Review DropCam HD
Considering I own almost nothing of value worth stealing, it’s odd I find myself so intrigued with remote home monitoring, yet I am. And while I’d like to pretend I enjoy the ability to safeguard my home for my wife and kids, really, I just like checking in on our new puppy Chewie, and making sure he isn’t eating our couch pillows while we are at the store or upstairs showering.
The DropCam HD is the third “app-savvy” security cam I have tested, and by far the best (although still not quite perfect). Each cam solution has had its pluses and minuses, but the DropCam has done the best job of balancing these, and is the clear winner when it comes to video quality. But let’s start at the top.
Those of you who are not overly technical will love the DropCam’s very painless setup (DropCam claims you’ll be up and running in 60 seconds, and that was close to the case with me – no router port forwarding issues – true plug and play). The process DOES require a Mac/PC to load the initial WiFi settings and create your user account though (I’ve used cams that are completely setup via the iPhone, which is nice). Once you are set up, all you need to do is hook the DropCam’s USB cord to an outlet, and point it in the direction of anything you want to look at. The lens has a very nice field of view without feeling overly fish-eye-ish, and I found that by placing it on a bookcase in the top corner of our playroom where my dog sleeps, I could get a good 90% of the room in the frame.
The DropCam feels quite well-built, with a sturdy metal base which tilts. You can also wall or ceiling-mount the DropCam if you’d like, but for my situation just leaving it on the stand worked best. Although the base is solid and heavy enough that it will not tip easily, I noticed the USB cord was a little stiff, and had a tendency to pull cam a bit as the cord’s “memory” kicked in, so I just tucked the cord under a book to hold it in position and it was no big deal.
You can log in to view your cam via either a PC, or an iOS or android app. I found the iOS app worked extremely well, was quick to load, and had a minimal delay (about 5-10 seconds when viewing over cellular, and about 2-5 seconds on wifi). Of course your results may differ depending on your home’s WiFi strength, but I have had other cams be delayed by as much as 30 seconds which to me was unacceptable, so a big win for the DropCam.
What has impressed me most about the DropCam HD is the quality of the video, specifically how it deals with bright areas of sunlight and unevenly lit rooms. Our playroom, for example, is fairly dark but has a big sliding door that at certain times of the day casts a large pool of sunlight into the room. Other cameras would blow out that section of the video, and then the rest of the room would appear very dark so you really couldn’t see much detail of what was going on. The DropCam does a great job dealing with uneven lighting in the room, allowing you to see more of what’s happening. The video it captures is 1280×720 (thus the HD in the name) although the framerate appeared to average about 20 fps versus the smoother 30 frames you are used to on TV – still fluid enough for security footage, and better than other cameras at this price.
Another nice feature of the DropCam is its Night Vision mode. The DropCam can be set to “auto-Night Vision mode”, which will switch back and forth depending on available lighting conditions, or you can leave it set to always on or off (these settings can be quickly changed via the iPhone app). I noticed a faint clicking sound when the camera switches modes, so at times such as dusk when your camera may be struggling to find a happy lighting choice, it could be annoying, or worse, wake a sleeping pet or baby you desperately want to stay quiet, so in those cases I would suggest choosing Night mode manually before going out. Video-quality-wise, Night-Vision mode is handled well, giving you a very creepy, Paranormal Activity-esque black and white image of your room that is pretty discernible, although somewhat lacking in contrast. But assuming you are familiar with the room you are looking at, you should have little trouble picking out detail. The Night Vision works via a series of infrared lights placed around the lens, which are visible in a dark room, so if you are thinking of using the DropCam to secretly record in low-light conditions without someone noticing, you’re out of luck. However you CAN disable the bright “status” light which makes hiding a nanny cam a little easier and makes the DropCam less obvious. It is important if you plan to use the night-vision mode you place the DropCam where it will not reflect back of lot of the infrared light on anything white. I first placed the camera on a white bookshelf, with a small corner of the shelf in view, which was fine during daytime viewing but blew out the night-time video a bit.
I pretty much used the DropCam as a live pet viewer, although if you are looking for a decent security or Nanny cam, the DropCam can fill that job quite nicely, albeit for an extra fee. For $9.95 a month you can add DVR functionality to your DropCam (that is up to 7 day’s worth of recorded video, or 30 Days worth for $29.95/month) that can record the events going on in your home while you’re not there. This DVR is accessible both on the web and via your iPhone, and is actually quite fun to use. When viewed via the web (on a computer) you can scrub backwards on the timeline or jump to motion events which DropCam marks for you. You can even choose sections of recorded video and save out clips. DropCam’s videos are encrypted and stored securely off-site on their cloud servers, so even if a would-be thief or ne’er-do-well noticed your DropCam, there is no way for them to destroy anything the cam has already seen. (Of course they CAN just unplug it, or your router, if they’re savvy enough to stop recording). There is a free 30-Day trial of the DVR service so you can try before you buy.
