Spy vs. Spy with the PenCam
It is amazing to watch the evolution of surveillance gadgets that modern technology brings us. Hidden cameras are now tucked away inconspicuously in smoke detectors, motion detectors, stuffed animals, clocks, and countless other innocuous products.
Today, it’s easy for manufacturers to squeeze a great deal of functionality into a tiny package. Integrated circuits have millions of transistors packed onto tiny chips, wristwatches offer a thousand functions, and cell phones can access the Internet and capture still and video images. Of course, those tiny integrated circuits enable the manufacture of most of these devices in the first place.
One ordinary looking but functional product is the Swann DVR-421 PenCam. It looks and writes like any ordinary writing utensil, but it also records video and still images. Inside the thick, but otherwise ordinary looking ballpoint pen, is a pinhole camera and 2GB DVR that can record 640 x 480 color video with sound, and still images with 1280 x 960 resolution. Of course, the PenCam can also be used as a USB thumb drive.
All the 21st-Century technology is squeezed into the top half of the pen, while its bottom half contains a traditional ink cartridge. The ink cartridge is shorter than a standard one, but three extra refills are included. Uncapping the pen reveals the USB plug in the top half, which is used to charge the battery and upload video and stills to a computer. A tiny switch that’s flush against the USB plug sets the PenCam to either the video or still mode.
The PenCam’s lithium-ion battery must be charged before use. A dual-color LED flashes orange to indicate that the PenCam is charging, and it stops blinking once the battery is fully charged. Charging takes about an hour, after which it will operate for about 90 minutes. The dual-color status LED is, for the most part, hidden from view when the PenCam is clipped to a shirt pocket. I’m not encouraging any illegal or unethical use of this device. However, if you wish to avoid being discovered, you might want to cover the LED with a piece of black tape.
To use the PenCam, set it to the video or still mode and then depress the button on top of the cap until it activates. In the video mode, the dual-color LEDs light up blue and orange for five seconds before switching to the solid orange of standby, ready to record. Video recording starts when you push the top button again and the status LED lights up solid blue. Recording stops when you push the button again, and the status LED reverts to orange. Status indicators for the still mode are the same, except that the LED flashes orange when in standby; clicking the top button snaps a picture and the LED turns blue while the image is being stored, and then reverts to orange when it’s ready to take another shot. Holding down the button for three seconds in either mode turns the PenCam off.
Sometimes a gadget with so few controls can be difficult to use, but that’s not the case with the PenCam: it's very easy to use. There’s no viewfinder, so you don't know exactly what's being captured until you review the footage. But there’s no way the PenCam could have a viewfinder, so you simply have to live with its limitations.
The PenCam gives each file a time-stamped name, such as 2010-06-02 07-36-59.AVI or 2010-06-02 07-36-59.JPG, depending on the recording mode. For the time stamps to be accurate, you have to set the date and time first. This is accomplished by creating a text file called setdate.txt, which should contain the date and time in this format: YYYY-MM-DD HH:MM:SS. I began with something like 2010-06-01 21:35:00, meaning June 1, 2010, at 9:35 PM. You then place the text file in the PenCam’s root directory and turn it on. The PenCam sets its internal clock and deletes the file, which makes sense because the file is only valid for one minute. This unusual procedure works exactly as advertised.
With the PenCam clipped to my shirt pocket, I recorded my walk from the train station to the offices of B&H. My walking, combined with a loose shirt pocket, led to some very shaky video, and the PenCam was aimed higher than I would have preferred. Aside from, say, an ambulance’s siren, the audio I recorded on the street was indistinct. Video recorded outside at night showed no usable image. But if held steady in a well-lit room, the PenCam records clear video and sound. Still images taken with the PenCam don’t have the same brilliance and depth of field as pictures made with better cameras, but they’re clear and have good resolution.
Swann claims that the PenCam’s 2GB of memory is enough to record up to 80 minutes of video. I don’t know the reason for this conservative estimate, because I recorded about 87 minutes of video, which used only 1.52GB; I still had almost half a gigabyte to play with.
While the PenCam does have its limitations, none of them will prevent you from using it successfully. Lawyers, law enforcement officers, private investigators, practical jokers, and covert operatives will be able to capture activities and events that couldn’t otherwise be captured. As for writing, the PenCam does it like a champ, in black ballpoint ink. It lays down smooth lines and rounded curves with effortless ink delivery and no messy buildups. But if you do plan on carrying the PenCam, be sure to bring an extra pen with you in case someone asks to borrow one.
With B&H's $25 instant savings, the PenCam costs only $64.99. Now that's a great deal for inconspicuous image capture!