The problem with cloud security cameras

Someone walked into my house when I was away. A Wi-Fi home security camera detected motion and immediately sent me a text and email alert - along with a photo. But my phone was on the charger, and I didn't notice the alert for several hours. When I did review it, the photo  showed the back of someone's head.

To see more, I needed to immediately log into my camera using a mobile app or the vendor's Web-based service to view the live stream. But by the time I logged in everything looked normal. And I hadn't signed up for Dropcam's optional $9.95 per month recording option. So what transpired between the time the person entered the house and when I checked in? I had no idea.

As it turned out, the "intruder" was a family member. But what if had been someone else?

Wi-Fi security cameras are great for giving you piece of mind or checking on the kids and babysitter while you're out. But after working with several models for about six months I've come to realize that in some situations they're no substitute for a professionally managed home security system.

False positives have been another issue. Dropcam, for example, offers very good video quality and is very easy to set up and use. But when I first set it up in a summer home I received two motion alerts each day. Each time, nothing was amiss. It took some time before I realized that what the camera was interpreting as motion was actually the activity of a lamp in the room. It was on a timer, and each time the light turned on or off the camera sent a motion alert.

Dropcam offers an option called Activity Recognition that helps deal with this issue by filtering out some types of activity, but it's a work in progress -- and only available to users of its premium service. Some other models let you restrict the area of the image that's monitored for motion (see the cloud security cameras roundup).

Dropcam's premium services let you record the last 7 days of activity for $9.95 a month or the last 30 days for $29.95 a month. Then I'd know what happened. But do I really care about what happened in the past? I suppose if someone did break in and the image quality was good enough I'd have something the police could go on. But what really matters is protecting the house at the moment something happens -- even when I'm 150 miles away and not looking at my smartphone.

Going Pro

A family member who has a summer home nearby uses a professionally monitored system. He doesn't worry about this stuff -- someone else does. I've been looking into a Honeywell system, which typically costs $40 to $70 per month for the basic service, depending on the size of the house. But what got my attention is that Honeywell offers an add-on service called Total Connect Remote Services that lets you use a mobile app and cloud service to monitor and control not just security cameras and sensors but other smart devices in the home ranging from lights and ceiling fans to door locks, window blinds and thermostats.

The good part is that you don't have to cobble together all of the pieces of a home automation system yourself -- and someone else can worry about mounting cameras in the sheetrock and making sure there's a "c-wire" available from the heating and cooling system to power that Wi-Fi thermostat. (Mine didn't have one - something I only discovered after I had pulled the old thermostat off the wall. I ended up having to have a professional come in and run a new wire). The downside is that if you go this route you'll need to buy everything from a Honeywell dealer, which is likely to cost more money than devices you can buy through Amazon.com or Home Depot. And while Total Connect Remote Services supports some non-Honeywell devices, it's not an open platform like the SmartThings home automation platform, for example. Nonetheless, if you're already using Honeywell's alarm monitoring service it's worth looking into.

Ironically, the Honeywell Wi-Fi thermostat I recently purchased at Home Depot can't be controlled by the Total Connect Remote Services mobile app. Instead, Honeywell offers a separate service called Total Connect Comfort, that only works with its line of Wi-Fi thermostats sold through retail. To have Total Connect Remote Services control my thermostat I'd have to buy a different unit through Honeywell's dealer channel. Perhaps by keeping home automation and security offerings delivered through the consumer retail and dealer channels separate Honeywell is trying to avoid what's called "channel conflict." In this way it doesn't take sales away from its dealers. But by not supporting its consumer line in Total Connect Remote Services, Honeywell may be hindering a perfect opportunity to bring more users like me into its professionally managed services fold.

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