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

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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.

6.5 Overall
  • Features 6
  • Usability 5
  • Design 8
  • Performance 7

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.

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.

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.

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.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

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.

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.

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