Nest Cam: A compelling piece of hardware-software

The smart home Spotify has arrived

Review It was only a few years ago that everyone was scoffing at futurists who claimed that we would all be streaming our music rather than buying digital or physical copies.

But I want to own my music, bellowed many. I want physical CDs, not computer files. When digital files became more useful and usable, there were more reasons not to do it: what if my internet connection goes down? And besides, I like listening to music on my iPod. Streaming will never replace that.

Much the same thing is happening right now at the interface of hardware and software that is the "smart home."

Smart home technology is basically the addition of the internet to hardware. And that worries a lot of people who can only see risk associated with extending control and pushing data beyond your home – a situation that has been reinforced by seemingly endless security failings on the part of smart home and IoT companies.

But some have continued to push what they see as the ultimate differentiator – and revenue generator: a subscription model. Cameras are the obvious entry point – they produce tons of data and a cloud service can take that off your hands for just $5 a month. And while the ability to stream live video to your phone or computer is great, what if you want to grab a clip? For just a few bucks a month, you can download that clip.

The reality is, however, that the vast majority of people with smart home cameras make do with the free options – motion alerts, live streaming and the occasional short clip. With subscriptions ranging from $5 to $30 a month, you can end up paying nearly the same amount you paid for the actual camera every year. No, thank you.

Enter the Nest Cam

Except.

Except the new Nest Cam may well be the smart home's answer to Spotify.

The actual camera is nice. It has a lot of the lovely design touches that Nest has brought to its thermostat and its smoke alarm, but are they enough for anyone but design snobs to pay a premium? Probably not.

The camera is smaller and less clunky than almost all other smart home cameras. It has a magnetic base that makes adjustments extremely easy – that's a big plus. It has a nice, weather-proof cable. It's a lovely thing, but you could just as easily make do with another brand – it's just an outdoor camera after all, not a piece of artwork on your wall.

It is however the software – what Nest does with its camera – that sets it far apart from the competition.

We have had the Nest Cam up and running in the same spot as two other smart home cameras – the Ring Doorbell and the SpotCam outdoor camera – for a little over 40 days in order to get a real-world comparison.

Why 40 days? Two reasons: first, it's long enough that all the novelties wear off and you get to the point where you have to decide which one you want (if, for nothing else, to stop getting three different alerts every time someone arrives at the door). But second, and more importantly, it means that the free 30-day trial of Nest's Nest Aware program ends and you are forced to consider what you gained and lost from the subscription and, critically, whether you would pay actual money to get it back.

And here's the surprising answer: it's yes.

For $10 a month (or $100 upfront for the year), the Nest Aware service will give you 10 days worth of video, accessible whenever you want, to download or share (for $30 a month, you get 30 days' worth).

That in itself isn't worth the price. Who honestly wants to sit watching their camera footage beyond the past few hours? It is, however, what else Nest does – its processing of what it sees that is really remarkable and which has pointed the way for the future of smart home tech.

Alerts for one. Anyone that has one of these cameras will almost immediately start tinkering with the camera's position and the alert settings, because there is frankly nothing more annoying than being constantly prodded to watch something happening at your house to see the 800th car or 600th cat move past the picture.

So you change the angle of the camera. You change the settings to only be alerted if something very specific happens and you learn to ignore most of the alerts – which only serves to remind you while it's a waste of money paying to see video clips of cars and cats going past your house.

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