￼Up until recently, there have only been a few mid-level IP cameras which offer both pan/tilt and megapixel quality video, Panasonic BB-HCM715 being the most popular. Superseding the BB-HCM511, the BB-HCM715 comes with a compact camera housing, audio support, on-camera SD card recording and Power over Ethernet connectivity. The wide feature range and competitive price have appealed to many users.
However, hot off the production line are the new Axis M50 series of cameras. Two models are available, capable of either SVGA (M5013) or HD 720p (M5014) resolution, which look to be aimed at the same market as the BB-HCM715. In this comparison, we’ll be looking at the Axis M5014. So, how does the new kid stand up to the seasoned leader? Lets take a look.
As stated above, the M50 is one of the few cameras to offer pan and tilt on such a compact camera. Whereas the Panasonic’s pan is more limited, providing only 104° left to right and 53° up and down, the Axis provides full 360° movement (±180°) with 90° tilt. The result is that you can look all around the camera, covering the blind spots that would be missed by the Panasonic.
Megapixel / HD footage
Both cameras provide megapixel resolution video at up to 30 fps. While the BB-HCM715 provides video in 4:3 resolutions (1280×960 being the maximum), the M5014 captures 16:9 ratio video and so conforms to the SMPTE resolution standard, making it fully HD compliant.
Video from both cameras can be enlarged in real time using digital zoom. The Axis provides 3x digital zoom while the Panasonic provides a combined 6x zoom (3x digital and 2x ExZoom).
Each camera has support for flash memory, allowing users to capture footage onboard the camera itself without the need for external hardware or software. MicroSD cards are supported on the M50, while the BB-HCM715 uses standard SD memory cards.
Power over Ethernet support
Both cameras support the IEEE802.3af Power over Ethernet standard, allowing power to be supplied across the network connection, simplifying installation and reducing cabling costs.
The M50 series are IP51-rated. This means that the camera can withstand dripping water without damage. It may not sound like much, but for unexpected events such as burst pipes or roof leaks, it’s nice to know that the camera can survive unscathed.
The BB-HCM715 is not designed to withstand water ingress. Having said that, there is the BB-HCM735 (the outdoor version of the BB-HCM715) which is IP55-rated, allowing it to be installed outdoors when provided with some protection, such as the eaves of a house.
One-way audio is available on the Axis M50 series using the built-in microphone, allowing users to listen in to the camera’s surroundings. The BB-HCM715 also features an integrated microphone for audio and goes one better by also offering two 3.5mm mini-jack connections for microphone input and speaker output for 2-way half-duplex audio.
Out of the box, both cameras have some similarities, but also some key differences. Firstly, both cameras are quite similar in size, being able to fit in the palm of your hand. However, the mounting methods are different. The Panasonic is designed to be mounted on the included stand while the Axis is designed to be flush mounted onto a ceiling. This makes the Axis slightly less flexible when it comes to mounting, but also makes it much more discreet.
Both cameras look fairly professional and are well put together. The white finish of the Axis should fit in well with most business and office decors, while the silver of the Panasonic looks modern, if a little bulky. Both are made out of plastic but should stand up to everyday use.
The integrated network cable on the M5014 is a double-edged sword. While the inclusion of the cable helps to make the camera resistant to water, it could interfere with the routing of the camera’s network connection. The cable will almost certainly need extending to reach any existing network infrastructure and if the cable is to be passed through a wall, the hole required will need to be quite large.
What’s in the Box?
- Axis M5014 camera housing with integrated 1 m network cable
- Metal surface-mount bracket
- Plastic suspended ceiling bracket
- Installation template
- Setup CD
- Panasonic BB-HCM715 network camera
- Wall/ceiling/desk-mount stand
- Mounting screws
- Hard plastic SD-card cover
- Setup CD
As we can see, very little separates these cameras in terms of included accessories. Both include mounting brackets along with setup software and documentation, and both can be installed in certain conditions with no additional hardware at all, with the Axis using the included suspended ceiling mount and the Panasonic coming with mounting screws.
Firstly, we’ll look at the demo image from the Axis M5014. We wall-mounted the camera at low-level for testing purposes.
Image 1: Axis M5014; compression: MJPEG; resolution: 1280×720; image quality: 30% compression; light level: 400 lux
The image is a little more granular than others we have seen, but the image quality remains very good and the colours are vibrant. The only setting we had to change to achieve this was the automatic exposure system. The fluorescent lights caused significant flickering on the image but was quickly remedied with a change from Automatic to Flicker-free 50Hz.
When comparing to the Panasonic image we see quite a stark difference.
