Review: Avaak VueZone System Personal Video Network SM2700
One year ago, we reviewed Avaak's first-generation Vue Personal Video Network, an ambitious home video monitoring system that could be accessed with an iPhone application. It was impressively designed, but not totally ready for prime time, largely due to limitations of Avaak's original cameras and software. This week, Avaak has returned with a second-generation version of Vue dubbed the VueZone System ($290, aka Vue Gen 2 / SM2700), which builds upon the prior-generation package, fixes some of its software issues, and adds new camera features -- all at a slightly lower price than before. Though the new VueZone System is still on the expensive side for what it offers, and has a few remaining issues that could stand to be addressed, the changes make it worth recommending to users looking for its functionality.
The VueZone System is designed for a single purpose: to enable a person with basically no expertise to instantly set up a wireless camera system that can be accessed from anywhere in the world. For the price, you get two completely wireless cameras that are incredibly easy to mount, a hub that connects to your existing home router, and all the parts necessary to power and mount the pieces. You also get access to the password-protected VueZone app, and the VueZone web site, which provide you with live access to the cameras, generally focused on one camera’s output at any time. Avaak sells special service plans for the VueZone System, discussed below, and also offers additional VueZone cameras for $80 to $100 a piece. More on these, below.
The VueZone System Package
From a distance, you’d be hard-pressed to tell the difference between the first- and second-generation Vue devices or bundles. Avaak is still selling a package containing a large, two-toned wireless hub that requires its own wall power supply and Ethernet cable, plus two battery-powered video cameras, four batteries, four magnetic mounts, and a package of mounting tools—screws, wall taps, and adhesive tape. The brilliant dome-shaped magnetic mounts let you attach and substantially change the positions of the cameras; they, and the lack of required power supplies for the cameras, remain highlights feature of this system. Because of these mounts and the batteries, you can mount the cameras virtually anywhere indoors and access them for months at a time before the special lithium cells need to be replaced.
It says something that the most conspicuous difference in the package is that the adhesive tape now comes pre-installed on the backs of each of the mounts, making it easy to just peel off the backing when you’re ready to stick the mount to a wall or other surface. Previously, you had to install the circular tape on the circular mount first. One of the only arguably major caveats of the new VueZone system is that this tape is very strong—strong enough to peel layers of paint off the wall when removed—so it’s important to choose the right mounting position and be prepared for the consequences with touch-up paint. You can use the included screws and wall taps instead.
The Vue Gen 2 Cameras
The biggest changes in Vue Gen 2 are more obvious from Avaak’s marketing materials than the parts themselves: this time, the VueZone cameras have motion sensors and more powerful chips inside. A small, dark gray circle now sits above the lens; this is the motion sensor, which enables the cameras to automatically record videos or snapshots when they’ve been triggered by movements. Sensitivity for each camera’s motion sensor can be adjusted in the free VueZone app or web page. We had no problem getting the sensors to correctly detect movements even on the default settings. In addition to the recordings, you can receive e-mail notifications whenever motion is detected.
Avaak has done some really neat things with the cameras’ new chips and software, too. You can set the automatic motion-detected video recording length to 10 or 40 seconds, or manually record videos whenever you see something going on with the camera. But the game-changing features come from the new cameras’ 2-Megapixel sensors. Consequently, you now can select the resolution and frame rate for your video monitoring and recording: 320x240 at 8fps, 640x480 at 4fps, or 1600x1200 at 1fps. You also have the ability to choose brightness and zoom settings for each camera, so that you can make the camera capture as best as possible in low light, or focus solely on a portion of the total area the lens is capable of capturing. While a video is recording, it continues to capture everything you’re changing in real time, so if you switch from the camera’s full view to the zoomed-in view, that’s part of the finished video.
It’s important to explain just why the aforementioned features really change and improve the VueZone experience. In a well-lit room, 1600x1200 images are detailed and clear in ways the original VueZone cameras could never approach—not beautiful, but highly usable. Put a new VueZone camera into a nursery and you can use it as a baby monitor, zooming in for details whenever necessary.
Switch the night brightness mode on and you’ll get a very grainy but still discernible sense of what’s going on in a dimly lit room. Turn on the motion sensing capability and you can receive an e-mail in China whenever something happens in your house in the United States. These features truly take Vue Gen 2 out of the “nice idea, but…” category that its predecessor was in, and directly into the “actually useful and pretty neat” category.
