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Piper packs security cam, home automation hub into one slick package

Webcams were one of the forerunners of the current Internet of Things boom, allowing smartphone-toting geeks to keep an eye on the office or homestead while out and about. Piper (starting at US$239), powered by iControl Networks, is targeted at the homeowner who wants a solution that provides both visually- and physically-based security by combining a security camera, Z-Wave home automation hub, and an iOS app into one nice-looking package. Let's take a look.

Design Highlights

My first thought when I pulled the Piper out of the box was that it should come in yellow so it could look like one of the minions in Despicable Me. There's a big "eye" on the upper front of the unit, which has a curvaceous eye-shaped cross section as well. The unit is about 6.25 inches (15.88 cm) tall, about 2 inches (5.08 cm) thick and about 3.5 inches (8.89 cm) wide. It comes in either white or black, with a perforated gray plastic piece on top.

Piper is much more than just a webcam, although the big fisheye lens on the front provides some wonderful home monitoring functions we'll talk about in the next section. Piper also monitors inside temperature, humidity, brightness, sound level, and motion in your home. And to top it off, it is also a home automation hub for Z-Wave-based sensors, switches, and other home automation devices.

I like the aesthetics of the Piper; having a few of these around a house (more about that later) can literally keep an eye on your house and form a mesh network to extend coverage to far corners of the place, while fitting into your decor like a piece of modern sculpture.

Functionality Highlights

Setup of Piper is very simple. You pop some backup AA batteries into it, plug it in, wait for an LED on the front to blink amber, then double-tap the power button on the back of the unit to make that LED turn blue. Next, you connect your iOS device to the Piper Wi-Fi network, fire up the Piper app, and the app transfers your Wi-Fi settings to the device. At that point, you can start using the app to monitor your surroundings.

The app ties into your device through a secure account and opens to a simple, clean dashboard. In the center top of the app is a circle divided into four quadrants. The quadrant marked with an "X" indicates that the system is "off" -- nothing is currently being actively monitored as the system is not armed. Another quadrant is marked with a small house icon, which when tapped puts the device into "Stay" mode. The light on the front of the Piper turns red, and a voice intones "Stay mode activated".

A note about modes -- each mode has a set of rules associated with it. For example, when in Stay mode, I'd probably want nothing to happen when I'm walking around the house so my default setting was to turn off video recording, notifications, the siren (yes, there's one built in), and turn on a particular light in the house.

Away mode is used when you're heading out of your home for a while. The speaker on Piper does a pinging countdown, then tells the empty home that "away mode is activated." I set this mode's rules up so that any motion would set off the siren and send me a text message. To say that the siren is ear-piercing is an understatement -- I have a professionally-installed home security system and the siren for it isn't as loud! It will certainly get the attention of anyone who happens to enter your home while you're away. There's a 15-second delay between motion detection and the alarm going off, so hopefully you remember to disarm the system by tapping the Off mode before you enter your home.

The system can record video as a result of sensing a loud noise, motion or a door/window alert. That can be useful when working with police to identify an intruder.

The final mode is Vacation mode. Think of it as Away mode with slightly different settings -- for example, I could see using this to notify my "trusted circle" of friends or relatives when I'm gone.

As for the home vitals, I like the ability to see all of the readings one on screen with a two day history of all of the vitals. I do have one gripe about the temperature sensor -- there should be a way to adjust the temperature, as the Piper does get warm and that skews the temperature quite a bit. For example, it's currently 66.9°F at my desk where the device is sitting, yet Piper thinks it is 72.6°F.

Now a bit about the security camera. The fisheye lens provides a 180° view on a 1080p camera sensor. With the app, it's possible to pan, tilt, and zoom in, without needing to have a slow and power hungry motor to control physical movement. There's also a quad view available that can look at four specific points in the camera's field of view. A new feature that was just added allows you to have a two-way video/audio conversation with a person at your home from your iPhone, which could be helpful if you want to let a contractor into your home while you're away and keep and eye -- and ear -- on them.

Another brand new feature provided by Piper is the ability to link a bunch of the units together so that they can all be monitored via the app. The new feature lets you create independent security zones in your home (for example, basement, living room, family room, upstairs) that all work together with the app. It's possible to track movements through each security zone and as the company says, "smoothly step between live camera views to get a total view of your home environment."

As for adding Z-Wave devices, it's quite simple. I have a number of Z-Wave door and window sensors and wanted to see if I could get Piper and the app to recognize them. The readily available sensor (although not officially supported by Piper ... yet) was recognized within seconds. Likewise, I could add light switches throughout the house for control by the Piper app.

The great thing about a solution like Piper is that it makes home security easy and affordable for anyone without having to pay for expensive monitoring services. For example, the cost of 3 Pipers is $649. While that sounds expensive, most home security companies charge a similar amount for installation of a system as well as a monthly fee. In my case, that fee is about $70 per month, so I could bypass the home security company, get a pretty decent security system that would beat the socks off of what I have right now, and be money ahead in less than a year.

The company that developed Piper, Blacksumac, was acquired by iControl Networks yesterday. Icontrol Networks provides connected home solutions to most of the major cable (Comcast, Time Warner Cable) and security (ADT) companies, so there's a good possibility that you'll begin to see Piper being offered by your local providers.

Conclusion

For home security and automation, Piper provides a powerful app-controlled solution that's easy to set up and control. Compared to professionally-installed security systems, Piper is reasonably priced and lets you do the monitoring instead of leaving that job to a nameless person in a call center.

Rating: 3-1/2 stars out of 4 stars possible

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