One accessory category that always seems to stir up reader interest is wireless webcams. We've seen our share of them over the last year: the Stem Innovations iZon (US$129.95), the iBaby Monitor ($199.95), and the WiFi Baby 3G ($279) among others. Lorex, a manufacturer of a number of security cameras, has joined the fray with the $299.99 LW2031 Live Connect Home Video Monitoring System.
What makes this system so different from any other webcam I've reviewed recently is its integration with Skype. You actually set up a Skype account for the webcam, and then make a call to that account to view your webcam feed. Most other webcams either have a way to be viewed directly through an app or have a website that you can visit to see your feed. Using Skype as an intermediary is quite smart -- many people already use the app on iPhone, iPad, Mac, and PC, and are familiar with the steps required to make a video phone call.
The camera itself is similar to many of the webcams that we've reviewed here on TUAW. It requires an external power connection (in this case, through a mini-USB port), has infrared LEDs for night viewing, and uses Wi-Fi for connectivity to the world. The camera features a fixed focus and cannot be swiveled remotely, but you can add multiple cameras to a specific installation.
That multi-camera capability means that the Lorex system comes with something that is unique among many home video monitoring systems -- a wireless gateway. The gateway requires its own power plug and must be connected directly to a home router. In my testing, I connected it directly to an Apple AirPort Extreme.
Setup of the Lorex system was fairly straightforward. Once the camera and gateway were plugged in and powered up, I launched Safari and clicked the "Open all bookmarks" button. Clicking on the Bonjour (zero-configuration discovery) icon, I immediately saw the Lorex gateway appear on a list of devices. Double-clicking the gateway icon brings up a configuration website allowing you to set the time zone and Skype name of the device.
Once the configuration is complete, you can use Skype to call the gateway. The IM area at the bottom of the Skype screen shows the connection being made, and then the image appears. At first, the image is usually quite pixelated, but it clears up after a few seconds. Lorex notes that this is caused by the system configuring the bandwidth settings.
If you have more than one camera working through your Lorex gateway, the Skype instant message capability is used to switch between cameras. For instance, to switch to camera 2, you'd send the word cam2 to the gateway. Up to four cameras can be connected to one gateway.
One very cool feature of the Lorex system is the wireless monitor, a small white box roughly the size of an iPhone with a small built-in LCD screen. This can be used to switch between cameras or to watch and listen to each of the cameras. The box comes with a micro-SD card slot for capturing images that you see on the screen, perfect if you want to capture your baby's first steps while you're in another room or snap a photo of the dog soiling your favorite Turkish rug.
I wasn't particularly overwhelmed with the image provided by the Lorex camera. Even after the pixelation cleared, the images were still quite fuzzy and the colors were way off. By comparison, the much less expensive iZON camera appears much sharper and provides accurate color. If it's any consolation, the Foscam webcam that I also have does a lousy job of matching colors -- I think it's an artifact of these cameras with infrared lighting for good night viewing.
Speaking of that infrared lighting, the Lorex cameras come with a detector that automatically turns on the lights when it gets dark. When illuminated, the infrared lights glow a dull red and they do an excellent job of lighting up the scene up to 22 feet away. The built-in microphone is very sensitive and you need to be sure that the wireless monitor (see below) is far enough away that you don't experience feedback.
The response time of the Lorex camera through Skype was excellent, registering motion with almost no lag. The iZON has a tremendous lag of about 15 seconds, and the Foscam webcam shows about a 1 or 2 second lag.
The wireless monitor is a nice feature, but seems redundant in this day of smartphone and tablet ubiquity. Why have yet another device to carry around, charge, and possibly lose? I was able to connect flawlessly with the webcam using Skype for iPad, but was unable to connect with the iPhone Skype app over Wi-Fi. It worked great over 3G, which is fine since that's a common use scenario.
One feature I like about the cameras is that they contain their own battery and can therefore survive a short power outage or even be moved to a location away from a power outlet for brief periods.
While the Lorex Live Connect Home Video Monitoring System is quite a bit more expensive than other systems I've tested for TUAW, it's also the most expandable and the only system that includes a separate portable monitor. Setup is relatively easy and very well documented in the user manual that is packed in the box.
I was initially quite skeptical about Lorex's use of Skype as the preferred monitoring application, but after using the system I can see where it makes sense. Rather than come up with a proprietary app that would require constant updating, using Skype as the monitor gives Lorex one less component to worry about.
I did have one minor gripe, as one of the three generic power bricks that came with the unit failed during testing. Fortunately, I'm well equipped with those adapters and was able to recover from the loss quickly.
I'd recommend the Lorex Home Video Monitoring System for anyone who needs a multiple camera setup and is already familiar with setting up and using a Skype account for video calls. While the image quality of the cameras could be better, the system provides sufficient capabilities to monitor your home, your baby or your pets whether it's day or night.