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Canary REVIEW: Powerful home security that anyone can use

by Brandon Russell | May 2, 2015May 2, 2015 12:00 pm PDT

Canary is a complete home security system in a small, discreet package; it sits about six inches tall, and kind of looks like a mini Mac Pro. When it was introduced back in 2013, the device quickly became an IndieGoGo sensation because it promised to finally provide an all-encompassing security solution in a package that anyone can use. Just set it and forget it, basically.

After spending two weeks letting Canary monitor my apartment, I can comfortably say the device lives up to that promise. And it’s so easy to use that even non-techies will be able to set it up without a hassle.

That’s the beauty of what Canary can offer: Providing complex technology in an easy-to-understand package. Setup took maybe ten minutes, with most time spent creating user names and tweaking settings. After the initial setup process, Canary has largely been a hands-off experience. Most of what you’ll be doing takes place on your phone.

So what does Canary actually do? A little bit of everything. You basically have three different monitoring options to choose from: Armed, which provides motion-activated recording with mobile alerts; Disarmed, which provides motion-activated recording without the mobile alerts; and Privacy, which essentially puts Canary to sleep. It also monitors things like humidity, temperature and air quality, though I haven’t quite determined if this information is useful or not; I suppose if the temperature rises dramatically due to a fire, I’ll know about it.

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The different modes can either be manually toggled, or switched on and off automatically based on the location of users who are linked to the device. At home, Canary is currently hooked up to my phone and my girlfriend’s phone, but I can add more users if I want to. When it determines that both of us have left our apartment, Canary will automatically switch to Armed mode, and provide alerts if it detects motion.

And it works pretty great. Most of the time.

We have our unit set on an entry table right by our front door, which provides an excellent vantage point of pretty much our entire apartment; the only areas Canary doesn’t see is in our bedroom down the hall and our bathroom. Otherwise the 1080p wide-angle lens provides great coverage of our living room, kitchen and dining room, allowing us to monitor these high traffic areas at all times.

During the few weeks we’ve been using it, Canary has faithfully provided us with every little detail about the comings and goings at our home. When either of us leaves, the Canary app will log it; if we return, it’ll log that, too. Since we have it set to automatically arm when we both leave, it will ping our phones if any motion is detected. As I found out, Canary’s motion-detecting camera can be a little too sensitive—and it can make for two very anxious renters.

For the most part, Canary has accurately done its job, arming itself when we leave, and going into privacy mode when we get home. But there have been several occasions when Canary has pinged us with false alarms. That’s not a huge complaint; I’d rather it be too sensitive than not sensitive enough. But it’s a little alarming to get alerts when nothing is happening. It’s eerie and a little scary to watch a 60 second video of your empty apartment, waiting for something—a person, fly, apparition—to present itself.

It seems to happen most often when we first leave the house in the morning. Since our lights and blinds are closed, Canary will automatically switch on its night vision in order to better monitor our apartment. But as it does this, it seems to trigger “activity.” I’ve actually come to expect a morning alert because this happens so often. Again, I’d rather it be too sensitive than not sensitive enough, but it is very freakish to peer down my apartment’s dark hallway while I’m not even there.

Canary claims that its algorithm-based motion detection is capable of learning over time, so that it sends you smarter notifications. Our apartment does face a busy street, so perhaps the activity Canary is detecting is from vibrations from passing cars, or people walking by, or shadows. It can be any number of things. (Just as long as it isn’t someone in my apartment.)

When an alert does come in, Canary allows you to tag the activity (people, pet movement, sunlight, shadows, reflections, girlfriend, etc.), indicate that “everything is fine,” save an event, sound a 90+ dB siren, or call first responders. You can also leave a comment in case there’s a note you need to keep or something you want your spouse to see.

Events show up in a timeline, which can easily be accessed by scrolling up inside the app. Here you’ll be shown all the events Canary has tracked, from when people have come and gone, to when Canary switches from different modes. This is also where you’ll see recordings, which the device provides based on a series of different plans (more on that in a second). Our timeline is mostly accurate, but there have been a few instances when the same recording has shown up during different times of the day.

For example, Canary auto armed itself Monday morning as usual, and it pinged me three different times while I was at work—but each event showed the same recording; once at 9:14 a.m., at 10:22 a.m. and again at 11:25 a.m. Later in the afternoon it pinged me again, but that was because my landlord was scheduled to stop by with someone from Orkin (we had termites).

This was the first time I was able to actually monitor someone inside my apartment while I wasn’t there, and it was a completely surreal experience. I felt a bit like a voyeur because they were completely unaware of Canary’s presence. And I guess that’s a good thing—Canary is so unassuming that you hardly notice it’s there. I was sent the black model (there’s also silver and white), and it completely blends into the background. It looks nothing like you’d expect a home security device to look like.

Canary offers four different security plans, the details of which you can see in the photo above. I’ve been taking advantage of a free trial (never miss a moment), and so far it’s been absolutely terrific. In addition to the optional monthly costs, you can also add call center monitoring for an extra $10/month; unfortunately, the option isn’t included with any of the plans, not even the $39.99/month.

I’m on the fence about signing up for a plan once my free trial ends. The free option is plenty, and should provide me with all I need when monitoring my apartment. I can watch my home in real-time, and I’ll still get alerts based on movement. The extra plans are simply for storing videos in the cloud and saving video clips. I haven’t had the need for that so far, but I might down the road; it’s nice that those options are there.

While my time with Canary has been a mostly positive and pain-free experience, I do wish it offered more automation options. For example, it would be nice if Canary would automatically switch to disarmed mode when we go to bed. This way it’ll still monitor for motion and record what happens in our apartment should anyone try to break in. I can manually switch modes all I want, but it would be nice if I could set a timer—say 11 p.m. to 6 a.m.—to automatically have Canary switch.

I’d also love it if Canary would send me alerts if it goes offline. There was one occasion in particular when Canary was down for several hours, and I didn’t even realize it until I randomly decided to check in. A simple “Canary has gone offline” alert would be helpful; also giving me information as to why it’s offline would also be nice. When Canary did go offline for me, I had no idea why; my Internet was fine, and nothing happened to our power.

Those are only minor quibbles that can be fixed in future software updates. As a whole, Canary is a joy to use—you don’t actually “use” it, so much as you set it and forget it, which I consider a good thing. The security gives you peace of mind, and it isn’t so complicated that you’re constantly fussing around with the settings. The app is simple and straightforward, and the unit offers plenty of technology to make for a smarter and safer home.

Canary offers the perfect amount of features for the apartment I’m in (about 800 sq ft); if you have a home, you can link up to 4 units, ensuring you have proper coverage. At $250, I think it offers plenty of value, giving folks the opportunity to constantly monitor their home, whether they’re at work or on vacation.

Disclaimer: Canary sent us a unit to test out. Brandon used Canary for two weeks before writing his review.


Brandon Russell

Brandon Russell enjoys writing about technology and entertainment. When he's not watching Back to the Future, you can find him on a hike or watching...

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