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Published: Saturday, 12/14/2013 - Updated: 11 months ago

Wireless Web cam technology helps keep eye on baby

BY KIT EATON
NEW YORK TIMES

NEW YORK — I remember the baby monitor my parents had — my friends and I used it as a primitive walkie-talkie.

It was very basic: One boxy unit went in the baby’s room near the crib. It had a microphone so if the baby made a sound you’d hear it on the other unit, at the end of a long wire. You could even send your voice back up the wire to lull the little one back to sleep.

Needless to say, our games were limited by that wire.

Technology has improved quite a bit since my childhood, a point made ridiculously clear by the newly released Dropcam Pro.

Dropcam Pro is a $200 wireless Web cam with two-way audio and night-vision capabilities. It’s an upgrade over the previous model, simply named Dropcam. The size-imaging sensor in the new unit is twice as big, which means that the camera captures much more light and can deliver a better picture with more zoom capability.

Plus, it has a 130-degree field of view, bigger than the previous 107 degrees. What does this mean? In my case, it means that after standing the camera on a shelf in my children’s room it can see a lot of the floor, a bit of the ceiling, the window, the door, and their beds from about 6 feet away. All in up to 1080p, HD video detail, even at night.

The camera unit itself is a sturdy, plain, hockey-puck-shaped device, and it clips into a similarly sturdy and plain metal stand. The stand can be placed on a flat surface, and you can turn it left and right and tilt the camera up and down. This stand can also be clipped into a plastic mount that can be screwed to a wall or ceiling for a more permanent installation.

The main limitation: You need to be within about 10 feet of a power socket, because that’s the length of the cable that comes with it.

Over the years, my wife and I have tried a number of baby monitors, but they’ve either been unreliable or tricky to set up and maintain. This seems to be the situation the team at Dropcam has tried to avoid. Installing, then setting Dropcam up and using it via a Web-based control from a computer or an app on an iOS or Android device couldn’t be simpler.

To start, you hook the cam’s cable to your computer’s USB port and follow the on-screen instructions, either on a Mac or a PC. The menus appear in a Web browser interface and are fuss-free. They guide you through the steps of setting up a free account with Dropcam’s cloud services and connecting your camera to your home’s wireless network. The whole process takes about two minutes.

Next, plug the camera in where you want it. The browser window you were using for the setup changes to the camera’s view, and 12 or so pop-up instructions walk you through controls on the screen.

Through this Web page interface, you view the camera feed and can zoom and pan around the image. In my home, the impressive, eight-times digital zoom is enough to see if my children’s eyes are open or shut from 6 feet away.

At night, the camera automatically switches to an infrared mode. The color video feed is then replaced with an eerie black-and-white view — the Dropcam unit includes its own infrared transmitters to “light up” the dark.

The camera has a microphone so you can listen through your PC and can transmit your voice through a small, built-in loudspeaker by tapping a control on the Web page. You can also tell the system to be sensitive to movements or to loud noises and even send an alert to your phone.

Although I’ve introduced Dropcam Pro as a baby monitor, you can imagine that it is capable of much more. The wide-screen camera, night vision, and movement or sound alerts make it handy as a home or small business security monitor. But you’re hardly going to be watching around the clock.

That’s where Dropcam’s secure, cloud-recording service comes in handy. It encrypts the video feed in the camera and constantly records it on the company’s servers. Then it streams it back to your home using security like your bank’s Web site.

To view the feed at any point over the previous few days, you click on the corresponding point on the timeline in the Dropcam app. A graphic above this timeline shows you when the camera detected movement or noise alerts.

Clicking here brings up a camera feed at that moment, so you can see what caused the alert.

To keep the recording, you click on the “make clip” button, which changes the interface to allow you to select a few seconds or a few minutes of video from the timeline. This clip is saved to the company’s servers as a file you can share via Twitter or YouTube. You can also email it to yourself or download it.

Cost is a big downside to all this functionality. While you can always watch your Dropcam Pro feed free, the secure recording system is costly.

On monthly billings, it costs $9.95 to record a seven-day video loop, or $29.95 for 30-day loops. On annual billings, the prices are $99 a year or $299 for seven-day or 30-day video loops.

That can add up over time, particularly if you have more than one camera (although you can get half-price discounts for extra cameras).

Now for my quibbles: There is no way to change where the camera is pointing in real time. That could limit your options if you want to use it as a security device.

There’s also a perceptible lag in the video feed, which means your child may have been crying for five or six seconds before you hear the sound through your phone or PC.

It takes another couple of seconds for your voice to be sent back.

The audio quality of the Pro is said to be much better than the original Dropcam, but I found that it was hard to hear really quiet noises over the feed.



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