come with pre-addressed or window return envelopes.  Always toss them.  The only ones to keep are business reply envelopes, since you don’t need to print postage on them.  Remember, you’ll only have to type the address once; in future mailings it will get filled in from the address book.

Using Your Printer to Print Envelopes

The Stamps.com software has calibration steps for setting up the printer for each type of envelope or label to be printed.  Just follow the instructions.  You’ll only have to do it once per envelope/printer combination.

I have had poor luck printing envelopes on inkjet printers, but if that’s all you have, give it a try — you might have better luck than I did.  Laser printers are easier to use, since they typically have a manual-feed slot that can be used for envelopes.  The downside of laser printers is that they will often crinkle the envelopes, but I just live with it.  The recipient will think the Post Office did it.

Whatever printer you use, check out the printer’s help file or manual for specific instructions for printing envelopes.  You are likely to find out that there are special steps, or driver settings, that will make printing envelopes easier or more reliable.  It often makes sense to create a separate driver instance specifically for printing envelopes.

Raised-Print Envelopes

If you need to print on preprinted letterhead-style envelopes, you need to be careful not to use raised-print envelopes in a laser printer – the raised printing will melt and mess things up.  I just put a post-it note over the raised printing (sticky-side entering the printer first).   You can also simply select to not print the return address when printing on an inkjet, or if your preprinted envelopes don’t have raised print.

Special Services

I’ll be discussing special services like Registered and Certified Mail later on.  For now, just know you can add such services when printing envelopes with postage.  What you can’t do is use tracking with letter mail.  In such cases, it’s easiest to just use a Priority Mail Flat Rate envelope.

Use your scale to determine the correct postage if you’re mailing more than a couple of sheets.

Using Labels With Envelopes

You can also print postage and addresses on labels to affix to your envelope.  This solves the feeding-envelopes problem but adds complexity to the process and doesn’t look as professional.  Many sizes and types of labels can be used.

Discounted Postage

You get a small discount on postage when using Stamps.com to print the envelope, since there is a barcode printed with the address, and the postage itself doesn’t need a printed postmark.  These things also get your letter on its way more quickly.

Printing on Flats

“Flats” are what the Post Office calls flat things like big manila envelopes.  They are more expensive to mail, and require that postage be printed on a label.  If you have a thermal label printer, that’s the easiest way to print the label.  If not, you can use any of a variety of laser/inkjet labels.

Flats are often more than one ounce because of the weight of the envelope.  Be sure to use your scale.

If You Need Tracking

Flats are priced between envelopes and First Class packages and do not have tracking.  They also must be fairly thin (the stamps.com software shows you the rules).  If you want tracking, you can again use a Priority Mail Flat Rate envelope.  Or a trick I use is that if you can make the envelope thick enough it will go as a First Class Package, which costs more but has tracking.  Stick a couple of sheets of corrugated cardboard in the package and you’ll pass the threshold for the package rate.  I’ve found that the Post Office isn’t too strict about this, so if you make an effort it will probably be good enough.

Shipping Packages

Shipping is one area where Stamps.com shines.  You can do the whole job in well under a minute.  You’ll also save money: rates are discounted, sometimes quite a bit, and you’ll be able to easily compare and choose the best service for your needs.

The process is straightforward enough that little guidance is needed.  I can only emphasize that the use of a label printer will cut the time spent in at least half.

Supplies for Shipping

The USPS has a wide variety of boxes, labels, tapes, and forms for use primarily with Priority Mail, and mostly available for free.  Look over the list of supplies on the USPS website (also available within the Stamps.com software), and order everything you think might be useful.  Especially look over the wide range of regular-rate Priority Mail boxes and see if any would be good for things you ship often.

Flat Rate Packaging

The USPS has a variety of Flat Rate Priority Mail packaging available for free.  This can be a great money-saver.  I suggest ordering some of each size, if you do more than a very little shipping.  Don’t forget Priority Mail Padded Flat Rate bags — these are a money-saver for many kinds of shipping.

