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The Best Wireless IP Camera Today

By Peter Ha, The Wirecutter

After 20 hours of researching, interviewing experts, and testing, I found the Dropcam Pro to be the best wireless IP camera for most people. Though it's not an all-encompassing security solution, the $200 Dropcam Pro hits the sweet spot for those looking for a basic piece of monitoring kit that’s easy to set up and use indoors.

After 20 hours of researching, interviewing experts, and testing, I found the Dropcam Pro to be the best wireless IP camera for most people. Though it's not an all-encompassing security solution, the $200 Dropcam Pro hits the sweet spot for those looking for a basic piece of monitoring kit that’s easy to set up and use indoors. In addition, the latest Dropcam has a robust set of improvements over the previous Dropcam, including better image quality at 1080p, a 130-degree field of view, a new zoom function that lets you focus with clarity on a particular area, and even better night vision. Oh, and it will soon communicate with other smart devices in your home.

Who should get this?

If home security is your primary reason to get a network camera, Dropcam is not for you…

If you’re looking to check in periodically on your home, pet, business or tiny human being with the best possible picture quality, and you’re interested in the burgeoning connected/smart home market, then the Dropcam Pro is for you. This is not, however, for the security buff or those looking for wired IP camera networks or full CCTV systems. It also doesn’t tie into connected home security systems (like our pick, FrontPoint Interactive), which typically use Z-Wave or Zigbee-compatible security cameras. And, of course, it can’t see anything if the power or Wi-Fi goes out. If home security is your primary reason to get a network camera, Dropcam is not for you—instead consider, you know, a home security system.

This is geared towards those wanting a basic monitoring system that’s easy to use, set up, and monitor from anywhere. There’s no need to run Ethernet cables, figure out your IP address or configure your firewall. You don’t have to worry about setting up a home server or swapping memory cards to record and view footage either because it’s all done in the cloud. Just set it and forget it.

If you would prefer a more tinker-friendly setup and are willing to put in the effort, that’s cool too, but we think most people are better served by an easier-to-use, all-inclusive package. That said, we did look at a few less-user-friendly options and you can read our takes on them in the competition section.

How We Picked

Web-connected cameras have historically been a pain in the butt to set up. From running cables through your walls to figuring out which port to forward, it’s never been for the faint of heart. So a goal of ours was to find one that you could easily set and forget.

We looked for cameras that had a mix of exceptional picture quality, low-light performance, recording functionality, reasonable bandwidth usage, and remote access capabilities.

Truth be told, there aren’t a heck of a lot of mainstream reviews of cloud cameras like there are reviews for the latest smartphone. This space has traditionally been pretty niche to security forums, where enthusiasts have dug into the nitty gritty.

That said, we scoured reviews from testers like CNET, Computerworld, and PC Mag, as well as user reviews from Amazon. We also took into consideration recommendations from enthusiasts, like Carl Gelbart, who runs networkcameracritic.com and has reviewed over 30 network cameras since 2010.

$150-200 seems to be the sweet spot for an all-in-one cloud camera with a decent set of features like HD video recording with audio, mobile apps, and encrypted streaming, based on our research and testing.

After narrowing it down, we called in the AVTech AVN813, Dropcam, and Dropcam Pro to test ourselves.

Our Pick

The Pro is easy to set up, taking less than 90 seconds, and has HD video, mobile apps, and a long 8x zoom.

So why did we pick the Dropcam Pro? Well, it met just about every one of our criteria with flying colors. It was the easiest to set up out of the box. In less than 90 seconds, just about anyone can set up the Pro. Download the accompanying iOS or Android app, plug in the camera, connect to your wireless network via the app, and your Dropcam Pro is up and running. That’s it. You don’t need to worry about port forwarding or firewalls. Also, as you’ll see in the pictures below, the image quality is astoundingly good compared to the competition.

A breadth of options to configure the Pro are available to users on both the mobile app and via the desktop version. More importantly, it’s easy to read and understand what you’re doing. You can configure the following by tapping an on/off toggle or slider: status light, HD video, night vision, image rotation, audio, mic sensitivity, scheduling (by time or geo-fenced to your mobile), and alerts.

