Testing: Nest Cam Wireless IP Camera

By Norman Chan

A glorified webcam that works best with the upsell.

We first tested the Dropcam Wi-Fi video camera three years ago. Since then, the company released a Dropcam Pro model, was bought up by Google's Nest division, and has now rebranded itself Nest Cam. Its new eponymous flagship was just launched last month, and I've been using it for the past week and a half. It's a neat device: $200 gets you a webcam that pipes 1080p video through your Wi-Fi network to Nest's servers, which you can monitor and review on a smartphone app or its website. A subscription plan allows you to scrub through saved video and grants some other cloud-enabled features. You never store the video locally; a trade-off for ease of set-up and a seamless app experience. By and large, Nest Cam is just like the Dropcam Pro with a new camera sensor and redesigned chassis--not an essential upgrade if you've already spent $200 on the previous model.

But for new users and those interested in home security-lite, Nest Cam is an easy way to set up video monitoring of a room in your home, office, or even the sidewalk outside your window. After using the camera for a little bit, here's what stuck out to me about the experience.

The video quality of the 1080p footage is pretty good at its best, but varies depending on your Wi-Fi connection. Dropcam Pro was capped at 720p 30fps--I didn't have that model, so I haven't done a side-by-side comparison for image quality. The Nest Cam's sensor is good enough to pick individual people out across two room-lengths, and fast enough to identify someone riding their bicycle outside past the camera. With a 130-degree FOV, I noticed detail degradation along the outer edge of the glass lens, but it's sharp in the majority of the frame. Dynamic range is also important if you're using this in a room with lots of windows or reflections, and I thought the auto-exposure was good enough to adjust for time-of-day changes. It's about equivalent to a point and shoot camera sensor (1/3" equivalent).

The new Nest Cam design makes it versatile for mounting. A wall mount with screws is included, in which the camera magnetically snaps into place. The camera itself can be propped up on its hinged metal stand, stuck on metal surfaces with its magnets, or screwed onto a standard quarter-inch tripod mount. It just needs to be powered by a USB power source, and includes a thick 10-foot micro-USB cable. Curious that the included power cable is white, while the camera and mounts are black. The white cable sticks out like a sore thumb.

For automated or manual night vision, the camera switches on eight IR LEDs and flips its video to black and white. The night vision worked well in the dark of night, and you can still make out a fair amount of detail. The only problem I ran into was when placing the camera against a window--auto night-vision mode would flip on and mess with the auto-focus, so the camera would focus on its own reflection instead of the world beyond the window.

Zooming into a specific part of the field of view is possible, and you actually get more detail in that cropped part of the frame as Nest Cam processes more data from that part of the sensor. That tells me that image quality is limited more by the bandwidth and video processing done on Nest's servers than the sensor on the camera. You can also just image quality with a menu setting, to maximize or conserve bandwidth.

You watch a liveview of the webcam from iOS or Android app, or logged in from a web browser on Nest's website. The live view has some latency, in the order of seconds, not milliseconds. That makes its usefulness limited to some extent--it would be fine to monitoring the front door for deliveries, but not for watching children. And like the Dropcam models before it, Nest Cam has a speaker for two-way talk. But you're never expected to keep a monitor of the livecam active throughout the day, and in fact, the web Flash video takes a considerable chunk of CPU horsepower (enough to slow down my computer when running it fullscreen on a second monitor).

Nest Cam works best when you rely on its cloud processing to alert you of movement or sound in the camera's field of view. The app sends push notifications to alert you to check the webcam, but won't send more than one alert every 30 minutes. It actually logs activity in 30-second intervals, and triggers are marked as timestamps in a scrub-able timeline. In the app, I like that the triggered points are presented as a list of animated thumbnails that let me see all the activity at a glance.

Setting up the camera was super easy, and pairing it to a Nest account automatically starts a 30-day trial of the Nest Aware subscription service. Without a subscription, the Nest Cam's abilities are very limited--you only get the live view and mobile alerts. Paying $10 a month (or $100 a year) saves video for 10 days, though that's just for one camera. Additional Nest Cams in your house cost $5 more per camera.

In addition to cloud storage of your recorded video (how far back it saves depends on how much you pay), the subscription allocates more processing time in Nest's servers to better detect activity. Basically, you're paying to eliminate false negatives, as well as the ability to designate "activity zones" in the camera's field of view to specifically monitor. Oh yeah, Nest Aware can also automatically generate time-lapse videos with your footage.

Also, while scheduling times of day for the camera to activate monitoring is possible, there's no geofencing option (ie. to turn on monitoring when you leave the house). Geofencing was a feature on Dropcam, so I'm not sure why it was removed for the Nest model.

There are many IP cameras available today--the Wirecutter has evaluated most of them--and a few of Nest Cam's competitors offer features not found here. Some have face recognition as part of their subscription service, some tie into home automation platforms like Z-wave, and some offer local storage of video. Many are cloud-based services that require a subscription to access old video, which is essential if you're going to be using a web-connected camera for security purposes. Nest Cam is no different--without the subscription, it's just a pricey webcam with good image quality.