Logitech Alert review: video surveillance over power lines
This is the final article of a three-part series where David Gewirtz tests and installs a full-perimeter, Internet-centric, mobile-enabled video surveillance system. In this installment, David reviews the pros and cons of the Logitech Alert system.
The company provided me with a master unit and six cameras. I paid for the electrician out of pocket. Before I found the Alert system, I had originally wanted to set up nine cameras, but the Logitech system maxes at six, in any combination of indoor and outdoor cameras.
Although I was slightly disappointed that I couldn't string cameras everywhere without limits, the six cameras do cover the entire perimeter field of the building. Each camera has a 135-degree field of view, and while you can digitally zoom, I left them all at full, wide-angle and we are able to see everywhere on the property.
Let's start with the basics
The video-over-power technology works, and works quite well. Quality video over internal power is surprisingly solid, regardless of whether or not appliances like dishwashers or clothes dryers are running.
The system booted up and routed video properly from the first. It runs just fine. Since that was the biggest question mark, it was nice to see the technology perform with rock-solid reliability.
That's not to say there aren't some issues. There are, but nothing that can't be mended in subsequent software updates. The core of the system just simply works — and that's a darned rare thing to say about any networking product, let alone one that mixes video, power distribution, and the Internet.
As I mentioned in the previous articles, I only installed outside cameras. Each camera has its own array of infrared LEDs that are designed for night vision.
To my considerable surprise, this works amazingly well. I have a relatively large yard (land is pretty inexpensive in Florida), and the cameras illuminate all the way to the street in front and to the fence line in the back. Everything is in black and white at night, of course, but we can see the entire yard in pitch black, perfectly.
Daytime video quality is also quite good. It's not full HD, but 960x720 isn't something to sneeze at, especially when you're pumping six of those feeds through the building power. I haven't noticed any lost frames.
It looks more like 15 frames a second than 30, but even so, you can easily see someone walking up or driving by without any loss of action or fidelity (at least during the day). At night, you can't make out facial features, but you can see if there's an animal or a person walking around.
The system is set up to trigger recording on motion. You can select motion zones, so recording only happens if there is activity in certain zones. One camera in our back picks up street traffic from about two blocks away through the very edge of its view interface, so I turned off motion sensing for that small zone.
While we're talking about the motion sensing system, I should mention that the Alert Commander does offer email alerts and pop-up alerts. Since there's almost always some motion outside, I turned these off, but I can see how they'd be helpful, especially with indoor monitoring.
The system first records to 2GB microSD cards installed in each camera. If you want a bigger card, you can load up to a 32 GB micro SDHC card in each camera.
The Logitech Alert Commander software downloads the video from the cameras' microSD cards to a location on your computer, so there's another copy of the video available. I added a third backup. I've got a script that monitors the backup location and uploads the video to a remote cloud backup server. Each motion video clip is a simple MP4, so you can manipulate and examine the recorded video using standard tools.
The Commander software allows you to set a maximum amount of storage, and then deletes older recordings. At about 2GB a week, a relatively small amount of storage can store pretty nearly a year without blinking.
Installation is, in theory, quite simple. Certainly for an indoor camera, all you do is plug a cable into the camera and into the power brick, and plug that into the wall.
Logitech recommends a similar procedure for outside cameras. In fact, on the instructions, Logitech has a somewhat silly illustration showing a cable running from the outside camera, down the side of a building, to an exposed power socket. While this might be easy installation, having the camera's power right under the camera kind of defeats the whole security concept.
That's why I had to involve an electrician. First, my house has unusual wiring. As I've mentioned before, when we bought this house, it was a fixer-upper in the worst way. We pretty much gutted it and rebuilt it to my geeky specifications. As a result, we've got a power infrastructure normally more suited to a small data center than a house. Since I operate my office from home, that was a necessity.
Second, though, I didn't want to expose all the camera wiring both to the outside elements and to potential threats. The electrician mounted all the cameras to the overhanging soffits around the house, then ran the cable from the camera into the attic to the interface brick. Those power-interface bricks were installed in an array in the attic, and then ran on their own dedicated circuit back to the circuit breaker panel.
The HomePlug system is a security win as well, since the wire that extends outside the house to the camera isn't on the internal LAN, it's effectively firewalled into the camera's own private HomePlug network.
Since I needed everything installed to code, I used the same licensed electrician we used to run our power infrastructure and GigE to install the Alert system. You might not need an electrician, but keep in mind that if you're touching the circuit breaker box, some ordinances require licensing to do the work (and, of course, if you don't know what you're doing, you could be in for a nasty shock).
