How to turn your smartphone into a spy camera or baby monitor

Update: Added Alfred, WardenCam, and AtHome Camera as viable solutions.

If you’re itching to keep an eye on someone (or someplace), but have a limited budget to work with, fear not. We’re in the second decade of the 21st century. You don’t need to buy a bunch of expensive equipment to spy or monitor an area anymore — though, some of the best home security cameras are more affordable than you might think. These days, all you need is a smartphone you’re currently not using. With a few bucks, an iPhone or Android device, a charger, and some tape or a tripod for mounting purposes, you can monitor whatever you want. Here’s how to do it.

Note: Before beginning, make sure you’re using a wireless network that is secure and password-protected. Setting this up on an unprotected network is not advised, as someone may be able to access your network without your permission.

How to turn your Android phone into a spy camera

If you own an Android device, there are a ton of apps you can use to accomplish your camera needs. Getting and installing the software on your smartphone is easy, however, using your camera is a different story.

To keep things simple, we recommend you install an app like Alfred, WardenCam, or IP Webcam. All of these are simple, easy-to-use Android apps that work for the majority of devices out there, and they’re perfect for what we’re trying to do here. All three are free for download from Google Play, but you may have to contend with some advertising. If you don’t want any ads, you can get IP Webcam Pro for $4. Moreover, both Alfred and WardenCam have in-app purchases that allow you to upgrade to ad-free versions.

The trio of apps all offer the same thing in terms of features, whether you’re in need of motion detection, night vision, or the ability to review events that took place while you were away. They also allow you to adjust the resolution of your video feed, and configure your phone so it doesn’t go to sleep while the camera is running. It all comes down to personal preference. That said, IP Webcam does require a network connection, while Alfred and WardenCam support 3G/4G/LTE. The two latter apps even let you speak to others near the camera.

If you’re worried about the apps working correctly, Alfred and WardenCam may be the better options since they feature ongoing support. IP Webcam was last updated in August.

Note: You will need to give IP Webcam complete control of your Android phone’s camera for this to work, meaning no other apps can use the camera while IP Webcam is running. Once the app is running, set up your smartphone wherever you want to monitor, plug it into an AC adapter, and move on to the instructions below.

How to turn your iPhone into a spy camera

As an iPhone owner, you have a few options for setting up remote viewing. Presence by People Power is a jack-of-all-trades automation app that offers free connectivity to another iOS device for viewing, but no video recording or other advanced technology. The free version of the app lets you view a live stream of your monitored area, and will push notifications when something happens nearby. In-app purchases for Presence Pro Video increase your cloud storage, improve video quality, and enable longer video recordings in the event your phone loses its internet connection.

If you want a higher-quality feed for something like monitoring your baby in their crib, you should consider Baby Monitor 3G, which costs $4. The app lets you use an old iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch as a wireless baby monitor, allowing you to keep an eye on your baby while they rest and adding a visual twist to the traditional walkie-talkie solution. The current iteration of the app supports WatchOS, and includes video zoom and a night mode. For an extra $5, the app can even connect to a Mac and will let you talk to your baby. These options are great for watching your child and talking to them from a room or two away.

If you’re looking for another alternative, check out AtHome Camera from Circlely Networks Incorporated and its companion app, AtHome Video Streamer. When used together, the pair let you monitor your area of choice from wherever you are, as long as you have a Wi-Fi or cellular connection. You can also schedule recordings in advance, watch multiple cameras on one device thanks to a split-screen feature, and remotely control your camera to get a better look at the room or surrounding area.

Presence, Baby Monitor 3G, and AtHome Camera are just a few of the options available for iOS, which is far more varied than it was a few years ago. There are ways to get an IP Camera working, but they can cost you a monthly subscription fee and may not be worth the investment despite how affordable they can initially seem. If you’re going to pay monthly, you should invest in real security technology.

How to connect your phone to your PC

To take full advantage of your remote camera, you need to view the camera’s feed, be able to record footage, and set up motion detection. Fortunately, there are ways of doing this directly within the aforementioned apps, but sometimes you’ll want to use your PC to remotely view your feed, record it, and detect motion or sound.

If you’re using any of the iOS apps we mentioned, and have a Mac, you’re already good to go. Both Baby Monitor 3G and AtHome Camera have Mac versions of their apps that can turn your Mac into a monitoring station. Windows users can download AtHome Camera here, but will have to wait for a Windows-compatible version of Baby Monitor 3G. Meanwhile, Presence has a browser version that you must register to use.

On the Android side, Alfred is probably the easiest to use since it already has its own browser version that supports both Google Chrome and FireFox — you just need to log in with the same account info used in the app. Unfortunately, WardenCam doesn’t currently offer a PC or Mac component.

If you’re using IP Webcam on an Android device, you have a few options. You can view your smartphone’s video feed using VLC, Windows Media Player, or any video player with streaming compatibility. If you’re using VLC, go to Media > Open Network Stream, and enter the URL to your remote camera. Once you’ve entered the URL, you can connect and see through your smartphone’s camera. Sadly, you can’t record footage very well with VLC; for that, you’ll want to opt for more powerful software.

For those looking for a more robust setup, we recommend WebcamXP or Netcam Studio. Both WebcamXP and Netcam Studio are made by the same company, but Netcam Studio is newer and includes a watermark when viewing footage. If you don’t want a watermark, you can either buy the software for $50 or use WebcamXP, its older but capable sibling without a watermark. Both limit you to just one camera at a time, however, so if you want some crazy setup with three different smartphones, you should invest in the paid edition of Netcam Studio.

Both WebcamXP and Netcam Studio offer the same straightforward functionality you’ll need to take full advantage of your Android device’s remote camera. Both pieces of software can view live feeds from the camera, record footage, activate when motion or sound is detected, and connect with IP Webcam. They are missing minor features, such as camera focusing and LED control, but you can still remotely control these via IP Webcam. Both WebcamXP and Netcam Studio are extremely versatile given their feature set, and if you decide to kick it up a notch, you can transform your Android device into a real security camera with them.