Alerts can be configured to send an email in the event of a motion or sound or if the camera goes offline (which could be an indication of physical tampering, or someone disabling your network). Email alerts also include a photo of the event trigger and a timestamp, and in our testing came in less than a minute. Here’s a shot of my dog Sadie jumping into the bathtub. And no, I haven’t the faintest clue as to why she decided it was a good idea to jump into the bathtub.

Both the desktop and mobile apps are easy to use and understand, allowing you to zoom in on anything in the Pro’s 130-degree view. Compared to the previous-gen Dropcam, which now does 4x zoom, the Pro model offers up 8x zoom. That’s digital zoom, of course, so you should definitely take it with a grain of salt, but there’s also an “enhanced mode” on the Pro that lets you zoom in with minimal loss in clarity up to 2x. It’s able to achieve this because it has a ⅓” 3 MP sensor, which gives it more pixels than it needs since 1080p video is only about 2 MP (this lets it use less of the sensor with no loss in resolution—the end result being a cropped-yet-full-resolution image). As you can see in the photos below, it does in fact work pretty well.

Standing roughly 18 feet away from the Pro.
This is a non-enhanced view zoomed in at 2x.
And here’s the enhanced view at 2x.

Image quality is also very good. Not only does the Dropcam Pro have a wider field of view, everything looks much sharper as well thanks to an all-glass lens. This is not only good for shooting A+ candid videos of your pets, it’s invaluable should you (god forbid) need to identify a perp in a burglary. Note in the pics below that the Pro can see the entire bookshelf covered in valuables whereas the original Dropcam barely glimpses it. Let’s not even talk about the grainy mess that is the AVN813.

Below are some examples from the Dropcam Pro, original Dropcam, and AVN813 that aren’t zoomed in. All of them were taken from the same vantage point.

Dropcam Pro (no zoom)
Dropcam (no zoom)
AVN813 (no zoom)

Picture quality is, of course, dependent on the position of the camera, your network speed, and lighting conditions. But even in low-light situations, the Pro does an exceptional job of offering a clear view of whatever it oversees. And unlike the AVN813, the Dropcams use IR LEDs rather than a blinding white LED to illuminate things when it goes dark. As you can imagine, that’s less noticeable. Dropcam also allows you to set night vision mode to flip on automatically, whereas the AVN813′s needs to be turned on manually. The AVN813’s LED can be adjusted for brightness, but even at a low setting, it’s still overwhelmingly bright.

Dropcam Pro (low lighting)
Dropcam (low lighting)
AVN813 (low lighting)

I was monitoring my dog, so streaming audio and the two-way audio feature weren’t as useful to me. Not that I couldn’t surprise her by telling her to stop licking her paws.

Overall lag is really dependant on network speed. I subscribe to Time Warner Cable’sExtreme tier of broadband service, which touts speeds up to 30 Mbps down and 5 Mbps up. For me, the lag was barely noticeable—well under two seconds.

If you’re looking to record and store video, the Dropcam isn’t the cheapest option available. The Dropcam automatically saves its footage to the cloud, but it’s not saved forever. Like most security camera systems, there’s a rolling buffer; it’ll save the last week or month’s worth of footage so you can review it if there’s an incident. For seven days (168 hours) of Cloud Recording (CVR), Dropcam charges $9.95/month or $99/year. For 30 days of CVR, you’ll have to shell out $29.95/month or $299/year! And those prices are for one camera; each additional camera is an extra $49/year for the 7 day buffer or $149/year for 30 days. And don’t think you can get away with local storage either, because there’s no way to do that.

…so a burglar can’t screw you by taking the SD card out of your camera, or smashing your home server.

