Petcube Cam is a small, smart way to keep tabs on your furbabies

A pet-friendly home camera that can save you a trip to the vets.

James Trew / Engadget

Even without a pandemic, a trip to the vets for a minor check-up is easy to put off. Petcube has a solution. The Petcube Cam is the company’s latest critter surveillance gadget, and it comes with a remote vet visit feature that couldn’t be better timed.

The Cam is the simplest device from Petcube so far. While the Bites and Play line have specific standout features -- the ability to throw treats or remotely tease your mog with a laser, respectively -- the Cube just has the essentials. As a result, it’s also the most affordable ($40) and the smallest. So, if you’ve been curious about jumping into the Petcube universe, or simply just didn’t need the extra functionality (or have the shelf space) then this might be the answer.

The Cam shares the same modern design aesthetic of its larger siblings, but only measures 2.1 inches across (for comparison, the Play 2 is 4.6 inches across). The cube-like camera sits in an adjustable stand and has mounts that should allow you to place it somewhere convenient. The caveat is that it has to be within reach of an outlet but you will find a suitably long, flat USB type C cable in the box.

Petcube Cam hands-on
James Trew / Engadget

The camera part is similar to the bigger models, shooting in 1080p/FHD just with a slightly narrower field of view (110-degrees compared to 160 on Bites 2/Play 2). If you want to get even more specific, it’s using a 1/2.7-inch sensor with a 2.8mm focal length, but that’s more information than you likely need. Just know that these are better than many off the shelf cameras I’ve tried at this price point and offer a reliable streaming/app experience, unlike some of the no-name/cheaper cameras you might find online.

As someone who’s used both the Petcube Bites and the Petcube Play, I always enjoyed their dual-purpose nature. Sure, they pitch themselves as pet-specific, but they also serve double duty as home security cameras, or even as rudimentary ways to connect with someone at home thanks to their two-way audio (if you don’t mind the video part of the conversation being one-way). The downside is that the kibble throwing Bites and laser-enabled Play are both on the (relatively) chunky side to accommodate the extra tech, even in their more streamlined second revision.

The Cam, however, is much more discreet and should blend into most modern homes. The only downside I found is that I don’t have as many outlets in my apartment as I would like, so I can’t easily place it in some of the hidey-holes where my cat likes to retreat. While the provided cable is long, it’s not quite long enough (and I don’t really want visible cables hanging everywhere anyway). This problem isn’t specific to the Petcube, but would be something a battery component might help with, even if it were just for short periods, like weekends away. (Side note, I tried, and you can run it off of a battery pack if you have one with enough juice to cover the time you’re away.)

Petcube Cam hands-on
James Trew / Engadget

As with previous Petcubes, the setup is pretty straightforward. Download the app, sign in (Google and Facebook logins are offered so you don’t have to create an account), and from there you’ll be guided to add a camera. Pop in your WiFi details, present a QR code from your phone to the camera and you’re away. Obviously, if you already have a Petcube, you can simply skip to the “add camera” section of the app, and the Cam will show up alongside your other devices.

The rest of the user experience is the same. You can swipe through each of the cameras you have, click on the “play” icon to view the feed in real-time, and once you’ve found where your pet is, you can either just enjoy watching them sleep (as is the case 95 percent of the time with my cat) or speak to them remotely by tapping the microphone icon (that’s the other 5 percent). As you’d expect, the Cam can also be used with Petcube’s premium service that offers more cloud storage for your videos, smart alerts and other perks (starting at $3.99 a month).

As for that virtual vet visit, it’s a premium feature so you’ll need to subscribe, but Petcube does offer a free trial “visit” for you to check out. It’s pretty simple to set up. In the app, under the camera section is a link. Clicking this will open a chat window where you can speak with an expert about any weird behaviour you’ve just seen and so on. The service isn’t 24 hours, so if you try and speak with someone outside of general US business hours, you’ll be told to come back later or seek emergency help if needed. Either way, it’s a nice addition that helps reinforce the Cube’s pet credentials, especially as it doesn’t offer another pet-specific hardware feature.

Of course, virtual vet visits aren’t entirely new. There are plenty of other services out there that might even offer more comprehensive features, but for a value add right in the app it does make the service feel more “complete.”

Unlike the Bites 2/Play 2, the Cam doesn’t work as a smart speaker/Alexa device. This was a cool, “why not” feature on the bigger models, and it’s not entirely surprising that it’s not present here, especially given its size. But it would have been a significant deal sweetener, and helped make it an easier choice over, say, a regular home security camera.

Petcube Cam hands-on
James Trew / Engadget

And that’s something that’s worth pointing out. Aside from the virtual vet visits, which are a software feature not limited to this model, the Cam really is just a nice webcam that works with the Petcube app/ecosystem. That’s not a bad thing, especially if you already have a Petcube, but for those that don’t, you could just get something like a general-purpose Yi camera for almost half the price and with most of the same features (night vision, two-way audio, motion detection and cloud storage). Though many such cameras don’t explicitly claim to detect pets visually or their barks/meows like Petcube does.

“There are other affordable cameras on the market, but none of them were built with pet parents in mind.” Yaroslav Azhnyuk, Petcube CEO & Co-Founder, told Engadget in a statement. “For the first time ever a camera has Vet Chat feature, which means as soon as you spot something suspicious on the camera or recorded video, you can talk about it to a professional vet.”

All in all, it’s good to see Petcube making something a little more accessible. I do enjoy the app experience more than any of the other home cameras I’ve tried, and some of the pet-specific features do appeal to those who want to check in on their furry friends first, and have a decent home-security camera second. Other cameras do claim to offer pet credentials as a secondary feature -- like the pricier Canary line -- or don’t lend themselves to having multiple devices, such as the Petzi Treat Cam, so in terms of a scalable solution, the Petcube does have advantages.

Petcube is clearly positioning itself as more of a platform than a hardware company. The move into premium app features will likely continue as the company learns more about our habits. According to Azhnyuk, “Our mission is to connect pets to the internet and give them a voice. This means we aspire to understand pets through data analysis. We are developing new features for our consumers that will track their pet activity levels or signal about certain behaviors, depending on types of movement or barking.”

If you like what you see (or what you will see) then the Cam is a decent option for not a lot of money. I like that I could have a few of these dotted around the apartment without spending a lot, or have to switch between apps for different brands. It’d still be nice if the Petcube line worked with things like Google Home or Echo devices with screens etc, but those are features that could be added later (please!). The $40 Cam is available starting today.

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