Review: Stem Innovation iZon Remote Room Monitor
Early in the App Store's existence, developers quickly and correctly deduced that iPhone users wanted to do more with their devices' cameras than just snap the occasional grainy photo -- one or two even came up with early baby monitoring solutions that presumed, implausibly, that people would want to leave their iPhones sitting near cribs to serve as web-accessible cameras. Thankfully, the accessory market has marched forward to create standalone cameras that can be accessed wirelessly by iOS devices, each with different combinations of features and pricing. Stem Innovations' new iZon ($130) borrows elements from several of the other video monitoring devices we've seen, offering a new solution that may be of serious interest to some users, though like the others, there are tradeoffs that need to be considered.
iZon’s pricing and simplicity are its major selling points. Whereas Avaak’s VueZone and Logitech’s Alert 750i start at around $300 and climb up from there as you add cameras, Stem’s solution wisely trims a lot of fat to create a more affordable alternative. You get one white plastic tube that contains a video camera, microphone, and 802.11b/g/n wireless capabilities, plus a detachable magnetic half-globe and included wall-tapping screws for mounting and angle adjustment. iZon’s bundled with two cables and a small wall adapter—that’s it. Gone are the routers, huge power supplies, memory cards, and other items in rival packages; all you need to do is download a free Stem: Connect app from the App Store. If you want to add additional iZon units—up to 200 can be on a single network, Stem claims—you just buy them for $130 a pop. If price was the only factor, you’d need to buy three or more cameras from Stem before the set became more expensive than the same number of Avaak cameras, and an iZon system will never be as expensive as Logitech’s.
The flip side is that iZon offers a very different grade of monitoring solution—one that has indeed been streamlined, but sometimes cuts out meat and bone in the process—so you’ll have to decide whether those extra dollars are actually worth investing in something that’s more complex. By contrast with Avaak’s latest cameras, which have excellent motion-sensing capabilities, up to 1600x1200 resolution for still images, and variable lower-resolution frame rates for videos, iZon is currently limited to creating 480x320 videos, with no still picture or higher-resolution options. While that sounds like a bummer, and is to the extent that the videos only occupy a small window in the center of Stem’s iPod/iPhone/iPad application screens, iZon’s frame rates are comparatively very smooth, and accompanied by monaural audio monitoring and recording. Watching iZon feels less like witnessing surveillance footage from a bank camera and more like watching something live happening in progress, complete with audio. There’s a 15-20 second delay between real action and what you’re seeing, but that’s not bad.
Frills are where iZon really falls off relative to its peers. It would be easy to put aside the lack of zooming, panning-and-scanning, or still picture snapping and e-mailing options if the video functionality was spectacular, but it’s pretty limited. The viewing angle isn’t particularly wide, so you’ll need to keep—and try to hide—the camera in a corner to really capture a broad scene. More importantly, the camera doesn’t do well at all in low light conditions, arguably when monitoring is most needed for a variety of reasons: iZon produces low-contrast, ultra-grainy images that will be next to useless for most users. Once the lights went out, we couldn’t see a dog on a sofa three feet away from a camera placed directly in front of him, so if you’re hoping to monitor your home or business at night, you’d better keep the area around the camera well-it.
Notifications were also less than thrilling. After turning the integrated motion and sound sensors on, as well as the notification alerts, there were no signs that motion or sounds were tripping any alarms or triggering notifications in the app. The only alert that ever came up over days of testing was a notification that the camera had been disconnected once. And it should be noted that iZon, like Logitech’s Alert cameras but unlike Avaak’s VueZone ones, requires a constant connection to wall power in order to operate. While Stem borrowed the brilliantly versatile magnetic mounting system from VueZone, its actual camera and power cable are a lot more conspicuous, though also not battery-dependent like Avaak’s.
One area in which Stem will either thrill or disappoint you is in its approach to recording videos. Our biggest problem with Avaak and Logitech’s solutions was their attempt to turn the initial hardware purchase into an ongoing annual contract for services—once you’ve unpacked and set up all of their cameras and networking hardware, VueZone and Logitech then want to charge you for remote access to certain of their premium features. iZon thankfully doesn’t play that game. You can access live video for five-minute stretches over the web just by loading the Stem: Connect app, and although the connection did get interrupted during our testing at the one-minute mark twice, the viewing experience was easy to restart, and still felt better than we’ve seen elsewhere. If you want to record videos, you just press a “rec” button, and iZon creates a 30-second clip that gets automatically uploaded to your YouTube account, by default for private viewing. It works just as expected, was faster than we’d anticipated, and costs nothing, which from our perspective is pretty great.
But the other solutions, for all of their added complexity and expense, do offer more recording and monitoring versatility. iZon is supposed to be capable of creating 30-second YouTube recordings based on either motion or noise detection, but neither seemed to work properly in our testing. Avaak and Logitech both create web-accessible recordings; Logitech’s cameras even include memory cards to store tons of video footage. VueZone was up and creating motion-triggered responses in no time; iZon has the hardware, but is going to require additional tweaking before it works properly. We also had some issues getting iZon back onto a wireless network after we changed the network password, but eventually resolved them.
With additional fine tuning, which Stem claims is coming soon and will at least increase the video recording resolution and capabilities of the camera, iZon has the potential to become a stronger functional rival to its competitors. Right now, however, it’s something a little different: a good pick for budget-conscious users who don’t need the quality of low-light performance, resolution, or accurate motion-sensing offered by rivals, but will be happy with smooth, lower-resolution video and audio without any recurring service fees. It remains to be seen what the landscape will look like once Withings releases its Smart Baby Monitor, which is set to be priced somewhere between $200 and $300, and promises superior low light operation. From our perspective, iZon does enough of what it should be doing for the $130 asking price to merit our general recommendation. We hope that software and firmware updates will unleash the more powerful beast inside the hardware that’s shipping today.