Image 2: Panasonic BB-HCM715; compression: MJPEG; resolution: 1280×960; image quality: Favour clarity; light level: 400 lux
By not conforming to the HD standard, the image is taller than that of the Axis. Despite having an advertised horizontal field of view of 69° rather than the Axis’ 71°, the view captured by the camera is actually wider. Still, the colours of the Axis are much richer and realistic while the Panasonic looks more washed out.
The Panasonic required a bit more configuration than the Axis in order to capture the above image. The camera has two modes for megapixel and non-megapixel viewing. In the non-megapixel mode all features are available, other than the megapixel resolution. In order to get the full megapixel resolution certain features must be disabled. We will explore this in detail a bit later.
The clarity in both images is a very good. Both cameras feature a fixed lens so the focus cannot be altered, but being intended for indoor use the focal range is adequate for the task. Close and remote objects are very sharp and clearly defined.
Pan and tilt is a great tool for surveillance, allowing a single camera to cover a wide area. Both these cameras feature pan/tilt movement with different control systems and movement limits. Being designed to be ceiling-mounted, the M5014 features rotation and tilting, allowing it to spin 360° (±180°) and tilt 90°. Being intended for vertical mounting, the BB-HCM715 only features ±52° pan and -45 to 8° tilt, limiting the area it can cover. This heavily limits the usability of the camera when compared with the Axis.
Movement is controlled either by ‘click-to-centre’ commands on the live view or by the controls on the live view page. The Panasonic uses standard directional buttons to move the view while the Axis provides a bar indicator. Clicking on a certain area of this bar will move the view to that location, making large movements very quick and easy. Presets are also available for both cameras, with eight available in the Panasonic and 25 in the Axis.
One thing we did notice is that when the Axis is placed on a flat surface, the PTZ mechanism is quite noisy. When testing we found that we could hear the mechanism from a distance of up to 7 m. When a camera is designed to be discreet it is not ideal to find that subjects could be attracted by the noise of the mechanism. The noise produced by the Panasonic is not as noticeable, but the view does not move as fast as the Axis.
It is worth noting that neither of these cameras are proper ‘dome’ cameras and as such are not designed to be panned and tilted continuously, hence there is no guard tour facility. Proper dome cameras tend to have more rugged mechanicals which can handle the punishment of continuous use. If the mechanisms of these cameras were subjected to the same prolonged use they would fail.
Digital zoom is an often overlooked feature in IP cameras. The feature simply increases the size of each pixel in the image, essentially making objects appear bigger without any mechanical movement. However, zooming in does not improve the detail in the image so this cannot be compared with cameras featuring an optical zoom.
We tested the Panasonic first. Panasonic makes use of two types of zooming system. The first is a digital zoom similar to that discussed above. ExView is the name of the second system and zooms by using only a 640×480 portion of the image sensor, rather than using the full sensor image and then altering it. This allows the camera to display an image with a narrower field of view without loss in quality.
In older Panasonic cameras, the digital zoom was part of the ActiveX component, a piece of control software which would only work in Internet Explorer. It’s good to see that in the BB-HCM715 this is no longer the case, with normal push-button controls on the live view page in non-IE browsers. For those using Internet Explorer, there is also the option to control the live view with the mouse scroll button.
The largest drawback to the Panasonic zoom system is that it is not available in 1.3MP resolution, only when the camera is in VGA (640×480) mode. This is down to the capabilities of the camera hardware, but it is a significant limitation to its usefulness.
The loss in image quality has a drastic impact on the usability of images captured. The image below shows a demonstration image from the camera. We tested with a person standing at a distance of around 5 m from the camera.
Image 3: Panasonic BB-HCM715 demo images at minimum and maximum zoom; compression: MJPEG; resolution: 640×480 each; image quality: Favour clarity; light level: 400 lux
The images show distinct pixellation and fuzziness when compared to the camera’s native resolution. This was expected, but it is still disappointing that identifying people at this range is going to be difficult. We then compared with the M5014.
Image 4: Axis M5014 demo images at minimum and maximum zoom; compression: MJPEG; resolution: 1280×720 each; image quality: 30% compression
This shows very clearly that the zoomed image on the M5014 is much clearer, making positive identification far simpler. There are a few reasons for this. Primarily, the viewing angle, though wider on paper, is actually narrower than the Panasonic to begin with, giving a greater pixel/degree ratio and therefore greater quality. Additionally the zoom ratio isn’t as high, resulting in less loss of image data.
The only caveat we have with the images from the M5014 is that the image often seems to have a dappled effect, making it look a little like an oil painting. It’s not enough to detract from the image, but it is noticeable.
In the second half of this article, we’ll have a look at the sound, recording and event detection systems of the cameras and deliver our verdict.