Regional Rate Packaging

Regional Rate boxes are a series of Priority Mail packaging types that are only available online, and only for use with services like Stamps.com.  Your Post Office won’t have them, and can’t accept them unless they already have postage.

They are like Flat Rate boxes in that they can be any (reasonable) weight, but the rate depends on distance.  There are two sizes each of Regional Rate A and Regional Rate B boxes.  The “A” boxes cost about what two pounds of standard Priority Mail would cost, and the “B” boxes roughly three pounds.  I use these more by far than any other type of packaging.  They are great money-savers and are only available for use with on-line postage services like Stamps.com.

By all means order some of each size of Regional Rate boxes.  Do it today — it’s free.  You can order them from the USPS website, or directly from the Stamps.com software.

Big and Heavy Things

USPS pricing greatly favors small things.  Anything more than about four pounds (and that won’t fit in a Flat Rate box) will be cheaper to ship (domestically at least) by FedEx Ground or UPS Ground.  Unfortunately Stamps.com won’t help you with this.  Set yourself up an account with one or both services and use their websites to ship.  I use FedEx mostly, because it’s a bit cheaper and faster, and they deliver on Saturday.

If you’re used to using free Priority Mail packaging, you’ll be disappointed to find that you need to provide your own boxes for UPS and FedEx.  More about boxes in another post (someday).

You’ll also find that shipping using the FedEx and UPS websites is quite a bit more difficult that using Stamps.com, mostly because you have to enter the name and address into separate fields rather than all at once.

If you’re shipping eBay items, be aware that buying FedEx and UPS labels through eBay is considerably cheaper than by going directly to the UPS or FedEx websites, as well as being much easier.  Ebay has negotiated substantial discounts for its customers.

You have several choices regarding the printing of labels for UPS or FedEx, both of which will give you a letter-size PDF file containing the label.  First, you can print on plain paper and then use a plastic stick-on pouch to affix the label.  Second, you can print on half-page stick-on labels.  Lastly, you can use the method described above to fit the label onto a 4″ x 6″ area and print it on your label printer.  Many of the supplies you need to do these things are available for free from the shipping companies’ websites.

Small and Light Things

I sell a lot of computer parts on eBay, and lots of them are small and light.  Other similar things are CDs, small paperback books, and pretty much anything under a pound.  These things are best shipped at the First Class Package rate.  This even goes for many things that would otherwise qualify for Media Mail.

For First Class Packages, you need your own packaging.  For the most part, I like to use white poly bubble bags, which are strong and cheap.  You can buy these on Amazon or eBay for 10 to 25 cents or so each, in quantity.  I find that three sizes cover almost all of my needs:

If you do much shipping of this type, order 25 of each.  If you have the space and the demand, order more.  They get much cheaper in larger quantities.

Note that, as usual, my links go to Amazon and I collect a small commission on everything you buy — but you don’t pay more.  Note also that these items change price and availability frequently, so these links may not work and you may have to search to find a comparable deal.  [Please leave a comment if you find a link that doesn’t do what it should.]

Carrier Pickup

A great feature of Priority Mail shipping is something called Carrier Pickup.  You can request a pickup up to 2 am of the day of the pickup.  Leave your packages on the front porch (or somewhere safe) and the Post Office will send someone to pick them up.

You can request a pickup from the USPS website, or more simply, from the Stamps.com software.  You must be sending at least one Priority Mail or International item.  They’ll pick up First Class packages too, if they are accompanied by one required item.

I’ve been known to send a dummy Priority Mail Flat Rate envelope to myself to get the Post Office to pick up a pile of First Class packages when I can’t make it to the Post Office myself.

Be aware that Carrier Pickup isn’t always reliable.  It will depend on how your local Post Office is run, but you may find the pickups do not always occur as promised.  I keep an eye on things if possible, and give the Post Office a call if it gets past 4 pm and they haven’t picked up what they were asked to.

