I’ve always joked with friends on Twitter that I’d love to be able to spy on my bunnies when I’m out to see what they get up to. I think, like many pet owners, I dream that they might have a double life like they do in cartoons. You know what I mean, right?! A webcam is definitely the answer; I’ve been encouraged to get one and so when I was approached about reviewing the WatchBot security camera for Splodz Blogz I knew exactly what I was going to do with it!
Obviously this is not marketed as a spy-on-my-bunnies product, it is designed and sold as an at-home CCTV camera so that you can monitor your property from a distance. Designed for indoor use, it can either sit on a bookcase/shelf/the floor or be attached to the wall or ceiling in your chosen spot so you can get a good view of what is going on. You connect it to your wifi and can tap into it via your computer or on your phone/tablet.
I had high hopes for this little piece of tech and opened the box in anticipation – but then the frustration started. Let me take you thought all the steps…
I was very good and followed the instructions; I plugged it in to the router with the network cable and to the power supply. After a few seconds the camera started rotating on its base – presumably doing a self-test. I then went to http://www.WatchBotcamera.com/app to download latest version of the software for Windows (Chrome reports it as dangerous software and encourages you to discard it but I ignored that), and ran the downloaded installer – Avast insisted it needed a deep scan. I changed the installer folder from the default of C:\WatchBot to C:\Program Files (x86)\WatchBot (why would I want it in the route directory?), and launched the application – Avast insisted it needed another deep scan.
The application launched with lots of icons in it, but none of them had labels under them or tool-tips when I hovered the mouse over them. The instructions said to click Preferences at the top of the screen – but there was no Preferences option at the top of the screen. In fact there were no menus anywhere on the screen.
I noticed when I maximised the window that the WatchBot logo stretches rather than scales. This bugged me more than it perhaps should have done, and it made me wonder if this branding oversight meant nothing else had been checked either – it didn’t give me much confidence in the software. A bit mean, perhaps, but attention to detail does matter.
When I ran the application as an administrator the menus appeared (in Windows, right click the shortcut and click “Run as Administrator”). It doesn’t mention the need to be run as an administrator anywhere in the instructions, but I thought it was worth a try and was pleased that it worked. Also the tool-tips now appear too, which meant I could tell what all the little icons meant. From there I followed the instructions to search for cameras. I found it straight away, despite the instructions being a bit wrong – they say to click “OK” in the quick set up guide and “Add” in the user manual, but both are wrong. A box appears saying “Finish it” so I clicked OK.
Clicking this took me back to the same window again, and I realised the “Add” button is to add the camera manually. So how do I add the one I searched for? It turns out you have to double click it and in the new window that appears click OK. This isn’t in the manual either. After a bit more random clicking trying to find out how to make the camera’s feed appear, a new option appeared on the left of the screen. I ticked the boxes but this didn’t do anything.
In frustration, I doubled clicked the bottom option which then opened another configuration page. Once I closed that the feed appeared. So now I had my camera added to the application, no thanks to the instructions.
I did notice some odd labelling in the application. The pan and tilt control has a button in the middle with a circular arrow. This is labelled Stop but seemed at first to mean “pan and tilt in all directions” and clicking it again once it has started the sequence doesn’t make it stop. Eventually I realised that it means “return to centre”, and by moving the camera to all of its extremes the software then knows where the centre is and returns to it.
There are lots of options that you can change. The default time zone was Singapore so I changed that to GMT, and I chose to set the picture and video save locations to a Dropbox folder. I set an admin password – there are also options for operator and visitor passwords too so you can have multiple accounts. Some of the settings that can be changed are incredibly confusing – for example under Alarms you get this screen but the manual and website don’t say what they actually do so I left them alone!
Actually, speaking of the manual, if you go to the help screen in the application and click the button to download the manual, you get a “web page cannot be found” error with no redirect or any idea where to go. I found a copy on the website but it’s a bit poor that the software takes you to the wrong place. Also, it says it should have an option to upload images and video to an FTP server (between the Email and DDNS options), but this seems to be missing. The website says the camera is pre-registered with DDNS settings, but no registration information appears in the configuration options. It also says DDNS details are included on the base, but they are not present on mine.
