Your Own Santa? Thermal Camera Roundup

With Christmas and other end-of-year celebrations, there are gifts. The problem is that your loved ones don’t really know what to get you. Who can blame them? Do you want an Arduino, a Raspberry Pi, or a Blue Pill? Is that 3D printer on sale better than the one you have? Do you even want a second printer? They don’t know. In the best case, they’ll give you gift cards. But sometimes you just have to buy yourself something nice. [Wired] has a suggestion: a phone-based thermal camera. Which one? They have four suggestions ranging from about $150 to $200.

Different people have different reasons for wanting a thermal camera. You can see hot spots in electronics, for example. Or pick out hot water pipes behind walls. The resolution is limited. The highest in the [Wired] review is only 206×136. For the digital camera buffs, that’s 0.028 megapixels! Some cameras have even less resolution. For example, one of the cameras has an 80×60 resolution but uses an optical camera to give the illusion of a higher resolution.

Still, you can use a thermal camera for many things. You might want to find a missing dog or person (or even an unwelcome critter in your living space), for example. Testing heating and air conditioning or examining home insulation is another potential use case. Just be sure you understand the range of the camera. If you want to image your 3D printer hot end or your basement metal smelting operation, that might be a stretch with cheap cameras. The FLIR One Gen 3 they mention, for example, tops out at 120C.

If you don’t want to tie up your phone, other cameras have their own displays, like a Klein TI250, but they tend to be a bit more expensive, as you would expect. A better standalone camera can cost $600 or more.

If you aren’t buying yourself a thermal camera with your holiday gift card haul, what are you buying? Tell us in the comments. We doubt it will be a kitchen computer. The flame-throwing ugly sweater of death might be an option, though.

50 thoughts on “Your Own Santa? Thermal Camera Roundup

  1. Wow, that roundup sucks, the resolution of all these cameras is pretty bad and there’s no word on frame rate. FWIW, Mikes Electric Stuff recently had a video about a camera I’d pick over any of these ‘recommendations’: the Infiray P2: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YMQeXq1ujn0 . It’s 256×192 at 25Hz, and the latter is important as no US product is allowed to have a framerate >8Hz. Not saying this thing is the best on the market, but I am saying that this ‘review’ is crap and there are better options on the market if you search.

      1. Are you guys outside the US? Because inside the US I can buy military grade thermal cameras, including piggyback units that attach to a high end night vision device so as to give a thermal overlay on top of a traditional IR intensifier tube setup.

        1. What frame rate do those advertise, though? I’ve never seen a reference to any commercially available thermal camera (even for US-only sale) that exceeded 9fps until the chinese devices a few months ago.

          And remember “military grade” is marketing gibberish.

          1. I bought the P2 mentioned above, the motion is nearly fluid, I estimate that 25fps is accurate. The image is incredibly sharp compared to the phone mount FLIR units.

          1. Real military-grade hardware has to meet certain ruggedness specifications by undergoing rigorous testing, such as for vibration, drop height, moisture intrusion, radio interference, extreme temperatures, etc.

          2. “Ironic, since the military awards contracts to the LOWEST bidder :P”

            Yeah, the lowest bidder that meets the very stringent specifications and has traceability on everything its built with. Oh, and you have to prove it with copious amounts of accurate QC documentation. Lowest bidder doesn’t mean it’s cheap.

        2. Yeah… too bad i don’t have $40k to spend on that infrared headgear Biden left hundreds of sets of in Afghanistan when he surrendered. For now, i’ll stick with Infiray since it wipes the floor with anything made by FLIR or SEEK at the same price point.

  2. Bad thermal camera choices from Wired, just in time for this weekend’s winter “bomb” cyclone! Here in Southeast Florida though, Sunday morning it is expected to drop as low as “feels-like” 38F (3.3C) with frigid unconscious iguanas falling out of trees and on to our heads. But a little while later it will warm up to 55-60F (12.8C-15.6C) and the iguanas will be splayed-out sunning themselves right along-side our seasonal human guests from Canada ;-) Merry Christmas!

  3. Those phone based cameras are the dumbest decisions ever. In a few years the camera will not be usable anymore due to lack of software support or changing USB standard. Best you can do is always a stand alone device.

    1. You are wrong, it is true in some cases but not always.
      Infiray provide sdk and protocol is based on standard camera protocol, there are already few alternative, opensource softwares for it.

  4. My group ordered a second hand FLIR, autofocus didn’t work but other than that, spot on. Did something like HD resolution. Wow, is all I can say about playing with a resonably high res thermal camera. Stronly suggest looking for second hand units. My personal one is a Fluke with a resolution that would fit into the review range. Not as fun as a high res camera, but ever so useful and great for £100.