International Shipping

Here is another place where Stamps.com shines.  If you’ve been hesitant to ship things out of the country, don’t be.  I find I make a considerable percentage of my eBay sales to other countries, sometimes even big and heavy things (I just sold a $130 computer monitor to someone in Switzerland; postage was also $130!).

There are a number of tricks to preparing international shipping labels, but you’ll find they don’t take much more time to prepare than a domestic shipment once you get used to it.  This is primarily because Stamps.com will print the customs data right on the shipping label; no filling out (or figuring out) customs declarations.

International Shipping Services

For packages under 4 lbs, you’ll probably want to use First Class Mail International.  It’s by far the cheapest way to ship, although it supposedly doesn’t include tracking (USPS uses the customs ID number for tracking, FCMI packages have them, and often you’ll see tracking for them, but it’s not guaranteed and doesn’t work in any less-advanced country.)

For shipping of heavier items you’ll need to use Priority Mail International.  It’s expensive but does include tracking.

If you’re in a hurry and cost is no object, there are Priority Mail Express International, and Global Express Guaranteed (GXG).  GXG goes by FedEx I think, and has to be done at the Post Office — it’s not supported by Stamps.com.  And it’s very expensive.

International Address Entry

You initially enter the address the usual Stamps.com way — pasting it free-form into the address box.  Then when you try to do most anything, such as selecting the mail class, up pops a form with the address you entered broken into parts.

Stamps.com doesn’t do a very good job of this, and further, many foreign addresses don’t readily fit into the boxes they give you.  I usually just cut-and-paste things to get them as close to right as possible.  I’ve also seen cases where information gets left out.  Carefully compare the Stamps.com version of the address with the original and make sure everything’s there.

The Recipient’s Phone Number

International shipments require that you supply the recipient’s phone number and email address.  You can often get these from eBay or PayPal records, but sometimes you won’t have them.  In such cases I just enter my own email address and/or phone number.  At least if there is a problem with delivery it will give me a chance to straighten things out.

Customs Forms

Click on the button Complete Customs Forms and you’ll be taken to a new form where you need to enter information about what you’re shipping.  Fill out the top items, then fill out the line describing what you’re sending and pick the Add Item target to add what you’ve entered to the list.  Repeat if you’re sending more than one thing.  Make sure the “Agree” box is checked, pick OK, and you’re done!

For small things with little value, all the customs data will appear on the postage label you print.  You don’t have to do anything else.

Sometimes you’ll get three copies of the label.  Put the first one on the package as usual, and put the other two in a document pouch (leave the backing on the labels) and affix it to the package near the address label.  I usually put a couple of copies of the invoice for the shipment in the pouch too.  [The pouches are available free from the USPS website.]

International Letter Mail

For some reason I can’t understand, you can’t print regular First Class International letter postage on envelopes (or labels for that matter).  It is quite frustrating.  You’ll need to figure out the appropriate postage and print a NetStamp for this.

Special Services

If you use special services like Registered Mail, you’ll appreciate the fact that you can do most such things directly from the Stamps.com software.  Sometimes you’ll have to fill out or attach additional forms, and sometimes you’ll still have to take a mailpiece to the Post Office, but overall it’s all quite easy.  I’ll go over the most common special services in the following sections.

To access the Special Services menu, pick the Add’l Options: Select button.

Registered Mail

Registered Mail is used to send valuable things that need to be watched over for the entire journey, and signed for on delivery.  It is quite expensive and can include insurance for additional cost.  I’m including it here only because it frequently gets confused with Certified Mail.

You can include Registered Mail fees when you print postage, but you’ll have to use a special Registered Mail sticker, and bring your mailpiece to the Post Office and physically hand it to a clerk.

There are a lot of other rules and restrictions.  Look them up if you need to use this service.

Certified Mail

Certified Mail is used when you need proof of delivery.  This is used for mailing tax returns, legal documents, and the like.  If you’re not sure whether you need Registered or Certified Mail, you probably want Certified.

