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I got a connected surveillance camera, but used it mainly as a puppycam

I got a connected surveillance camera, but used it mainly as a puppycam
Dave Schumaker
Dave Schumaker|@davely|February 24, 2015 4:15 PM

Over the last year and a half, I've used a few different connected cameras to monitor my home. This includes more popular offerings such as the Dropcam Pro, but I found myself ultimately unhappy with the yearly fee and the requirement to store video on Dropcam's servers. I've also played with a Foscam IP camera, but it seems like you need a network engineering degree in order to properly set them up (and let's not get started on how ugly they are). That's why I was pretty excited about the opportunity to spend some time with the $200 Withings Home HD camera. It was definitely a departure from similar devices and had that shiny, new-toy smell, too.

First off, why would anyone go to all this trouble to monitor their home? For me, it was all about peace of mind and security. We live in Oakland and have to keep an eye on things, you know? But if I'm being entirely honest with you, this is really just an excuse to watch our puppy while I'm at work.

Gallery: IRL: Withings Home | 12 Photos


Withings is probably best known for its connected scales and fitness trackers. More recently, though, the company has started to venture beyond the realm of health and fitness hardware and into aspects of the smart home. The company's Home HD camera is its latest attempt at entering this space.

At first glance, the Withings Home camera looks like something you'd find in a chic spa, holding your favorite type of incense. It's an interesting experiment compared to the more utilitarian designs you'd normally find in this sort of device. The camera itself is about the size of a soda can cut in half and is wrapped in a faux-wood sleeve that can be rotated around the camera. This is useful for enabling the built-in privacy mode, which stops the camera from recording.

The device is capable of capturing 1080p video at 30 frames per second and has a 135-degree field-of-view -- that's quite a bit wider than what you'd normally find in your smartphone or the camera built into your laptop. It includes an IR sensor for those times when you need to see if James Bond is sneaking into your house at night or for recording in less-than-ideal lighting conditions. It also has dual microphones and a speaker, enabling you to listen in (and communicate, if needed) from far away.

With so many of these connected cameras offering similar features (see: Dropcam Pro, Canary, Piper and others) how does Withings plan to stand out? Well, it has two additional features that other cameras are currently lacking. There's an air-quality sensor that measures the amount of volatile organic compounds present in your home.

It's a neat trick, but is it really useful? I'm not so sure. The air quality logs showed us "dangerous" levels of VOCs present in my home from around 9PM to 5AM each night. But I'm not really sure what that means or why it's happening. Ultimately, it's not something my wife and I are going to be anxious over, since we've lived here for a few years and are still alive (at least as far as I know). At the end of the day, this just seems like something that's going to cause hypochondriacs to freak out.

According to the Withings Home's air-quality sensor, we should probably be dead.

The second feature is an accessory that's sort of a bowl that the camera sits in. Basically, it allows you to vertically angle the camera so that it points up or down, depending on your preference. I found this to be helpful, especially when it was sitting high up on a bookshelf and I wanted to view more than just our ceiling.

Setting up the camera is fairly easy and it all happens through your iPhone (Withings says an Android app is coming soon). After downloading the Withings Home app, just connect to the device via Bluetooth, enter your WiFi credentials and then you're ready to go.

Right now, the only way to interact with the camera is through your smartphone. Loading the app takes you to a live feed that shows what's currently happening in your home. Below this is a timeline that shows a number of recorded events that the camera has detected. This involves "anomalous" things like motion, sound or even unsafe levels of particulate matter.

One issue I had with these anomalous events is that there's no way to set a geofence or a schedule for when you want to stop recording. Yes, smart camera, I know motion was detected at 7AM because I'm home and just walked right in front of you with my coffee. Fortunately, you can turn off push notifications, but this doesn't stop the camera from continuously recording and storing these events.

Another gripe I have is that there's no way to access the camera feed or modify my settings other than by using a smartphone. Services like Dropcam provide a way to access your live feed (and any recorded events) from a helpful web interface, as well as from a corresponding mobile app and I found having to solely rely on my phone to be frustrating.

So, what happens when you actually want to view some of the video that was recorded? It's funny you should ask that, because right now, you can't! You see, the camera doesn't actually record video at 30 frames per second.

Withings says that the camera is capable of capturing video at 30 frames per second. However, it technically doesn't record video at 30 frames per second -- at least not yet. The company promises that cloud-recording features are coming soon, for a price that's yet to be determined.

For now, users are only able to view time-lapse/stop-motion-style videos of any event. It might be potentially helpful to find out if an intruder has entered your house (or to see if the dog is climbing onto your coffee table), but it leaves quite a bit to be desired in terms of quality, especially when you consider options like Dropcam, that record full HD video at 30 frames per second.

This is probably a good time to mention that you actually can't export, share or download the time-lapse videos that the camera records. If you want to share something, you better be pretty adept at capturing screenshots from your phone. For the GIF below, I had to mirror my iPhone's screen to my Mac mini via AirPlay, capture it with QuickTime and then convert to a GIF. It's a huge headache.

Another thing to keep in mind if you have loved ones is that you technically can't share access to your video feed with another person. If my wife wanted to check in on the dog while I also happened to be using the app, she would receive connection errors until I closed the app.

In fact, connection errors were a pretty common occurrence for us. We have great broadband access at home, so receiving these sorts of messages (or encountering pixelated video streams) just contributed to an unpleasant experience.

I saw this screen a lot during my time with the Withings Home.

The last thing I should mention is that the camera has a special night vision mode, using an IR sensor to capture images. I've found that the quality of the images and video it takes in these conditions is mostly similar to other connected cameras. It's a bit muddled, but it works.

Overall, I can't help but feel that this is a beta product. There are a lot of missing features that Withings says are "coming soon." Sure, it's an interesting take on connected cameras, but compared to other options, it's a bit expensive for what you (don't) get.

If you're particularly invested in Withings products, or adverse to using Google and Dropcam, maybe this product is for you. For me? It's been fun to use, but I think I'm going to keep working on that network engineering degree.

Chris Velazco contributed to this report.

I got a connected surveillance camera, but used it mainly as a puppycam