Dropcam: An easy way to keep tabs on the cats: Peter Nowak

But cloud service raises privacy concerns


Friday marks the most important day of the year in the United States. No, it’s not Independence Day or President’s Day or anything like that; it’s Black Friday, also known as the most important shopping day of the year. It’s when retailers of all stripes try out their best specials in the hopes of luring consumers to spend, spend, spend for Christmas, which is of course the economic engine that makes the country go ’round.

Never ones to be left out, Canadian retailers have in recent years emulated the trend to the point where Black Friday is now a truly North American phenomenon. The two countries are united in their unabashed consumerism.

In the tech space, new gadgets are launched in rapid procession in the fall months in anticipation of this holiest of days. Indeed, this year was amazing in that the flood started literally the day after Labour Day. I’ve had a bunch of products pile up in that time that I’ve been meaning to write about, so I figured I’d devote this week to some of my preferred Black Friday picks. If you’re looking for gizmos for the tech lover in your family, you may want to check back here all this week.

Today, we start off with a handy device for monitoring your home, the Dropcam. While there are many different home security options out there, the Dropcam camera – from the eponymous San Francisco-based company – is one of the best-rounded in terms of features, quality and price.

I’ve been testing out both models, the Dropcam and the Dropcam Pro, and have been suitably impressed with both. The high-definition cameras hook up very easily and then connect to your home Wi-Fi, at which point you can tune in to see what’s happening at home in real time through your iOS or Android phone or tablet. They also have two-way audio, so you can talk to your pets when you’re not home – or tell that burglar who just broke in that you’re watching him.

The Pro has slightly better specs – it has a wider field of view at 130 degrees versus the basic camera’s 107 degrees and it has eight-times zoom rather six-times. The Pro also has slightly better night vision and audio, but of course it costs more – $219 versus $159 for the regular camera. The higher-end camera was also slightly easier to set up, since I just used Bluetooth with my tablet. The regular camera was a little trickier in that I had to connect it to my computer to get it working, but even that was relatively straightforward. Both have clearer night vision than I was expecting, with each providing relatively clear pictures even in almost total darkness.

Perhaps the coolest – and possibly worrying – part of the Dropcam proposition is its cloud video recording capability, which is free for the first two weeks. After that, seven days of stored recording costs $99 a year while 30 days of storage is $299 a year.

The service stores everything the camera sees while turned on, so you can log in and view past activity. You can even save clips and then share them or download them. For people who are really concerned about security, this is a no-brainer option since it’s like having a camera with a tape that’s always rolling.

It is slightly concerning, though, when you think of what could happen if someone were to hack into the service. It could be criminals or it could be the National Security Agency – either way, they’d have a direct feed into the privacy of your own home.

That’s doubtlessly the company’s primary concern, so with luck there is work going into preventing it. In the meantime, the bigger issue I’ve had with the Dropcams are the privacy implications for my wife and I. Neither of us really want the other spying on them, which meant we had to have a conversation over how we plan to use them. We agreed to only turn the cameras on when neither of us are home, but these are decisions every household would have to make.

With no on-off switch, there are only two ways to shut the camera down – through the app (or computer) or by unplugging it. What’s cool, though, is that you get an email in the event that it goes down unexpectedly.

Also, while the Dropcam can be used for home security, you can also choose to set up public, searchable feeds. The Santa Monica Pier and the Seattle baseball stadium are just two businesses with public cameras that any user can view.

All told, the Dropcam isn’t the highest-end security camera on the market, but it does have a swath of handy features that are very easy to use, at a relatively good price. Like any product of this sort it does raise some privacy questions, but otherwise it’s a pretty sweet way to keep tabs on your home. It’s also a great way to talk to your cats when you’re out – if you’re into that sort of thing.