Editors' note: Securus informs us that it has since updated its online software and mobile apps, fixing some of the concerns stated in this review. CNET has not tested these updates.
The Securus eZoom is a portable GPS device, but it's no navigator. This pocket sized module is designed not to get you from point A to B, but to help you to remotely find whatever (or whomever) to which the eZoom module is attached.
What is it? (Design)
The eZoom isn't designed to be stealthy -- it's primary function is to help you to find something valuable, not to spy on your significant other; though, it could be used for either purpose. The unit measures a mere 2.6 by 1.8 by 0.8 inches and weighs a scant 2.7 ounces. At that size, the eZoom should easily disappear into an open pocket in a backpack or purse. I tossed the device into a front pocket of my backpack at the beginning of the weekend and outright forgot that that it was there until I went looking for it much later.
There's not much in the way of controls, displays, or inputs. The eZoom is designed to be a set-it-and-forget-it sort of affair.
The glossy top surface is home to three indicator lights for battery status, cellular connection status, and GPS connection status. These lights are usually powered off and flash only if there's something to report (such as a low battery) or an active connection is being made (for instance, when the eZoom is transmitting its status to the cloud).
Beneath the indicator lights but still on the top surface is the SOS button. Pressing and holding this button for 2 to 3 seconds instantly transmits the location of the device and notifies any e-mail addresses or phone numbers that are set to receive notifications. This can be useful in an emergency, but Securus' instructional materials also indicate that the SOS feature can be used as a sort of check-in feature for simply sending location data to others sharing an account.
Back to the physical features: one of the eZoom's sides is home to a small power button that is noteworthy only in its difficulty in being pressed. Considering this tracker is supposed to be "always on," this does help in preventing accidental shut-off. Yet another edge is home to a mini-USB port, which is hidden beneath a rubber flap and used for charging the device; and a SIM card slot, which is tucked under its own rubber flap that's held shut with screws.
There are no other noteworthy physical features of the water-resistant eZoom module, aside from four rubber feet on its bottom side that keep the device from sliding around on a smooth surface such as a table or desk when charging.
Speaking of charging, the eZoom takes about four to six hours to charge once it's been removed from its box for the first time, but that should last anywhere from three days to three weeks depending on how much its internal accelerometer is triggered by moving the device. Users can also receive notifications when the eZoom's battery gets low. We'll come back to the power management option more in a bit.
You've got more mounting options available for the eZoom than just a pocket. The device ships with a small fabric pouch that can be used to hook the tracker onto whatever you're inspired to attach it to. Users who want to keep tabs on a vehicle can also permanently mount the eZoom if they desire and power the device with the car's own electrical system with an optional vehicle mounting kit, which is sold separately.
What does it do? (Features)
The Securus eZoom features two internal wireless connections that work together to help the unit to communicate its location to the owner. The first is its cellular antenna that connects the device to the Web as well as to the cloud.
The second connection is the GPS receiver that eZoom uses to triangulate its position on the planet using signals beamed down from the GPS satellite network. More specifically, the eZoom uses an A-GPS receiver (Assisted Global Positioning System) which also makes use of positioning data gleaned from the cellular data network to help it to more quickly locate itself and to maintain a degree of positioning accuracy when a clear view of the sky isn't available.
This A-GPS connection gives the eZoom the ability to locate itself amid tall buildings, under heavy tree coverage, and indoors -- albeit with diminished accuracy. With a clear view of the sky, Securus tells us that it can pinpoint and report its location within five yards. When indoors, I saw the accuracy drop to within a few blocks. Still, that's better than nothing. Sometimes "within a few blocks" is all the accuracy you need to know whether lost your backpack on the train or simply left it at the office.
Left to its own devices, the powered-up eZoom will transmit its location to the cloud every few minutes when it detects that it is in motion with its internal accelerometer. If the accelerometer doesn't detect motion, the eZoom sends updates less frequently, conserving battery power to keep the device operating longer.
Securus apps and alerts
Upon purchasing an eZoom and charging the device, users will need to log in on the Securus Web site to set up an account and activate the hardware.
For most users, this Web interface will also be where the majority of their interactions with the device and its various settings will take place.
The Web site features a map (provided by Nokia, according to the copyright information) upon which the current position of the eZoom can be seen. In a column to the left of the map, users can view an icon that they assign to the device (I chose the CNET logo), the nearest current street address to the device, the time of the last positioning check-in, and the battery-charge percentage along with the last time it was reported.
Here users can also find four small text links: Find, Track, History, and Settings.
The Find link pings the device for a near instant update of its status. Using the Track command puts the device into a near-continuous monitoring mode where the location is reported every 20 seconds, giving close to real-time location data for up to an hour.
History brings up a submenu that lets users view the historical locations of the device for any period in the last few hours up to the last 90 days. The location data for a range of dates can also be downloaded as a Excel file for offline storage. Users can also delete historical data for a range of dates from this menu.
