When it comes to reviewing video products, my subject of choice tends to be the family poodle, who usually cooperates, never complains and works cheap.
Lately, Callie’s had a starring role on the Internet, thanks to the Dropcam, an easy-to-set-up, easy-to-use Web-based camera and monitoring system. It does more than just provide you with a remote eye. It will also keep track of what’s going on when you aren’t watching, alert you to events worth paying attention to, and, for an extra fee, let you go back in time to retrieve events you didn’t pay attention to but should have.
In the new world of connected devices, the connection can be more important than the device. Much of the Dropcam’s value comes from the service behind it; the cost of the camera is just the price of admission.
The Dropcam isn’t intended for secrecy. It’s about the size of a deck of cards, and a ring around the lens glows green to remind you that it’s watching. It comes with a stand as well as mounting hardware if you need it, and weighs about three ounces. There are two models: a $199 video-only version, and a $279 edition called the Dropcam Echo that adds audio.
Although the camera operates wirelessly, you’ll need a wired Internet connection to set it up. Once you plug it in and hook it up to your router using the included Ethernet cable, you’ll go to the Dropcam website. There, you enter an activation code, create an account and configure your camera to work with your Wi-Fi network.
Batteries Not Included
At this point, you can disconnect the Dropcam from the router and place it anywhere on your network. The main requirement is power; there’s no battery-operation option.
The hardware is made for Dropcam by Axis Communications AB, a Sweden-based manufacturer of commercial surveillance cameras, and its color picture is by far the best I’ve seen from a consumer product. Images are sharp, even in fairly low light, and the camera captures motion at 30 frames per second with little or no herky-jerkiness.
While the microphone on the sound model is extremely sensitive, the actual quality of the audio depends on the distance between camera and source. The further away from the camera, the more you’re likely to pick up an echo-like distortion -- but it’s more than sufficient to accurately pick up a baby’s cry or a dog’s bark.
Apple and Android
You can access the Dropcam feed with either a Web browser or free apps available for Apple Inc.’s iPhone and for phones using Google Inc.’s Android operating system.
The basic, free service allows you to tap into a live video stream. You can configure the service to notify you, via e-mail or iPhone text alert, every time the camera picks up a movement or, in the case of the Dropcam Echo, sound.
The paid service adds a bunch of DVR-like functions. For $8.95 a month, Dropcam gives you access to the previous seven days’ video, allowing you to play the specific footage around any sound or motion event; for $24.95, you get a month’s worth of storage. If you want to save something, the service will make a clip and e-mail it to you.
For the most part, I kept the Dropcam aimed at the wire crate in the kitchen where the dog hangs out when we aren’t at home. I also configured the iPhone app to alert me whenever it picked up her barking. I could then scroll back into the archived footage to check whether anything other than boredom -- say, a workman coming to the door -- had set her off.
When we went out of town for a couple days and dispatched her to the dog-sitter, I moved the camera to the top of the stairs to act as a sentry.
The Dropcam has a few drawbacks, the biggest of which is its price: A single Dropcam Echo plus a year of the high-capacity storage plan will set you back almost $600. Add a second camera and the cost doubles; there’s no price break on the service.
In addition, the camera isn’t made for outdoor use, there’s no ability to pan or zoom, and the need for an electrical outlet limits where and how you can use it. And setting up the service can be cumbersome; for example, you have to enable iPhone alerts separately both on the phone and on the Dropcam website. (The company says it’s working to eliminate the two-step process.)
Still, the ease of use, video quality and online service make the Dropcam a pleasure to use. If you don’t believe me, ask Callie.
(Rich Jaroslovsky is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)