Thermostat biz Nest warms to home security, touts cam with cloud storage subscription
What could go wrong?
Nest has launched its first new product in several years: an outdoor surveillance camera.
The Nest Cam Outdoor is effectively a rebuild of its existing Nest Cam designed for the outside. We had an early peek at it and came away with the sense that the company once famed for reinventing the thermostat has found at least some of its original promise.
The camera's most novel aspect is the fact that it uses a strong magnet to hold the camera to a baseplate, making it easy to move and install. It is also a rounder and less clunky camera than competing products.
As with the Nest thermostat, it also has some nice engineering touches: a lockable USB cable; an angled plug to fit with outdoor sockets that have a cover; a weather-proof camera; and an immersion-proof transformer. And it comes at a decent enough price point: $199. Which is comparable to other similar outdoor webcams on the market, such as the Spotcam.
The camera has to be plugged in and the company assumes you will plug it in outside. It gives you 25 feet of cable to do so. It provides a standard 130-degree viewing angle, but Nest claims that is a full 130 degrees, with no darkening at the edges. It has a nighttime setting, an HD camera, and a wireless internet connection with video sent to its own cloud service (with a range of "zero to 40 feet" according to its lead designer – let's hope more like 40 feet than zero).
All in the software
All of this is available in other products already on the market. But where Nest claims to have an advantage over its competitors is in its software.
We weren't able to test the camera – it won't be out until the fall – so we'll have to take Nest's word for it, but its engineers are very keen on what they claim are intelligent alerts called "People Alerts."
One of the reasons why smart-home camera manufacturers claim people should buy their products over traditional security cameras is that they are able to send alerts to your phone and enable you to instantly see what is going on, and to have a conversation. A good example being the Ring doorbell, which also has an HD camera, motion alerts, a phone app, wireless and so on.
However, it is very difficult to strike the right balance between alerting someone of activity and flooding them with alerts that aren't useful. Nest has brought over its "activity zones" software from the Nest Cam that lets you block out a part of the camera's field of vision so you don't, for example, get an alert every time a car goes past. But it also claims to have developed a machine learning service that can tell the difference between a person and other sorts of motion.
If the Nest Cam Outdoor is certain it has spotted a person in your camera view, it will send an alert to your phone declaring "Your camera has spotted a person." If it spots what it thinks is a person, it will alert you with: "Your camera thinks it spotted a person."
Unfortunately, the company is not going to allow customers – for the moment at least – to turn off the possible sighting alerts, so you have to wonder how useful this feature will be in reality. But in future, it could prove to be a technology that differentiates it in the market.
The other side of the software is Nest's app and cloud service. The company is updating its app to allow people to see video feeds from the opening screen. And the company has so far, at least, extended its design style to its app, putting it a step above competitors. Although, again, we have not been able to test how its new app handles videos streams from an outside camera (something that the Ring Doorbell team has spent several years tweaking to avoid delay and judder).
That's the good news. The bad news is that Nest is also going for the subscription model for cloud recordings, and doesn't provide an alternative, such as storing video on a local network. Its "Nest Aware" subscription will set you back $10 a month (with each extra camera costing $5 a month) to store your videos for 10 days. And $30 a month (plus $15 per additional camera) to store them for 30 days.
That is significantly more expensive than competitors. Ring, for example, charges just $3 a month or $30 annually – a quarter of the price. Likewise, the Spotcam charges $5.95 a month or $59 a year for seven days of recordings, and $19.95 a month or $199 a year for 30 days – nearly half the cost.
For someone considering purchasing an outdoor security camera, this ongoing running cost should be a major factor in their decision. Storing videos for a month will end up costing nearly twice the cost of the camera itself every year.
That is probably why, when we asked Nest who it saw as its main competitors, it ignored the Spotcams and Rings and said its competitors were the more traditional Swann and Night Owl camera manufacturers – which provide excellent service but don't come with smart-home add-ons like alerts and connections to other smart-home products.
In short, Nest has finally come out with a new hardware product after several years of simply reiterating its existing thermostat and smoke detector. And it looks good and is priced right.
However, the running costs are much higher than competitors, making it a pricey product over time. And that points to pressure on Nest to start making money. It also doesn't offer an alternative storage option. Since the company is owned by Google, Nest is unlikely to simply disappear, taking its product's usefulness with it. But then, of course, this is also the company that famously dumped its Revolv smart-hub, turning it into a very expensive brick.
On a corporate strategy level, when Nest announced it was going to launch a new piece of hardware, we were hoping it had branched out into a different area of the smart-home market that would expand its product range – smart plugs or doorbells or lighting or Wi-Fi routers. Sadly, it was another camera – albeit a newly designed and solid looking one. Asked about future plans, the Nest people we spoke to drew a blank.
Instead, we were told, the Nest Cam Outdoor is "the first step in a journey." The question will be: with the gloss rubbed off the company in recent months, can it rely on its customers to go on that journey with it? ®