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CCTV Recorders

Video Surveillance Systems Buyers' Guide

You need to record the images from your CCTV cameras if you want to review them at a later date and possibly use them as part of a legal action. For many years, the answer was to record on a video tape installed in a CCTV VCR (video cassette recorder) linked to your monitor. Even now, many people employ this method and it's still possible to buy a good quality VCR for your CCTV system. But the advent of digital technology and the ability to record pictures on hard drives as opposed to tapes has presented buyers with an alternative that has considerably enhanced capabilities.

DVRs (Digital Video Recorders)

DVRs have a number of major advantages over their VCR equivalents.

  • Intelligent monitoring. You can programme your DVR to take just one picture every second, for instance, and to record up to 30 frames per second when one of your cameras registers motion in its field of view.
  • Hard drive. A DVR records directly to a hard drive within the machine. A good capacity hard drive can record for weeks on end; it also gives you images that don't deteriorate over time.
  • Instant retrieval. With a DVR, you don't need to scan through hour after hour of tape to find the images taken at a certain time. You can go straight to the pictures you need to see or to the moment when full motion started (see Intelligent monitoring above).
  • Dual function. DVRs can play and record at the same time, allowing you to check your images without interrupting the flow of the recording.
  • Multiplexer. DVRs also work as multiplexers. Depending on the DVR model and the size of monitor you can view up to 16 different images on one screen and then switch to the one picture that most interests you.
DVR Options

There are now more DVRs on the market than VCRs, and in keeping with digital technology, you have a wide choice of options.

  • Size of hard drive. To give you some idea of hard drive capacity, you can record 5 - 8 days' worth of full motion images from one camera with 80 GB (gigabytes). If you set the DVR for intelligent monitoring, the capacity improves significantly. When you have a number of cameras linked to the same DVR, you may prefer a 240 GB machine or larger.
  • Replaceable hard drives. Some DVRs have replaceable hard drives. You can change the hard drive once it's full and build a library of recordings.
  • Recording quality. When you shop for a DVR, you'll find there are plenty of specifications relating to quality. To cut through any confusion, ask to see examples of recordings, bearing in mind that the cameras and monitors also have an impact on the standard of the demo.
  • Number of cameras. CCTV suppliers sell DVRs with a specified number of camera connections ranging from 1 - 16. To avoid buying another DVR in the future, you need to decide how many cameras you currently need and how many you might want to add later.
  • Exporting images. If you intend to use your CCTV pictures to prosecute someone or simply to aid the police, you'll want to export the images to a CD. Some DVRs come with a built-in CD writer and others have a connection that allows you to attach an external CD writer or a laptop.

If you choose a VCR, buy a model designed for CCTV use. It will be more robust than a home VCR and have characteristics that extend the use of the tape. Apart from recording quality, measured in TVLs as discussed in CCTV Camera Basics, the key feature is the amount of recordable hours. The best models offer 960 hours using an ordinary tape but bear in mind that you can achieve this only by accepting a low rate of fps (frames per second).

There are also other disadvantages to VCRs.

  • You may have to buy a lot of tapes if you intend to keep your images for some time.
  • The more you reuse a tape, the more the quality of the images deteriorates.
  • Tapes leave behind a certain amount of debris that builds up on the tape heads, which means you need to perform regular cleaning and maintenance.
  • If you have more than one camera you'll need a piece of equipment known as a multiplexer; if not, you'll require a VCR for each camera.
  • VCRs don't let you play back and record at the same time.

For prices of DVRs and VCRs, see Prices of CCTV Systems.

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