Switched On: Creep spy for the cheap guy

Ross Rubin
R. Rubin|11.01.06

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Switched On: Creep spy for the cheap guy

Each week Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a column about technology, multimedia, and digital entertainment:

My mama raised me to treat everyone equally, but I have to admit that I have this thing about zombies. Now I know you shouldn't judge someone by the color of their rotting flesh or whom they eat. However, those pale-green cannibalistic undead just make my skin crawl -- not literally like theirs does, mind you, but crawl nonetheless. To set up a quick and inexpensive monitoring solution to alert me of their presence this Halloween, I needed to use my brain before they did.

The first product I checked out was the $179 "Secret Security Camcorder Hidden in a Clock" from The Sharper Image, the awkward name of which may have been even scarier than the zombies themselves. Such spycams are, of course, effective only as long as they remain unrecognized, and appearing in a national store chain and catalog may defeat some of the clock's clandestine advantage. The "clockcorder" uses 64 MB of flash memory to record up to 12 minutes of motion-activated QVGA video encoded using DivX; its capacity can also be expanded using SD cards. The product can also run entirely on batteries for more placement flexibility.

Without any LCD or way to preview the video, the camcorder clock relies on an adjustable base and a clever mirrored button similar to the tiny round mirrors used for taking pictures of yourself on cameras and camera phones. In fact, the device is so simple to use that the manual devotes more space to the clock functions than the camcorder ones. To play back video, you can either pop the SD card out of the clock and into your PC or connect the clock to your PC via an included USB cable. (Unfortunately, the cover for the USB port fits poorly.) Video files can be played by Windows Media Player on the PC or QuickTime on either the PC or Mac after adding the DivX component.

If The Sharper Image product embodies the low-end simplicity of an iPod shuffle, WiLife's Lukwerks ($299, $229 for each additional indoor or outdoor camera) is the Sonos of surveillance – a thoughtfully engineered, moderately upscale (albeit far cheaper than custom-installed) multipoint product that focuses on ease of setup and use. Lukwerks, which can accommodate up to six cameras and is not the name of an '80s metal band, uses the HomePlug system to avoid any WiFi setup, security and reliability hassles. Its cameras – which come with stands and mounting hardware but can be mounted to windows using an included suction cup -- compress video into the Windows Media format themselves to conserve network bandwidth, but a PC must be running constantly for continuous surveillance.

Alas, while setup can be painless in most cases, it is not foolproof. My "luk" was not "werking" as ghosts in the machine mysteriously wiped out the MAC address on the USB HomePlug adapter in the unit I tried, and the HomePlug bridge that I normally use had some compatibility issues. WiLife offers free 24x7 technical support by phone, but it took some executive intervention to troubleshoot the MAC issue and send me a utility that quickly reset it.

Once that was done, I could enjoy the system's well-designed Werks software, which lets Windows users easily browse through motion-activated clips archived on your PC's hard drive at a variety of playback speed. The software, which requires no cumbersome serial number codes, also enables protecting or exporting clips to save indefinitely and setting up "hot zones" to further tailor the motion activation. Werks offers a variety of ways, including e-mail and text messages, to alert you when a camera is activated. And WiLife even offers free and easy remote monitoring over the Web (although some firewall and network configurations may limit sessions to three minutes, as mine were). Unfortunately, the Lukwerks cameras do not support panning or zooming, automatic notification of a call center is on the drawing board.

For those who want to combine the secrecy of a spy cam with the flexibility and superior video quality of the Lukwerks system, the company will soon offer its own clock camera, albeit one that looks even more conspicuous than the barely passable Sharper Image unit.

While The Sharper Image camcorder clock is a simple option for catching an isolated transgression, the Lukwerks system is an attractive option for monitoring a home or small business. With both products on the job, those dreaded zombies stayed far away from my doorstep. Unfortunately, though, I was terrorized by at least one mindless skeletal figure wandering the world without purpose. That's the last time I watch reruns of The Simple Life on Halloween.

Ross Rubin is director of industry analysis for consumer technology at market research and analysis firm The NPD Group and a contributing editor for LAPTOP. Views expressed in Switched On are his own. Feedback is welcome at fliptheswitch@gmail.com.
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