On the bright side, Dropcam’s solution doesn’t require you to configure or purchase any additional hardware. Beyond just storage, though, video that’s captured on the Dropcam and saved to the cloud is retrievable from wherever you are even if the camera itself is stolen or broken–so a burglar can’t screw you by taking the SD card out of your camera or smashing your home server. Dropcam uses end-to-end SSL/TLS encryption and says video “remains safe even if the network it operates on is unprotected or compromised.”

While some may argue that the cost of cloud recording is the Dropcam’s biggest drawback, Cameron Summerson from Android Police had this to say: “I could easily justify $10 to make sure I have a record of everything that happens when I go out of town – that kind of peace of mind is hard to put a price on, after all. If someone were to break into my house, I’d have a record of it, even if they took the Dropcam. That’s a good feeling. Every Dropcam comes with a two-week free trial of CVR, so if you’re on the fence about its value this is a good way to dip your toes in the water, so to speak.” It should also be noted that you can save clips and view them online from any web browser. Three hours of clips are automatically saved to your Saved Clips section when you subscribe to CVR service.

As an added bonus, the Pro comes equipped with a Bluetooth Low Energy chip that will soon let it communicate with other BLE sensors you might have at home now or in the near future, like a door or moisture sensor, which the company has said they may begin selling soon. You won’t need to do anything extra either. Once the Dropcam recognizes the BLE sensor, you’ll see it in the Dropcam app, where you can link it to your Dropcam.

Dropcam is also beta testing a feature (web-only for now) called Activity Recognition that sends a notification when a predetermined action triggers the camera. The Pro “learns typical motion patterns” in areas that it monitors, letting users customize specific events to alert them of inconsistent (or consistent) activity. It should be noted that Dropcam records more video than YouTube, which is why they’ve employed computer vision researchers to better improve Activity Recognition. It will presumably work in conjunction with sensors some time down the road.

Important Specs
Resolution1080p
ConnectivityDual-band Wi-Fi (2.4GHz and 5GHz)
Dimensions4.5 x 3.2 x 3.2 inches
Zoom8x digital 2x with clarity
FOV130 degrees (diagonal)
ExtrasNight vision, Cloud video recording

Who else likes it

Well, the customers, for one. It’s one of the most popular and bestselling cameras on Amazon across multiple categories with an average rating of 4.1 out of 5 stars.

As far as professional reviewers go, CNET’s David Carnoy gave it 4/5 stars, saying the Pro is “easy to use and set up” and that the “addition of Bluetooth makes setup even easier and will allow you to connect optional home-monitoring accessories in the future.”

PCMag’s Eric Griffith gave the Pro the PC Mag seal of approval with an editor’s choice badge and 4.5/5 stars and notes “how great a camera like this can get with quality optics.” Griffith kicks off his review with the following: “Dropcam Pro has twice the digital zoom power (8x) of the original (4x)—normally nothing to brag about, but newly enhanced visual quality makes it better than the pan/tilt/zoom on mechanized cameras of the same price (like the Compro Cloud Network Camera TN600W). Couple that with easy PC-free setup and the industry’s best cloud-based recording, and it’s a no brainer: The Dropcam Pro is our new Editors’ Choice in consumer home surveillance.” He adds that the “lack of on-board storage may seem like a burden, but Dropcam would argue the set-it-and-forget cloud storage saves you even more hassle, and I’d agree.” A point of contention for some, but more on that later.

“When it came to recording in the dark, the difference between the Dropcam Pro and the Dropcam HD was literally night and day.”

Laptop Mag’s Michael A. Prospero also awarded the Pro with an Editors’ Choice badge and 4/5 stars: “In addition to packing a much better lens and sensor than its predecessor, this Wi-Fi security camera is even easier to set up than last year’s version, and works more seamlessly with your smartphone.” He also notes how much better the Pro’s low-light performance is compared to the previous generation Dropcam, “When it came to recording in the dark, the difference between the Dropcam Pro and the Dropcam HD was literally night and day. Where the HD’s video displayed almost nothing, the Pro’s night vision (in black and white) made it very easy to distinguish objects in our office.”

