Video surveillance over power lines: yes, it's possible

This is the second of a three-part series where our own David Gewirtz tests and installs a full-perimeter, Internet-centric, mobile-enabled video surveillance system. In this installment, David spotlights a neat new technology.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

UPDATE: Part 3 is available

Yesterday, I discussed the basic premise behind building an Internet-centric, mobile-enabled, full-perimeter video surveillance system. I mentioned that I'd looked at a product from LOFTEK and discarded it, and then found a product from Logitech that had some promise.

In this article, I'll discuss the Logitech Alert system and then, in a follow-on article, I'll formally review the product. Logitech was kind enough to provide me with a full system, so I went out and hired an electrician to install it.

In fact, that's a great place to begin our story.

"No way that's gonna work." That's what my electrician Jerry said when I'd described the Logitech Alert system. Jerry's been a really big asset here at Camp David, installing all our networking cables in the attic, and completely rewiring what was a fire hazard fixer-upper into what's now part small data center and part family abode.

He looked at me with that particular "you must be kidding" look of dubiousness that skilled tradespeople often reserve for those of us who are engineers, and yet can't be trusted not to blow ourselves up.

I could see him looking more and more doubtful the more I described the product. Where he lost all faith in this scheme of mine was when I told him the video signal would travel over the power lines. Actually, that's not strictly true. He looked at me with that particular "you must be kidding" look of dubiousness that skilled tradespeople often reserve for those of us who are engineers, and yet can't be trusted not to blow ourselves up.

What got him really shaking his head was when I told him that not one, but six video signals would have to travel over the house's power, across phases, and from the farthest reaches of the perimeter to a central network node, which was then connected to my router.

When I told him I was intending to pump color, 720p HD video across the power lines, he shook his head one last time and gave me a homework assignment: "Go hook it all up inside and let me know if it works. If it works, then we'll talk."

Let's talk about the system.

The Logitech Alert system can be set up either inside or outside. If it's set up inside, you can deploy up to six cameras, what are essentially glorified webcams. I didn't do the inside thing because I have no desire to monitor the inner workings of my inner sanctum. The system can also be set up with a mix of inside and outside cameras.

I chose all outside cameras. Unlike the LOFTEK, they're fixed view only. You point them. That's what you see. On the plus side, they have a pretty wide view (135 degrees), so they do see quite a bit (although it can look pretty fisheye-ee if you set the widest angle possible).

Each camera comes with a long, thin Ethernet-like cable and what looks like a large power brick. This is actually the video-over-powerline interface that is at the core of the system's communication. Each camera also comes with an SD card, so if communication is interrupted, the card holds recent video.

At the core of the system is a HomePlug network device that plugs into the wall (for power and to capture the video signals). It also plugs into your router, so you'll want to locate this near your network interface. It's pretty much plug and forget, so where you locate the master controller isn't strictly relevant.

The system is controlled by either a Windows or Mac application which is used for setting up, configuring, and watching the cameras. There is also a Web application and both an iOS and Android app that lets you view your cameras from anywhere on the Internet.

My first test

For my first test, I had to unpack everything, install the wiring (it's a unscrew-and-plug-in affair), find six free wall sockets at far corners of my house, and then connect the master controller to my router.

I didn't pay any real attention to where the cameras pointed. All I wanted to do was make sure I could actually talk to them over the building power, and that the basic concept worked.

So, I plugged it all in, saw that the cameras each had indicator lights that were turned on, powered up the master controller software on my Windows 8 machine, and ... nothing ... for about two minutes.

The control software had grid squares for each of the six cameras and all six squares were empty. Then after a few minutes, one-by-one, they all just showed up. Each blinked in. All the cameras had connected and were sending video.

Granted, everything was upside down and a bit wonky, but that wasn't the point. The cameras were able to send video over the internal power lines, and — in what was a completely pleasant surprise — it all just turned on and worked.

The only odd thing was that each camera was sending a black and white signal. After a few minutes, I found the update control screen, and — holding my breath — told the system to update the cameras. Each camera obediently updated its firmware, and I suddenly had color, pretty-much-HD video coming from six zones inside my house.

I sent Jerry the electrician a note and scheduled a time. Still doubtful, we made an appointment for him to come over, but he ended with "I'll believe it when I see it."

Stay tuned. Tomorrow, I'll review the product in depth. Does it hold up to my initial positive impressions? You'll have to wait and see.

Here's a promo video about the product from Logitech. Wait until you read my review before deciding if this is for you or not. The product has both strengths and weaknesses.

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