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Gadgets & Gizmos

From the staff of the Tampa Bay Times

Home video monitors you can view on your smartphone or tablet

15

July

Home web cam and surveillance systems used to be complicated and in many cases they required professional installation or assistance to get them up and running. But now there are quite a few systems on the market that not only are easy to set up but they also come with apps so you can view the video feed on your smartphone or tablet. To give you a sample of what's out there, I tested four popular systems. Here they are, in no particular order.

VueZone - The VueZone personal video network system makes setting up a home video surveillance system so easy, vue.pnganyone can do it. The system I tested came with the VueZone Gateway unit and two motion sensor-cameras ($289.95). To get the system running all I had to do was register the gateway online and plug it into my router, push the sync button on the gateway and switch on the two cameras. I then downloaded the iPhone app by scanning the nifty QR code in the manual, and literally 15 minutes after I took everything out of the box I was viewing live video on my iPhone from two cameras.

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The cameras are very small and light, about the size of a large egg, and require no wires because they run on disposable Lithium-ion batteries (included). Using ingenious peel-and-stick magnetic mounts, you easily can put the cameras almost anywhere. Want to watch a baby in the nursery at night and keep track of your dogs during the day? Just put the mounts where you want them and move the cameras as needed. You can add up to 25 cameras to one gateway and have a view of every room in your house. Add-on cameras start at $79.95.

The apps are available for iPhone, Android and Blackberry and I tested the first two. It worked very well and allowed me to view each camera individually or view them all at once, capture a snapshot, record video or digitally pan and zoom any of the cameras. If you buy the motion-sensor cameras you also can configure the system to email photos or short video clips when there is movement within 15 feet of the camera. Some of these features require you pay for a premium VueZone service plan. The basic VueZone account is free and allows you to view your cameras in a browser or through an app, but that's all. Service plans start at $4.95 a month or $49.95 a year.

You also can view your cameras on the VueZone site using a web browser. To get an idea of the quality of the cameras take a look at this recorded sample, provided by VueZone:

The image in the sample above is pretty good by indoors the image quality isn't great, especially in low light. Video and photos have a lot of digital artifacts and blue noise in the shadow areas. The digital zoom, while helpful to a degree, degrades the image further. Overall, however, this is an excellent system and it gets the best marks for ease of setup and expandability.


Logitech Alert 750i Master System - The second system I tested was this one from Logitech. If you have access to a Windows computer this is also very easy to setup. If you have a Mac, you can't register and configure this system at all unless you borrow a Windows PC, which is what I did. You may be able to run the software with an Intel Mac using BootCamp to run Windows, or running Windows through Parallels software, but I was not set up to test that. Once the system is configured on your network, however, you can control it on your Mac using a web browser or the premium version of the app.

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The Logitech system uses a technology known as HomePlug. HomePlug systems use network modules that you plug into your electrical outlets and they effectively use the copper wiring in your home to create a wired network. This is a great system to use if you don't want to use wireless or if you want to use cameras in places where the wireless network signal is weak.

The 750i Master System ($299.99) comes with three main parts, a network connector for your router, a network connector for the camera and the camera itself. Also included is some mounting hardware, a tabletop stand for the camera and a microSD card for storing recorded video. To set things up you install the included Logitech Alert Commander software on a Windows PC connected to your network, plug in one network adapter and connect it to your router then plug in the other and connect it to the camera. The software discovered the camera immediately and the system was up and running.

This system also has apps for iOS, Android and Blackberry. The free version of the apps and browser interface (Mobile Viewer and Web Viewer) let you view cameras but not control them. The paid version (Mobile Commander and Web Commander) gives you controls like digital panning and and tilting of the cameras, motion sensor alert controls, viewing of recorded video, operation of up to six cameras and configuration of one-way audio for cameras that have a microphone (like the 750i). Using the paid version of the app or web interface costs $79.99 a year.

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On the Windows PC, the Alert Commander software is very robust and has many additional features, including the ability to back up surveillance recordings to your hard drive.

The image quality of this system was one of the best, second only to the Schlage LiNK system (listed below). Video and captured photos were very clear even when viewing them large on a laptop screen. The HomePlug system works very well and is easy to set up. As long you plan to place your cameras in locations near a power outlet, this system is very easy to set up. Additional cameras are available to expand the system and they start at $229.99. Compared to the $79.95 add-on cameras with the VueZone system, this system could get expensive fast.

One more thing...photos on the Logitech site show the 750i camera suction-cupped to a window and hanging from a ceiling with no visible wires. The set does come with a suction cup and ceiling mount as shown but this is not a wireless system. So just be aware of that.

