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Review: Tiny Nest Cam Brings Small Improvements to Dropcam

The first home-monitoring camera from Nest following its acquisition of Dropcam does not disappoint. Still, there are cheaper options out there.

Vjeran Pavic for Re/code

Last month, device-maker Nest Labs introduced a $200 DIY home-monitoring camera. It was an announcement that surprised almost no one, considering the company’s acquisition of Dropcam a year ago.

The feature updates with this new camera are relatively small: Nest added 1080p HD streaming and better nighttime video capture to something that looks a lot like Dropcam’s camera, and called it the Nest Cam. Nest’s mobile app now controls the Nest Cam in addition to the company’s Internet-connected thermostat and smoke-detector products.

But the implications are bigger — Nest Labs, of course, is owned by Google — so the camera has garnered a fair share of attention.

I’ve been using the new Nest Cam at home for more than a week, and found that it offers reliable, clear video feeds. It’s been so easy to use that I’m pretty sure my 7-year-old niece could figure it out. And I just adopted a pet, so it’s been fun monitoring him from work and seeing his eyes glow in the nighttime feeds like some sort of possessed kitten.

But that’s not to say Nest Cam is an uncontested home-monitoring home run, or that you should get one if you already have a Dropcam Pro. While Nest Labs is no longer making new Dropcam models, it continues to support the existing Dropcams that are out there, so your “old” tech is not obsolete. At least, not yet.

It’s also worth taking a close look at all of the other DIY competitors out there before diving into Nest Cam. (Note: I haven’t tried all of these cameras myself, though my colleagues have used some of them.) More notable ones include the $200 Withings Home Camera, the $200 Piper Classic All-in-One Security System and Belkin’s $130 NetCam HD+ Camera.

There are now cams that offer facial-recognition features, like the $150 Simplicam and the $200 Netatmo Welcome. The idea behind these is that the camera is “smart” enough to know the difference between a pouncing pet, a frequent visitor and burglar stranger-danger, so that you’re getting alerts when you really should be and not every time there’s the slightest movement in front of the camera.

If you’re looking for a less expensive option, a service called Camio lets you turn an old smartphone or tablet into a “home security camera,” and offers free 30-day cloud storage, to boot. Adding additional devices to the Camio system costs $9 per month.

Vjeran Pavic for Re/code

Most of these DIY camera systems — Nest included — charge some type of additional fee for access to historical video clips in the cloud. The Nest Aware subscription costs $10 per month for access to 10 days of video activity, and $30 per month for 30 days.

In my experience, there is no way you are not going to want to pay for this if you’re investing in a Nest Cam. Otherwise, the only option is to watch a live feed or just-happened video of whatever it is you’ve set your Nest Cam up to monitor; if some sort of event were to occur in the home days before and you missed it that day, you couldn’t go back and view it later. So in addition to the upfront cost of the hardware, factor in a subscription fee.

The Nest Cam has a slimmer build than the earlier Dropcam: It’s a cute, round-faced camera on a thin stick, like a futuristic, single-eyed little alien. It’s made mostly of plastic, but has an adjustable, magnetized metal base stand, which means you can easily mount it on the fridge or any other surface that takes to magnets.

Hidden in the back is a micro-USB port for the thick, white charging cable; Nest Cam has to be plugged in to power on. There are no physical buttons on the camera, which is both a security measure (someone can’t break in and turn the camera off) and a minor inconvenience (you have to open up the Nest app to turn off the camera, or else just yank the cord out of the wall).

Vjeran Pavic for Re/code

One of Nest Cam’s most underrated features is ease of use, something that helped popularize Dropcam. Nest promises a 60-second setup, and while that definitely wasn’t the case for me, it took less than 10 minutes to get it out of the box, download the Nest mobile app and connect the device over Wi-Fi.

Nest Cam works with iOS and Android devices, which is where you’ll adjust your settings, watch a live feed from the camera, and receive alerts every 30 minutes if the camera has detected some activity. In addition to watching a live feed within the app, you can also access video clips of earlier motion or activity, provided you’re paying for Nest Aware.

Scrolling through your Nest Cam historical timeline on the Web is more painstaking than it is on mobile, but the Web dashboard offers a key feature: The ability to download and save video clips in a standard MP4 format. Otherwise, how would you be able to share video clips of your pet doing ridiculous things? Hypothetically speaking.

As mentioned earlier, the Nest Cam captures and streams video in 1080p HD, crisp enough to show human whiskers, in addition to animal ones. And it has a 130-degree wide-angle view, which was wide enough to view a good portion of the living room. If you really wanted to go nuts, you could have a maximum of 20 Nest Cams set up throughout your home.

Its eight infrared sensors are supposed to offer better video capture in the dark, compared with other cameras. While I wasn’t able to do a side-by-side comparison of low-light quality from multiple cameras, the Nest Cam’s night vision was good enough that I could see the pet prowling around at night.

Vjeran Pavic for Re/code

There hasn’t been much activity at home over the past several days, but I could see how a product like Nest Cam would be useful for thwarting home break-ins, managing contractors or even monitoring a nursery, since Nest Cam has a mic and speaker for two-way communication (Dropcam has this, too).

On the flip side, some consumers would rather go streaking down the middle of the street than have a cloud-based home-video product running 24/7 in their homes. In other words, people (rightfully) have concerns about privacy.

Nest says the video that is captured only exists in the cloud for as long as your subscription allows, and that after that it disappears entirely. Nest says it doesn’t keep backup copies of the video.

There are other things to think about, too, if you’re considering Nest Cam. Your smartphone battery drains quickly when you’re constantly watching the live feed. I found that the camera itself gets unusually warm to the touch, something a co-worker even commented on when he was visiting my home to do a video shoot.

And it’s easy to forget there’s a camera recording you when you decide to sit and watch HBO’s “True Detective” in your underwear. Oh, right: Open app, turn camera off.

Nest’s first product in the security-camera space is simple and reliable. But it’s not so amazing that it blows competitors completely out of the water. And if you’re happy with your Dropcam, don’t rush to upgrade.

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