I've never been all that interested in home surveillance. At my house I've slept well for years with an old-fashioned burglar alarm and a deadbolt, and despite my love of all things electronic, spy cams have always seems a bit too Scarface for my humble abode.
That is, until someone tried to break in. Thankfully, nobody was hurt and nothing was stolen--my low-tech solution worked well and scared the would-be intruders away--but as I watched the cops fruitlessly dust for prints on my busted door and unscrewed porch light, I suddenly saw the benefit of a cloud camera. If I could have accessed my video feed from the night of the incident, I might have been able to see who was trying to get in and give the cops a solid lead.
So after a few sleepless nights, I decided to do some research. Even if I never used it as a crime-fighting tool, I figured an extra level of security would at least give me back some of the peace of mind I had lost.
Surveying the landscape
Home security has become something of a cottage industry in our app-connected, always-on world, and the landscape is teeming with cameras that all promise to keep a close eye on your family. Even some baby monitors can do double-duty as a security cam once the little ones grow up, so narrowing the list is a monumental task. But for my purposes, I at least knew where to start.
You don't need to be a security expert to know the name Dropcam. The original Wi-Fi video recorder was the first to make surveillance simple, and there aren't many bad things to say about it. Our own review praised its video quality and image enhancement features, and you can feel its quality as soon as you take it out of the box. Setup is an absolute breeze, and I was literally up and running in seconds, watching crisp, reliable video feeds with wide angles and vivid colors, and enjoying seamless, lag-free streams. In short, it's a remarkable little camera.
Since most people probably don't want to obsessively monitor every alert that comes in, the real benefit of the Dropcam model is automatic cloud storage. It can get a little pricey--to store a week's worth of video costs $99 a year, and 30 days of footage will set you back $299--but it's an indispensable part of the process. Otherwise, you'd just have a high-tech burglar deterrent, not a real tool for tracking down crooks.
Quite frankly, I could have stopped my search right here and adequately filled my needs, but since this was about the safety and security of my family, and I wanted to make sure I was buying the very best. So I pitted the $199 Dropcam Pro up against three of its closest competitors: Simplicam, HomeMonitor HD and Belkin NetCam HD.
HomeMonitor: Not so hip to be square
Much like the iPhone, Dropcam's svelte, teardrop look has inspired a generation of similarly designed cameras. HomeMonitor ($200) is different. Housed in a small white square, it looks something like a sawed-off walkie-talkie, right down to the small antennae protruding out of the top. Setup wasn't complicated, but not as simple as Dropcam's. Along the way I was required to plug in a supplied Ethernet cable (a necessary step for either wired or wireless connections) and manually enter the camera's 12-digit ID number, which seemed more annoying after zipping through Dropcam's near-automatic process.
Once you get the green light (literally), HomeMonitor offers many of the features you'd expect: You'll get 24-hour access over the web (or your smartphone or tablet) and a 720p video feed with night vision. Picture quality was weaker than any of the cameras I tested, and colors were less accurate, turning my brown couch purple in some lighting. It also seemed to rely on its infrared sensor when there was ample light for the other cameras.
While its shape is certainly unique, I had a harder time getting the angles right. Where Dropcam swivels with ease, HomeMonitor is much more set in its ways, so installing it requires a far greater degree of precision--once it's mounted you won't be able to adjust it all that much. That being said, the flat edges work well if it's going to be resting on a table and the boxy design neatly hides the power cable.
HomeMonitor beats Dropcam in its archiving: For starters, it's free. A week's worth of cloud storage is bundled with every camera, easily making it the best value of the lot. Also, it's discriminating about what it records. Instead of a rolling record of everything it sees, HomeMonitor only saves clips of things that set off its motion detector, making it easy to jump to where the action is. You get notifications and emails when it's recording something, and customizable motion zones keep alerts from getting out of hand. While viewing the feeds over the web was fine in my tests, I experienced occasional freezes and stutters on my phone over both Wi-Fi and LTE. One small annoyance: I couldn't view the feeds in landscape mode on my iPhone, something all of the other cameras offered.
Belkin Netcam HD: Look but don't touch
First impressions are everything when it comes to gadgets, and Belkin's Netcam HD+ ($130) doesn't make a very good one. While its compact design is somewhat reminiscent of Dropcam's trademark shape, it feels more like a low-end product than a premium one. The base and camera are made of cheap plastic, and the metal arm that lets you adjust the angles is flimsy and squeaky.