You can include Certified Mail fees when printing postage, and if you use Certified Mail a lot, you can even print everything, including the return receipt, all at once using special forms available from Stamps.com.  If you only do occasional Certified Mail, just get some Certified Mail stickers (and green postcards as described in the next section) and affix them manually.

If you don’t need proof of mailing, you can put Certified Mail in with your regular outgoing mail.  Otherwise, take it to the Post Office and get a receipt with a postmark from the clerk.

Return Receipt

If you use Registered or Certified, you’re likely to want a record of the receipt of the mailpiece at its destination.  This is the familiar green postcard.  There is also something called an Electronic Return Receipt which is cheaper and which also constitutes legal proof of delivery.  I prefer the good old green postcard.

If you use an Electronic Return Receipt, your mailpiece must be taken to the Post Office.  If you are using the green postcard, you can put the mailpiece in with your regular outgoing mail.

Insurance

You can buy USPS insurance along with your postage, but Stamps.com has its own insurance which is cheaper and is easier to file claims under.  USPS insurance is purchased at the time of mailing under the Special Services menu.  You also need to affix a special label to your package, and hand it to a clerk at the Post Office.

Some USPS mail classes have additional insurance included with the cost of the postage.  Priority Mail is insured for $50 or $100, and Priority Mail International for $100 or $200.  Look it up if you want the details.

Stamps.com insurance is purchased on the main postage screen and is billed with your Stamps.com monthly fee.  You can also purchase the insurance for a time after mailing; go to Tools->Buy Insurance to do so.

Note that USPS insurance will refund the value of the item plus the cost of postage if an item is lost or destroyed; Stamps.com will only refund the value of the item.  This can be a significant issue if what you are shipping isn’t much more valuable than the postage, as is often the case with international shipments.

A Really Cheap IP Security Camera

The Camera

I just bought a $19.99 IP security camera from Amazon.  There is a bit more that I’ve learned about it than will reasonably fit in a review, including lots of tips and tricks, so I figured I’d share what I’ve learned. What follows is far from complete, and may contain errors. Please comment if you have any suggestions or corrections, or if you find this information useful.

This camera is a HoSafe 1MD4P.  You can buy it from Amazon here.  (Disclosure: using this link to buy will earn me a small commission, but won’t cost you anything extra.)

The Box it Comes In

 

This is a long post.  Here are links to the various sections; sort of a table of contents:

I can recommend this camera if you are willing to put up with serious software limitations, some reported security issues, and reportedly questionable reliability.  In exchange you get a really cheap camera with pretty good picture quality and high resolution, that may or may not last.

Let’s start with a list of features/capabilities:

  • It’s a fixed dome camera for indoor/outdoor use
  • It is a wired IP camera, not Wi-Fi
  • Color 1280×720 resolution
  • Power by adapter or POE (see below)
  • White-painted metal case (black is also available but not on Amazon)
  • ONVIF compatible: works with 3rd-party software
  • IR night vision up to 40′

And to be fair, a list of weaknesses and problems:

  • No SD card memory
  • No audio
  • No pan/tilt/zoom
  • Reported: security concerns
  • Reported: some cameras won’t retain settings
  • Horrible software/firmware
  • Difficult to mount and aim
  • May require a large hole to run cable(s)

In the descriptions which follow I will give instructions for doing a number of things.  Don’t be surprised if the steps don’t do what you want or expect.  Be willing to experiment, and to retry things different ways.  Sometimes it helps to reboot the camera by disconnecting power.  I’m also not sure I haven’t done something at some point that has changed how things work, so don’t be too surprised if some things are different from what I describe.

Other Similar Cameras

There are many similar Chinese-made cameras available from a wide variety of manufacturers.  I’ve tried several of them with fairly poor results.  They all seem to suffer from bad software and bad firmware.

You shouldn’t buy any of these cameras without expecting to have to use third-party software to run it.  Doing so requires that the camera supports a standard API such as ONVIF.  Many don’t, which makes them pretty much worthless.

