Dropcam Pro review: Enhance your Wi-Fi video like a crime-scene investigator
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If watching eight seasons of Dexter has taught me anything, it’s that the good people of Miami would have been a hell of a lot safer if they all had Dropcams installed in their homes, businesses, and dilapidated swampland cabins. The gruesome handiwork of local serial killers would have been captured by Dropcam’s video-recording service, giving the detectives at Miami Metro a motherlode of crime-scene evidence, and making it difficult (or at least inconvenient) for Dexter Morgan to increase the body count on his own.
Seriously. Serial killers invade the city on a yearly basis, slipping in and out of victims’ homes with impunity, and no one bothers to install a Dropcam? Maybe everyone was waiting for Dropcam Pro, which is easier to set up than the previous Dropcam HD model, and offers a greater level of detail in the video it captures.
Dropcam Pro might be the simplest connected home gadget you’ll ever use. You plug it into a wall outlet, connect it to your Wi-Fi network, and then kick back and relax as it streams video to the cloud. You can watch the video on your phone or tablet via iOS and Android apps, or on your Web browser via Dropcam.com, all in real time.
Some people install Dropcams to keep tabs on their latchkey kids. Other folks train their Dropcams on animals, hoping to catch a scene of unbearable cuteness. Some people use Dropcams as rudimentary security systems (hi, Dexter!), and some people just like pointing their cameras at a beautiful view.
No matter your goals, you can subscribe to Dropcam’s cloud recording service ($10 monthly or $100 yearly), and Dropcam will save the last seven days of all the video your camera has captured. Not only does this spare you the trouble of watching video in real-time, you can also save and share video clips of key events. Like baby’s first steps. Or serial killer’s first murder. All the video is encrypted, and there’s even a feature that sends you alerts whenever the camera senses motion or sound—a useful tool for keeping tabs on your (hopefully) empty home when you’re away.
Easier set-up, improved night vision
Where Dropcam HD (now simply called Dropcam) requires a computer for set-up, Dropcam Pro uses a Bluetooth Low Energy chip to manage set-up entirely from a compatible Bluetooth phone or tablet (right now that includes iPhone 4S or later, the iPad 3 or later, and iPad mini). In practical terms, this means a dead-simple initialization process is even easier than before. I was up and running with Dropcam Pro in the time it took me to enter my Wi-Fi password into the iOS app.
Dropcam also says BLE will allow the Pro model to communicate with next-generation home automation systems based on the new Bluetooth standard in the future. It’s an admirable goal, but for now I’m more interested in catching serial killers—and enjoying the camera’s improved image quality.
In the leap from Dropcam to Dropcam Pro, field of view increases from 107 degrees to 130 degrees. Looking at the two models’ video streams side by side, you can see an appreciable increase in the real estate of your video window, and that’s nice for capturing more of whatever environment you’re surveilling. The Pro model also comes with an all-glass lens and a larger image sensor. Dropcam says this pays off in double the light-gathering power, seven times better night vision, and a better overall picture.
Yes, the Pro version’s night vision performance is a bit better than its predecessor’s, but I definitely couldn’t see a 700 percent improvement (though maybe that’s a testament to the original camera’s capabilities). While Dropcam Pro offers better image quality across the board—less video noise, sharper detail, and better color accuracy in daylight images—I don’t think these benefits alone warrant the price leap from the $150 Dropcam to the $200 Dropcam Pro.
Let’s ‘enhance’ that bad guy
No, what’s really interesting is a feature in the new Dropcam mobile apps. With a quick pinch-to-zoom gesture, you can zero in on a specific portion of your video window, providing de facto pan-and-tilt control, all without expensive (and unreliable) servo motors in the camera hardware itself. The camera image remains at 720p, but improved image quality, along with the zoom feature, lets you see more detail of whatever you’re watching.
Even better, once you’ve zoomed in on a specific area in your video, you can hit an “Enhance” button to sharpen whatever you’ve focused on. Dropcam’s software uses fancy-pants algorithms to add significantly more clarity and detail to otherwise fuzzy zoomed-in content. The overall effect is akin to what you see in TV crime dramas when someone on a forensics team uses software to magically resolve the facial features of a bad guy photographed in challenging conditions.
Dropcam’s Enhance button isn’t the miracle worker that’s so often depicted on TV, but it’s still impressive. In one telling illustration, I was able to zoom in on the face of a co-worker—not a bad guy, I promise—and enhance his mug from fuzzy to recognizable. Now, obviously, all the “extra” image information that’s revealed by the Enhance feature is already available to the camera’s software. In other words, Dropcam could have created an app that enhances your video automatically after zooming. Still, there’s no denying the surprise-and-delight factor of hitting a button to initiate the trick.
It’s important to note that the new pinch-and-zoom and enhance features are available to original Dropcam owners too. Dropcam zoom tops out at 4x, while Dropcam Pro extends to 8x—but depending on your needs, this might not be a benefit that’s worth an extra $50 in hardware costs. Also consider that cloud video recording requires subscription fees on top of the hardware costs, and that Dropcam Pro consumes 10 percent more of your home’s Internet bandwidth than the cheaper Dropcam (which can consume as much as 0.5 mbps as it uploads video to the cloud).
I’m a huge Dropcam fan, as all its camera products simplify the often vexing process of setting up a Wi-Fi camera. Image was quality was perfectly acceptable for most uses in last-generation’s camera, and now it’s even better than before. Just consider that the police won’t care which Dropcam version you use to catch the next serial killer. They just want usable evidence in hand.
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