Review : Dropcam Pro Wi-Fi home-monitoring camera

Dropcam Pro Wi-Fi camera aims to streamline home monitoring

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Product Manufacturer: Dropcam

Price: $199

The Good

  • - Improved optics
    - Great low-light video
    - Simple remote access
    - Motion interpretation

The Bad

  • - No local recording
    - Indoor use only
Dropcam recently introduced an upgraded "Pro" version of its cloud-based Wi-Fi video camera, improving nearly every aspect of the original Dropcam HD. The new model features a wider field of view, twice as much zoom, better low-light performance and a sharper image. In our full review, we spend a week with the new camera to see if it is the best surveillance camera for the average consumer.

Design and construction

The new Dropcam Pro is built with the same general form as the HD model, which is still available as an entry-level option. The cylindrical camera module is fitted to a round base, with a tilting hinge for a wide range of orientation options. The base can be placed on a desk, shelf or other surface, or mounted to a wall or a ceiling via an included hardware kit.

Housing color is the only visual distinction between the Dropcam cameras, however the Pro's internal components are quite different from the basic edition. The camera has been upgraded with a larger sensor and a six-element, all-glass lens. It would be easy to assume that all home-monitoring cameras use all-glass lenses, but this seems to be a rare feature among competitors in the same price range.

The company upgraded the microphone, doubling the sampling rate, and improved the integrated speaker. The Wi-Fi chip also adds support for the uncrowded 5GHz band, potentially eliminating common connectivity problems on 2.4GHz airwaves in crowded environments. Looking forward to the future of home wireless, it also integrates a Bluetooth low-energy (LE) chip.

Video, audio quality

The lens and sensor combination is claimed to double the image sharpness in lighted conditions, while improving low-light performance by a factor of seven. Typically we cringe at such marketing references, which usually mask blatant exaggerations, however the claims were quickly vindicated after we spent some time viewing side-by-side output from both cameras.

Image sharpness might not seem like a big deal for a home monitoring camera, but it enables the Dropcam Pro to offer some tricks that we haven't seen from competitors. Rather than using a physical zoom mechanism or pan and tilt servos, as required by "PTZ" cameras, the Pro takes advantage of digital zoom to achieve the same general goal.

We were skeptical of the zoom claim, dismissing "digital zoom" as another gimmick, but the camera surprised us yet again. Its camera sensor natively captures resolutions much higher than 720p, enabling the zoom function to digitally crop a frame without dropping below HD resolution. The optics also expand the basic Dropcam's 107-degree field of view out to 130 degrees, giving a much better view of a larger room and further reducing the need for pan and tilt movement.

[8X zoom on top, 1X zoom on bottom]

Low-light performance was surprisingly great for a compact home-monitoring camera. We didn't expect the integrated LED ring to throw infrared light beyond a few feet, but the camera is sensitive enough to resolve details on the far side of a room without any other light source. A moving infrared filter maintains color representation in lit conditions, then drops away in night mode to improve sensitivity.

We were impressed with the recording quality and sensitivity, enabling us to clearly hear both sides of our short exchange with the FedEx delivery driver, right outside the open door at the other corner of the room. The speaker also seemed sufficiently loud for mildly scolding the dog.

Cloud, mobile features

Dropcam considers itself a software and services company, first and foremost. Consequently, the device is geared for the cloud rather than local storage. Users can view the live feed from mobile devices or desktop browsers, while optional subscriptions provide access to either a week or 30 days of recent recordings.

Setting up the camera is a breeze, requiring the user to plug it into a computer via USB to select the Wi-Fi network. Alternatively, the camera can be plugged directly into a power outlet and connected to a mobile device via Bluetooth to choose the Wi-Fi network. Either option only takes a minute or two.

The mobile and browser interfaces are clean and to the point, providing access to live video or cloud recordings without any complication. Users can manage multiple cameras, time schedules and motion alerts. The company is continuing to refine its motion-recognition algorithms, which can automatically identify and organize certain types of motion to help separate concerning alerts from motion that can be ignored.

The browser interface provides a few extra capabilities, with a detailed timeline of previous recordings and a tool for creating clips. We found the clip utility to be extremely easy to use, enabling us to adjust the beginning and end points on the timeline and export to a MP4 file within seconds. Hopefully this only needs to be used to record a baby's first steps or something to send to America's Funniest Home Videos, but it can also help identify a burglar if necessary.

Final thoughts

We've noticed a general lack of optical quality with most of the inexpensive home-monitoring cameras. Companies appear to be satisfied with writing "HD" on a spec sheet, without giving any attention to image quality alongside pixel count. Despite its lack of local storage options, the Dropcam Pro offers the best quality we've seen from a wireless home-monitoring camera in the same general price range.

The Dropcam Pro retails for $199, while the basic Dropcam (formerly labeled Dropcam HD) sells for $149. The seven-day Cloud Video Recording subscription is available for $10/month or $99/year, with a free two-week trial period to start off with, while the 30-day recording upgrade can be obtained for $30/month or $299/year.