Review: iHealth Lab iBaby Monitor
iOS-compatible video monitoring devices are beginning to appear in greater numbers, and as of today, they have a new leader to beat: iHealth Lab's iBaby Monitor ($200). iBaby Monitor isn't the cheapest, the most powerful, or the most beautiful video camera system we've seen for iOS devices, but it offers a few fantastic advantages over other currently available options. And it does what it promises to do with relatively little fuss.
The iBaby Monitor set consists of an 802.11b/g/n-compatible Wi-Fi video camera with a detachable antenna, mounting hardware, a wall power adapter, Ethernet cable, and a free downloadable “iBaby” application. If you’re familiar with past iOS video monitoring solutions, several things about iBaby Monitor will stand out immediately as either unique or somewhat distinctive: first, the 802.11n support, which lets the camera work on networks that others might not support, second, the use of wall power rather than a battery to power the camera, and third, the size of the camera housing, which is considerably bigger in all directions than most of the alternatives we’ve seen. All of these details imply something that turns out to be true when you’re using the camera: iHealth Lab has barely compromised here in order to make iBaby Monitor a strong performer. You accept that it’s big and that it needs wall power, and in return, you get some features that are hard to find in rival products.
There are two huge benefits—a fully motorized yet silent mechanism that enables iBaby Monitor to rotate through nearly 360 degrees of freedom, as well as to pivot its head up and down, plus an array of ten front-facing lights that invisibly provide Infrared illumination for a usable night vision mode. It’s very difficult to overstate the value of these features or offer enough praise for the manner in which iHealth Labs lets you access them. Load up the iBaby application and you’re presented with a live video image from the camera. Swipe left, right, up, or down and the camera actually moves to change your viewing angle and direction—responsiveness is only a little short of ideal, but not enough to gripe about. Lag time between real life and video on an iOS device’s screen was around 1 second or less in our testing, very fast by comparison with many solutions we’ve tested.
When the light levels go down, the Infrared lights actually let you see roughly 10 feet in front of the camera’s lens without having to activate any special switches. Contrast this with fixed-position cameras that rely upon ultra-grainy, low-light-adverse sensors; the user experience is like night and day. With iBaby Monitor, you can actually monitor everything that’s going on in a baby’s room, regardless of the time of day, and the unit’s so quiet that you won’t wake up a sleeping child by activating it. That said, if you want something that can be surreptitiously placed in any room of your house, you’re not going to be able to pull that off with this, particularly if you use the large included mounting hardware to attach it to a wall or ceiling.
A few other neat features are more common but worth noting as well. iBaby Monitor has a built-in microphone so that you can monitor noises in the baby’s room, as well as a port to let you connect an external speaker if you want to have two-way communication from afar. The camera is capable of automatically alerting you based on motion or sounds. And you can take snapshots—up to 640x480, though without zoom capability—directly from the application. Both portrait and landscape modes are supported for iPhone/iPod touch monitoring; the app also works on the iPad, albeit without any optimizations for Apple’s tablets. Multiple cameras can be added to the same network, assuming you’re willing to buy them for $200 each.
As much as the aforementioned features of iBaby Monitor work well to provide a great monitoring solution, there are a handful of issues that are worth bearing in mind, and detract somewhat from the experience. While the app generally does everything it’s supposed to do, we found the initial setup process to be just a little rough around the edges; you’re required to plug the camera into your router with the included Ethernet cable for a one-time setup process, which for reasons unknown required a little extra time before the camera properly joined our wireless network and became accessible by the iBaby app.
Similarly, the app contains some not particularly well-written/translated text that could stand to be cleaned up, and though the colors, frame rate, and resolution of the video are all completely adequate for the intended task, the default 320x240 resolution is below the levels of several rival products, and no video capture feature is included. This is partially made up for by the far superior low-light performance enabled by the Infrared lights, and your ability to adjust the brightness, contrast, and resolution upwards or downwards as preferred.
There is another and potentially bigger issue: the app’s seeming inaccessibility outside of your house. Many of the monitoring solutions we’ve tested have been built to in some way permit you to see what’s going on even when you’re not connected to the same wireless network as the camera; Stem Innovations’ iZon, for instance, can send videos to YouTube, and other cameras come with server software or hardware so that you can reach them directly when you’re away. At least as it operates today, iBaby Monitor seems to contemplate that you’ll be at home with your child, which is a fair enough assumption… except for parents who want to keep tabs on their kids once their babysitters or grandparents have put them to bed. While the developer’s web site suggests that there’s a way to access iBaby Monitor from outside the home, we couldn’t get this to work when we tried it, and iHealth Labs’ FAQs aren’t exactly written in a manner that makes figuring this out particularly easy. It’s also worth mentioning that iBaby Monitor ships with PC software, but not Mac software, so if external access is computer-dependent, Mac owners might be out of luck.
Overall, iBaby Monitor is what it purports to be: a versatile video monitoring solution with audio capabilities, a unique and silent motorized positioning mechanism, great low-light performance, and relatively simple software. While several aspects of the experience could use a little additional polish, including the in-app text, the requirement of an external speaker for two-way communications, the lack of Mac software, and the presently limited ability to access video from beyond the home, iHealth Lab has gotten a lot more right than wrong here. Judged on everything it’s capable of doing, particularly on the strength of its impressive swipe-based adjustable movement and Infrared features, this is a very good solution for baby monitoring, and we’ll be seriously impressed if a rival can improve upon its overall performance for the price in the near future.