Review: Avaak Vue Personal Video Network with VueZone for iPhone
Home monitoring with video cameras isn't just a good idea -- with the right hardware and software, a monitoring system can be incredibly helpful for nervous homeowners, particularly parents and security-obsessed singles. So we had every reason to like and want to recommend Avaak's new Vue ($300) Personal Video Network, which offers iPhone and iPod touch users a relatively affordable and easy way to set up a collection of cameras that can be checked at any time from one of Apple's handheld devices, or the web. But after a couple of months of on-and-off testing, the Vue system and VueZone application for iPhone and iPod touch turned out to be less impressive than they initially appeared, and thus fall short of our recommendation level despite their technical virtues.
This much needs to be said up front: Avaak has brought several seriously brilliant elements together in the Vue hardware that improve considerably upon similar devices we’ve seen in the past. The standard Vue package includes one Vue gateway, a networking device that connects with wires to your home router and wall outlet, then wirelessly to two included cameras. These cameras are powered by one battery a piece, and Vue includes four total batteries, plus two ingenious magnetic mounts that eliminate the need for ball joints while enabling you to position the camera on any angle you choose, then reposition it without the need for a screwdriver.
Avaak’s total setup process consists of connecting the gateway, putting one battery into each camera, and then syncing the cameras with a button on the gateway. Log into the Vuezone web site—and thereafter, use the VueZone application on the iPhone or iPod—you can check out each camera individually, or monitor multiple cameras at once; up to 50 total cameras can be added to one gateway at a cost of $100 each. To sum all of this up, there’s no need for challenging camera mounting, a deluxe monitoring or wireless box, special software, or wall-to-camera power. Vue is conceptually close to dead simple.
Unfortunately, the Vue system is limited by some very serious caveats that detract considerably from its benefits—so considerably that we found ourselves using it far less than we’d expected. The problems begin with the VueZone web site and application, which on the plus side are easy enough to figure out and offer the advantage of relatively easy monitoring from anyplace you can get a 3G or Wi-Fi connection. But they come with a post-purchase expense and consequence: you have to pay a $20 annual fee for service after the first year—including some sharing and recording features that are of questionable value—and since everything’s being sent over the Internet to Avaak, you’re also taking the risk of exposing your cameras and in-home videos to possible snooping. Most home monitoring systems keep whatever data they’re seeing or recording within the house unless you access your own web server and call it out, rather than broadcasting everything.
Though paying ongoing fees for access wouldn’t fly with us under any circumstances, the bigger and immediate issue we had with the Vue system was the quality and quantity of video it was capturing. Avaak has designed the cameras to use comparatively little power by activating them only upon demand, and claims that the batteries will last for one year before you need new $2 cells, assuming that you don’t use them for more than 5 minutes of viewing or recording per day. The cells in our cameras lasted for less than two months even when they weren’t used for even 5 minutes per day, and when we did use them—before and after Avaak software updates—the video was very start-and-stop, and unreliably available when we tried to call it up.
We had better experiences with the VueZone web site, which has a multi-paned display that requires you to drag cameras from a list of “my cameras” over to a “My Vue” window in order to see what they’re doing, offering “bright light,” “normal light,” “low light,” “snapshot,” “record,” and “play/stop” buttons that let you adjust the brightness levels of the video, stop and start transmissions, and create recordings that can then be exported from the site. While there shouldn’t be a need to drag and drop the cameras around, the site interface worked pretty well, and seemed to be capable of continuously spooling video from the cameras—one at a time—while the web page was open.
The iPhone application was comparatively troubled in our testing. It places each of the cameras on its own screen unless you choose View All, which uses tiny thumbnails and doesn’t reliably update either of the cameras. When a single camera was selected, the application would very frequently show a spinning “loading” gear rather than being able to obtain a live feed, and continue to display the last image captured rather than realtime footage. Our disappointment was substantially based on how poorly the application performed; we suspect that Avaak could fix it and make the system a lot better for iPhone and iPod users.
But there were other video issues, as well, which transcended the app’s performance. A Vue camera’s resolution is around 320x240—saved for some reason as 478x358 for recordings, with significant macro blocking in the video—and though the video runs at a stated 25 frames per second, it actually looks like roughly 4fps, with stuttering rather than completely fluid performance. The single upside of the cameras’ performance was their ability to make manual brightness adjustments that rendered them better than entirely useless in low light conditions—they could really benefit from some sort of illumination, such as Infrared, but did OK in modestly lit rooms, performing poorly only in darker ones that were solely lit by a TV screen.
On the other hand, the cameras also offered very little sense of when they had started and stopped transmitting, such that video would run for 10 seconds and then just stop without any notice—the image just froze. This happened more on the app than on the web site, but there were problems with the cameras on the web site, too. A “camera connection dropped” message came up to let us know that the camera—located only feet away from the gateway box—wasn’t connecting.
Consequently, it would be an understatement to say that Vue is for sub-professional applications; we didn’t even find it reliable enough for consistently good performance as an occasional monitoring solution, and the fact that the batteries were dead after only two months of extremely limited use was another show-stopper. There are many dimensions of the Vue and VueZone experience that really would benefit from additional work—the video quality needs to be improved, the software needs to become more reliable, and the annual access fee for continued use of Avaak services needs to disappear or be limited solely to premium-level functionality. New cameras, potentially with optional wall adapters, would go a long way towards remedying this system’s issues, but many people would be glad merely to have superior app responsiveness and a software solution that works entirely within the home. For now, this is merely an okay solution for iPod and iPhone users, but in the event that Avaak radically updates the Vue and VueZone offerings, we’ll gladly revisit them and note what’s changed.