Finally, Settings is where users can adjust a number of preferences for the Securus eZoom device. Here, users can assign the device a unique name and icon, specify what e-mail addresses or SMS mobile phone numbers will receive alerts from the device, and what types of alerts will be sent. Alert types include power-down warnings, low-battery warnings, high-speed warnings, and geofence "SafeSpot" entry and exit notifications.
A geofence is a virtual boundary that users can set surrounding a point or address on a map. When the Securus service senses that the eZoom device has crossed into or out of one of these boundaries, it can send a notification to the account owner. Interesting that Securus only seems to send in and out notifications, where many other services that I've tested let users specify in, out, or both, and even specify hours that the boundaries are active. With these other services, the user could set up, for example, to receive notifications only when their car leaves the garage at night. With the eZoom, I'd get notifications every time I left or returned home.
Users can specify a radius around the central point, but Securus warns that specifying too small of a radius can cause false alarms when the device moves to an interior position. It's simply a limitation of the technology when relying on cellular towers for positioning. I specified a 500-yard range around CNET's San Francisco office (admittedly, a massive swath of land, but enough to tell whether I was at work or not) and received no false alarms.
In, addition to the Web portal, Securus offers free mobile apps for Android, iPhone, and BlackBerry devices. I tested the Android version. The app worked but felt sluggish and mostly appeared to be a container for a mobile version of the Securus Web site. On the positive side, the app did allow me to access nearly every function accessible from the full Web site, including locating the eZoom device on a map, tracking its position in near real-time, and making changes to the settings for notifications and "SafeSpots."
The app also includes the ability to navigate to the position of the eZoom device, a feature not available through the browser.
How well does it work? (Performance)
Looking at my historical route for the weekend, it's nowhere close to a real-time account. The high points are there, but it's not as accurate as I thought it would be. For example, I spent a number of hours cycling around Oakland's Lake Merritt, but the eZoom showed only four reported positions, all within a few feet of each other. With updates coming every few minutes, I expected a much more granular representation of the day's activities. It's entirely conceivable that Securus' software was simplifying my position, but at my furthest I was about a mile away from the reported position.
Making use of the Track mode would certainly force the level of granular reporting that I expected, but the function would often hang at a "Please wait while we track your locator" screen for minutes at a time when triggered. On more than a few occasions, I just quit and tried again later. This wait is frustrating when the "Find" function seems to take just seconds.
So the Securus service doesn't really do a great job of real-time tracking (that's not really what it's built for), but that doesn't mean that it doesn't do a good job of keeping tabs on where the device is and where it's been. It may not have known exactly where on the lake I was, but it did note that I was at the lake for the hours that I was there. (Were I curious to know more specific data at the moment, the Find or Track functions would have been able to supply that data.)
Looking back over a weekend of collected data, I may not have seen every street I traveled and every turn that I made, but the high points of the days' activities were reflected in the data. I think that for users interested in tracking a person or thing attached to the eZoom, the "Where is it" was more important than the specifics of "How did it get there."
The eZoom's true strength lies in its worry-free operation. With a battery life of about a week (and up to three), geofence notifications, and precise location on demand, I never had to worry about the eZoom. The device stayed in my backpack for an entire weekend, never once beeping or requiring charging or other direct interaction. After my experiences with devices like the Garmin GTU 10, which seemed to need constant attention and that were nowhere near as accurate as this Securus device (thanks to its A-GPS receiver), the eZoom was a breath of fresh air. However, that convenience comes at a cost.
Is it worth the dough? (In sum)
The Securus eZoom retails for $99.99, which gets you device itself. That doesn't seem like a high price for the ability to know where something valuable is at all times, but it's not the entire price. Like the example set by razor manufacturers, the real money's in the blades -- or in this case, the subscription fees.
Securus charges a $30 setup/activation fee to get you started with the eZoom, and then $19.99 per month to monitor the eZoom and keep the data feed active. Securus also locks you in with minimum one-year contract and charges a cancellation fee if you decide to stop using the service. All in all, your first year of services ends up costing a healthy $369.87.
Pay for a year of service up front and Securus will give you a discount, dropping the equivalent monthly fee down to $14.99 and lowering the setup charge to $15, thus reducing your first year costs to $294.87 and saving you about $75. Pay for two years up front and the monthly equivalent drops to $12.99, but after those two years are up, it appears that you'll drop to the one-year discount level.
I recoiled a bit when I'd finished calculating the operation cost. Most of the people I showed the eZoom to around the CNET offices also stated that keeping the eZoom connection simply costs too much. Lower the monthly price to somewhere in the $7- to $10-per-month range or let users go month-to-month on their service without cancellation fees and it would be a much better buy.
However, you could weigh that cost against the cost of recovering a stolen car or the priceless value of a child's life, and justify the expense.