We should also note that setup for the VueZone System was dead simple. Following the included single folded page of directions, we connected the hub to our router, popped the batteries into the cameras, and synced each camera with the hub. That was it on the hardware side. We set up a new account on the VueZone web site using a code in the instructions, downloaded the VueZone app and set up the account there, and everything worked. The one and only hitch was that the VueZone app and web site each have relatively trivial video hiccups under certain circumstances, the app when resuming from the Lock Screen and the web site when receiving new video data during your perusal of its downloads page. Along with the lack of true iPad support—the app is iPhone-formatted and upscales—we’d expect these small issues to be fixed in the near future.
The VueZone System Caveats
As much as we liked the second-generation Vue package, there are some issues that prospective customers need to know about. The single most onerous one is the concept of VueZone Service Plans. When you purchase the VueZone System and log into your account for the first time, you’re being given a free “90 day trial” of “VueZone Premier,” a $50/year web-based service that essentially just unlocks existing features of the new VueZone hardware. If you don’t want to pay for service, VueZone Basic lets you watch live video over the web or from your iOS device, and takes automatic motion-detected snapshots. But that’s it. The Premier trial lets you access “digital pan and zoom,” “high-resolution snapshots,” “video clip” recording, and “2GB of secure online storage” for the cameras, none of which are available through the Basic service.
You won’t realize until the Premier service runs out that the Basic service is ad-supported, too. And depending on how many spare cameras you hope to add to your network, there may be additional considerations, as well. The Basic plan lets you have up to 5 cameras at once; Premier offers 10. If you need more than that, a $100/year Professional package boosts the number to 25 cameras across up to three separate hubs, with 5GB of online storage for their video.
While we’re really put off by the “sell the hardware for $300 and then charge fees for service” concept of these home video monitoring systems, it’s obvious why this business model exists—and that some people will be satisfied with the Basic package. They’ll just have to give up the ability to access and download the huge collection of past video clips and snapshots Avaak otherwise stores in the cloud, and makes accessible via the VueZone web site, though for the time being, not through the VueZone app.
A smaller issue is the video performance of the new VueZone cameras. While they’re equipped with 2-Megapixel sensors and deliver much smoother and more consistent results—even when running at a seemingly undocumented 480x320 resolution—the frame rates are still low by comparison with any realtime video feeds you’d otherwise be accustomed to watching. At minimum resolution, they don’t seem to be getting a full eight frames per second, and at maximum resolution, we saw what looked more like one frame per two seconds than one frame per second. It suffices to say that you’re not going to be filming any home movies on these cameras, and the higher you turn up the resolution on them, the less “video-like” their recordings become, but as surveillance cameras, they do generally what they’re supposed to do.
When reviewing the original Vue system, we noted that “we didn’t even find it reliable enough for consistently good performance as an occasional monitoring solution,” and cited three critical issues affecting its value: video quality, software reliability, and the annual access fee for services. With the second-generation VueZone system, Avaak has improved almost everything from the original package while modestly lowering the price, and there’s little doubt in our minds that there’s greater value in this new system than in Logitech’s Alert 750i: VueZone’s design is radically simpler, more affordable, and so much easier to mount and install that the differences are night-and-day. You get two cameras in this package versus Logitech’s one, don’t have to worry about all the wires, and benefit from streamlined, substantially web-based software. Between these two options, it’s easy to call Avaak’s package the winner right now.
That having been said, there’s still room for the second-generation VueZone to improve. Further improvements to the video sensor or lens system would help make low-light imaging much more usable. An expanded iPhone application with true iPad support and complete access to the web-based VueZone offerings would eliminate the need to depend on a web site for some of Avaak’s services. And a better “Basic” package with at least limited cloud-based storage and full access to digital pan and zoom features would go the rest of the way towards making the VueZone System stand on its own, with the “Premium” service as a palatable step up. Ideally, we’d like to see outdoor cameras added as options, too, and our prior comments on the battery life of last year’s cameras—now sold for $80 a piece as accessories—still stand. But Avaak has come a long way in the last year, and the VueZone System as it’s currently offered is worthy of our general recommendation. iPhone users will almost certainly be impressed by how well these wireless cameras perform for video monitoring purposes, and how brilliantly easy they are to install. It’s now up to Avaak to point the way towards even more impressive future offerings.