Instead, its Ethernet connection lets you plug it into a network. And it has a built in Web server, so you can both aim the camera and view its output from any computer on your home network that has a Web browser. You may also be able to reach the Observer from any computer on the Internet, but this is likely to require more complicated configuration of a home network than most people who aren't network administrators would be comfortable with.
The Observer is an early example of what I expect will be a large wave of inexpensive networked devices to appear in coming months, and it shows both the promises and the pitfalls. On the one hand, it's neat to be able to set up a camera not tethered to a PC and view it from anywhere on the network. On the other hand, the complexities of remote access demonstrate how complicated networking can be -- and the demands of even minimal security mean it's not going to get a lot easier any time soon.
A WIRELESS FUTURE. The camera is simple enough to set up. You can either stand it on its base on any flat surface or use a bracket to mount it on a wall or ceiling (the camera isn't intended for outdoor use). The Observer requires a power outlet and an Ethernet connection. A Wi-Fi wireless version would be nice and probably will be available in the fairly near future for perhaps a $50 premium. As soon as you connect the Observer and turn it on, it gets a network address, which it displays in a little window.
You install the setup software on a Windows PC on the network, and it automatically locates the camera, or cameras if you have installed more than one. You also establish a username and password for access to the camera. Once you log in, the image seen by the Observer shows up in a window in your browser.
Arrow keys in the browser window activate servo-motors in the camera mount to move up and down, and pan from side to side. The picture quality is decent if not spectacular, and the camera can handle very low light levels without too much image degradation. You can record either a continuous image or a series of still shots to your hard drive.
ROUTER RECONFIGURING. The Observer can add audio to the video, but don't expect much. You could use it with a headset mike for a sort of poor man's videoconferencing, but better solutions are available for that. An inexpensive microphone will pick up sounds in the vicinity of the camera. However, the quality is likely to be quite poor. A microphone that would give you intelligible audio would probably cost more than the Observer.
The ability to view the camera output remotely from anywhere on the Internet would be attractive if it weren't so problematical. Even if you can get through the setup procedure -- which may require reconfiguring your network router and firewall, if you have one -- I would think twice about doing it.
While you may feel better about being able to view what's going on in your home when you're not there, you're creating a vulnerability in your network in the process. At a minimum, choose a strong password for the camera if you don't want to be sharing its output with your neighbors or just about anyone else in the world. At worst, the hole you open in a firewall to allow access to the camera many leave your computers open to hacker attack, as well.
What you gain in piece of mind from having the camera will be lost if you stop to worry about network security. Wildstrom is Technology & You columnist for BusinessWeek. Follow his Flash Product Reviews, only on BusinessWeek Online