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Dropcam HD Wi-Fi review: Easy wireless video monitor hits its stride

While it's not perfect, the wireless Dropcam HD Wi-Fi is very easy to set up, has good image quality and flexible mounting options, and continues to get better with time.

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David Carnoy
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David Carnoy

Executive Editor / Reviews

Executive Editor David Carnoy has been a leading member of CNET's Reviews team since 2000. He covers the gamut of gadgets and is a notable reviewer of mobile accessories and portable audio products, including headphones and speakers. He's also an e-reader and e-publishing expert as well as the author of the novels Knife Music, The Big Exit and Lucidity. All the titles are available as Kindle, iBooks, Nook e-books and audiobooks.

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Earlier this year, Dropcam, which has made a name for itself for providing an easy-to-set-up video-monitoring camera and service, released its new video-monitoring camera, the Dropcam HD.

Dropcam HD WiFi
8.2

Dropcam HD Wi-Fi

The Good

The <b>Dropcam HD WiFi</b> is a Wi-Fi-enabled high-resolution Webcam with two-way sound capabilities. It offers easy setup and flexible mounting options, and you can view a remote video feed over the Internet or on your iOS or Android mobile device via free Dropcam apps. There's no service fee for basic live viewing. DVR functionality is available with a paid plan and recorded video is stored in the cloud.

The Bad

You can't tilt or swivel the camera remotely (the lens is fixed) and you may experience some lag with the video and audio, depending on the speed of your Internet service. The need for AC power precludes true wireless operation. Also, there's no native iPad app.

The Bottom Line

The wireless Dropcam HD Wi-Fi is an excellent choice for anyone seeking a light-duty Web-enabled remote security camera that emphasizes quick and easy setup.

Unfortunately, the initial units the company shipped had quality control problems and Dropcam had to recall them. However, the production issues -- which affected image quality -- were resolved in April, and I've been testing one of the new units for a couple of months and everything is working well.

As you can see, the Dropcam has a pretty interesting design and is fairly tiny. The camera can be removed from its stand -- such as when you connect it to your computer -- but most people will leave it in its stand and either set it up on a flat surface or mount it on a wall.

The Dropcam HD is available for $149. David Carnoy/CNET

You can't swivel the camera remotely, but you can manually tilt and swivel the camera into almost any position. It's a fixed lens, which means there's no optical zoom, but Dropcam is now offering a digital-zoom feature.

The original Dropcam cameras were manufactured by Axis and used Dropcam's firmware. This new camera has been designed in-house by Dropcam and features an integrated microphone and speaker, so you can both hear what's going on in a room and talk to anybody in the room through the camera. Another nice improvement: setting up the new camera is even easier than the old one.

The image quality of the Dropcam HD is overall quite good (click to enlarge). Screenshot by David Carnoy/CNET

The Dropcam HD has a wider-angle lens in the camera than the original Axis cameras, and it's certainly much sharper. Also, because it's a higher-resolution image, you can blow up that image up on your computer screen and retain much more detail. One caveat: even though the camera is technically "HD," don't expect to see the same smooth, crisp 720p image you'd get watching HDTV. Still, it's a welcome improvement, and it gives you a wider image with more depth to it, meaning things in the background appear more in focus.

The Dropcam removed from its stand/mount. Dropcam

You can get a good image without a great Internet connection. My DSL connection at the remote location where I was testing the Dropcam is only fair. With lots of motion, I got some slight choppiness in the video, and there is some lag; but overall it wasn't too bad.

It's worth noting that the Dropcam captures video continuously. If you have a bandwidth cap, it will certainly eat up a nice chunk every month (reports have the number north of 50GB), so you should take that into consideration. I also did experience some dropouts (where the camera went offline), though overall I found the product to be pretty reliable. It's unclear whether the dropouts were due to something on Dropcam's end or a glitch with my Internet service provider -- or perhaps even my DSL modem or wireless router.

Features
The company touts its "60-second setup": you plug the camera into your computer via USB, select your Wi-Fi network, and name the camera, and your Dropcam HD is online and ready for viewing. While it may have taken closer to 90 seconds, I can attest that setup was, in fact, just that simple. Just as importantly, when the camera goes offline due to a power failure or dropped Internet connection, when it comes back on, the camera automatically joins your wireless network and comes back to life. The earlier version wasn't as reliable.

The camera is AC-powered so it's always on (unless you have a power outage, of course) and a night vision mode turns on automatically when a room darkens, so you can capture video even in poorly lit environments. That said, in total darkness it becomes useless, though sound still comes through.

You can "talk back" with the two-way audio feature, but there can be a slight delay, so it's not exactly like having a Skype conversation. A couple of times I managed to scare my kids remotely. I don't have pets, but people have be known to tell their dogs to get off the couch from afar, which must be fun.

Finally, with the digital zoom, you can "pick which part of the room to focus on." However, as with most digital zooms, you lose some sharpness, but it works.

Service options
Dropcam's pricing for its service remains the same. You get free real-time viewing from a computer or mobile device -- there are free iOS and Android apps available that work quite well, though a native iPad app isn't available quite yet -- plus free e-mail and push motion/sound alerts. But if you want DVR functionality, you have to step up to the company's premium service, which costs $9.95 a month.

Dropcam settings menu (click to enlarge). David Carnoy/CNET

With that DVR service, Dropcam stores up to 30 days of video on its servers, so you can look back through a month's worth of "motion" events. The company says, "All video is encrypted using bank-level security standards to ensure user privacy."

Conclusion
There are plenty of IP cameras out there that allow you to view a location remotely, but few offer as simple a setup or as elegant an interface as the Dropcam (I include the mobile apps in this). I wouldn't quite go so far as to call it the Apple of video-monitoring services, but much like Sonos has in the wireless multiroom audio space, Dropcam has created a consumer-friendly solution that you don't have to be a tech expert to get up and running.

While the camera had some kinks in the early going, they've been resolved, and the image quality is quite decent. Currently, Dropcam doesn't have an all-weather version that would allow you to place the camera outside, but I suspect one is in the works.

You could quibble over the price, but seeing that you get free basic real-time monitoring (mobile and desktop) with the purchase of the camera, it's pretty reasonable and less expensive compared with other, more "professional" surveillance camera systems. It's also easy to add additional cameras to your account.

While the Dropcam isn't perfect and its performance will vary according to your network and existing equipment, my impression after using it for several months is that it's gradually getting better as Dropcam continues to tweak its software. I have no problem recommending it to someone looking for a video surveillance system that's easy to use, relatively affordable and reliable, and offers decent image quality, plus sound.

Dropcam HD WiFi
8.2

Dropcam HD Wi-Fi

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 8Performance 8
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