Many of these cameras use similar software and firmware; I suspect there are vendors in China that supply chipsets, firmware, and operating software, and that camera manufacturers all use the same basic parts and code.

So it doesn’t much matter what off-brand camera you buy; they’re all pretty bad.  At least with Amazon you can try them and get your money back if they don’t work.

Physically Setting Up and Installing the Camera

This should probably be the last thing you do, but you’ll have questions right away.

What Comes in the Box

The pan/tilt position is locked.  You might be able to adjust it a little by forcing it, but don’t.  There is a tiny Allen wrench in the box.  Use it to loosen the three tiny setscrews around the base.  Loosen them a little to make minor adjustments; a lot to take the camera apart for mounting.  To tighten them, hold the part with the setscrews tight against the mounting ring while tightening the setscrews.  It’s a little awkward and I wouldn’t want to do it while up on a ladder.

Bottom of Camera Showing Mounting Ring and Cradle

If you play with the adjustment you’ll probably get the camera rotated in the mount, so the picture looks tilted.  Don’t be alarmed.  The camera itself is a ball and is not restrained on any axis.  Expect to have to fiddle with it to get it right.

If you loosen all the setscrews the camera will come apart into three pieces: the baseplate, the cradle, and the camera ball.  To mount the camera, say to a ceiling, first remove the baseplate.  You’ll see three mounting holes to be used to screw the baseplate to the mounting surface.  Once the baseplate is mounted, you can put the camera back together.  It’s probably best to just tighten the setscrews enough to hold things together, so you can adjust the aim of the camera.  When all is the way you want, fully tighten the setscrews.

Camera Connectors

The camera requires a wired Ethernet connection and that in turn requires a big hole to run the cable.  Figure on drilling a 3/4″ hole to run the wires through, if you run the wires through the mounting surface as you would on a ceiling or soffit mount.  If you use surface wiring, you could conceivably drill a 1/4″ hole, thread Ethernet cable through it, and terminate the cable by crimping on an RJ45 plug.  If you do this and are mounting the camera outside, use the included shield to protect the cable from the weather — I’d add silicone grease or RTV to it for extra protection.

Supplying Power to the Camera

The camera I got came with a little wall transformer and a two-ended cable with both an Ethernet connector and a jack to connect the transformer.  Other reviewers have said that their camera was POE only and didn’t come with a transformer.  But no matter; you’ll probably want to use POE.

POE (Power Over Ethernet) is, as the name implies, a way to power things using just an Ethernet connection.  It works very well and greatly simplifies the installation of cameras.  I very highly recommend it.

Regular Ethernet doesn’t include power.  You have two ways to add power to an Ethernet connection: a POE switch, or a POE injector.  A POE switch is much easier — you use it like any other switch, and some or all ports include POE power — and is cheaper if you’re powering several cameras.  A POE injector just moves the complexity from the camera location to your router/switch location, but may be preferable if you’re only mounting one or two cameras and there isn’t power readily available where the cameras are to be installed.

I don’t worry about POE standards.  There seems to be a fair amount of anxiety about making sure standards match for POE equipment.  My experience has been that there is agreement among hardware vendors about what “POE” means.  That may not have been true in the past.

Passwords and More Passwords

The camera itself has an admin password, and I think you can define more passwords with other usernames and varying sets of permissions.  The CMS software also has a password.  And in the NVSIP Android app there is a password associated with an email address that I entered once, I think for some sort of cloud storage that may or may not be implemented.

I haven’t figured out how to set most of these passwords, and I haven’t seen any evidence that they do anything.  I think when I first started out I set a password for the camera somehow, but I’ve not been able to reproduce that condition.  All software I use just works, no matter what password I use.

If your experience with passwords is different from mine, you may want (or need) to set up and use a password for the camera itself.  To do this, use the CMS software (described below) to connect to the camera.  Then right-click on the camera image, Pick System->User Setting, select the “admin” user, pick Modify, then enter a desired password.

