Canary: A home security system with a big drawback

The smart-home market is on fire these days, with countless innovative gadgets available. The category includes the “Internet of Things,” automated-home products and DIY home security. Canary belongs to the last group. Originally anIndiegogo contender looking for $100,000, it eventually accrued 20 times that amount and started shipping to backers and to retail (namely, Best Buy) earlier this year.

Canary wants to be a disrupter, but as we’ll see, it will have to fix a basic problem first.

Traditional home security systems can be expensive up-front and weigh users down with monthly subscription fees. They often require being wired into the home and are consequently not always friendly to apartment dwellers and home renters.

In contrast, Canary is a sleek stand-alone unit about the size of a squat Pringles can, costs a reasonable $250 and requires no monthly service fees (though you might want to pay a monthly fee anyway).

Instead of buying 24/7 home monitoring like you get with a traditional security plan, Canary is DIY: It lets you know when it thinks something is amiss, and it’s up to you to check the video feed on your smartphone. If you agree, you can sound a 90-decibel siren in your home or summon the police remotely.

Getting started with Canary is pretty simple. I’ve heard that the first wave of users had some prickly setup issues, but by June 2015, the bugs had clearly been worked out. Setting up takes perhaps 10 minutes and consists of little more than plugging it in, syncing it with your phone and downloading the latest software patches. You can connect it to your home network via Ethernet or Wi-Fi.

From there, the device uses a 147-degree wide-angle HD camera and a microphone to keep an eye on your home. It is extremely sensitive in both daylight and at night, and includes a host of environmental sensors to also track data like room temperature, humidity and air quality, which you can view in graph form for the last 24 hours.

The system has three modes — armed, disarmed and a privacy setting in which the camera shuts off so no video is recorded. Otherwise, the camera is always recording to the cloud, whether armed or disarmed, and you can use your phone to view live or recorded video, panning and zooming around the high-quality footage.

Canary can automatically arm and disarm itself when you (and your smartphone) come and go, or you can manually change its status.

You never have to pay a monthly service fee for Canary. Out of the box, all video is saved online for 12 hours. But a number of plans (coming soon) build on that. You can store a week of video for $10 a month, for example, or get a month’s storage for $20 a month. And you can get traditional call-center monitoring by adding $10 a month to any plan.

Here’s where the DIY comes in: When the system is armed, Canary sends you a notification whenever it registers activity. It’s then up to you to watch the live video. If there’s a problem, you can sound the alarm and call the police. If not, just do nothing.

But currently, the system is essentially unusable. Home security systems have been around for decades and are quite good at not reacting to pets. That’s an important ability because such services have call centers on a hair trigger, ready to notify the police in your stead.

Canary, on the other hand, knows no sense of proportion. It’s unable to discern a pet from a thief from a trusted family member in the house who doesn’t happen to own a smartphone. In testing, I typically got about three dozen false alarm notifications a day (almost always a pet that walked though Canary’s field of vision, but sometimes reflected sunlight).

No reasonable person will tolerate that many false positives, and that makes it useless as a security tool. Some users have wondered why you can’t configure Canary to automatically call emergency services when the system detects an intruder. This is why: It would make that call 20 times a day.

Canary promises that smarter software is coming. Right now, tagging video clips as false alarms has no effect, but in a few months, that might change as Canary evolves the ability to learn from your feedback. Right now, though, Canary is mostly a pricey webcam you can use to spy on your cat.