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Foscam FI8918W with Surveillance Pro - This is the system I have at the Gadget Guy household and although it's not as easy to set up, it offers a lot of features the others don't. screen_shot_2011-07-15_at_9.35.44_am.pngThe Foscam FI8918W has become somewhat of a cult camera among those who prefer to take the DIY approach to setting up a home surveillance system. The camera itself is excellent, with full, motorized pan and zoom with patrol mode, infrared lights for low light video, motion detection (with notification via email) and two-way audio. It has an ethernet port and also has full WiFi capability, so it can be used with HomePlug network adapters (similar to the Logitech system) or can be used anywhere within the range of your WiFi network.

The camera comes with built-in configuration software that you access through a web browser. Once configured you also can view the video feed from each camera through a browser-based interface that is served through the camera when you connect. Setup is not automatic like it is with the VueZone and Logitech systems, so remote access requires a static IP address or an dynamic IP address service, like DYNDNS (the one I used). You also need to know how to open ports on your router to allow the video to be seen outside your firewall. Foscam has a page with instructions for camera configuration and port-forwarding for various router brands. This stuff is not real difficult but may intimidate some people, so if you would prefer a system that sets up automatically then this is not a good choice.

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To view and control the cameras on my system I use the Foscam Surveillance Pro app on the iPhone ($4.99) and it's excellent. With this app you can pan and zoom the camera in eight directions, change motion detection settings and patrol-mode presets, adjust brightness and contrast, change resolution, control the infrared lights and take a snapshot. The app can support up to 144 cameras that can be viewed in a grid or individually. On the Android side of things and app called uCam4Foscam ($4.99) looks like the best choice to control Foscam cameras. The description says the app gives you viewing of unlimited cameras, pan and tilt controls, snapshot capture, zooming (if supported) and sharing via email Facebook or Twitter. So the feature set is not as complete as the iPhone app but the basics are there. Blackberry apps also are supposed to be available.

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Image quality on the Foscam FI8918W is very clear and sharp but the color is kind of washed out. Because it has infrared lights, this camera has night vision capability and can capture video in complete darkness without calling attention to itself when doing so. You can view a live demo of a Foscam here (name and email address required). There are no monthly service fees with this system.

I bought my Foscam cameras on Amazon.com for $90 each. So for $185 ($5 for the app) I have a two-camera system with many advanced features that can be controlled from my iPhone and iPad. That's a great value as compared to the other systems, but only if you're willing to learn how to configure the cameras. Be warned, however, that because these cameras are so popular there are knockoff versions being sold on eBay. Buy from a reputable source to make sure you get an authentic Foscam.


Schlage LiNK - This system is capable of much more than just home surveillance because in addition to viewing and controlling cameras you can control your locks, lights and thermostat too. For the purposes of this piece I will focus only on the camera functions. Watch for a full review on the Schlage LiNK system and all it's features in a future post.

I saw this system in action at a model home in Tampa and it's really impressive. Schlage is a lock manufacturer, so they offer starter kits that include a door lock. They come as a deadbolt kit or a lever kit, in three finishes. Each kit includes a wireless bridge, wireless door lock and light module ($299.99). If you don't want a door lock and light module you can buy the wireless bridge for $99. Cameras must be purchased separately. The wireless camera is $189 and the wired camera (ethernet) is $49.99.  So a wireless system with one camera would be $288.

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The connection method is similar to the VueZone system. You connect the Schlage wireless bridge to your router, login to the Schlage site and initialize your wireless bridge and camera. The system use special Z-Wave wireless technology for communication between the bridge and the modules. Additional cameras and other modules can easily be added to the system at any time.

andoid_-_main_menu.pngApps are available for iOS, Android and Blackberry and you can find out of your device is compatible by texting PHONE to 695465 from your device. An optimized app for the Apple iPad also is available.

The image quality from this system is the best of all the systems I tested. At the demo I viewed the system on a 42-inch TV, an iPad and an iPhone. The Schlage LiNK web application is outstanding and if choose to use all the available modules it can give you incredible control over your house from the palm of your hand.

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This system requires a monthly home automation subscription ($8.99) and the first month is free when you activate your system. For those who are interested in home surveillance and automation, this is the one for you.


All of these systems have their advantages. VueZone is an excellent system with the greatest ease of setup. The Logitech system is a great solution if you don't want to use wireless cameras and want easy setup and an excellent picture. The Foscam camera is for the DIY (Do It Yourself) person who is willing to take time to set up a system in exchange for excellent features and less cost. And the Schlage iLink is the ultimate for those who want home surveillance and more. So all you have to do is decide which system is best for you.

(NOTE: No beagles were harmed during testing for this review.)

[Last modified: Monday, July 18, 2011 4:07pm]

    

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