Canary is a home security system that makes you do the work

If you’re in the market for a smarter Dropcam, then the $249 Canary may be the connected camera system for you. If you’re looking for a more traditional home security system, I’d wait a bit longer before going with Canary — unless you’re a huge fan of DIY security and don’t mind a lot of false positives.

So what is it?

The $249 device is an IP camera that also contains a mic, temperature, humidity and air quality sensor. It’s an attractive little product that connects to your home Wi-Fi network. You interact with it via an app on your IOS or Android device. The system has three states: armed, which means you get a notification and a recording whenever something triggers the camera; disarmed, which means you get a recording when something triggers the camera; and privacy which means the camera and mic are turned off. Basically the difference between armed and disarmed is a notification.

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When you receive a notification, you have the option to open the app from the notification, check the video and are then given the option of saying everything is okay, sounding an alarm or calling the police. That’s the what I mean when I call it DIY security — you are doing the work.

Setting it up took me about five minutes. I popped the Canary out of the box, plugged it in where it could monitor my front entryway, and downloaded the app on my iPad. After signing up, I followed the instructions and plugged in a yellow cable that came with the Canary to securely link the Canary and my iPad via some type of audio signaling.

Once I was set up, I invited my husband to download the app and we were a go. Initially, I used his iPhone 6 and my iPad with the app because the Android app didn’t come out until this week. I only tested the Android app for about 72 hours, instead of the almost two weeks I tested the Canary overall. I will note that I experienced trouble receiving notifications on the Android device when the system was armed, which is a pretty essential feature.

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In general, I liked the premise of the device and the camera. It has a wide-angle lens (147 degrees) that was good during the day and at night. I liked the idea of being able to monitor the air quality in my home, although in practice, it was less illuminating. For example, after the Canary had been on in my front foyer for an hour or two, it showed that the air quality in my home had gone from normal to abnormal and then to very abnormal — which was where it stayed unless I opened the windows for long periods of time.

This worried me, but when I asked Canary Co-founder/Design Director Jon Troutman what was causing such a poor reading, he said that the sensor was just tracking the relative measure of air quality in my home. It should improve based on the sensor’s location and on how the sensor learns about the quality of air in my home. If over time the air quality stays the same, the level that early on gave me a very abnormal reading will default to the new normal.

So far that regulation hasn’t happened, but moving the sensor to a new location helped. The system has a few little bugs that Troutman said should be fixed with a software update soon. The primary bug was that the camera sometimes stopped recording before an action was complete. For example, my camera, which was set up to record my front door, sometimes stopped recording before I’d finished entering the house. Other times, I would not get notifications in the armed state (this happened most often in the Android app, although once or twice in the iOS version) and the apps themselves would sometimes need a restart before updating.

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The training and smarts

My dog, my Roomba and other benign things could trigger notifications from my Canary (more on that below). Each time I get a notification, I have the option of training the Canary by naming the objects in the video. Choices include the people who are in the system, like me and my husband; “pet movement”; shadows; reflections; people and a variety of other common items. You also can make your own categories, so I made categories for my daughter and my Roomba.

At first I religiously trained my Canary, assuming that it would start learning quickly the way my Nest does. I was horribly disappointed to learn that the results of my training would take place much later. Troutman couldn’t give me a time frame more specific than “later this year” for when the existing learning algorithm would be tweaked based on the user training. I feel that a large portion of the product’s quality will rest on the quality of that learning algorithm, and I think it’s a pretty important element of the review.

After all, I am getting about a dozen push notifications to evaluate a day, thanks to my pet, vacuum and random light changes. Canceling out the vacuum is easy since I know what time that runs, but the other stuff is still too many false positives to have to filter through, which makes this a poor choice for pet owners until we know how the algorithm works.

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As a security system, I felt that it somewhat failed because, while it (sometimes) sent me a notification when something changed in my home, it relied on me to then decide if I wanted to sound an alarm or call the police. This meant that I had to make sure I checked each and every Canary notification that came through when the system was armed to check that it was just my dog and not a burglar.

Once Canary updates its learning algorithm with the results of user training, it should eventually cut down on false positives (like those caused by my dog and Roomba), and it will also offer paid monitoring plans ranging in price from $19 to $39 a month, while only the free and $9-per-month plan will require DIY security. The $9 per month plan gets you more cloud storage, if you want it. But in some ways, the tiered is the point: Having a smarter connected system down the road, but no monthly fees, might be worth the $249 price tag for many people.

What if security isn’t really about a traditional alarm system, but more about being able to keep an eye on your home? That’s Troutman’s pitch, especially in the rental market, where the traditional firms aren’t event an option. I also found plenty of uses for the Canary outside of the traditional security idea from using it to alert me if the dog jumped on our bed during the day when we were out (she does) to checking to see if I brought my water bottle back from the gym (couldn’t tell). My daughter enjoyed performing little dances in front of it and telling us to check the Canary for her masterpieces.

Other features that will be nice, especially for the DIYers, will be adding a phone tree to call neighbors or friends as opposed to escalating directly to the police or emergency services. All in in all the Canary I tested still feels a bit too beta for public consumption, but it does have the makings of a very smart connected camera that should make Dropcam sit up and take notice. As for providing home security, I’m not really sure I felt more secure with the Canary in my home, but it did give me a chance to see what went on when I wasn’t at home.

And if that makes people feel more secure, then this device could be for them.