Review: Dropcam Pro

Dropcam Pro

After hearing me mention the Dropcam Pro and the Mac Power Users Geek Gift Guide episode the folks over at Dropcam sent me a unit to review. I've been using the Dropcam in my home for a little over a month now and while I'm very impressed with the hardware, I'm finding the software a bit lacking.

The $199 Dropcam Pro is a high definition Internet connected video camera. The Dropcam connects wirelessly to a network and streams video to the Dropcam online service. Using the free Dropcam app or website, you can view your Dropcams in real time. You can optionally choose to subscribe to Dropcam's cloud recording offerings to save and view the last 7 or 30 days worth of video depending on your plan.  Cloud recording allows you to save and review your Dropcam's history as well as create clips of videos to download or share.  Saving the last 7 days of a Dropcam's video costs $9.95 a month or $99 a year. If you need more time to review your footage, there's also a 30 day plan for $29.95 a month or $299 a year. If you have additional Dropcams they can be added to cloud recording plans for 50% off the first camera's pricing. The Dropcam stream is encrypted, so unless you share your camera or opt to make your camera public, you should be the only one seeing the video from your Dropcam.

Dropcam comes in two flavors, a pro version for $199, is available in black featuring high definition video quality and a 130° field of view with up to an 8X digital zoom with image enhancements. The standard version, retails for $50 less, is available in silver, and offers only a 107° field of view, 4X zoom, and lower quality video. Although Dropcam connects to your network wirelessly, using 802.11 n or g and Bluetooth for initial setup, it is not a wireless camera. Dropcam receives power over USB and includes a lengthy micro USB cable and power adapter in the box.  This is important to note when determining the placement of your camera. 

Setup was ridiculously simple. I plugged the Dropcam into power, connected to my iPhone via bluetooth. The Dropcam app I previously downloaded from the App Store discovered the Dropcam  and I was able to customize the device including adding information about my home's wireless network settings in a matter of minutes. Bluetooth setup was much easier than the Wi-Fi setup used by other Internet connected devices such as WeMo that requires you to temporarily pair to a network created by the device. After using Bluetooth to configure Dropcam was able to connect too my home network and found and available software update and started the process of automatically updating itself.

Given the need for power and wanting a birds-eye view of a fairly public location in my home, I decided to position the Dropcam above my kitchen cabinets. The molding from my cabinets allowed me to hide the Dropcam's wires and  I already had power located above the cabinets for speakers so this seemed like a logical location.  The wide-angle lens on the Dropcam means that from atop the cabinets I can see the kitchen, living room, patio door and paths to the front and back door. It's important to note Dropcam is a stationary camera and other than software based pan and zoom the image is fixed. Given I'm still a little apprehensive about the idea of an Internet connected camera in my home, I decided not to locate the Dropcam in a bedroom or other location where there would be a greater expectation of privacy. 

The Dropcam's image quality is impressive. I was able to clearly see every detail of my kitchen as well zas details of the adjacent room even in relatively low light. Dropcam has a night vision mode and even with all of the lights in the house off, I was able to make out all of my furniture and other objects with ease. Using the Dropcam's 8X optical zoom, I was able to zoom into objects more than 20 to 30 feet away from the Dropcam and automatically enhanced those objects. I wasn't quite able to read the labels of books on the bookshelf on the other side of the living room,  but I was certainly able to tell that I was looking at books.

Once the Dropcam was connected and installed I can access the camera steam from the Dropcam website or through the iOS App. The website uses Flash which some may find a negative. I found in most cases I viewed my Dropcam stream from my iPhone or iPad. You can also configure your Dropcam's settings from the App or website.  However the App is more than just an interface to view and control the Dropcam, it also can be used to make the Dropcam aware of the owner's location and configure settings and alerts accordingly. One of the features Dropcam that specifically drew me to this product was the ability to enable or disable the camera and alerts based on the owner's location. I liked the idea of the Dropcam automatically turning on when I left the house and off when I returned. 

Unfortunately, in practice I found the software-based features of Dropcam did not always work as advertised. In a month or so of testing, I found only about 90% of the time would the Dropcam appropriately turn on or off based on location. This is pretty good, but it failed just often enough that I was constantly checking to see if it was recording when I returned home.   Dropcam also has the ability to notify the owner of noise or movement but I regularly found Dropcam would alert me of motion in my house when there was none. I have no pets so I suspect Dropcam was either picking up shadows or light movements or just simply falsely reporting. 

Ultimately the location data was just unreliable enough alerts were so intrusive I turned both features off.  For my use in the home, I decided it was best to just to manually turn the Dropcam on when I wanted to use it, and off when I was done.  I have a professionally installed security system in my home so I would rely on that to alert me of any intruders rather than Dropcam. In reading the reviews of the Dropcam app on iTunes, I noticed that many other users have similar complaints. Hopefully, this is something that can be improved upon with future software updates or perhaps using Wi-Fi and/or Bluetooth in conjunction with the location-based app will improve accuracy.

Once the Dropcam was connected and installed I can access the camera steam from the Dropcam website or through the iOS App. The website uses Flash which some may find a negative. I found in most cases I viewed my Dropcam stream from my iPhone or iPad. You can also configure your Dropcam's settings from the App or website.  However the App is more than just an interface to view and control the Dropcam, it also can be used to make the Dropcam aware of the owner's location and configure settings and alerts accordingly. One of the features Dropcam that specifically drew me to this product was the ability to enable or disable the camera and alerts based on the owner's location. I liked the idea of the Dropcam automatically turning on when I left the house and off when I returned. 

Unfortunately, in practice I found the software-based features of Dropcam did not always work as advertised. In a month or so of testing, I found only about 90% of the time would the Dropcam appropriately turn on or off based on location. This is pretty good, but it failed just often enough that I was constantly checking to see if it was recording when I returned home.   Dropcam also has the ability to notify the owner of noise or movement but I regularly found Dropcam would alert me of motion in my house when there was none. I have no pets so I suspect Dropcam was either picking up shadows or light movements or just simply falsely reporting. 

Ultimately the location data was just unreliable enough alerts were so intrusive I turned both features off.  For my use in the home, I decided it was best to just to manually turn the Dropcam on when I wanted to use it, and off when I was done.  I have a professionally installed security system in my home so I would rely on that to alert me of any intruders rather than Dropcam. In reading the reviews of the Dropcam app on iTunes, I noticed that many other users have similar complaints. Hopefully, this is something that can be improved upon with future software updates or perhaps using Wi-Fi and/or Bluetooth in conjunction with the location-based app will improve accuracy.

At the end of my time with the Dropcam I am left with this question: "who is Dropcam for?" I think the answer comes down to what your reasons are for wanting or needing an Internet-connected camera. If you want a camera you can use to keep an eye on things at your home, whether it's to keep an eye on your kids after school, check-in on the babysitter or just drop-in on a vacant house, Dropcam is a good solution. Though for home use, unless you have a specific need to keep the recorded video, cloud plans can get pricy. The cost of the cloud service coupled with the flaky alerts makes me hesitant to recommend Dropcam as a home security solution. I personally am still struggling with the larger question of whether I want an Internet connected camera in my home, but everyone will have to come to their own decision. However if you are a small business owner and want to use Dropcam to keep an eye on your shop I think a couple of Dropcam's perhaps coupled with a cloud service would be cost-effective compared to a professional closed-circuit television system.  For the price, the image quality and ease of use of Dropcam can't be beat.