The manual mentions a log, but I can’t find it. This would have been particularly useful to diagnose the problems I had when trying to set the WatchBot up to email images when it detects motion. This took a lot of trial and error (and I still don’t know what the problem was), and the test button in the web interface (which is missing from the Windows application) just returned “cannot connect to server” with no diagnostic information. It would have been much easier if there was more information to help. Eventually it started working, and the WatchBot now emails images to me when it detects motion; I think I look odd on CCTV!
The web interface and Windows application both look different to the instructions. It’s like the company hadn’t quite decided how the camera should be used when they wrote the manual, and therefore offers lots of different viewer options. I did find the iOS app a bit easier to use than either the Windows application or web user interface. There are actually three versions of the WatchBot App in the iTunes store – it turns out you need the Pro one (which is free) to record video. The website tells you to download one version of the App, while the booklet in the box and the QR code on the device give you different instructions. There is no consistency, which makes this all rather frustrating. Interestingly, when I set my router up to forward incoming traffic to the WatchBot camera (using these instructions – a handy link for you), so that I could access it remotely, the app was able to view the camera over the internet (away from home) without me needing to enter my router’s public IP address. This implies there is some sort of DDNS taking place despite it not being completed in the configuration options.
Although logging into the camera via port forwarding on my router is an option, it is something I am reluctant to leave enabled – I am uncertain of the WatchBot’s security and I really don’t want to allow any access into my home network if I don’t have to. I much prefer for the camera to email images to me, and I would also like them to be uploaded to an FTP site but I just can’t get the latter working.
Having said all that…
Things got better once I could see what my WatchBot was seeing and actually started using it for what it was meant for. I was impressed with the wide field of view, although a bit curved at the edges like a fish eye you can see a lot in one go and for the most part can leave the camera pointing in one direction. It has a very low resolution (640 x 480), a bit like any CCTV camera you’ve seen used on the television – everything is a bit blocky, but it is good enough to see what is going on. You can use the buttons on the screen or in the app to control the camera and it has a decent range of movement so you can look around the room as you wish. You can mirror and flip the image to account for various installation/mounting positions, and it is possible to save three camera positions so you can quickly hit the number to have the camera move to that position (e.g. one for the door, one for the window, one for your bunnies) – this makes using the camera simple.
I was also quite impressed with the infra-red mode, meaning you can see what is going on even when there are no lights on.
I recorded a couple of example videos for you – one with all the lights on in my kitchen, and one with none, so you can see for yourself what the WatchBot camera sees. I recorded these using the Windows app on my computer (well, LincsGeek pushed the buttons!). You will see that while the image is not crisp and jumps a bit, you can see quite clearly what is happening.
I did send the company who make WatchBot some questions about the interface and instructions several weeks ago, asking about the anomalies I discovered and whether there are updates to come, but did not hear back from them. Others online also comment that the support is a bit patchy and as this product was quite difficult to set up that is a bit disappointing. It is marketed as a plug and play item that anyone could set up, but I disagree, I would be wary of recommending this to anyone who doesn’t already understand their home network or doesn’t feel confident playing about with settings on their computer/router.
WatchBot is a nice looking security camera that could give me the opportunity to look in on my home (and my rabbits – it turns out they just sleep during the day!), when I am out. It has a decent enough picture, including the night vision mode, but it is expensive at £150 and it does not live up to the claimed expectations and the instructions don’t match the product. I would be very disappointed if I had purchased this. It is an option if you’re looking for CCTV for your home, but there are others that I would try instead. Having tried this it has become apparent that what would suit me best is an outdoors camera; most of the real-life scenarios I tried out involved pointing the camera out of the window to get images of the outside, but that means the camera picks up a lot of reflections from the glass. It’s unfair to criticise it because of that, since it was always designed to be an indoor camera, but if I was buying something for home security it would be an outdoor weather-proof set-up.