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iSmartAlarm iCamera Keep review: A promising little camera with a lot of room to grow

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iSmartAlarm is a fee-free smart security system -- purchase a starter kit and place the included sensors around your home, and you'll be able to track all of them from your iOS or Android device, or receive alerts if the alarm is triggered.

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7.3

iSmartAlarm iCamera Keep

Pricing Not Available

The Good

The iCamera Keep works with existing iSmartAlarm systems, or as a standalone device, and is a strong upgrade from the original iCamera, which was too glitchy for us to recommend. Setup is easy, video monitoring is smooth, night vision worked as promised, and the sound and motion alerts came through reliably.

The Bad

The iCamera Keep's video storage options aren't ready at launch, which means the camera can't yet record video automatically during a break-in.

The Bottom Line

At $150, the iCamera Keep is a very solid security camera, but we can't give it our full-throated recommendation until iSmartAlarm rolls out full video recording capabilities.

I liked iSmartAlarm quite a bit when I first reviewed the system back in 2013 , and it's since found its way onto our Best of the Smart Home list as the top monitor-it-yourself security kit. However, iSmartAlarm's most notable weak spot was its optional camera accessory, which, unlike the rest of the system, was a glitchy, unreliable headache to use.

iSmartAlarm's new iCamera Keep stands on its own (pictures)

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Enter the iCamera Keep, iSmartAlarm's second stab at video monitoring. With a smaller design and claims of improved performance, it promises to shore up the system's camera capabilities. In our tests, it did exactly that, showing none of the glitches that plagued the original iCamera and working well both as a standalone device and as part of a larger iSmartAlarm setup. Plus, at $150, it's a more affordable option than the $200 Dropcam Pro , or standalone security devices from Canary and Piper , which each cost closer to $250. UK and Australian prices have yet to be announced but $150 converts to £100 in the UK, or about AU$190 in Australia.

However, as solid as the iCamera Keep looks, it doesn't yet offer the ability to store video clips in the cloud or on a local drive, though that functionality is supposed to be on the way. This also means that in its current state, it won't automatically record video whenever the alarm gets set off. That's a pretty key omission here at launch, and if you wanted to wait until iSmartAlarm rolls that functionality out before buying in, I certainly wouldn't blame you.

Design and features

The iCamera Keep is a boxy, slightly bland-looking rectangle, roughly the size of a can of Red Bull. It's a much, much slimmer profile than the original iCamera, so it won't hog nearly as much real estate on whatever shelf you decide to sit it.

The camera that bulges out from the body of the thing is capable of recording video at a resolution of 1,280x720 pixels -- good for a picture that's technically HD, but not one that's as crisp or as detailed as 1080p competitors or even some 720p competitors, like Dropcam Pro .

The entire camera will also pan in a near-complete circle of 350 degrees -- just swipe left or right on the app's video feed, and the camera will rotate accordingly. You can also swipe up and down to tilt the camera over a span of 40 degrees. However, it won't automatically pan and tilt to follow the action in your living room, or to turn toward a loud noise.

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Night vision worked as expected, though it wasn't quite as detailed as the competition. Screenshots by Ry Crist/CNET

There's also night-vision functionality, which is obviously a pretty important feature for these types of products. In my tests, it worked fine, kicking on and off automatically as needed and doing a solid job of making us all look exceedingly creepy. However, the image didn't seem quite as strong or as detailed in the dark as the recently reviewed Piper NV . In that above example, I show up just fine in the foreground, but my colleague Megan Wollerton all but disappears into the background.

The iCamera Keep also features built in motion and sound sensors -- if you like, the app can send you a push notification if the camera detects either. Connect the iCamera Keep with the iSmartAlarm's CubeOne base station, and these alerts can trigger the alarm, or turn on and off automatically depending on whether or not the system is armed.

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Enlarge Image
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The iCamera Keep can notify you if it detects motion or sound, but it won't automatically record video -- at least not yet. Screenshot by Ry Crist/CNET

What those alerts won't do is trigger the camera to start recording, at least not yet. As of publishing this, if the system is armed and the camera picks up sound or motion, you'll get an alert, the alarm will sound and you'll be able to jump to your video feed to see what's happening live, but nothing will have been recorded. If you like, you can push the big button below the live feed to snap a picture, but you still can't record video, not even manually.

The reason for this is that iSmartAlarm's team still needs to finalize its video storage mechanisms, something they're promising to deliver with an app and firmware update in February. When it comes, they plan to offer free local storage of video clips by way of the USB port in the back of the camera, and also options for cloud storage.

Also, to the credit of iSmartAlarm's team, they were open about the fact that video storage functionality wouldn't be up and running until a few months after launch back when the iCamera Keep was first announced last year. Points for managing expectations.

Here's how iSmartAlarm tells us its video recording will work. When the system is armed and the camera detects sound or motion, it will record a 10-second clip, upload it, then check for sound and motion again. If it still detects a disturbance in the force (and if the alarm hasn't been disarmed yet), it'll record another 10-second clip, then another, and another.

Once that functionality is in place, the iCamera Keep stands to be an even better product than it already is. As soon as that new version of the app and firmware are out, I'll be sure to test it and update this review accordingly -- including the score, if merited. Watch this space.

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Getting started with the iCamera Keep was a cinch. Screenshots by Ry Crist/CNET

Performance and usability

To get started with the iCamera Keep, you'll download the iSmartAlarm app to your Android or iOS device and tell it you want to add a new camera. The app will prompt you to connect the camera to your phone via USB cable -- once you do, the camera will hop onto your phone's Wi-Fi network. The process took me less than a minute, though it failed the first time I tried it because I was using a third-party USB-to-Lightning cable. Once I used the certified Apple cable that came with my phone, it worked perfectly.