In a roundup of five cloud cameras last June, ComputerWorld’s Robert L. Mitchell found the previous-generation Dropcam to be “very easy to set up and use. It’s an excellent choice for basic video security monitoring, especially for the less technically adept.”

Android Central’s Simon Sage pitted the previous generation Dropcam HD (now just called Dropcam) against the Belkin NetCam HD, a direct competitor to Dropcam, earlier this year. He concluded that he’d pick the Dropcam over the Belkin: “if I was going to pick one either one of these systems, it would have to be the Dropcam HD. The user interface is really smooth on both Android and web, the premium archiving feature is awesome (though expensive enough that it would make me seriously consider how important home security is to me).”

AppleInsider’s Mikey Campbell gave it a 4/5 star rating: “Overall, the Dropcam Pro is a worthy successor to the Dropcam HD. While hardware received a significant boost, we argue the software upgrades are more substantial. Everything is easy to setup, seamless and, most importantly, it works.”

I spoke to Chris Chute from IDC, a marketing research firm, who has covered home surveillance for over a decade and is a research director for the digital imaging group.

Here’s what he had to say about the home surveillance space: “Generally DIY home surveillance has been a hassle to set up and tends to lose its stickiness over time, because you really do need a third set of eyes to manage home security, and many consumers just don’t have the time to manage such a thing.”

When asked if any models were addressing that specific issue, Chute said, “I think the value in Dropcam is its ease of use. The technology has been around for quite some time, its just been not as consumerized. And there’s the angle of ‘home monitoring’ rather than the claim of ‘surveillance.’”

Flaws but not dealbreakers

You can only store videos to Dropcam’s pricey cloud-storage option, and not to a local server, memory card, or third-party cloud service.

The biggest problem with Dropcam is its lack of flexibility when it comes to storing recorded video. You can only store videos to Dropcam’s pricy cloud-storage option, and not to a local server, memory card, or third-party cloud service. And if you have more than one Dropcam, you have to pay for Dropcam’s CVR service on each individual camera, although each camera after the first only costs half what the first did: One year of 7-day CVR for one camera is $99, for two cameras is $149, for three is $197, and so forth.

The Dropcam and Dropcam Pro also don’t have backup batteries or onboard storage, so they’re susceptible to power cuts and network outages (though either will send you an alert if that does happen). Many enthusiast security cameras offer onboard storage or SD card slots, but few offer battery backups, so unless you have a generator or UPS they’re going to be equally vulnerable—even hardwired Power Over Ethernet IP cams are useless if a power cut takes out the PoE hub. That’s why, if you’re serious about security, you should also have a remote-monitored, cellular-based home security system with a battery backup, like our pick. Like we’ve said, that’s not what the Dropcam is for.

Another gripe from reviewers and owners alike is that you can’t use it outdoors because it isn’t protected from the elements. On multiple occasions we’ve asked CEO Greg Duffy if an outdoor version is coming; he’s provided no response. Although it is rated to work at 0-35 degrees Celsius (32-95 °F).

Beware of bandwidth caps

One very important thing to keep in mind when it comes to considering a cloud camera is how much bandwidth it’s going to take up. This is one of the things that Carl Gelbart had an issue with with cloud cameras. In some instances, they could be constantly streaming video, which could lead to some hefty data usage and possible bandwidth capping by your ISP. Many other network-enabled security cameras record to a DVR or NAS on your home network.

If you’re not sure whether your ISP has a monthly data limit, this breakdown fromGigaOm is a great reference.

To give you a frame of reference, my overall usage statistics from the month of January topped out at 125 GB.

To give you a frame of reference, my overall usage statistics from the month of January topped out at 125 GB, which would only hit the limit on a few of the ISPs on GigaOm’s chart. And that was with the Dropcam Pro running full steam between the hours of 7AM and midnight every day, among other bandwidth-heavy activities, like streaming Netflix. However, I’m only using one Dropcam Pro in a relatively small space. I suspect most folks would want more than one to monitor their homes. So just keep that in mind. Just how much of an impact does streaming a Dropcam Pro for 17 hours have on your overall bandwidth usage?

