If you've never heard of Dropcam, it's a startup that's quickly become a leader in DIY home-video monitoring. In many ways it's similar to Sonos, the upstart audio company that's been highly successful in the multiroom wireless-streaming audio space. The backbone of both companies is elegant, user-friendly software that's built around attractive hardware.
Dropcam's been at it for less time than Sonos, but it's taken something complicated (wireless video monitoring) and made it simple while continuing to improve the quality of the video and services you use to monitor it. Oh, and the hardware's gotten better, too.
Case in point: the new Dropcam Pro. It looks very similar to the previous Dropcam model (released in 2012 as the Dropcam HD, but now renamed as just "Dropcam"). But the Pro has a black stand, is a little thicker, and has a six-element, all-glass lens, and a larger image sensor. Dropcam says you'll get 2x sharper video during the day and 7x better performance in low-light conditions and at night. It also has a 130-degree field of view, which is 20 percent wider than what you get with the standard Dropcam.
I got my hands on an early review sample and have been impressed with the evolution of the new Dropcam Pro, as well as the new software upgrades that Dropcam has added.
Dropcam offers a free app for Android and iOS devices (including a native iPad app), and you can also access your camera -- or cameras -- from a Web browser on a computer. Real-time monitoring is free, but Dropcam also offers a premium cloud recording service, which starts at $9.95 a month or $99 a year for seven days of continuous recording (you can also get 30-day continuous recording but it costs a lot more).
While the video resolution currently remains at 720p with the Pro, you can definitely see a significant difference in image quality, and that new software update allows you to digitally zoom in on parts of the image -- up to 8x on the Pro and 4x on the standard Dropcam -- and then enhance the image after you zoom to bring back some of the detail lost while zooming. Remember that scene in "Blade Runner" where Deckard uses a compact gadget (and his voice) to analyze a photo of a crime scene and turn it into a 3D image, zooming in on various pieces of it? Well, the Dropcam feature is still far from that, but you won't find a consumer-grade video-monitoring service or camera that offers this feature.
While it's cool, there is a bit of trickery involved, especially when you zoom to 8x. That's because when you zoom, the whole image goes out of focus. Then, after you touch the enhance button, the focus comes back so it automatically looks sharper.
But ultimately the key is that the camera is capturing a sharper, higher resolution image that you zoom in on without things totally going fuzzy. Going from the Dropcam HD to the Pro is sort of like going from the camera in the iPhone 4 to the one in the iPhone 5S. However, that analogy probably isn't totally accurate because the image sensor in the Dropcam is bigger than the one in the iPhone 5S and other smartphones, so it captures more pixels and works better in low light (at least according to Dropcam).
The zoom works best at lower levels -- say, 2x -- to crop out part of the image and monitor just what's in that zoomed frame. Since the field of view is so wide, you're less constrained by where you initially place the camera. Dropcam sees this as a way around providing electric pan-and-tilt hardware controls that would make the camera even pricier (you can manually tilt the camera stand and even mount it on a wall).
Along with improved audio quality in the Pro -- yes, the camera also records sound and has an integrated speaker so you can talk to people or pets through the camera -- the other big feature upgrade is the addition of Bluetooth LE, which stands for Low Energy and is also referred to as Bluetooth Smart. Having built-in Bluetooth allows you to set up the device via a smartphone or tablet instead of having to connect the camera to your computer. (Currently, only iOS devices are supported for PC-free setup, but Dropcam says Android support for the feature will be added in the near future.)
You simply pair the phone to the camera and then log it onto your home Wi-Fi network, and you're good to go. It's definitely easy and you can add multiple cameras around the house if you want; they just have to be plugged into a power source. It's worth noting that the camera is powered via USB and uses the standard 5V power adapter that comes with your typical smartphone. That means you could use an external USB battery with it, but you would be required to be connected to a Wi-Fi network (yes, you could use a 4G hot spot).
In the future, Dropcam has plans to add other Bluetooth accessories, such as a temperature sensor (not confirmed but hinted at), that will connect to the camera, which would act as a hub for other home-monitoring devices.
Dropcam also has a new Activity Recognition feature that's in beta. Using advanced computer vision and machine-learning technology, the company says that Dropcam Cloud Recording is now able to recognize motion patterns in your video stream and group together like activities. You can can name these activities and customize alerts for them. I haven't tested this feature yet (I'll update the review when I do), but in the future your Dropcam may be able to send you an alert when a specific person enters a room (one of your children or a spouse, for instance).
If it isn't clear already, I should note that the Dropcam captures video continuously. That means if you have a bandwidth cap, it will certainly eat up a very big chunk every month (and it will most likely increase with this new camera), so you should take that into consideration before purchasing.
I've liked Dropcam's DIY video-monitoring solution since it first launched several years ago, and it's only gotten better as the company continues to make it more user friendly and enhances both the cameras and the software that powers the free and paid monitoring services, as well as the video streaming itself. Like any wireless video product, it's going to work even better if you have a reliable Wi-Fi network and a fast Internet connection (most folks will experience a short lag in both video and audio, so don't expect to have smooth, Skype-like conversations using the two-way talk feature). That said, I've used it with a more-sluggish DSL connection and it mostly worked fine, though occasionally the camera went offline.
I haven't tested every IP camera that's out there but the Dropcam Pro, while fairly pricey, appears to have some of the best -- if not the best -- video quality of any consumer-grade camera available today. Part of that's thanks to all the video compression magic Dropcam's engineers have integrated into their software, and part of it's because of the all-glass lens and larger image sensor in the camera. But just as importantly, it's easy to to set up and use.
At $199, the Dropcam Pro costs $50 more than the standard Dropcam, which remains on sale. As I said, that may be a little pricey for some, but I do think it's worth paying the extra 50 bucks for both the sharper video, better sound, and the Bluetooth feature, which makes setup easier and gives you the option to add accessories in the future. If you're looking to add a second or third Dropcam to your home, the standard Dropcam is still quite decent, but first-time buyers (or existing users who want to upgrade their primary camera) would do better stepping up to the Pro.