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Canary Smart Home Security Device review: Canary's smart security gadget has a few big shortcomings

The hotly anticipated, all-in-one security gadget is here. Does it live up to its promise?

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Ry Crist
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Ry Crist

Senior Editor / Reviews - Appliances

Originally hailing from Troy, Ohio, Ry Crist is a text-based adventure connoisseur, a lover of terrible movies and an enthusiastic yet mediocre cook. A CNET editor since 2013, Ry's beats include smart home tech, lighting, appliances, and home networking.

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8 min read

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If I were a shopper currently in the market for a home security system, I'd be giving Canary a good, close look. With an HD, night-vision camera and a bevy of sensors for things like motion, temperature, and air quality Canary promises to stand guard over the living room and alert your Android or iOS device if anything's amiss, all for $250 and no monthly fees. It's a solid pitch.

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6.5

Canary Smart Home Security Device

The Good

Canary offers impressive video quality including a highly detailed night vision mode. Its "Homehealth" sensors are accurate and helpful.

The Bad

An over-sensitive motion sensor renders Canary borderline unusable, and we didn't receive text alerts when we cut the power.

The Bottom Line

Canary is packed with solid hardware, but it doesn't add up to a device we'd want to depend on.

That, coupled with a strong marketing push, is why Canary did so well on Indiegogo back in 2013, crowdfunding nearly two million dollars only to follow the effort up with millions more in venture capital from big names like Khosla Ventures. Canary looked every bit like the real thing, and for those of us in the market for a cheaper, smarter alternative to costly, brand-name security systems, the gadget couldn't get here fast enough.

Well, it's here now, in the living rooms of those Indiegogo backers and on store shelves across the US (Canary isn't shipping internationally just yet, but that price comes out to £170/AU$325, converted roughly). Following a few months of tweaks and firmware updates, many of the initial bugs that held Canary back seem to be more or less resolved, and the 1080p picture quality it offers is right on par with Dropcam.

Canary works as promised, but that doesn't mean that it lives up to its promise of packing complete home security into a single device. There are some glaring shortcomings with how Canary works that keep me from recommending it, especially with worthy competition like iSmartAlarm's iCamera Keep and Piper NV already on the market. I expect Canary to get better with time as its creators continue to fine-tune the firmware, but if you're buying in today, I'd look elsewhere.

Keeping tabs on Canary's smart security device (pictures)

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Design and features

I think that one of the reasons behind Canary's crowdfunding success is that it's a really good-looking gadget. The slick, cylindrical build looks appropriately modern and minimalist in all three colors -- white, black, and grey. It isn't anything close to an eyesore, which is important for a device that needs to be kept out in the open in your living room.

Inside that body is Canary's 1080p night-vision camera, along with the motion sensor that tells it when to start recording; ambient sensors for temperature, humidity and air quality; a 90 dB panic siren; and a Wi-Fi radio to send everything to your Android or iOS device by way of the cloud. A color-changing LED ring on the bottom of the device lets you see what mode it's in at a glance -- green when it's armed, yellow when it's disarmed.

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Canary detects as you come and go, and automatically arms and disarms accordingly.

Screenshots by Ry Crist/CNET

There's a third option, too: Privacy mode. Switch it over, and Canary will essentially go to sleep, ceasing all video and audio recording. Originally, you could only put Canary into Privacy mode manually, but after a recent update, you can set the thing to automatically switch over when it detects you've arrived home, the same as it does with arming and disarming.

For as many features as Canary can claim, it doesn't have everything. Though it boasts a fairly wide, 147-degree angle of view, it won't pan or tilt on command, like iSmartAlarm's iCamera Keep will. That camera, along with Piper NV , will also detect loud noises and then, if needed, sound the alarm -- Canary won't.

Additionally, Canary is currently a walled-off device, with no third-party compatibility to speak of. By comparison, iSmartAlarm can sync up with third-party gadgets by way of its IFTTT channel, while Piper NV has its own built-in Z-Wave radio to help connect it with things like locks, smart switches and open/closed sensors.

An obvious answer here might seem to be integration with the Nest Learning Thermostat, which could likely put Canary's temperature and humidity sensors to good work. However, Nest already owns Dropcam, and doesn't seem terribly interested in getting cozy with any other connected cameras -- at least not through the year-old Works with Nest initiative, where Dropcam remains your only compatible camera.

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The setup process

I had a rough time getting my Canary up and running when I first previewed the device in January, but I'm happy to report that things have gotten a lot easier in the months since. The process is simple on paper -- just power your Canary, plug it into your phone, and enter your Wi-Fi info into the app.

That second step was my first roadblock last time around. You plug Canary into your phone using a yellow cable that plugs into your headphone jack. From there, Canary will "listen" for the Wi-Fi info you enter into the app. In my case though, the gadget couldn't hear my iPhone 5S, even after I followed all of Canary's troubleshooting tips. Finally, I switched over to my iPad, which worked fine.

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Canary couldn't "hear" my iPhone back in January, and it couldn't this time around, either.