While we're on the topic of installation, I need to point out that you can't plug the cameras or the central hub into a UPS. Here in Florida, we have many power fluctuations, and so everything (including our crock pot) has a UPS between it and the the power grid. Logitech claims the cameras have built-in surge suppression, but we had one power failure recently which corrupted one of the SD cards:
I was able to reformat the card remotely and continue operating, but I do wonder how these cameras will perform over the long haul in the face of central Florida's weather and its impact on the power grid.
Next: Odd remote behavior and final recommendations.
Odd remote behavior
A big part of having an Internet-centric, mobile-enabled video surveillance system is Internet and mobile. It's here that the Logitech Alert system has some odd weaknesses.
First, the good: you can access your cameras (and, with a yearly fee, your recordings) from anywhere in the world via either a Web interface, an Android app, or an iOS app.
Both the Web interface and the Android app display what's happening in near real-time. They're each delayed by about a half second from the actual real-time display of the internal Commander software and actual meatspace activity. That means that if you're watching a person walking up to the house, the subject is probably about one step closer to the house in reality than what you're seeing.
For access all over the world, that's not a bad delay at all.
And then we get to the iOS version. I tested this on a third generation iPad and an iPad mini. With both of these, what's shown on the iPad is anywhere from 20 seconds to about 90 seconds behind real life. If a car drives by, you can say "one-Mississippi, two-Mississippi" a good 20 to 30 times before the car drives by on the iPad.
This doesn't render the product unusable on the iPad, but it's certainly not ideal. And given that both the Web interface and the Android version on my Nexus 7 displayed in near real-time, it's not my network connection or even the delay to Logitech's data center and back. It's the iOS app.
I have one more possible deal-breaker complaint about the remote implementation, and this applies to Web, Android, and iOS equally.
Monitoring remotely is time-limited. What I mean by this is you start monitoring, and after 5-10 minutes, the monitoring stops. You're actually presented with a display arrow that invites you to tap it to start monitoring again.
This completely defeats the idea of having a browser window at work open all the time to see what's going on at home, or a Nexus 7 sitting on the night table to monitor the baby. You can check in and see what's going on, but you can't just keep an eye on things.
Presumably, Logitech thinks you'll get an email alert, and then want to see what's happening. A more cynical view is they're limiting the time the connection is live to save overhead at their data center.
In any case, it's a serious flaw and Logitech needs to step up and fix it before this solution can be a truly credible remote monitoring solution.
Update: the Web interface has stopped showing one of the cameras claiming "Error getting camera settings", while the Commander PC-based interface works fine. I haven't had time to reset everything to see if it comes back online, but remote monitoring is definitely a bit more troublesome than local monitoring, which is rock-solid.
I've been using the system for a few weeks now, and with the exception of the remote monitoring functions mentioned above, I'm quite impressed. I did find a few features I would have liked to have seen, and so here's a short wish list for future versions.
Many security systems have a way for the system to toggle between each camera in rotation in full screen. While Logitech Alert can display all six feeds simultaneously in a grid (which, by the way, is slick as heck), I'd like to see (or haven't found) the option to simply toggle between all six views in order, continuously.
The other thing I'd like is an instant 15-second or 30-second rewind. I'm probably spoiled by my Tivo, where you can easily jump back 15 seconds to replay what you just missed, but I found I really wanted that feature on the Logitech system. I'd often see something out of the corner of my eye, and rather than going into the recording system and trying to pull up the right recording, I just wished I could hit a quick replay button and see it play back.
The rest of the story
I told you about how Jerry the electrician didn't believe this thing would work. After completing the installation, his first comment was "Wow, it works." After all six cameras came online, he was enthusiastic enough about the product that it looks like he'll be recommending it to his clients.
Maybe next time I come up with some scheme I want his help with, he won't be quite as dubious. Nah!
I've always generally liked Logitech products and for my purposes — seeing what's going on throughout the property and recording what I don't see — the Logitech Alert system performs quite well.
Technically, in terms of setup, running video over power, and even night vision, the system performs outstandingly well, substantially beyond both my expectations and what my electrician thought was possible.
However, while remote monitoring works, it has a few flaws. The delayed playback on iOS is annoying and the system does have a potential fatal flaw in that you can't perform continuous monitoring remotely, which means you can't set up tablet or browser at a security desk and monitor a whole building, watch the baby from the couch, or keep an eye on kitty from the office.
Because the monitoring stream cuts off after a few minutes, I simply can't recommend this system if you want continuous remote monitoring.
With everything else working so well, I do hope Logitech remedies this one flaw in a future update. At that point, I'd be able to recommend it unreservedly.
Logitech has collected quite a few surveillance videos showcasing some interesting behavior. They call these Busted Videos and some are a hoot to watch. My favorites are the large black bear and the small white cat: