The rich and famous have expensive security systems, complete with swiveling cameras and closed-circuit TV systems. But for those of us who can't afford these multithousand-dollar professionally installed packages, a handful of companies are putting out do-it-yourself home-monitoring systems that take the nanny-cam concept to the next level. Palo Alto, California-based iControl Networks is offering one such system, which comes in a couple of starter kits, including the iControl Advanced Starter Kit ($500) reviewed here.
The Advanced Starter Kit consists of a door/window sensor, keychain remote fob, lamp module, motion sensor, wireless camera, and--tying it all together--the iControl "box." To set everything up, you first need to connect the iControl box, which is slightly larger than a VHS tape, and connect it to an open port on your cable/DSL modem or router. You can then begin adding cameras, modules, and sensors to the system by running a straightforward PC-based wizard. To get the wireless camera synched to your wireless network, you first have to establish a wired (Ethernet) connection to the camera, so you can input your network's SSID and encryption key if it's security-enabled. Once all that's in place, you can disconnect the camera and place it wherever you want, so long as it's fairly close to a wall socket because it does require power. The camera can be placed on a flat surface or mounted somewhere with the included screws and hardware. But it should be noted that you can't remotely swivel the camera; it's fixed in place, so what you see is what you'll get.
The camera itself is a notch up from your average Webcam and the picture it delivers is quite good once you get it focused correctly. Ideally, you have one person sit at the computer, observing the camera's image, while another person turns the focus ring on the camera in the other room. Otherwise, you have to keep going back and forth between camera and computer to make slight adjustments.
The Advanced Starter Kit comes with only one camera, but you can easily add additional ones--though at $200 for wired Ethernet models and $300 for Wi-Fi versions, they're somewhat pricey compared to standard Webcams. For this review, we hooked up three wireless cameras at a remote location and set up was not a problem. The company says you will eventually be able to add less expensive off-the-shelf wireless Webcams such as the $99 Linksys WVC54GC, but that compatibility wasn't yet available when we reviewed the system.
The main issue you may face with the cameras is getting live video out of them from a remote location. When you initially set up the cameras, there's a check box that allows you to enable live video, but that doesn't mean it will actually work. In many cases, you may have to open up a port on your router to enable live video, and since most people have no idea how to do this, chances are you'll end up making a phone call to iControl's tech support. Luckily, they're very good--and patient--and will get it working for you, even if it takes some extra research into the type of router and cable/DSL modem you're using. For instance, at our remote location, it turned out that the ports needed to be opened both on the DSL modem and the Belkin wireless router in order to get things up and running.
All in all, the interface is pretty user friendly, but you will occasionally run into some tech jargon you might not quite understand (in advanced settings menus) and there are times when you might not be able to figure out exactly how to set up a certain piece of the system to your liking. We had a little trouble with the lighting, for example. You plug a light into the lamp module and then can choose to have it go on and off during set time frames to make it appear as if you're home. But there's also a check box that says "randomize." We put a check mark in the box but we weren't quite sure what it did (did it set the lamp to activate on random days or at random times or what?). Luckily, there's an easily accessible online manual and you can always contact customer support to steer you straight.
The motion sensor is supposed to have a range of about 30 feet, but we found that it didn't quite hit that when we had it pointed out a window and wasn't totally reliable. The idea behind the motion sensor is that it will trigger a camera to shoot a picture if and when it detects any movement (though this will certainly be much less useful for dog and cat owners). You can also request that the system send you an e-mail alert or text message. Both the basic motion sensor and door/window sensors (which trigger when doors or windows are opened) are useful from the standpoint of security, but they're probably better simply as an alert system that tells you when someone is in the house (they're a good way to monitor whether your kids have come home from school, for example). In other words, don't expect them to take the place of a true security system that's installed by a security company, but if placed properly in conjunction with cameras, they should give you an indication of who's going in and out of a room or rooms in your house or apartment.
It's also worth noting that the iControl system can only be configured to notify you (or someone you designate) with basic text and e-mail messages, but it's not placing a call to the authorities. If you determine that something unfortunate is happening to your house--an intruder, a fire, a burst pipe, whatever--it's up to you to notify the police, fire department, or emergency contact of choice. That's not a big knock--security companies usually notify you first before contacting third parties as well--it's just something to keep in mind.
We began testing the iControl system when the new iControl Web portal was in its beta phase and we've definitely noticed some improvements as the company has worked out the kinks (the system is now out of beta, but you'll continue to see tweaks and new features as time passes). All things considered, we were generally impressed with the system and the customer support when we ran into problems. We also found that adding new components was relatively simple, so if you want to start out with a more basic set-up and add options as you grow more comfortable with it, it isn't a problem with most of the accessories, which include water and ice sensors, smoke and heat alarms, and a thermostat controller (though that last one can be harder to integrate, depending on your heat and air-conditioning systems).
To get more out of your iControl system, you should probably purchase a second wireless camera. That would bring your initial investment up to something around $800, and while that may seem expensive to some, it's still a good deal cheaper than professionally installed security systems. While some people may not be able to trust having the iControl system take the place of their security company, we can see how iControl might find a nice market for folks who want to augment their current home security systems with visual aids. For example, this reviewer already has a security system installed in his home, paying a $30 monthly monitoring fee. But he'd feel comfortable paying the extra $150 for the yearly iControl subscription to be able to have a window onto his property from afar.