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Apps


Look around any room in your home, and you’re sure to find one, if not several, pieces of technology that are connected to the Internet. It’s easy to feel like something — or someone — is watching.

In many homes, someone is.

For the past week, I’ve been testing Dropcam, a video camera that sets up in your home to continuously capture video and audio. It plugs into a power outlet and wirelessly connects to your home Wi-Fi network, allowing you access to the camera feed via a Web browser or apps. Specific segments of video can be clipped and shared with friends, and the picture can be zoomed in for close-ups.

But this always-on monitoring could also have disturbing results, making people feel like they’re always being observed.

In addition to capturing baby’s first steps when no one has a camera ready, Dropcams are often used for other purposes, like security or monitoring pets. After several days of use, although my Dropcam captured a few special moments that I would have otherwise missed — I’ll stick to using it for security.

I set up two Dropcams in my home: The $149 Dropcam to monitor my front porch, since stolen packages are becoming a problem on my street, and a $199 Dropcam Pro in my baby’s nursery, so I could catch video footage of memorable moments without taking out my smartphone. I was impressed by the high-quality picture captured by the Pro, and even the lower-cost Dropcam’s footage was more than sufficient. Both did an excellent job with audio. And the setup process can take less than five minutes, making it approachable and user-friendly.

Dropcam app notifications

Dropcam

Each Dropcam comes with a 14-day free trial of Cloud Video Recording, which lets you go back and watch past moments. This includes activity recognition, so you can watch and identify frequent motions — like passing cars — and set Dropcam’s email and app notifications to tell you about specific activities. It also lets you make video clips for sharing or saving. Seven days of saved CVR costs $10 a month, or $99 a year; 30 days of CVR costs $30 a month, or $299 a year.

After my CVR free trial ends, it will be hard to not have it. I used activity recognition to identify different activities seen by my front-porch Dropcam, and I received phone notifications when it saw people, specifically — not the numerous cars that pass on my city street. This has been a big help, notifying me when neighbors stopped by, or when packages were delivered.

I easily accessed both of my Dropcams from the company’s website, where I could remotely adjust all camera settings. I turned volume on and off, zoomed in on footage, set the upstairs camera to turn off during certain hours of the night, and even turned one of the camera’s status lights off.

I could even use two-way talking to communicate with my cameras at home while I was at work, though this could get creepy.

Giraffe Barn at the Woodland Park Zoo

Both the Dropcam and Dropcam Pro have night vision, which worked well on my porch and in a dark room. Neither model is waterproof, so you’ll have to set it up inside near a window to monitor an outdoor space.

I really liked the Dropcam app, which I tested on an iPhone. It not only let me see my two cameras, but also showed me live footage from public cameras that I subscribed to, like the Giraffe Barn at the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle. A section of Live Demos listed more public cameras, including irresistible puppy cams.

But even in my 1,500-square-foot row house, the Dropcam Pro that I tried to set up in the nursery had trouble connecting to my Wi-Fi network. After a few attempts, it worked, but then dropped out again. Dropcam’s tech support team couldn’t diagnose my problem, despite troubleshooting. Even removing all electronics from the nursery didn’t help.

The nursery in our house was built as an addition some 50 years ago, and speed tests prove that it has weaker Wi-Fi reception than other areas of the house. Yet, I use Wi-Fi-connected smartphones and iPads there without issue for tasks like streaming audio.

I can’t say with certainty that other people won’t have similar challenges connecting Dropcams to Wi-Fi.

Also, my first Dropcam simply stopped working, and couldn’t communicate with my computer for set-up. I exchanged it for a replacement, which the company says is a standard, but rarely needed, practice for faulty cameras.

Dropcam

For the brief time when the Dropcam did work in the nursery, it captured my son’s bright smile as he woke from a nap — something I’d never be able to record on a smartphone.

If you’re concerned about security, Dropcam assures users that its video footage is encrypted using the same technology that banks use to keep financial data safe. All cameras are private, by default, but users can share their cameras with others, like family members who want access to a nanny cam. I shared my front-porch camera with my husband.

