Review: Logitech Alert 750i Video Security System + 700i Add-On Camera
Logitech has certainly made some of the best accessories we've ever tested for Apple's devices: its iPod and iPhone speakers have several times set new performance standards for their prices, winning our Best of the Year Awards and deep admiration. The company also makes some great Mac accessories, most recently including the HD Pro Webcam C910, a video camera that puts Apple's iSight and FaceTime hardware to shame. So the company's Alert 750i Video Security System ($300) sounded like a slam dunk when we read the initial pitch. It's supposed to let iOS devices pull live video from up to six high-definition, motion-triggered video cameras. Each camera is capable of recording up to a week of quick video clips, potentially including audio, to an included microSD card. And you can view live video anywhere in the world using free iPhone/iPod touch and iPad apps. Cool, right?
At this point, though we passionately want to dive right into the reasons Alert 750i didn’t turn out to be as spectacular as we hoped, we’re going to freeze time for a few paragraphs and explain its positives. If you’re a PC user, you might care more about them than what’s in the rest of this review. But if you’re a Mac user—or an iOS user, actually—you’ll be dumbfounded by Logitech’s seeming inability to get its act straight on Apple’s increasingly popular and influential computer platform. We’re holding off on assigning a rating to the Alert system for the time being, but as you’ll see below, we definitely have strong opinions on where it stands as of today.
Alert 750i and 700i
Though the Alert system starts at a base price of $300, there’s more to the story than that. You’ll most likely want not just the single initial video camera in the Alert 750i Master System box, but also at least one Alert 700i Add-On Camera ($230 each). Alert 700e outdoor cameras go for $280 each, including night vision and weatherproofing; we’ve only tested the 750i and 700i.
Additionally, while the Alert system does indeed offer free viewing of live video anywhere in the world, there are a couple of caveats. What you get for “free” with your $300 purchase is Internet-dependent access to the video from your camera or cameras on a roughly 15- to 30-second delay. This is as close to “live” as you’re going to get for something being streamed out of your house, to a Logitech server, and then to your monitoring device; yes, that’s how it’s done, which means that if you’re standing in front of your camera with an iPhone or iPad, you’ll wait half a minute or so to see yourself walking up to it. If you want greater control over the cameras, you need to pay $80 per year for a “Web and Mobile Commander” subscription service. More on that, later.
Logitech’s Alert system cameras are capable of recording color 960x720 resolution videos at 15 frames per second. While this frame rate falls short of the capabilities of Logitech’s top webcams, the resolution easily and substantially exceeds the quality of typical home security systems, including ones we’ve seen with iOS compatibility. You wouldn’t want to record home videos with these cameras, but criminals have been identified using still frames from lower-resolution black-and-white security cameras; Alert’s are hugely better by comparison.
They’re designed with Logitech’s handsome—though conspicuous—gray and silver webcam styling, with large red lights that flash during recording. Each camera includes a 2GB microSD Card, which you can expand for greater recording capacity at will. Both the 750i and 700i sets include one camera, a passive plastic cradle, and a boatload of suction- and screw-based mounting hardware, so you can choose whether to place them on tables, hang them from the ceiling, or mount them on walls. You also get a couple of stickers to place on your windows or doors to scare off intruders, and an installation CD. Each camera includes a full-sized SD Card adapter for the microSD cards, as well.
The primary limiting factor in positioning the cameras is the way Logitech has designed their power and networking hardware. Each camera depends on an Ethernet cable-tethered wall power supply, which similarly blinks with lights unless you flip an on-off switch on the side. As it turns out, the Alert system uses “HomePlug” or Powerline networking, leveraging your home’s power lines rather than Wi-Fi to carry camera data. This necessitates that you connect these power boxes to your wall outlets—and have another one connected to your home router.
Setup: The Good and Bad
Logitech includes all of the necessary cables and hardware in the packages, and yes, the Alert 750i and 700i are physically easy to set up. Even a grandmother could figure out how to plug the yellow-ended Ethernet cables into the HomePlug power adapters and cameras, at least after the cameras’ bottom compartments are popped off, and doing the same with the router box only requires a hint of additional thought. Instructions make the whole process obvious and conceptually easy. Users may well have more of a challenge finding space for the wall adapters, which are nearly twice as large as the cameras, than positioning the cameras themselves.
But depending on how her house is wired, and her expertise with Windows PCs, grandma might not understand the rest of the process. In one of our two test homes, the power wiring for whatever reason didn’t let the cameras communicate with the router unless they were immediately nearby. In the other, more recently built home, we had no problems making connections with cameras that were several rooms away. Logitech could have avoided these sorts of issues by building 802.11n Wi-Fi or another wireless standard into its cameras, as Avaak did with its Vue Personal Video Network. Vue had its own problems, however, its wireless cameras were a study in design elegance. Alert’s higher-bandwidth cameras require more power, so the cabling was almost certainly unavoidable, but they could have been smaller and more conveniently operated over Wi-Fi.