Security (or Lack of Same)

Passwords are just the beginning.  Some reviewers on Amazon have done packet tracing on the network traffic generated by the camera, and have found communication to a variety of servers in China.  I tend to not care about such things, and to suspect that most of it is just bad programming such as incomplete/undocumented cloud storage or remote access.  But maybe I’m foolish and I should be worried about it all.

I’m not that interesting and I don’t have much of value, so I really don’t care if hackers can get to my camera feeds.  Yes the lack of security theoretically makes it possible for someone to hack my system and disable cameras or delete recordings, but the odds of some lowlife, looking for something to steal so they can buy drugs, having the ability and motivation to hack my system is pretty low.

One source of communication with China is the camera’s time lookup setting, which refers to a server in China.  It’s harmless, but you can change it in the CMS software or ONVIF Device Manager to use a local time server such as pool.ntp.org.

Many cheap cameras are listening on port 23 (Telnet), and this one is no exception.  This theoretically gives you the ability to log in to the Linux shell running on the camera, and do pretty much whatever you want.  The login requires a username and password, which are not readily available.  If you search for them, you’ll find lists of passwords that have worked on similar cameras, but I’ve tried all I could find (dozens of them) without luck.  From the command prompt, type telnet camera_IP_address and try your luck.

A major danger of the lack of security demonstrated by the Telnet vulnerability is that cameras can be hacked en masse and recruited into botnets.  Also, any camera that is successfully hacked will have access to everything on your local network.

The Camera’s Web Interface
If you’re used to devices like this camera, the first place you’re likely to look is the web page you get if you go to the device’s IP address.  Don’t bother (though I know you’ll try).

 

Camera’s Login Screen
You first are presented with a login screen.  I first had the camera set up without a password, and no matter what password I entered I got a pretty useless configuration screen.  I know in the past I’ve seen similar screens with more choices but for now I can’t get to it.  Most recently I set a password for the camera, and it would not log in at all; it would just stay on the login screen.

 

Limited Configuration Screen
Note the “This plugin is not supported” message on the configuration screen.  There is a lot of useless information on the web about this situation.  Some people say it only works with old versions of IE, some say you have to load Quicktime, and sometimes it asks to load a plugin.

 

No matter what you do, it won’t work.  Save your time and just ignore it all.  This is typical behavior for the camera; things are not repeatable and don’t seem to follow any rules at all.
ONVIF and ONVIF Device Manager

A good place to start is to download a third-party open source program called ONVIF Device ManagerONVIF is a standard for interfacing with IP cameras, and is most likely how you will be using the camera.  The ONVIF Device Manager (“ODM”) pokes around in the camera settings that are accessible using ONVIF, and lets you change some of them.  Unlike CMS, it is fairly straightforward to use, and it’s nice to have something working this early in the process.

ONVIF Device Manager

You can use ODM to set up many of the configurable parameters in the camera.  Most things work but a few don’t, so test any changes you make with it to make sure they “stick”.  You can use it to reset or reboot the camera, which no other software will let you do.  The “soft reset” function supposedly resets camera parameters but not things like networking parameters, and seems to work, and “hard reset” is supposed to return the camera to original factory settings but it doesn’t.

I’d suggest setting the following things with ODM:

  • Identification->Name:  camera ID
  • Identification->Location:  changes don’t “stick”
  • Time settings->Time zone:  set this here not in CMS
  • Time settings->Daylight savings time:  changes don’t “stick”
  • Network settings: set these up how you want; I like fixed IPs
  • Network settings->NTP servers: set to “pool.ntp.org”
  • User management: I couldn’t get any of this to work
  • Live video: seems to work most of the time
  • Video streaming: changes don’t “stick”
  • Imaging settings: seem to work

The various display modes work sometimes but sometimes put up a “NO SIGNAL” message.  I don’t know what that means, but I’m not worrying about it.

ODM development is based in Russia.  It is open source so is unlikely to be doing anything that it shouldn’t.  Use your discretion as to whether you think it is safe.