With the camera connected to Wi-Fi and registered with the app, you'll immediately be able to begin viewing your live video feed. As said before, you can swipe over the feed to pan or tilt the camera, but you can't pinch in to zoom, the way you can with Piper's fish-eye lens.

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Everything still worked perfectly after moving the system from the office to my home Wi-Fi network. Screenshot by Ry Crist/CNET

After testing live monitoring out in multiple locations and on multiple wireless networks, I came away thoroughly impressed. My video feed was always smooth, and hardly lagged at all. The only delays I encountered were with the pans and tilts -- sometimes, it'd take about a second between the swipe and the actual rotation. Also, if you swipe too frequently, the camera might lock up for a few moments to catch up.

Over a few days of testing, I did experience one or two feed freezes, but I was able to get going again each time simply by restarting the app. I never needed to restart the camera itself, and I never had a problem getting the feed going again after unplugging the camera to move it to a new spot. After a minute or so, it would always boot right back up.

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The iCamera Keep's settings get a dedicated section in the iSmartAlarm app. Screenshot by Ry Crist/CNET

You can manage the iCamera Keep's motion and sound detectors through the dedicated iCamera settings section, where you'll be able to switch alerts on or off, and also adjust the sensitivity of each sensor. With the motion sensor, I found that high and medium settings worked well, while the low sensitivity setting barely registered anything.

The sound sensor was a little better -- the low sensitivity setting required me to clap my hands or shout before triggering an alert, while the high sensitivity setting picked up the sound of me slowly ripping a piece of paper from about 10 feet away.

Of course, those frequent motion and sound alerts get old fast if you're at home, so you'll need to remember to turn them off and on when you come and go. You can improve that situation by linking the iCamera with the CubeOne, iSmartAlarm's base station. If you do, the alerts will only fire off when the system is armed, and when they do, they'll trigger the alarm.

Again, things worked great when I tested these system-wide alerts, with the CubeOne and camera linked. Whenever I'd arm the system, then try and trigger the iCamera Keep's sound or motion detectors, the CubeOne's siren would sound, and I'd receive automated text messages warning me about the breach, along with an automated phone call. iSmartAlarm doesn't currently offer an option for live monitoring -- instead, calling the police is left up to your discretion.

Also new to iSmartAlarm this year: Smart Switches. Tyler Lizenby/CNET

In sum, the iCamera Keep worked like a charm both on its own and after adding it to an existing iSmartAlarm setup. My only complaint is that integrating the iCamera Keep into an existing setup doesn't offer you much additional functionality aside from the ability to trigger the system's siren, at least not yet. We'll see if that changes moving forward.

Something else that I'd like to see improved are iSmartAlarm's proprietary Smart Switches, which were released alongside the iCamera Keep. As of now, there's no option to sync them up with any of iSmartAlarm's sensors, or with the iCamera Keep. You can only program them to turn on and off at specific times. That's fine if you want to turn a lamp on and off in your window while you're away on vacation, but it doesn't do you much good if you want the lights to come on if the camera gets triggered late at night.

Fortunately, that's something else iSmartAlarm is promising down the road: a dedicated "Rules" section for the Smart Switches, modeled loosely after the if-then-style automations of IFTTT. If those rules don't come with February's app update, iSmartAlarm's team says they'll definitely arrive by Q3 of this year, when they plan on releasing version 2.0 of the app, an update they're calling a pretty major overhaul of the user interface. Again, stay tuned.

Third-party compatibility

I checked in with iSmartAlarm earlier this month at CES 2015, in Las Vegas, and was impressed by the sheer scope of what they've got planned for this year. Along with promises of new system components like a standalone smoke detector and a multisensor, the security startup announced a soon-to-be-released IFTTT channel and plans for compatibility with Nest, Thread and Apple's HomeKit.

Also promised for this year is a Z-Wave dongle that'll plug into the back of the CubeOne. Potentially, that'd open the door for a whole host of third party devices not currently compatible with iSmartAlarm. Most notable among these are smart locks, which ought to be an obvious point of focus for any smart security kit. To this end, iSmartAlarm's team claims to already be in talks with Kwikset, Yale and Schlage.

That all adds up to a pretty ambitious docket, and I'm curious to see if iSmartAlarm's team can actually pull all of it off on schedule. We've already seen the yet-to-be-released Doorfront doorbell camera send them back to the drawing board, and the IFTTT channel has been in the works for some time now. As strong a system addition as the iCamera Keep seems to be, I wouldn't blame anyone who wanted to wait for iSmartAlarm to start delivering on its promises before plunking their $150 down.

Ry Crist/CNET

The verdict

We considered holding off on this review until iSmartAlarm's video storage options were ready, but given that the camera's already on sale, and that the rest of the features seem so polished, we pushed ahead. Even now, without the option to store or record video clips, the iCamera Keep works as a solid and reliable system component, and as a perfectly decent standalone IP camera, at least for basic monitoring.

At a retail price of $150, the iCamera Keep is a definite upgrade over the original iCamera, and also a strong budget alternative to costlier options like Piper NV and Dropcam Pro. Both of those offer a stronger slate of features, but for many, I think the iCamera Keep's simple approach will be enough, especially given that it works so well.

Still, an awful lot hinges on how well the iCamera Keep is ultimately able to manage video clips. In the event of a burglary, I think most consumers want their camera to start recording, and to hopefully get a good glimpse of who it is that's breaking in. For now, the iCamera Keep can't do that. If you can live without that feature, we like this camera quite a bit, but if you'd rather wait for iSmartAlarm to deliver on that new version of the app before buying in, rest assured that we'll update this review as soon as it drops.

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7.3

iSmartAlarm iCamera Keep

Pricing Not Available

Score Breakdown

Features 6Usability 8Design 7Performance 9