Swann PenCam DVR (SPY-420) mini video camera & recorder

A ballpoint pen with hidden surveillance camera

Swann Communications PenCam DVR (SPY-420)
  • Swann Communications PenCam DVR (SPY-420)
  • Swann Communications PenCam DVR (SPY-420)
  • Swann Communications PenCam DVR (SPY-420)
  • Expert Rating

    3.25 / 5

Pros

  • Good video quality in optimum lighting, cunningly innocuous design, lots of 'cool' factor

Cons

  • Poor audio quality, video suffers in dim lighting, LED record light is a bit of a red flag

Bottom Line

The Swann PenCam DVR (SPY-420) is too expensive to be a frivolous toy, yet it's not really effective enough to be a serious spying tool either. If you only need to record covert video images (i.e. not conversation) it may get the job done.

Would you buy this?

The Swann PenCam DVR (SPY-420) is the kind of gadget that no aspiring 007 agent should be without. It’s essentially a video camera hidden inside a functioning ballpoint pen, complete with an inbuilt microphone and 2GB of flash memory. According to the box blurb, it’s “perfect for mystery shopping, covert surveillance or Internet fun” (none of which sounds particularly legal to us). The astonishing thing is that it actually takes pretty good video when used in optimum lighting. Considering its lens is the size of a pin hole, this is a pretty impressive feat.

Old-time readers may be familiar with Swann’s previous pencam, which we reviewed all the way back in 2006. This new version improves on its predecessor in most areas, yet it still struggles in dim-to-moderate lighting and suffers from very poor audio. This pretty much rules it out as a serious surveillance tool, especially if you require covert voice recordings. Nevertheless, it remains a fun -- albeit expensive -- toy to amuse and embarrass your friends with.

So how does the Swann PenCam DVR (SPY-420) work exactly? The pen consists of two detachable halves; the bottom contains the pen and ink, while the top contains the USB connection and camera. It records AVI files at a resolution of 352x288, with enough storage for three hours of video. Both the lens and the microphone are cunningly hidden within the pen’s pocket clip; so cunning, that they remain difficult to see even when you know they’re there.

To begin a recording, you simply hold down the secret button on top of the pen until the blue indicator light appears. The camera will continue to record until you press the button again or run out of memory/battery life. (The battery lasts for around 90 minutes and is recharged via USB.)

There’s nothing overtly suspicious about the shape of the Swann PenCam DVR (SPY-420). While slightly chunkier than an average ballpoint pen, it would take a very keen eye to spot the difference. Unfortunately, the same thing cannot be said about the blue LED indicator light, which sticks out like a sore thumb. This lets you know that the camera is recording, but it also draws undue attention to the pen. A bit of masking tape or a strategically placed finger may therefore be in order.

The Swann PenCam DVR (SPY-420) takes surprisingly good video for its size; especially when used outdoors in bright, sunny environments. While its output will never pass muster on an LCD TV, it looks perfectly acceptable in a small window, be it a multimedia player or YouTube. Results took a sharp nosedive in dim lighting, with blotchy shadows enveloping the frame. To be fair, though, you won’t be using the PenCam to make award-winning videos — provided you can see what’s going on, its purpose has been served.

Its audio performance is less forgivable, however. According to Swann, the PenCam DVR (SPY-420) has an audio range of around 1 metre, though you’ll need to be in a completely silent room to hear your intended subject. Even then, the volume is very soft and filled with interference. Political spies would probably be better off tucking a cassette recorder in their pocket.

The Swann PenCam DVR (SPY-420) is a plug-and-play device, which means you can drag video files straight onto your computer without using any additional software. Your movies can then be viewed from any media player capable of decoding H263 AVI files, such as Cyberlink’s PowerDVD.

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