Canary shows promise but isn't singing yet

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Canary is an all-in-one smart security device that incorporates an HD, night-vision camera and multiple sensors into a single package. Place Canary on the shelf, plug it in, and sync it up with your Wi-Fi network, and you'll be able to monitor the conditions at home right from your smart phone, or receive alerts if something's amiss.

We've been eagerly awaiting Canary's arrival ever since it raised nearly $2 million on Indiegogo back in the summer of 2013. Now, nearly a year and half later, the device is finally shipping out to its backers and is set to retail for $249 this spring (that's about £165, or AU$300, converted roughly). Canary's team sent us the device so we could test the thing out, and my intention was to give it the full review treatment. However, after spending a week working with it, I'm not convinced that Canary is quite ready for its close-up.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

The setup process

The Canary that we received was a white-bodied model (it comes in white, black, or gray) from Canary's prerelease phase. Essentially, Canary wanted to be sure that its backers received devices before the product arrived at retail, and to gather additional data about how the device would be used.

Canary's team isn't calling this a beta phase, but that's basically what it is, and as such, some of Canary's features aren't working yet. That includes email and SMS notifications, alerts based on temperature and humidity, backup contacts, and alerts when Canary goes offline or loses power.

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Screenshot by Ry Crist/CNET

Also missing here at the start of the prerelease phase: an Android app. Canary's team tells me it'll be out very soon, and certainly in plenty of time for the retail launch. As of right now, though, Canary is an iOS-only device, and given that Android compatibility was part of the initial Indiegogo pitch, that has to be disappointing to early backers with Android devices.

Missing features aside, I forged ahead, eager to try out Canary's core functionality. The first step was to get the thing up and running. To get started, you'll register an email address in Canary's app, then connect your account with the device itself. To do this, the app prompts you to connect your Canary to your smartphone or tablet using a yellow cable that plugs into your headphone jack. Canary sends audio data to your phone, and the app uses it to pair everything up.

That's a cool trick -- but it didn't work with my iPhone 5S. Whenever I'd try to pair things up, I'd get an error message telling me that Canary couldn't hear my iPhone. I worked with Canary's tech support specialists to try and figure out what the problem was, but after double-checking my phone's settings and trying it out a few more times, we came away stumped.

Canary was kind enough to send us another unit (black this time), and again, the yellow cable connection didn't register with my iPhone. Fortunately, the connection worked like a charm when I tried it out with my iPad.

However, Canary also needed to download and install a firmware update before I could start playing with it. The process with the yellow cable had synced it up with my iPad and also with my home's Wi-Fi network, so I figured that updating the firmware would be smooth and simple.

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Screenshots by Ry Crist/CNET

Unfortunately, I figured wrong, and the process glitched out about halfway through. I tried again, and again, and yet again, each time receiving the same error message. Every time it failed, I needed to start again from the beginning, entering my Wi-Fi info and going through the yellow cable step over and over.

To the Canary team's credit, they worked hard to help me figure out what was wrong, and finally, after a full day of trial and error, we got the update pushed through. I'm still not sure exactly what wasn't working, but whatever it was, it made for an exasperating setup.

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When I finally finished the setup, Canary detected me fiddling with the app on my couch. Screenshot by Ry Crist/CNET

User experience

With my Canary ready to go, I could finally start testing it out. The app looks good, and navigation is simple enough -- you'll tap a large button in the center of the homescreen to watch live video, or a smaller button to view data on the temperature, humidity and air quality in your home. You can swipe up to view an activity feed, or you can swipe down to access your system settings. A shield icon in the bottom-left corner of the homescreen lets you quickly toggle between armed, unarmed and privacy modes.

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Canary detected me as I woke up and left for work, and automatically armed itself. Screenshot by Ry Crist/CNET

The temperature and humidity sensors seemed quick, responsive and accurate. I turned my thermostat on and off a few times, letting the temperature rise and fall by about 10 degrees, and the app tracked the minute-by-minute changes perfectly. The air quality readings were a little less helpful. My graph flatlined at the top of the chart, listing the quality as "normal." The readings didn't change overnight, or even when I brought the Canary to work with me and reconnected it with the office Wi-Fi.

The video feed was a bit more problematic. At home, the live video feed would show about 30 seconds of black-and-gray screens before finally showing me a two-second glimpse of live video. Then, I'd go right back to black and gray.

Additionally, my activity feed didn't populate with video clips on that first evening. A few would come through, but not nearly as much as I had expected. Even if I armed the device and stood in front of it waving my arms, I wouldn't receive an alert.

The next morning, though, Canary caught me as I woke up and automatically switched into armed mode when I left for work. Later, when I brought the device back into the office with me, the performance improved. Video clips from the previous night populated into my feed, the live video stream became perfectly clear and steady, and I started receiving consistent alerts whenever there was motion in front of the camera.

Paired with the setup process, my experience with Canary saw the thing go from nearly unusable to almost perfectly smooth. I get the impression that it's still a work in progress, with Canary's team fine-tuning as it goes along, but in the end, the result was a device that worked reliably as promised.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Low-key security

Glitches and quirks aside, my main issue with Canary is that I don't know if the DIY security that it offers will be robust enough for everyone. Unlike Piper, which includes a built-in Z-Wave radio, there's no way for Canary to interface directly with third-party devices, like smart locks or smart lights. I asked Canary CEO Adam Sager about this a while back, and he explained that the goal was for Canary to be as simple and accessible as possible. I can understand that, but passing on the opportunity to interface with lights and locks seems like a big missed opportunity to me.

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For now, you'll need to sound the siren manually. Screenshot by Ry Crist/CNET

Additionally, Canary currently won't automatically sound the siren when it detects motion in armed mode. You'll receive an alert, complete with a quick video clip of what it was that triggered the system, and you'll be given the option of sounding the siren (or calling the police, if it's a true emergency). That manual approach will cut out false alarms, but it doesn't offer as much peace of mind as a system that'll automatically sound the alarm in the event of a break-in.

Canary's team tells me that an auto-siren option is in the works, which seems like a wise move. Still, it's not there yet, nor are several other features that I would have liked to have tested. That, coupled with the troubleshooting that Canary still seems to need, lead me to the conclusion that this device isn't quite ready for prime time, which is disappointing given how long the product has been in development, and also how much money it's raised -- both during the Indiegogo campaign and after it.

Canary still shows a lot of promise, though. As someone who lives in a small, ground-floor apartment, I love the idea of a fee-free, all-in-one security gadget that's simple to install and simple to use. Judging from how much money Canary's raised, I'm clearly not the only one. But Canary's team still has work to do if it wants to deliver on its Nest-like potential, and with retail availability set for the end of Q1, the clock is ticking. Rest assured, we'll have a full review by that time.

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