Installing and Using the CMS Software

You’ll find one of those annoying little CDs in the box.  It has a bunch of software on it and some very modest documentation.  Once you’ve looked over the documentation, install the CMS software and nothing else.  Run it and prepare to enter a bizarro-world of software design.  The stuff is not just bad, it’s bad in ways that took considerable creativity.  Luckily you only have to use it to set up the camera once (we hope).

CMS Software Main Screen

I’m going to give very terse instructions for using it.  It’s painful to use, and it doesn’t work the same way every time, so instructions are not terribly helpful.  Expect to have to fuss with it to get it to do what you want.

Note that the CMS software is supposed to be a complete monitoring system, and as such it has many, many options.  Most of the options control the functioning of the software, not the camera.  A few control settings in the camera itself, and those are the ones we’re interested in.

The CMS software has its own password.  I use a blank password since I won’t be running it much or leaving it running.  Once you get past logging in, you need to select your camera.  Pick “Devices” from the menu at the bottom (if the menu doesn’t show, fuss with it until it does).  There is an auto-detect function which I’ve never gotten to work — add your camera manually.  All you need to enter is the camera ID taken from the camera’s label.

Camera label showing camera ID (SQ286008011)

Once you’ve gotten your camera selected, you should see video from it.  It may take a few seconds to connect.  You then can get to camera-specific settings by right-clicking on the camera image and picking “Remote Config”.  That will put up a new menu bar in the center of the screen.   Note that the “Exit” target will exit the remote configuration mode, not the CMS program.

Start by picking “System”.  This gets you into a property page for the camera itself.  In “System Setting” you will probably want to change “OSD Position” and “Time Position” to “HIDE”.  This will let the software you end up using to manage text overlays.  In the “Time Setting” section make sure “time synchronization” is checked, and verify that the time zone and NTP server are set as you want (you set these in the ONVIF Display Manager).

In the “Maintenance” tab of the “System” menu you can set up automatic rebooting of the camera (I don’t) and attempt to upgrade the firmware in the camera.  I couldn’t get it to work, but if you like to live dangerously, give it a try by picking “Update begin”.  Also in this tab are three buttons, “Diagnosis”, “Restart”, and “Recovery” that sound like they might be useful if things go south.

Back to the “Remote Config” menu.  Pick “Stream” and you get to yet more property pages.  Of interest is the “Image” tab, on which you will see two checkboxes: “Mirror” and “Turn”.  These control the orientation if the camera image.  If the picture is upside down or otherwise wrong, some combination of those checkboxes will fix it.  I find that my camera requires both to be checked, which is not the default.

Another icon on the “Remote Config” menu is “Network”.  This lets you set things like the IP address of the camera.  You should already have set this up the way you want using ONVIF Device Manager, but take a look and fix up anything that isn’t how you want it.

One last thing about the CMS software: there are Minimize and Close icons at the lower right corner of the screen.  Minimize minimizes to the tray.  Close brings up a login screen, which you must satisfy before the program will actually exit.  It’s some sort of security I think.

Installing and Using the NVSIP App

There are apps that will let you access your camera from a smartphone.  If you want to be able to do this, you’ll want to use a third-party app that comes with the software you use to run the camera.  This section is about the NVSIP app that comes with the camera.  You may want to play around with it, but I doubt it will be something you’ll want to use on a regular basis.  I use an Android phone so I can’t report on the iPhone app; I assume it is similar.

Don’t install the app from the little CD; go to the app store to get the latest version.  Search for “NVSIP”.  Once you get it installed and running, it will ask you to log in with your email address and password, or to sign up or enter using “Guest Mode”.

I haven’t had luck signing up for an account, and have always just used “Guest Mode”.  I don’t know what features you’ll unlock by signing up, but I expect to be able to do whatever I need to do using third-party software.  The account is probably necessary to allow access remotely using the app, but once again I’d suggest just using other software to do this.