The biggest problem we experienced was on the Apple software side. Regrettably, Alert demonstrates amply that Logitech—again, one of the best accessory hardware developers around—is willing to devote untold resources creating Google devices that no one wants, but can’t create proper Mac and iOS software to go along with products people would love to buy. “Proper” is actually too generous a word on the Mac side of things; there’s actually no Mac software to go along with Alert 750i. We discovered this only after the unit arrived for testing, and when we asked Logitech whether there was any alternative to running Windows, we received this (friendly and much appreciated) reply:
“[Y]ou can basically use your Mac for all of your Alert needs once you have completed initial setup from a PC (so you can just borrow someone’s PC laptop for initial setup and then use your Mac moving forward).”
We won’t detail the initial inconveniences this will entail for Mac users, ask the “why ship a product in 2011 without Mac software?” question, or address the “if it’s so simple, why not let smartphone apps set up the system?” issue. They’re all patently obvious to most of our readers, and the ever-growing audience of Mac and iOS users. Instead, we’ll just note that Logitech’s advice was not correct. No, you can’t use your Mac for all of your Alert needs after setting the device up on a PC. In fact, you’re probably going to need to go back to a PC to handle everything from fixing the initial setup to making full use of your cameras. When we followed the advice, we wound up with a hornet’s nest of problems, only some of which we’ll recount below.
The Alert 750i Apple User Experience
Alert requires initial installation of Windows PC software called Alert Commander, shipped on a CD in the package. When run on a PC, the Alert Commander software provides granular control over the cameras and software settings of various types. There’s also a web site called Alert.Logitech.com that provides a web-based interface, ostensibly for making post-installation tweaks to the cameras. It turns out to provide very few settings—you can, for instance, change your e-mail address and password—and is basically useless at fixing problems. You can monitor live video from your cameras using the web site, but that’s pretty much it. The iPhone and iPod apps are similarly exceptionally limited.
That’s unless you’re willing to spend $80 per year for the Web and Mobile Commander subscription. Then, the web site lets you go back through the videos recorded by the cameras, manage multiple camera installation sites, and even pan and zoom with the cameras. Additional Playback and Alerts tabs are added to the iOS apps to provide access to recorded videos, and to deal with the e-mail alerts Logitech sends you every time motion is detected by the camera. These alerts become so annoying so quickly that you’ll easily find your inbox completely filling with them, to the point where your ISP may—like ours—threaten to turn off new messages due to the volume. A piece of advice: don’t use the alerts unless your cameras are being mounted in places where motion is uncommon.
When the Alert system was working after initial PC setup, in the test home where the HomePlug system didn’t have problems, the performance was good. Monitoring from home or from a second location over the Internet was dead simple, as Logitech’s system of routing everything to its own servers provides users with nearly instant access just by entering an e-mail address. We feel exceptionally uncomfortable with the prospect of sending videos from a home to an external server protected only by a username and light password, but users with no such qualms will enjoy the benefits of anywhere access as a result of the compromise.
While delayed by around 30 seconds, videos were much less plagued by macroblocking and low-fidelity graininess than other security cameras we’ve seen. Low light performance was acceptable, and switching between the cameras was fairly quick and effortless. All things considered, the monitoring experience was better than with the aforementioned Vue system, which spits out videos in uneven chunks at lower resolutions—but costs a lot less per camera and offers certain installation advantages.
But when Alert runs into problems, Mac users are screwed. We couldn’t disable the numerous e-mail alerts through the free service using the web browser, and had to go back to a PC to do that. Later, we discovered that our camera setup had been lost by Logitech’s web site, and there was no way to fix that issue other than to go back to the PC again—even the paid Web and Mobile Commander site couldn’t get the system back up and running. The system is just too tethered to its PC software, and the idea of having to rely upon that—and pay additional recurring fees for features such as web-controlled panning and zooming, neither apparently included in the iOS apps—will strike some people as annoying and others as infuriating. We’d put ourselves in the latter category, but it’s all a matter of software. And that could change. Maybe.
For the time being, we’re holding off on rating the Logitech Alert system because we don’t feel that our testing yielded a completely generalizable experience: Alert’s Mac and iOS support is so needlessly mediocre that Apple users would be best off just staying away from these products until Logitech improves its software. Windows-based iOS device users can expect to use their iPads, iPhones, or iPod touches for a subset of the features offered by Logitech’s Alert web site, which itself offers a very small subset of the features found in the company’s Commander software; really, the meat of the system currently requires a PC. It seems clear that Alert was designed as a Windows-based monitoring platform first, and that other devices were basically an afterthought. That’s unfortunate, because virtually every one of Alert’s features could be controlled via a web interface or an iPhone app. Instead, they’re locked behind an old-fashioned Windows installer on an old-fashioned Windows installation CD, with an old-fashioned subscription service plan adding just one more layer of unnecessary complexity to the package.
It goes without saying to most of our readers, but along with Mac computers, smartphones and tablets have been surging in popularity for long enough now that poor software support for Apple’s products is no longer merely a small annoyance—it’s actually really short-sighted when you consider who is likely to actually spend $1,450 or more on a consumer-grade home security package such as Alert. Right now, the answer certainly isn’t Mac users. And it’s probably not iOS users, either. So Alert will go back into its box until Logitech releases the sort of software that Apple’s devices really need to make proper use of the hardware. As with Logitech’s other products, Alert has some very tangible advantages over similar competitors; it’s a shame that less advanced systems were built to offer greater enticements to Apple users.