Logitech dropped its Alert Video Security System on our laps just before we were allowed to tell the world about it -- not nearly enough time to put it through its paces. Since then we've spent a week beneath its piercing gaze, afraid to scratch inappropriately lest that movement be recorded forever onto the cold, merciless memory of network-attached storage. In that time we found living with Alert to be generally entertaining, sometimes frustrating, and occasionally disconcerting. How so? Read on to find out.
As we mentioned in the earlier hands-on, Logitech is offering two cameras: the $230 700i for indoors and well-lit shooting and the $280 700e for outdoors or nighttime shooting (each available as a bundle with the necessary receiver for $300 and $350, respectively). Logitech was kind enough to send us one of each and, despite both offering the same skinny HD resolution of 960 x 720, their designs are very dissimilar. The indoor model looks something like a chubby mouse, a curious look for a security camera but its light weight and threaded receivers make it easy to mount, to the wall via the included hardware, on a wall or simply with a suction cup, or simply sitting in its little holder on a shelf.
The outdoor-ready 700e, however, is a very different beast, looking rather more like a security camera and, with its metal construction, feeling beefy and weatherproof. This model adds night vision to the mix, able to see in IR and boosted by a pair of IR emitters that, on a pitch-black night, give it an effective range of about 30 feet in our testing. But, with a good bit of moonlight or even a small streetlight that range is far extended. However, those IR headlights cause some issues, attracting insects that buzz around and trip the motion detector constantly. More on that in a bit. Both cameras offer good but not great quality through their wide lenses, footage looking a bit blurry but, in general, far better than your average VGA security cam. However, neither can be moved remotely, so make sure you point them where you want them.
Setting up the cameras is about as easy as it gets. Each camera comes with a HomePlug adapter that it is connected to via a skinny Ethernet cable, providing connectivity as well as power. Plug each camera into an outlet, hang it on the wall however you like, and then plug another HomePlug adapter into your network router. This acts as the receiver, providing the camera's access with computers on your network and indeed with the internet at large. (Up to six cameras can be connected in a single instance.) After installing the software on your PC (no Mac support yet) you're well on your way to living like a prisoner in your own home.
Users of WiLife systems will probably be getting some deja vu by now, because that's basically what this is -- WiLife with upgraded hardware. Sadly, though, older WiLife cameras cannot be integrated with the new Logitech Alert software, which at this point is not perfect. In general the software acts as a sort of DVR and repository for the cameras. Each camera writes to microSD storage (2GB is provided) whenever it detects motion. When a computer running the Commander app connects it automatically starts to pull down all that footage, freeing up the memory for another night's worth of attempted break-ins.
One of the biggest problems with this software is that it is PC-only, and even then won't work when connected to via a remote desktop connection. This may seem like a minor problem, but if you have a Windows Home Server box or the like sitting in the corner that you want to act as your security clearing house, you're out of luck here -- unless you add a keyboard and monitor to it.
The software also lets you set the motion sensitivity of each camera, creating hot-spots where the camera will look and dead zones that it will ignore. This worked well in confined areas with static backgrounds, but we found it impossible to get reliable results in situations with trees or plants that move in the wind. Even when we created small hot-spots that included zero shrubberies, as the day wore on inevitably their shadows would cross those zones. Add a gentle breeze and you have cameras detecting motion constantly.
At night the situation is worse. The 700e provides good looking night imagery, but that's aided by dual IR emitters. Many insects are just as attracted to IR as light that mere humans can see, meaning our 700e would spend all evening recording the futile mating attempts of various country moths -- or maybe they're rod-shaped alien spacecraft. You be the judge.
Ultimately, the cameras are pretty dumb about movement. They can't tell a swaying branch from a burglar or a shadow from a vicious dog, and sadly there's no fuzzy logic or AI that allows you to train them on right and wrong. You can't even schedule sensitivity changes based on the time of day.
Accessing your stream
One thing Alert does right -- when everything is working properly -- is providing access to your footage. Naturally there's the PC client which allows you to view live and recorded footage. But, there's also a website that serves a live view of whatever is happening on any of your cameras. Pay $80 a year and you step up to the Mobile Commander level, which allows you to view any footage still stored on your cameras remotely, configure their sensitivity, and modify alerts. Alerts can also be created from the desktop app, photos sent via e-mail whenever motion is detected, which is a handy feature if you can get that motion sensitivity dialed in right.
But, by far the most useful that we found were the suite of mobile apps, one each for iPhone, Android, and BlackBerry. These let you select from any of your cameras and view live footage -- at least they do when they're working. Unfortunately for much of our week of testing these apps have been failing to connect but, when they're working, they work well, providing a very clear picture over 3G or WiFi.
This all naturally raises the question of privacy, with footage from inside your home being pumped up to Logitech's servers and available to anyone who manages to crack your password. Someone stealing your credit card number? Scary. Someone watching you when you're jamming out in your tighty whities to Old Time Rock and Roll? Really scary, and something that will make even the most care-free of users think twice about using their old standby password.
What we have is a system that will work great for some but rather poorly for others. If you just want to point a camera at a pet or a child and keep an eye on them from afar, or are only interested in seeing what's going on at home right now, you obviously won't be too concerned with too much motion sensitivity. This is a great package that comes out of the box quickly and, in minutes, will have you watching Fluffy and Snookums romp around merrily. Likewise, if you'll be pointing this at an urban or static environment where you want to catch anything that moves, you'll have good results.
However, if you need a system that will generate few false positives, that will only alert you when something is moving that shouldn't be, you're going to want something a little more serious. A system that recorded three hours of swaying trees yet failed to notice the UPS man delivering a package is not something we want to rely on for keeping our place secure.
Update: Logitech contacted us to let us know that the downtime for the mobile apps was due to a switchover going from their beta servers to production boxes during testing, something they likely won't be doing again. In other words, you shouldn't have any concerns about downtime going forward.