Screenshot by Ry Crist/CNET

This time around, I was hoping to be able to get everything set up with just my phone, but that wasn't the case -- the yellow cable problem persisted. Again, I had to jump over to my iPad, where everything worked perfectly. There must be a weird setting on my phone getting in the way of the setup process, but whatever it is, I can't find it, and neither could Canary's troubleshooters.

Once you've paired Canary with your Wi-Fi network, you'll probably need to update the gadget's firmware. This was another sticking point last time, and an even more aggravating one, as I couldn't get the download to work despite repeated attempts and multiple phone calls to Canary's support team. All told, it took a solid day of fiddling before I had Canary up and running.

This time, things went much, much better. The firmware downloaded and updated within a few minutes on my very first attempt, and voila, my Canary was up and running. It's still not a perfect setup process, but it's significantly better than it was, so I give Canary's team credit for making progress.

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Screenshots by Ry Crist/CNET

Performance and usability

From the Canary app's home screen, you can tap to view your live video feed or swipe up to see a timeline of past recordings. Canary logs these recordings in both armed and disarmed modes -- you can filter out the disarmed clips with a single tap, leaving only the clips that were logged while the device was armed.

You can also tap on the home screen's temperature and humidity readings to access "Homehealth" graphs of the conditions in your home. Testing them out at the office, they offered spot-on readings of the temperature and humidity.

I also tested the third Homehealth graph, which records air quality. The air quality graph doesn't distinguish between different toxins, instead lumping everything together on a graph that charts between "normal" and "very abnormal." To test the thing out, I plugged Canary into an extension cord, took it outside, and set a lit cigarette down right next to it.

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Don't expect to sneak a smoke around Canary without getting caught.

Screenshot by Ry Crist/CNET

Once it had burned down, I went back inside and checked the graphs. Along with the expected jumps in temperature and humidity, there was a big red spike into "very abnormal" territory on the air quality graph. I was impressed.

What's more impressive, though, is Canary's video quality. Compared with iSmartAlarm and Piper NV, it looks the clearest to me by far, offering a strong degree of detail, even in night-vision mode. That last bit is key, as the most crucial video this thing will ever record is the clip of a burglar rummaging through your living room in the dark of the night. If you get their face on camera, you're going to want that image to be as clear as possible.

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Our test floor has no windows and gets pitch black at night, but Canary's night-vision camera still offered outstanding detail in the dark.

Screenshots by Ry Crist/CNET

Canary also claims it'll get smarter the more you use it. The learning mechanism here is a tagging feature -- pull up a clip from your timeline, and you can tag it to tell the system what triggered it. The idea is that eventually, Canary will start to recognize what's happening in a specific clip, and whether or not it's relevant to your security concerns. In theory, that means fewer false alarms the more you use the thing.

Those false alarms aren't as alarming as with other systems, though, because Canary won't automatically sound its siren when the system gets triggered. I thought this was a bit head-scratching when I first previewed the device back in January, and expected that Canary's team would at least introduce auto-siren functionality as an optional feature. They haven't, and now that I've spent more time testing the thing out, I understand why.

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Just two of the 22 times Canary was triggered in this overnight test.

Screenshot by Ry Crist/CNET

Put simply, Canary is hyper-sensitive. Every night of my tests, the system was triggered multiple times by things as simple as a car's headlights passing by. During one night, with Canary set up in the front of our office, the system was triggered 22 times.

Canary won't automatically sound the siren if it's triggered -- a mercy, given how easy it is to set the thing off. Instead, if Canary spots something while armed in the middle of the night, it'll alert your phone, and then you'll have to choose whether or not to sound the alarm yourself. Better hope you don't sleep through that alert.

I tried to combat this issue by tagging aggressively, marking each and every clip as "Shadows" and telling the system that everything was fine. I wanted my Canary to calm down and stop flooding me with irrelevant alerts that might ultimately drown out a legitimate one. Over the course of my tests, though, it never got any better and never learned to auto-tag anything. Canary's team tells me that it could take a few more months for devices to get significantly more intelligent, but I have to imagine at least a good percentage of the user base giving up before then.

Another key issue with Canary is that I wouldn't receive alerts when I unplugged the thing. That means a burglar could theoretically yank the cord out before Canary noticed them. They'd need to know where the Canary was in your home and get to it in the dark without being seen -- a stretch, perhaps, but still a clear shortcoming. Bottom line: if my security system goes offline, I want to know about it immediately.

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The verdict

Canary's got a lot of room for improvement, but the good news here is that the bugs are largely gone and the hardware is sound. The camera offers exceptional picture quality both in regular mode and -- more importantly -- in night-vision mode. The Homehealth sensors are helpful and accurate. The motion detector doesn't miss a thing. There's good stuff going on under the hood.

That said, there are still too many frustrations with Canary for me to recommend spending $250 on it over the $270 Piper NV or the $150 iCamera Keep. The over-sensitivity all but renders the thing unusable, and the lack of third-party support will be disappointing to anyone who wants to incorporate their security with a larger smart-home setup. I expect Canary will get better as time goes on, but right now, I'm looking elsewhere for my security needs.

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6.5

Canary Smart Home Security Device

Score Breakdown

Features 6Usability 5Design 8Performance 7