Maybe you’ve heard the awkward term the Internet of Things. It refers to networkable home gadgets: door locks, light switches, coffee makers, stuff like that.
But at least one category is catching on: Home security cameras.
You can plunk these tiny, easy-to-set-up WiFi cameras around your house and then peek in on what they’re seeing on the Web or from your phone, wherever you go in the world. You can use them to see who’s at the front door, check if the baby’s awake, find out if the nanny is overfeeding your kids, or monitor your home for motion when you’re not there.
The latest new WiFi security cam is called the Nest Cam ($200), from the company that brought us the Nest Internet-connected thermostat and the Nest Protect Internet-connected smoke alarm. (Nest was founded by former iPod creator Tony Fadell. Google bought the company for $3.2 billion in January 2014.)
From DropCam to Nest Cam
Home-security-camera aficionados will recognize the Nest Cam immediately as the former Dropcam Pro, which Nest bought a year ago for $550 million. It’s been improved in three ways.
First, the video quality, already superb, has been enhanced. Instead of 720p high definition, it’s now 1080p.
Truth is, though, that on the Web, you don’t see much difference. And on most phones, you can’t see any difference, since 1080p quality exceeds the resolution of most phones. Only huge, modern phones like the iPhone 6 Plus and Samsung Galaxy S5/S6 can display 1080p video at all.
There’s improved night vision, too. The Nest Cam can see in the dark with spectacular clarity, which is amazing. This is what a pitch-dark living room looks like to the Nest Cam:
Finally, the very cool, sleek, hinged metal stand is also new. When you’re setting it up, you can turn the camera lens within the stand, so you can mount the Nest Cam’s base upside-down, sideways, right-side-up—and still point the camera exactly where you want it.
There’s a wall plate included for wall mounting, and the base even has a magnetic ring, so you can pop the whole thing onto your refrigerator door (to catch whoever’s rummaging for snacks at midnight).
You can even screw the Nest Cam into any kind of tripod, like one of those grabber things they sell for cameras.
Nest promises that you can set up and install the Nest Cam in 60 seconds. Well, maybe in a time-lapse video.
In fact, it took me 9 minutes and 20 seconds, and I’m pretty good on my smartphone. I had to download the Nest app, plug in the Nest Cam’s 10-foot cable to a power outlet, set up a Nest account, make up a ridiculously difficult password (must have capitals and lowercase letters and numbers and symbols), accept a legal agreement, scan a barcode on the back of the Nest Cam, choose my WiFi network and enter its password, and identify the room the Nest Cam is in.
And you’ll have to do all of this—except creating an account and password—for every Nest Cam you install.
It’s all extremely easy to do, and much less finicky than most other networkable cameras. But 60 seconds? No.
When it’s all over, the Nest Cam’s icon appears on the home screen of the redesigned Nest app. Here’s where you’ll also see icons for other Nest Cams, as well as Nest thermostats and smoke alarms.
Tap the camera’s icon to see what’s going on at your house, big and crystal clear.
You can’t actually make the physical lens move by remote control to pan around the room, as you can on rivals like some models from Swann, D-Link, or Foscam. But that doesn’t matter. You can pan and zoom—with your fingers on the screen. Since the camera’s view is 130 degrees, you can actually see the entire room at once, and then zoom and pan to any part of the room.
The picture (and sound) are delayed by a few seconds, but the clarity of the image and quality of the sound really are terrific.
You can do more than peek in on your house through the Nest Camera, by the way. You can also interact with it.
The camera has speaker and microphone, so you can actually communicate through it. Yelling at your dog to get off the couch is an obvious use. So is informing a robber that the jig is up and the police are on their way, or reminding your kids to take their dishes to the sink.
Out of the box, the Nest Cam is set to alert you whenever it detects motion in the room. The idea, of course, is to let you know immediately if there’s a burglar—or, I guess, to let you know when your teenager finally comes home at night.
In practice, the motion sensor is too sensitive. Cats and dogs set it off all the time. Changing light patterns can set it off, too. After awhile, it becomes the security camera that cried wolf; you wind up ignoring the notifications or turning them off. The Nest Cam really needs a sensitivity adjustment, as rivals like the Piper do.
The subscription news
All of the spying fun you’ve read about so far is free. But for $10 a month or $100 a year, Nest also offers continuous recording: 24/7 high-def videos of everything that’s been going on in your house.
It’s like something out of a science-fiction show or an episode of the BBC series “Black Mirror”: Now, at any time, you can rewind your life. Catch something you missed with the camcorder, like your baby’s first steps or a pet’s funny trick. Freeze the frame on whoever keeps spilling food on the couch. Settle an argument (or prolong one) by proving who brought the subject up first.
You can view all of these historical moments either on the phone or on the Nest Web site. On the site, you can also isolate bits that you want to save to your computer for permanent reference; you can even speed up longer intervals into time-lapse movies and save those.
Which is lucky, because the site holds only 10 days’ worth of video. Or 30 days, if you’re willing to pay $30 a month or $300 a year.
Nest would probably argue that $10 a month beats whatever you’d pay an actual home-security company for monitoring. But a lot of potential customers will probably shriek at the notion of having to pay yet another monthly fee forever. Especially since you’re paying monthly fee per camera. (Additional cameras cost $5 a month for the 10-day plan, $15 for the 30 days.) That could add up to a very pricey home investment indeed.
Most of Nest’s rivals don’t charge for the luxury of reviewing past videos. Some record the video right to a memory card in the camera (D-Link Cloud Camera, Samsung SmartCam HD); others save a few days’ worth of recordings online like the Nest, but for free (Netgear Arlo, iControl Piper).
Weirdly, the Nest Cam doesn’t interact much with other Nest products. Nest says that you can set things up so that when the Nest thermostat notices you’re out of the house, the Cam comes on automatically—but how goofy is that? What would be the downside of having the Cam on all the time? And why is the thermostat doing the noticing that you’re away? Isn’t that something the camera should be able to see for itself?
The camera will also record a clip automatically if your Nest Protect detects smoke, so you can see what happened. (Nest says you don’t have to pay the monthly fee for this clip-recording feature.)
The big picture
The Nest Cam isn’t as big a leap forward as the Nest Thermostat was, or even the Nest Protect smoke alarm. It’s joining a crowded field of home cameras. Some are less expensive. Some you can install outdoors. Some can run on battery power, for greater freedom of placement. And very few get as hot as the Nest Cam, although Nest says that that’s normal (and why are you touching your security camera anyway?).
Then there’s that fear-of-Google thing. Google owns Nest, which is why you hear some people say, “Great—now Google, who already knows everything about me, can see into my house!”
But listen: In creating the Nest Cam video above, I had to install and uninstall the Nest Cam about 15 times. Not one single time did I experience a glitch, time-out, or error message. And as my digital war wounds can attest, that is extremely rare among home-networking products. It’s very hard to do.
In other words, the Nest Cam beats its rivals in the three departments that matter most to most people: picture/sound quality, simplicity of setup, and elegance of hardware and software.
The monthly service fee, should you decide to accept it, is a big turnoff. But if you don’t think you need rewind-into-the-past capability, and you’ve decided to take your first step into the Internet of Things, the Nest Cam makes an excellent first Thing to buy.
David Pogue is the founder of Yahoo Tech. On the Web, he’s davidpogue.com. On Twitter, he’s @pogue. On email, he’s email@example.com. He welcomes non-toxic comments in the Comments below.