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Dropcam Echo network camera

November 21st, 2010
Dropcam Echo lets users listen, view home from anywhere

We've recently received another product meant for those who wish to keep an eye on their homes or loved ones while away. Dropcam offers two networked cameras, and sent us their higher-end Dropcam Echo unit to check out. Unlike the basic, $200 Dropcam, the $279 Echo gets a microphone, light sensor and motion sensor, and can be set up to send notifications to users of motion or sound. We'll learn how well that works in a Dropcam Echo review. Setting up

Included in the box is a stand and screws that will let users attach it to a wall or ceiling, a c-clamp mount for less permanent installs on cribs, desks, shelves or tables and a couple of zip-ties. Both a 14-foot Ethernet cable and a 10-foot power cable are likewise included, so most users won't have trouble getting physical connections in place.

While setup is automatic and simple, as promised, it did kick my iPhone off the wireless network. This seemed to be a one-time problem, however, and connecting the camera at a later, albeit briefer period, didn't see a recurrence of the problem. All that was required was setting up an account on Dropcam's website and plugging in the camera to power and an empty Ethernet slot on the router. A light ring around the lens indicates the status, with a flashing red, yellow and green light meaning it's booting up, flashing red showing the cable is not connected to the router and a solid red light indicating no network connection.

At first, the e-mail alerts based on detected noise were relentless. There was an audible echo and loud noises, like when interference is near a microphone. We first adjusted the microphone sensitivity in Camera Settings. Ideally, the user could hear the level of sensitivity while on the fly, rather than having to apply the settings and then waiting for them to take effect.

Live viewing revealed about a three-second delay from the time something happens to when it registers on the monitor. Users can also enable e-mail alerts based on motion or audio by adding an e-mail address. A green light ring that surrounds the lens can also be switched on or off from here to keep the camera hidden from would-be thieves or other unwelcome guests. The live views can be shared with friends simply by entering their e-mail address into the Dropcam website once logged in.

A DVR timeline lets users review recorded clips when motion or sound was detected, and these can then be downloaded. The timeline can be viewed in days or five-second increments. Downloading the clip is not a click and drag affair as it should be, but instead requires users to select the time from which to get the recording and its length. They then need to wait for the request to be made and are e-mailed with a link to download it. The entire process took about a minute. The video comes as an MP4 file, with a one-minute clip taking up 1.6MB of space.

Tech specs and image quality

All Dropcams record in the H.264 format at a relatively low 320x240 resolution, but at 30 frames per second. The wireless security protocols supported include WEP, WPA and WPA2. While the camera can be set up to send video wirelessly, it needs to be wired for power, which limits the installation options. Image quality is generally good for the image size, but it's not really tuned for low light. As such, it's a very good idea to have at least one light on if the camera will stay on overnight.

Monthly plans

Either camera includes a 14-day trial of the Plus plan, which costs $9 per month afterwards. A free, Basic plan only allows for live viewing, which in our view isn't enough; a user shouldn't be left without at least a recent buffer. The Plus plan is much stronger, however, and will save what the Dropcam sees for up to seven days, with any events, such as noise or movement, highlighted in the timeline. Users can download any clips for permanent storage as well. In more extreme cases, a $25 per month plan keeps recordings for up to 30 days. We can't see many going for this option. We should also note that the monthly prices apply to each additional Dropcam camera users add to a network, so whole-home surveillance could get expensive quickly.

There is another price to pay for the cloud-based recordings. The constant uploading to Dropcam's servers adds up to about 2GB per day. This may not matter to those with unlimited home data plans, but it does add up to a significant 60GB or so of data usage per month.

iPhone app

A free app for the iPhone is available, letting users log into their accounts and view live or recorded footage. Other than e-mails, users can also opt to get push notifications through the iPhone Dropcam app on their handsets when an event occurs. The orientation of the video automatically adjusts itself if the iPhone is turned horizontally, which is appreciated. The folks at Dropcam say they are working on developing an Android app as well.

The app is simple enough to use and also focuses heavily on a relatively uncommon public camera option; if you like, you can share a camera feed in areas where you don't mind having always-on cameras. You'll have to be even more cautious about bandwidth no matter which option you take, though. In addition to consuming bandwidth at home, the mobile Dropcam app will also consume a relatively large amount of data if used solely on 3G, where many carriers have smaller bandwidth caps.

Wrapping up

The Dropcam is a good, solid system for those who need to keep track of what's happening at places they're not. The system's relatively low purchase cost can be a boon, though the monthly costs can get tiring. As a security camera, the Dropcam Echo falls short due to its low resolution and lack of night vision, but it can act as a great deterrent in stores or when it comes to monitoring babysitters, kids or pets.

Without a paid plan, the alerts are relatively useless, as you won't catch what triggered the initial noise unless the disturbance is still happening by the time you launch the app or view the live feed in a browser. If the bandwidth requirements of the system are not a deal breaker, the Dropcam Echo comes recommended for those with a specific purpose in mind.

- Easy to set up.

- Built-in mic and motion sensor that work.

- Quality images.

- Cloud-based recording.

- Simple to use iPhone app.

- Requires paid subscription for monitoring.

- Heavy bandwidth use.

- Wired connection limits install options.

- Monthly cost for each additional camera.