Dropcam isn’t for everyone, but its affordable price and approachable setup make video monitoring accessible for a lot of people. Just be aware of potentially iffy results in areas with weaker Wi-Fi.




10 comments
PhillyFan12
PhillyFan12

Weaker Wifi can be solved very simply with a repeater, and outdoor capabilities can be solved with a Dropcase, making this a serious piece of gear. 


CalTowns
CalTowns

Right now I use CameraFTP, and the service I ordered costs just over $75 a year. It lets me turn my old Galaxy S2 into a security camera basically, and it's been really convenient. But I've been wondering if it would be worth upgrading to a real camera. Do you know if I can continue using my service on a Dropcam?

hernanc
hernanc

Would not buy it unless it comes with a "NSA free" tag. Even then how could you know your iPhone is not being tapped? Way too creepy I agree.

Daniel Shorter
Daniel Shorter

OMG you didn't mention if it is AC OR battery-powered??

Jim Ratliff
Jim Ratliff

1) It's worth noting that if you want to use night vision to look through a window to see the outside, you'll probably need to turn off the built-in infrared lights on the camera; otherwise they'll reflect internally off the window, making it impossible to see anything outside. (Thus the natural outdoor illumination is all you have to work with. Its night vision is still good without the IR supplement.)

2) I've had no Wi-Fi connection issues in our house, so I wouldn't be too deterred by Katie's unfortunate problems in that regard.

bobsulli
bobsulli

Try adding a UniFi WAP (~$70 US) to your home network to reduce or eliminate areas with a weak WiFi signal. The WAP is adding to the coverage of the existing wireless router, so best result is locating one at each end of the home.

Also, the at-a-glance box should including pricing for CVR (Cloud Video Recording).

Elizabeth H
Elizabeth H

Dropcam uses bank-level security to ensure that your live and stored video are safe, even on open wireless networks. Your video is encrypted on the camera before it is transmitted to the cloud and streamed securely to your devices using SSL encryption. By default all video is private and you control sharing rights. In addition, Dropcam automatically updates camera software so you always have the latest, most secure version. You can learn more about Dropcam's security model on our blog -- blog.dropcam.com/category/home-security-2/.

Mark Mercer
Mark Mercer

Way too creepy, and not enough in your otherwise good video review and article, Katie. Other than the title including the creepy aspect, you pretty much ignored it. 


Specific concerns in this time of NSA and other TLA government privacy-rights-ignoring official actors, zombie botnet hackers, and repeated tales of companies with big security breaches internally (Target, Adobe...) - why should anyone trust Dropcam?


How trustworthy and experienced are the principals of the firm?

How privacy-protective are their principles? 

Is there anything that you, Walt, Kara, or the other experts at Re/code would feel is too broad or vague in their written privacy policy and TOS?


What's their data-retention policy for post-subscription to the DVR-like feature, or for that matter, post-customer-entirely?

What's their policy on handing over data without a legal fight, or with one, where FISA Courts and other laws allow. What is their corporate, prior enterprises, and principal's own track record in supporting privacy rights, EFF, etc?


Deep-dive on the tech itself? Is it a secure platform? What exactly are those cameras running? Embedded Windows? Linux, VxWorks? Something else?


Is there a good, white-hat hacker/maker usage of them (hearkening back to the ancient CueCat days and some of the open source Kinect experiments)? Or is it a totally locked-down piece of hardware? Note that locked-down does not mean "secure" against the privacy issues above, and in fact might mean it is riskier than if the hardware/software interface was open.


Issues on the actual usage: 

Can you set on/off times, other schedules? 

Is there an easy/near-instant way to kill it? 

Not to put too fine a point on it, but what if you and your husband are enjoying your baby's smile, he gets sleepy, and you get frisky, right there? Livestream! At least to Dropcam and NSA.

Dairen
Dairen

I would curious to learn more thoughts on security of the system. How many people will join me in watching my toddler sleep?

GzyOnline
GzyOnline

Yes, she does.. See third paragraph, "It plugs into a power outlet and wirelessly connects to your home Wi-Fi network..."

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