Next, pick the “+” in the upper right to begin adding your camera.  I haven’t had luck with automatic methods of adding devices.  You can try if you want but I’d recommend just adding the device manually.  Enter the camera ID from the sticker on the camera; it will look like “SQ286123456”.  It will ask for “Channel Amount”; enter “1”.  I think the camera has two channels but they both seem to show the same video, so I don’t know what the point is.  Enter a password, but it doesn’t seem to matter what you enter.  Leaving it blank doesn’t work.

Once you’ve entered your camera you will see a list of available cameras.  Pick the one you just entered, and you should be taken to a screen that shows the camera’s output.  At the bottom of the screen are several targets, some of which work and some which don’t.  You can play around to figure out what they do.

Third-Party Software

There are a number of third-party programs out there that let you manage and use your camera.  Two of the most popular are Blue Iris and iSpy.  Both are free for the basic functions and require a subscription if you want to get fancy.  If you are serious about using your camera(s) for security purposes you’ll probably want to get a subscription.  To date I have not done so, so will not be able to report on their subscription-based features.

Theoretically you can do everything you want using the free CMS software.  But that software is so awful that I can’t imagine it doing everything you want without glitches and bugs.  Third-party software works much better, even though it may cost a bit to be able to use the features you want.

Installing and Using iSpy

First download, unzip, and install iSpy.  It will ask you to create an account, used for logging on to the iSpy program, and accessing camera feeds and recordings from other devices.  It doesn’t commit you to buying anything; go ahead and sign up.

iSpy Main Screen

Once you get started, pick “Add” then “ONVIF Camera”.   Ignore the camera’s “User:” and “Password:” fields; they don’t seem to do anything.  It should show the IP addresses of all ONVIF cameras you have; pick the one you want.  Now, pick “Next”.  You’ll get a list of all streams available for the camera.  These cameras seem to have two identical streams so it doesn’t matter which one you pick.  Next pick “Done” which will take you to the camera’s property page.  Give it a name and turn off motion detection if you want, then pick “Finish”.  You should have an active camera being displayed.

iSpy can add other “cameras” to monitor, including webcams and the screen of the computer you are using, so long as they are connected to the PC you are using or are accessible from the local network.

iSpy has several property pages, some of which are hard to find.  Right-clicking on a camera image will get you to some of them.  Play around and see what you can do.

The iSpy subscription versions unlock remote monitoring features.  If you’re happy with only being able to view cameras and recordings from the local network on which iSpy is running, you don’t need to subscribe.  There are a number of subscription options which are pretty much all the same, differing only in the number of PCs that iSpy can be running on and the term of the subscription.  Once you subscribe you can enable SMS alerts based on events you select; to use this feature you need “SMS credits” some of which may be included in your subscription plan, or which can be purchased separately.  There is also an Android-only app which will alert you directly without requiring SMS credits.

For remote access from a PC, go to www.ispyconnect.com/monitor/.  Log in to your server, pick Live->Video Wall, and drag and drop cameras to the “Wall” to display them.  Remember that without a paid account you can only do this from your local network.

For remote access from a smartphone, open Chrome or another browser and go to m.ispyconnect.com.  Log in with your iSpy credentials and the rest is easy.  Again, you need a paid account to use this away from your local LAN.

Installing and Using Blue Iris

Blue Iris is paid software.  If you download it you get 15 days to try it out then it stops working until you pay.  Paid versions are $30 for one camera or $60 for up to 64.  The license comes with one year of email support.  You can buy more support for $30/year and better support for $60/year.

I long ago used up my trial and don’t want to pay, so I don’t have much help to offer.

I can say that it looks like a good, professional product, it’s not expensive, and many people use it.  Documentation is limited, and there’s no user manual.

One difference between Blue Iris and iSpy is that iSpy requires an ongoing monthly charge to use remotely, for which you get to use their servers to facilitate remote access without needing to use dynamic DNS or requiring setting up port forwarding.  Conversely, Blue Iris runs a web server on your machine to be used for remote access, which (I think) requires DyDNS and port forwarding.  Someone please correct me if I’m wrong — I can’t check this myself.