Samsung SmartCam: Yes, those eyes really are following you around the room
A great camera let down by buggy software
Review It's still not clear to this reviewer why people would want cameras in their home. Or even outside their home.
There is an outside chance that you might be lucky enough to catch someone trying to break into your house and be in a position to call the cops. There is an even smaller likelihood that if you manage to get footage of a burglary, it could lead to their identification and conviction.
A lot of smart home cameras on the market provide you with the opportunity to hear and talk: the idea presumably being that you could either interact with someone at your door – the postman perhaps – or warn them in a passive-aggressive way that you can see them. But an intercom would do pretty much the same thing.
That leaves the other main reason seemingly always given in the marketing videos and brochures: checking on your dog when at the office. Quite why people feel the need to check on their dogs is mildly baffling. What do you hope to see? Or prevent? And if it's to give them mid-day comfort with your voice, surely you're simply setting up your pet to be frustrated at all the times you're not talking to them – which is, basically, all the time.
Samsung's SmartCam PT (RRP $229, available now) has an even more baffling, possibly illegal, use-case for you: talking to your kids. In the marketing material a small child, probably age three, is looking up in the air saying "Hi Mommy!" and the small black triangle is looking into his eyes telling him "Aiden, how is everything at home?"
Bad mothers are a target market apparently
Where exactly is the mother in this scenario? Has she gone out and left her toddler at home by himself? That seems a little, well, irresponsible. Maybe she's downstairs or in the attic. In which case, why on earth did she spend $200 on a camera when she could have used the free and more convenient option of yelling?
But let's put that aside, and assume we are all either terrible parents, paranoid lunatics or control freaks with too much disposable income: what does the SmartCam PT do for you and how does it compare to everything else out there right now?
The answer is in the "PT" which stands for "pan and tilt" and what it means is that this little camera can cover an entire room, since it can rotate almost all the way around (350 degrees), most ways up and down (155 degrees) and covers a broad area each time (96 degrees).
This means you can install the camera pretty much anywhere you like and get full coverage – no need to stick it up high in a corner.
And, it must said, the SmartCam PT does a really remarkable job of this. In fact, it is kind of amazing to see a $200 camera handle what has always been a high-end professional feature – the ability to focus in on things. And thanks to remarkable advances in camera technology in recent years, the quality is excellent (the 4x digital zoom feels like an actual zoom rather than a gradual pixilation).
On top of this, the camera has a surprisingly good motion detection system. If you tell it to do so, it will automatically track any movement around the room. We did a range of tests in a number of different rooms and it only failed to do a first-rate job when you walked past right next to it.
It also has a range of features that are simple and impressive. For example, you can set up to four preset positions. Select one and the camera moves automatically to look at a certain spot in the room. You can also apparently set up to three motion zones so you limit false positives, eg, a branch in the breeze outside – although to be honest, this reviewer couldn't find that setting.
And that is where this very promising piece of hardware falls down – in the software.
You operate the camera through a smartphone app (of course you do) but as with most tech products, it is clunky. And it has bugs.
When the app is the companion to a product rather than the product itself, it very rarely manages the level of simplicity, instinctiveness and good quality design that we associate with the best apps.
In the smart home world, Nest is the notable exception – its software is simple and delightful. Samsung's SmartCam app is not. The fact that it gives you a four-page icon guide before you even get to the camera should have been a flag to the company that it needed to put more thought into the design.
Um, Samsung, a four-page icon guide is not a good thing
Of course, as with anything, you eventually get used to it and start filtering out all the stuff you only use once. But that's not the problem: the big problem is that the app has a hard time staying connected to the camera.
The app will work fine for a bit and then drop out, leaving the message "You've lost camera connection due to network interruption." So you have to go out and log back in again. This is a huge pain and it is amazing that the company shipped with this bug still in it. (And yes, we did test it out in a number of different scenarios – same problem each time.)
There are really good elements within the app. You can swipe on the picture and it will move the camera. Although, again, poor app development means that the camera will respond almost immediately but the picture won't. It often gets stuck.
Inside there are also useful features:
- The ability to record messages and have them play over the camera.
- Several surprisingly realistic noises from sirens to dogs barking.
- The ability to detect both sound and motion and send alerts on both (again though, it is a million miles from the seamless Nest camera app).
- One-touch encryption of images – which is a great feature that would be nice to see on all of these sorts of cameras.
One other big downside is the fact that it does not have cloud storage. Some people will no doubt love this, but practicality is a problem. The camera will save footage to your phone – you get about 30 seconds' worth – but it is set up to save to an SD card slotted into the back.
It can handle up to 128GB of storage – which is probably enough. And you can set it to overwrite old footage so you're not having to constantly add cards or manually erase files. But the fact is that if you do have some footage of a burglar, and they see the camera – especially if you draw their attention to it by talking, etc – it is very easy for them to simply take the SD card out and walk off with the evidence.
There is also the fact that cloud storage is no longer just a way to get you to pay $10 a month for someone else's SD cards: the latest Nest cam has taken it to a whole new level with intelligent real-time analysis of footage. That is now the gold standard.
If Samsung can manage to add cloud storage and analysis to this product (especially if it keeps the SD card option), it will really have something. Full marks to the engineers who put the hardware together, but a solid thumbs-down to those who made the app; it needs an overhaul and the sooner the better. ®