Dropcam says its Pro model “encodes in H.264 at 1080p and does an extremely good job of compressing it down to about 200Kbps. The server doesn’t do any transcoding or further compression — it stores exactly what the camera sent.” Anandtech was able to confirm this in their own testing, stating that each Pro generates a 200 Kbps to 300 Kbps stream. That works out to between 1.44 MB/s and 2.2 MB/s, or between 86 MB and 132 MB for each hour the camera is running. Assuming at most a 300 Kbps stream, that’s up to 3.1 GB per day, or roughly 93 GB per month if your Dropcam is running 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. That’s the worst-case scenario for a single, always-on Dropcam.

Step down

The predecessor to our top pick, the Dropcam has 4x zoom (not 8), a 107-degree field of view (not 130), and is generally not as polished.

Keeping the aforementioned set of features and criteria in mind, a logical step down would be the Pro’s predecessor, the HD, now simply called Dropcam.

The Dropcam has 107-degree field of view compared to the Pro’s 130-degree field of view, and it only has 4x zoom. Overall image and audio quality aren’t as polished as the Pro, and though the differences there are noticeable, the Dropcam is still better than the competition. You still have access to the same app and features.

What if I want more?

There are many ways of doing that, but they require a lot more setup and fussing on the part of the user to get it up and running. We may look into options that enable localized storage, etc in a future guide if we get enough requests, but the bottom line is that for the time being, you will not find a simpler setup with anywhere near as good image quality as Dropcam without investing a lot more money and time to make it happen.

You can roll your own home camera system with off-the-shelf IP cameras (some of which are mentioned below) and still have perks like motion-detection, night vision, and remote access, but DIY options add a lot of complexity, and all require more existing infrastructure than the Dropcam. In every case you’ll need IP-enabled cameras, plus some additional equipment to control, configure, and record your cameras–either a computer, a NAS, or a home automation or security system.

As mentioned by John Bernstein in the comments, programs like Sighthound andBlue Iris use your PC to control and record your cameras. If you have a NAS box fromSynology, QNAP, or Netgear you can use that as a base for your camera setup, and most smart home security systems and home automation systems also offer video surveillance, for an additional monthly fee (not counting the cost of the cameras).

Competitors

Carl Gelbart of NetworkCameraCritic is no fan of Dropcam, even though he’s never used one: “I would go with the AVTech AVN813 and here’s why: there’s going to be a certain level of effort to get the Dropcam going, user registered on website, the camera setup to a WiFi SSID, so I’m not buying that ease of use story.” Harsh words, and ones that we did not find to be the case in our own testing. However, since Gelbart has reviewed more of these things than anyone else on the internet, we figured his pick was worth testing, so we bought one.

When we tested the AVN813, which isn’t as readily available for purchase as the Dropcam or many others, we found it difficult to set up and configure. For instance, during the setup process, a user is asked to identify the router and camera’s IP address and to configure port forwarding. None of those are extremely difficult to find, but the questions significantly increase the time needed to set up if you’re not as familiar with poking around network settings.

The manual for the AVN813.

Even in this video from Smart Vision Direct, it takes the tester over five minutes to set up—and that’s a person who knows exactly what they’re doing.

The AVN813 can also be noticeably more expensive than the Pro model from Dropcam at $270, though pricing and availability from Amazon third-party sellers vary. We also found that when the camera is directly wired to the router and not connected over wireless, the video stream can’t be viewed remotely, though it can be stored locally to an onboard microSD card. The app is also clunky and confusing compared to Dropcam’s app. And let’s not forget its lackluster image quality when compared to Dropcam Pro or even the basic Dropcam. Overall, we’ll pass on this one.

