Testing VSaaS / Dropcam HD

By John Honovich, Published May 14, 2013, 12:00am EDT

Dropcam is pretty clearly the strongest upstart in the VSaaS market. While Axis has pushed their hosted service offering for years, it is beset by poor ROI and weak performance. There are dozens of other VSaaS Startups but no one matches Dropcam's relatively huge VC funding and dominance on Amazon. However, is Dropcam just a sales and marketing play?

To find out, we bought a Dropcam HD and tested it. If you are interested in consumer use, there's 600+ Amazon reviews as well as a teenage blogger's video review [link no longer available] that we found impressive.

Here is what makes Dropcam easier to use than essentially any other VSaaS / IP camera offering:

  • No codes nor IDs are needed. Even other 'plug n play' cameras generally require finding and inserting a code placed in the box, the camera or supplied by a distributor. This is not needed with Dropcam.
  • No need to discover the camera on a network or use a CD. Dropcam plugs directly into one's PC via an included USB cable. The software automatically detects and connects to Dropcam's website.
  • The setup process is simple. There's only two steps - (1) setting up a Dropcam account and (2) connecting to a wireless network. Dropcam automatically registers the camera and links it to your account without doing anything.
  • A 10 foot long cable. Most consumer IP camera come with a 3 - 6 long cable which often makes it hard to reach an outlet. The much longer cable Dropcam provides simplifies that.

Here is a video that demonstrates each of these key usability points:

While it takes about 5 - 10 minutes to setup, more than the claimed '60 seconds', there are really no intellectually complex nor difficult decisions to be made. As such, the risk that a user gets lost or gives up is quite low. This is clearly the most important differentiator.

Features / Configuration

Dropcam has very few features, fairly consistent with other home / consumer offerings. Here's an overview of them:

However, there are 2 key features that stand out:

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  • Motion Detection Alerts / Low False Positives: Unlike most IP cameras that have a high amount of false positives (i.e., alerting against wind, dust, shadows, etc.), Dropcam has a relatively low amount of false positives but does have more false negatives than others (particularly when a person might be passing only through a part of the field of view or in the background). In addition, Dropcam only sends an email alert once per 30 minutes, regardless of how many alerts there are. While Dropcam talks about  'more advanced motion detection', our test results indicate that it is similar technology but better tuned to the expectations / needs of the consumer market.
  • Location Based Scheduling: This feature is unique though probably not useful for families. One's iPhone can be synced up with their Dropcam. When the person with the iPhone leaves the location (typically of their Dropcam), a signal is sent to the camera to start recording and sending alerts. Vice versa, when the phone is detected back at the location, the camera is turned off. This is useful for those who want privacy. See our review of Dropcam's location based scheduling.

The Camera Itself

Dropcam uses an Ambarella chip, like many other surveillance products. Ambarella actually has a reference design for similar miniature cameras. Here's what it looks like:

 

Not 'Real' HD - Bandwidth Analysis

Last, but certainly not least, Dropcam's HD is not 'really' HD. The pixel count is certainly 1280 x 720 but Dropcam generally uses such heavy compression to fit in its low bandwidth allocation that the resulting quality is far lower than HD. For instance, in our testing, most professional IP cameras use a quantization level between 27 - 30. However, Dropcam typically uses a far higher level (almost 40), which significantly reduces visible quality. For background, see our video quality and how to measure video compression tutorials. The screencast below examines Dropcam's quality and compression levels:

Dropcam estimates 200Kb/s stream though, in our tests, it was typically closer to 100Kb/s. Either way, for a 720p / 15fps feed, that bandwidth level is far too low to deliver HD video without very high compression that degrades video quality in all but the simplest scenes.

Ongoing Costs / Storage & Bandwidth

We estimate that Dropcam spends ~$1 per month or less for storage/bandwidth for their $9.95 seven days storage plan (based on large scale Amazon storage pricing as a metric and assuming ~10GB of storage per account). Lowering the compression level to give 'true' HD quality could easily triple their ongoing costs. That said, for consumer use, it is probably good enough, unless they had a strong direct competitor that offered full HD with edge storage but that's not a practical threat for them today.

 

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