There are a slew of other nice features, such as both time and location-based recording, meaning you can set your DropCam to record at specific times, or, based on when you leave the house. This is achieved by the DropCam monitoring your iPhone’s location. So if, for instance you wanted to only record when you are at work, and not when you are home because you do a lot of disgusting, illegal things when you are home, it would do so automatically.
One of the biggest pluses is DropCam’s FREE motion event alerts that pop up on your iPhone when the camera detects motion or sound. I’ve seen other cameras charge for this feature, which pretty much makes them useless.
There is also a talk-back feature, which allows you to talk through your camera via your iPhone or computer, to soothe a child or yell at a dog to get off the couch. This doesn’t work great when trying to talk to a person, however, because of the delay in audio while you are talking, but it is still pretty neat.
The DropCam also has a digital zoom feature, although it does not work with pinch-to-zoom finger gestures unfortunately. You need to manually choose which of 5 regions you want to zoom in on (center, BL, BR, TL, TR) and it will stay zoomed in until you tell it to zoom out. Seeing as it is a digital zoom, the quality degrades while zoomed, but I can see where this may be useful.
Well, so far in my testing, no home camera has been perfect, and the DropCam HD does have a few minor issues. The first is that despite my earlier praise of how it handles uneven room lighting, I was able to find a situation it could not handle – namely, in our playroom which has that big sliding glass door that lets in the sunlight I was telling you about… on hot days we leave the curtains of the door closed, which appears to let in just enough light to confuse the DropCam’s light sensors, and it flicks back and forth between Night-Vision mode and day-light mode every second or so, making it unwatchable. I was able to get around this by either disabling night-mode, or opening the curtains a bit to let in more light. So this is by no means a killer, but if you plan to monitor a room, be sure to think about that room’s lighting or do some tests before you go on vacation and find yourself getting a motion alert every time the camera switches back and forth.
My only major complaint with the DropCam is a missing (and invaluable) feature I had on a competing brand’s camera – namely, the ability to draw out a region on the camera’s screen that you wished to have it detect motion in. Currently, you have the ability to detect ALL motion in a room, or NONE. But those of us who use the DropCam to monitor a pet in a crate or a baby in a crib might wish to exclude those regions from the motion sensor, and just let us know if anyone entered the room in general. Or imagine you have a fish tank with moving fish, or a ceiling fan in the shot, or an area of a wall that you found kept getting blasts of sunlight every time a car drove by outside between 2:30 and 3:15 on a sunny day. I found the ability to draw a box around the area I wanted monitored to be very useful, and because the DropCam does not have that ability, I can’t really use it as my one and only security camera if I want to receive motion alerts. For example, suppose I want to know when my dog-walker comes over to take Chewie out. I can’t really do that on the DropCam unless I want to also be notified every time Chewie rolls over in his sleep. It is a very useful feature, and one I’d love to see DropCam implement so I could “drop” my other cams. (See what I did there?).
I also had some sporadic issues with some notifications not appearing on my iPhone, even when I walked into the room, arms waving. I believe this may have had to do with my using iOS 7 beta 4, as I seem to have no problem receiving the alerts on my wife’s iPhone running iOS 6, so odds are the issue will be resolved in a future app /iOS update.
Finally, I’d love to see the DVR monthly cost cover up to TWO DropCams, as at the moment, The 1st camera is $9.99 a month, and each additional camera is 50% ($4.50) a month. That starts to add up quickly as you add cameras, so even if both cams shared the same 7 Day’s worth of storage, I think that would make the idea of buying additional DropCam’s more appealing. There are other cams which, while perhaps not rivaling the DropCam’s video quality, offer free recording no matter how many cams you buy, so $180 a year to record on a set of cameras is something you may need to think about.
The DropCam HD sends wonderful 720p video of your home to your computer or smartphone in a quality that is top of its class. While your home’s internet speed and lighting may need to be tweaked for optimal viewing, the DropCam delivers impressive video quality, infrared night-time viewing, motion/sound alerts, a “talk-back” feature, as well as secure, off-site video recording (for a monthly fee).
Price: $149.99 (Amazon)
Pros: Superior image quality to other security cams, infrared night time shooting, ability to talk back through camera
Cons: Some motions alerts were iffy, no ability to define regions for detection, monthly $10 fee to record video