The Netgear VueZone is interesting because it runs on batteries and is thus completely wireless. The base system costs $130 for a motion detecting camera and a required base station, which can control up to 15 cameras for a monthly fee. However, there are plenty of drawbacks compared to the Dropcam. For one, it doesn’t take actual real time video–it’s limited to 1600×1200 at 1fps, 640×480 at 4fps, or 320×240 at 8fps. And there’s no audio recording, let alone 2-way audio. It also doesn’t do continuous recording. It only activates when you schedule it, if you’re actively watching one of the cameras, or if it detects motion. Of course you could schedule it to go 24/7, but you’re limited by the cloud storage plan–250MB for the $5/month plan, or 500MB for $10/month. Night vision requires a $130 camera with an external, wired infrared lamp (!), and even then the video quality is terrible. VueZone does offer a $40 outdoor camera shell, which is nice. Overall, we think this product is a bit behind the times and isn’t worth buying for most people considering how much more functionality Dropcam has to offer.

The Y-Cam HomeMonitor is somewhere between the two Dropcams on pricing, and garnered high praise from PC Mag’s Griffith, GeekMom for WIRED, and iLounge. It’s priced at $200 but currently sells for $175 on Amazon, including 7 days of CVR service for free. For 30 days of CVR, you’ll only need to fork over $40 for the year. According toSmallNetBuilder, that’s because it only records when an alert is triggered; the Dropcam records a constant stream. However, the HomeMonitor isn’t HD (640×480 at 10-15 fps), has only one-way audio, and suffers from performance issues and unpolished software. It only has 3.7 stars out of five on Amazon, from 47 reviews.

D-Link also offers a couple models that are comparable to the Pro. Reviewers like PC Mag’s Eric Griffith outlined the Cloud Camera 1150’s shortcomings quite succinctly: “Not HD. No online storage DVR service. Limited-range night vision. One-way audio. Video via Web requires Java (by default, though you can download and install H.264 software on your own). Indoor-only.” The 1150 has a 3.5-star rating on Amazon compared to the Dropcam Pro’s 4.1-star rating.

Belkin’s NetCam HD might not be a terrible alternative, as noted by Android Central’sSimon Sage: “NetCam HD does have a few bonuses, like being able to record live video clips directly to your device, but it needs a serious user interface overhaul, and additional features like location awareness and long-term archiving to compete. On that note, it makes sense that the Belkin NetCam HD is twenty bucks cheaper than the Dropcam.” He ultimately picks the previous generation Dropcam as the one to get. The NetCam HD also has an abysmal 2.6-star average on Amazon.

What about the Logitech Alert 750n system? ZDNet’s David Gewirtz notes that Alert’s fatal flaw is its lack of continuous remote monitoring, which Macnn points out costs an additional $80 per year. It’s also 720p, compared to the Dropcam’s 1080p, and costs $270.

Why not the Foscam FI8910W? It also has a 4.1-star Amazon rating and only costs $65. But with only a resolution of 640×480 and viewing angle of 67 degrees, you’d need more than one to get the same coverage with just one Dropcam Pro. What’s more, based on recent findings from Read Write Web, we’re a little wary of recommending any of the Foscam cameras over a security issue that some users may not be aware of, or, worse, ignore altogether. The default login for users is “admin,” which, if left unchanged, could allow unauthorized individuals to have a peek at what your camera is seeing.

Many of the aforementioned cameras, such as the Logitech and Foscam, can be used in conjuction with PC- or NAS-based surveillance setups, as mentioned by John Bernstein in the comments and discussed in the “What if I want more?” section. Check the compatibility lists of your software or hardware before you buy.

What to look forward to

The Canary might be an interesting Dropcam competitor if you’re more focused on home security than, say, baby or pet monitoring, but it’s not out yet, so there are no reviews. Several new cloud cameras are coming from the likes of Samsung, which will include an outdoor variant, but not much else in the way of features. However, none seem to have the total package, at least on paper. But we’ll update as needed.

Wrapping it up

There are other network cameras out there, but the Dropcam Pro is the cream of the crop. For $200, you get incredible ease of use, future compatibility with connected devices, better optics, and all you need to know is your Wi-Fi password.

This guide originally appeared on The Wirecutter on 2/21/14 and is republished here with permission.