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Three Dropcam Alternatives Improve on Sorting Footage

If sorting through Dropcam footage frustrates you, try one of these three alternatives.

Olivia Merrion for Re/code

When it comes to consumer-friendly home-monitoring cameras, Dropcam reigns supreme. This $199 camera is the number one seller in its category at Home Depot and Amazon, and people like its straightforward design that’s easy to set up out of the box. And it’s now part of Nest, the Google-owned company that made a name for itself with a tech-savvy thermostat and smoke and carbon monoxide detector.

But Dropcam footage can be cumbersome to review. No one wants to take the time to sift through hours of dull home monitoring video clips of things like a view of the front steps. And activity alerts that automatically ping users when movement is detected can be so redundant and overwhelming that some simply ignore them or turn them off.

This week, I took a close look at three potential Dropcam rivals that are trying to do a better job of organizing your footage: Camio, Flir FX and Simplicam.

Unfortunately, I ran into a few testing troubles. When a firmware update for the Flir FX failed to download, my camera stopped working. And Simplicam had trouble receiving power from its wall and computer cables, which prevented me from using it. So I focused on Camio.

In both instances, the companies said these were unusual glitches, but I can’t say with certainty that you won’t experience the same issues.

The software-only approach

Camio doesn’t make its own camera; rather, it focuses on being a free software service that works with your existing cameras, including Dropcam (compatibility was added last month), the webcams on laptops or desktops, and the cameras built into phones and tablets.

I like the concept here. Rather than dropping $200 on a new camera, I can download Camio and use an old smartphone or tablet that’s otherwise gathering dust — and I have lots of those lying around. Camio comes with free 30-day cloud video storage, and makes money by charging people for adding cameras to an account ($9 per camera per month). You’re only charged if those additional cameras record at the same time as your original camera.

Camio has a lot of smarts. It learns your footage-watching behavior to understand what you do or don’t want to record. Every time you play, share, delete or pin a video clip, you’re automatically training Camio. At the end of each day, it embeds what it considers to be your four top video clips in a Camio Daily email, saving you from watching footage. And you can search your Camio footage using plain language, like “foot” or “blue shirt.”

You can also manually train Camio by clicking a star beside events in the Feed section of the Camio website. And you can tell the service to only alert you about movement in certain zones that you designate — like if there’s activity near your doorbell or mailbox.

Dropcam lets people customize Activity Zones, too, but only if they’re paying for the Dropcam cloud recording service, which costs between $100 and $300 a year, depending on how long you want to save footage.

But repurposing computers and mobile devices as Camio cameras posed a few problems I didn’t expect. Phones and tablets don’t have a built-in mounting system or stand like single-purpose cameras, so I had to use tape and a few books to get them positioned correctly for recording. I also had to plug in these devices, and some didn’t have long power cords like a Dropcam does. Also, if you use a computer’s webcam, the PC’s power-saving mode must be turned off so it won’t shut down.

Finally, I was surprised when my Camio-enabled iPad and iPhone repeatedly made the shutter-capture sound. This irritating noise can be shut off if you turn off the device’s sound altogether. Camio co-founder and CEO Carter Maslan explained that this was an iOS issue that the company will fix in an app update within the next month. It doesn’t happen on Android or when you use a computer webcam.

Pay-to-play cloud storage services

Flir FX and Simplicam use their own methods for trying to simplify and enhance your video-footage viewing experiences. But both only make these features available for customers who pay the companies for cloud recording services.

Olivia Merrion for Re/code

Flir FX costs $200 or $250 for a camera with weatherproof housing that you can set up outdoors — something a lot of home-monitoring cameras can’t do. Its unique way of summarizing lots of footage into a fast, one-screen glimpse is called RapidRecap. This shows you one video with each moving object or person as they appear, time-stamped for when each one showed up throughout the day.

Three tiers of Flir’s cloud service range from free to a $20-a-month option. Only three RapidRecaps come with the free account.

Though my Flir FX camera had technical troubles, the examples of RapidRecap that I saw looked good, summarizing a lot of activity in one quick snippet. Tapping on any of the moving objects showed close-up views of that thing and its movements.

Simplicam costs $150 by itself, or $200 with a year’s worth of one-day recording services. Simplicam uses Facial Recognition to identify people when they appear in the footage. Events captured on the Simplicam can be sorted by motion, sound or face, and the app can be trained to ignore certain people while alerting you about others.

Olivia Merrion for Re/code

I really like Camio’s software-based approach to video monitoring, but sometimes a standalone camera just works better than a repurposed device with a built-in webcam. Camio’s new relationship with Dropcam could really soup up Dropcam’s meh existing software, so if you own a Dropcam, I suggest marrying the two by following the instructions here.

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