    It’s main use for the last couple of months has been to lend to friends and neighbours to hunt down heat leaks and cold spots with the eye of saving something on their heating bills. Someone even borrowed it to check their horses’ legs were the same temperature – they were (no idea what it would mean if not).

    I’m assuming those knocking the resolution of the cameras and frame rate haven’t much experiance with said cameras. They’re really useful at any resolution and a thermal measurement dowsn’t have to be done fast.

      1. Thermal cameras are being used in physical therapy as a way to spot injuries or muscle imbalances. For example, if you have a leg that is stiffer or with a limited motion range for whatever reason, the other will compensate moving more, and heat up more. So you get the guy running or biking, look at him with a thermal camera and you can immediately see the temperature difference between the legs, and even which muscle is hotter so they can know what is happening to you.

    1. I don’t completely agree with you.
      Framerate is less important if you make pictures to evaluate. Filming something you cannot measure temperature, bit you can detect changes. Of you are in the marked for rapid changing, low end isn’t for you.

      Resolution is really important. What many people do not know, is that an ir camera averages out the radiation with neighbor pixels. Because if one dead pixel would look silly right. That means, that at least 2 pixels are needed to determine the amount of radiation. If you are looking for hotspots in wires or other small areas, you can miss them because of lack of resolution (you can Google the math if you are interested).

  5. Or, just buy the sensor and a recycled USB laptop video camera and make your own (or gift the parts for the maker in your life to do the same). This is hackaday, afterall. Meanwhile, fingers crossed my 27 hour 3D print crosses the line OK this afternoon, as otherwise I’m out of time for the gift I’m making.

  6. I’ve been tempted on/off again to get a low(er) cost IR camera dongle for my phone – but I see too many ways the device will be obsolesced – everything from mechanical failure of the connector, to a cell phone upgrade changing the connector or the app getting delisted for whatever reason, etc.

    I ended up spending ~$400CDN on an entry FLIR – and it’s been useful. I know it won’t stop working if the Internet fails, etc. But it is very limited. (The “spot” is hard coded and can’t be removed from the image, and the temperature reading is based on a simple IR temp sensor that is not properly aligned with the spot – and cannot be adjusted).

    And it’s got a slow frame rate with an annoying petite mal seizure every ~10 seconds (I think that’s the sensor attempting some internal re-calibration, but since there’s no proper calibration gate, it just blinks)

    I’m open to links / reviews for non-US stand alone IR cameras that have better basic functionality at a better price point.

    1. The standalone UTi260M from Uni-T is 256*192 (don’t know the refresh rate) and quite usable (i bought one recently). The price varies a lot depending if there is a promotion sale on the usual websites, the shipping, the customs, …; but it’s still reasonable. You won’t get it for 200$, maybe for 300$, but you won’t get hurt by phone/app-problems (and i am not even talking about privacy, just apps that stop working at some point and then you are stuck). Small problem, the internal battery will discharge in a few months, but if you use the camera often (and so recharge it) not a big deal. Overall for me it was a good investment.

      1. CORRECTION: Sorry, i pasted the wrong product name, this one is not standalone. I meant UNi690B (caution, B, not A)! Also it’s looks it’s more like 350$. I don’t remember exactly how much i spend.

        Anyway, probably too expensive, sorry… (@HaD: Where is that edit button?)

  7. I’ve been very impressed by the Topdon TC001 https://smile.amazon.com/Thermal-Android-TOPDON-256×192-Resolution/dp/B0B7LMB22Q – a part that is particularly relevant to HaD readers is that, yes, you can connect to your Android phone- it also connects as a regular USB camera (without the temperature highlighting etc.- just a B/W image). Since it is a regular camera, you can connect to any computer with USB- such as a Raspberry Pi.

    1. Agreed, I snagged one recently after having looked the the FLIRs for quite a while, but never felt like spending quite that much. The TC001 may actually even be useful, not just fun, it helped me pinpoint some leaky weatherstripping already (also pretty cool to see the heat from footprints, even my cat’s!)

  8. I literally have been hunting a good workhorse thermal camera for years and finally got my grubby mits on the FLIR E4. The E4 is kinda crap on the spec sheet but what isn’t on there is that FLIR used to build that series with all with the same guts and hobble the different versions with a firmware lockout. If you can get your hands in an E4 you can change the firmware and step it up to the fancy E8 version with a resolution of 320 x 240 as compared to the crap 80 x 60 the E4 ships with.

    The two versions are worlds apart when you compare the image quality and the batteries are still cheap and plentiful! scrounge you usual scumbags for the FLIR E series and you will not be disappointed

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