I was up and running in just a few minutes, but setup using the mobile app was a bit convoluted, requiring me to connect to the camera's unique wireless network on my phone in order to complete the process. The website offers live streaming and archiving, but a smartphone or tablet is integral to the setup process. Unfortunately, it seems Belkin put about as much effort into the app as it did the camera case. Even overlooking the stale design, the app was consistently slow and unresponsive.
Based on my opinion of the case and app, I didn't expect much from the actual camera, but I was pleasantly surprised. Images were smooth and crisp, and when viewing the live feeds, the lag was as little as Dropcam. Like the HomeMonitor, angles weren't quite as wide, but the picture quality was sharp, with accurate colors and excellent night vision. And while the rotating arm made it easy to make fine adjustments in any direction, I found myself questioning whether it'll stay in place over time.
When it came to detecting motion, Netcam worked a bit too well. Whenever I was in range, I received dozens of emails per hour that picked up even the slightest movement (like when I shook my foot involuntarily on the couch). Sensitivity adjustments can be made right inside the app, but there was a negligible decrease in incoming notifications even after putting it on the lowest possible setting. However, since it is the only camera with the WeMo line of home automation products, perhaps its hair trigger could be useful in some instances.
Belkin offers two weeks of storage through its Cloud+ Premium service that'll cost you $10 a month or $99 a year, though all new accounts get a free two-week trial. It automatically splits clips by the motion it detects, but since it's so sensitive, there will be quite a lot of them--my camera often collected more than 300 a day. But chronological time stamps and thumbnail pictures allow you to quickly identify recent trouble spots. Weak organization makes it difficult to find clips beyond a day or so, however.
Simplicam: Small and mighty
From the moment I took Simplicam ($150, or $200 with a year of 24-hour cloud storage) out of its packaging, I was impressed with ArcSoft's attention to detail. Its body is sculpted from aluminum and its footprint is impressively low-profile while still allowing for a wider range of movement than its competitors. It has its own personality, and it was the only camera I tested that felt as premium as Dropcam did.
Though not quite as simple as Dropcam's Bluetooth method, setup via the companion app was a breeze, with the most difficult step requiring a QR code scan (though the guided beeps were initially startling). Like Belkin's Netcam, lag was on par with Dropcam, but picture quality wasn't quite as sharp as either. Also, I saw a fair amount of fish-eying around the edges of the images, which made the feeds seem more distorted than other cameras.
What Simplicam lacks in image quality, however, it makes up for in recording. Powered by ArcSoft's very affordable Closeli cloud service, Simplicam offers an array of monitoring and storage options. A rolling archive of footage is saved as your camera watches your home, but an hourly breakdown lets you navigate a full day with ease. Where the other storage services simply saved small clips of events, Simplicam uses color-coded bars to highlight motion, preserving the integrity of your feed and ensuring nothing is missed.
Simplicam's subscription rates are very competitive with Dropcam's--$5 a month or $50 a year will get you a day's worth of recordings, while 11 days will set you back $14 a month or $140 a year--but you get more than just cloud access. Bundled with any package is Simplicam's killer feature: facial recognition. Much like Dropcam's human tracking, Simplicam can identify when a person is walking past its lens, thus ignoring incidental movements from pets or shadows, which the other cameras constantly detected. It worked incredibly well and it's a fantastic feature if you're planning on using your camera to spot intruders.
You can set times to turn the camera off and adjust sound and motion sensitivity, and I particularly enjoyed Simplicam's approach to notifications. The app's alert settings go above and beyond, including separate toggles for motion, sound, and face detection. You can even choose to collect your notifications and have them delivered hourly, if you grow tired of the random buzzing.
Who's watching me?
At the end of my testing, I ended up back where I started. While I actually prefer Simplicam's design, the Dropcam package is just too good, offering good looks and reliable video feeds with little fuss. With one positioned near my front door, I can leave the house knowing that if my alarm fails me, there's a second line of defense that will let me see who's inside my home. None of its competitors could rival its video quality or ease of use, and now that it's under the Nest (and by extension, Google) umbrella, I expect we'll see a tight level of integration and subsequent expansion into home automation. On the other hand, if the Google angle creeps you out, the Simplicam is a great alternative.