A few weeks back we ran a post with an interesting bit of news -- Logitech had announced OS X support for their Logitech Alert security camera systems. Shortly after that, the company sent a trial unit to try out, and I'm happy to say that the entire system is simply the best web/security camera setup I've had the pleasure to test.
Installing a Logitech Alert system requires the initial purchase of a master system, which creates a powerline network that is Internet-connected. The master system either comes with an indoor camera (US$299.99) or an outdoor camera ($349.99). Both feature IR night vision; the outdoor camera can "see" in total darkness up to 100 feet away, while the indoor camera has illumination for up to 50 feet.
Compared to many webcams or monitoring cams we've reviewed on TUAW, the Alert systems are expensive. Before you dismiss them just because of price, you've got to understand that these cameras provide a live 960 x 720 pixel, 15 frame per second wide angle image that surpasses any webcam or security cam I've tested so far. Additionally, you can put a camera anywhere there's a wall plug -- inside or outside. Setup is easy enough that anybody can do it.
Let's look at the components of the indoor master system, which goes by the full name of Alert 750n Indoor Master System with Night Vision. First, there's the camera (image above), which has one of the largest lenses I've seen on a webcam of any sort. The camera comes with a variety of mounts -- there is a simple dock for placing it on a table or desk, a suction cup for sticking it to a window, and a ball-and-socket mount on a short arm that can be mounted on a wall.
On the back of the camera is a removable door into which a flat cable with an RJ-45 connector is plugged. There's a button for turning off the red LED on the camera, something I highly recommend unless you like seeing red lights flash every time you move. One other camera feature I almost forgot to mention is a 2 microSD card to retain images even if your network goes down.
On the other end of that flat cable is the power unit, which plugs into a standard wall socket. The system includes interchangeable plugs for a variety of outlets. The power unit has a couple of LEDs, a green one for telling you that the unit has power and a blue one that indicates a connection to the powerline network. There's a switch to shut off these two LEDs as well.
The outdoor camera system, which I did not test, has a weather-resistant casing that looks like most outdoor security cameras you've seen. The company sells power/networking cable in lengths up to 100 feet, so your system can cover a lot of area if you so desire.
Rather than have physical PTZ (pan-tilt-zoom), the Logitech cameras use digital PTZ. To be honest with you, I prefer this as most of the physical PTZ cameras (meaning that they actually move upon command) have a real problem with Internet latency and often overshoot their target. You try to aim at a specific spot in a room and find your camera is pointing somewhere else. I'll describe the digital PTZ feature a bit later in this review.
Let's move back a step and talk about the second major component of the system, which is the HomePlug powerline network base station. This device looks just like one of the camera power units (image below), but instead of plugging a camera into it, you run one of those flat cables to your router. In this case, I plugged the unit into my AirPort Extreme Base Station. Once the HomePlug base station is plugged into the wall and your router, your entire home electrical system becomes a wired network. All cables are color-coded for easy connection.
Why did Logitech decide to use a wired network? Simple -- the HomePlug system provides up to 200 Mbps of bandwidth, and even when you have multiple cameras sending HD video out to the Internet, it's not tying up your Wi-Fi network. It also makes network setup truly plug-and-play easy.
With the Master System, you essentially get the base station and a camera. To expand the system, you can buy as many indoor ($229.99) or outdoor ($279.99) cameras as you want, placing them at strategic spots around your house.
Now let's talk about the software, which is the main reason I'm doing this review. The Alert Commander software for setup and monitoring of the cameras used to be Windows-only. Several months ago, Logitech released the software for OS X 10.6.8 or higher. This software makes the difference between some of the other monitoring systems we've reviewed and the Logitech Alert system.
As you can see in the following gallery, Alert Commander takes you step by step through the installation of the system and then making any settings changes that you desire.
Once the system is set up and running, Alert Commander is used to either monitor your network from a Mac or to add more cameras to the network.
iOS isn't left out of the Alert system. The free Logitech Alert app for iOS (universal) is a great way to monitor your system when you're away from home. As with the OS X Alert Commander software, you can look at one camera to see what's up -- live. However, the OS X app does much more. Since the system can be set up to capture video whenever there's motion in the scene (I have mine set to save up to 20 GB of video to Dropbox), you can look at those alerts and see what was happening to get the system's attention.
If there's anything I wish the iOS app had, it's that ability to call up alerts and look at them. Unfortunately, Logitech turns this into a money-making proposition and charges $79.99 per year for the privilege. This premium service is called the Alert Web and Mobile Commander. Frankly, for what Logitech is charging for the Master System and extra cameras, it would be nice if this were free.
Anyone who is using the Alert System as their sole security system probably won't find the extra $80 a year to be an issue. However, if you already have another home monitoring system (the kind with door and window alarms, motion sensors, and the like), that extra cost is a bit annoying.
As I've already demonstrated in the previous gallery, setup is extremely simple. Logitech should be commended for taking a process that could be difficult and time-consuming and turning it into a fast, easy and even fun.
The system does away with moving parts and instead uses a digital PTZ process. The cameras have a 130 degree field of view and excellent color in most lighting conditions; what digital PTZ does is allow you to "zoom in" on a specific area in that wide field by resizing and moving a rectangular field of view on the overall scene. You can see this in the two images below, which show the full wide field of view (left) and a zoomed in image (right).
Since this is all done digitally, it's instantaneous and there's no lag like on motorized camera systems. Due to the wide angle lens, you will see some barrel distortion in the image, especially near the edges of the image.
The OS X Alert Commander software provides a way to monitor up to six cameras simultaneously. Different locations can also be set up -- let's say you have both a home in the city and a cabin somewhere, you could have cameras at both locations and just pull up one location or another to monitor.
While you're not around, recordings and alerts are triggered by motion. There's a way to set up to 16 zones to watch in the field of view, and adjust the sensitivity of the motion detection so that wandering cats don't set it off.
The software shows a timeline of all alerts that have occurred for a particular camera. In the image below, you see small blue lines that appear when something moves in the field of view. Clicking on one of those retrieves the video captured during the alert, and you can then see what set off the alert -- in my case, it was my cat walking by in the bottom of the frame.
Alerts can be set to happen as desktop notifications (a small window appears showing the current state of the camera) or as email alerts. Email alerts can be scheduled for those times when you know you're going to be away from your home or business, and there's even a way to create a calendar of when the alerts will be sent. Alerts can be sent to any number of recipients.
Although the cameras have built-in storage on a 2 GB microSD card, you can save recorded video onto your Mac. As I mentioned earlier, I chose to "back this up" by putting the video onto DropBox. The amount and location of storage used can be varied from the monitoring software.
I have to commend Logitech on the Alert Commander software for Mac. During the tests I put it through, it never once balked, crashed or had any issues. That's not the case with most monitoring apps, so obviously Logitech's developers know what they're doing.
Although the Logitech Alert security camera system is expensive, it's also the best designed and implemented monitoring system I've tested. The video quality is better, the camera has a much wider field of view, and the ability to add more cameras to a location simply by plugging them into an electrical outlet is genius.
I'd have no qualms recommending a Logitech Alert system to any Mac owner who wants to set up his or her own home security camera system, but be sure to remember the extra cost incurred if you wish to view recorded video alerts remotely on an iPhone or iPad.
If you currently have no home security system and would like to start with a video monitoring setup with alerts, then the Logitech Alert with the Alert Web and Mobile Commander premium service is much less expensive than competing systems from alarm companies.