iControl Piper NV Camera Test

By Derek Ward, Published Jun 24, 2015, 12:00am EDT

iControl has raised over $100 million in VC funding to transform the home security market. 

Last year, they acquired Piper, a camera / home automation startup.

iControl now faces off against two other super well-funded Silicon Valley competitors - Google/Nest/Dropcam and $40 million funded Canary.

The iControl Piper NV includes uncommon features like a Z-Wave integration, environmental monitoring, and built in siren, all features Dropcam does not offer.

We purchased a Piper NV [link no longer available] to see how these features worked and how it compared to Dropcam and Canary in these key areas:

  • How easy is Piper to set up and use for inexperienced users?
  • How does video quality compare to Dropcam, both day and night?
  • How easy is Piper's mobile app to use for playback and live video?
  • How well do Piper's added bells and whistles work?

Piper has several key disadvantages against market leader Dropcam:

Limitations

  • No search: The lack of any sort of search means users potentially must scroll through numerous events in the timeline in order to review clips which while they were away from their device.
  • No export: The lack of any sort of clip export or even screenshot functions makes sharing video difficult. This ability is included in Dropcam, Samsung's SmartCam, Canary, and most other consumer models.
  • Higher initial price: At $270 USD, Piper NV is priced more than 30% higher than many consumer cameras, generally priced around ~$200 (though these do not include Z-Wave or home environmental features). However, note that Piper's free cloud storage offsets this higher cost.
  • Weak image quality: Piper NV's image quality is weak compared to Dropcam and Canary, due to warped video from its 180° lens and weak IR illumination, despite its higher 3.4 MP resolution.

Advantages

There are three key advantages found in few competitors:

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  • Free cloud: Piper's cloud storage is free (for "1000 motion clips"), unlike most other competitors . This amounts to a savings of about $120 per year over Dropcam or Canary, whose plans start at ~$10/month per camera.
  • Z-Wave capabilities: Piper's Z-Wave features are found in few, if any, consumer camera competitors. Though limited mainly to contacts and switches, they may be used for basic home automation functions, which competitors do not offer.
  • Home vitals: Piper offers environmental monitoring information not found in most consumer cameras (aside from Canary). 

Recommendations

Piper's appeal is limited by weak image quality and IR illumination, as well as limited usability (lacking search and export), coupled with a price tag higher than the vast majority of competitive options. Users simply looking for easy to setup remote monitoring would be served better by Dropcam Pro or Canary (which offers some of the same environmental monitoring functions and built in siren as Piper).

Piper's Z-Wave capabilities make its most likely fit those seeking basic home automation functions (monitoring doors/windows, turning lights on/off). Users seeking these features along with basic video may find Piper simpler and more useful than purchasing another consumer camera (Dropcam, Canary, etc.) in addition to a standalone home automation platform (e.g., SmartThings, Vera, Wink). However, those seeking advanced home automation functions such as complex rules and schedules or more device integrations (thermostats, PIRs, etc.) will find Piper limited.

Pricing

The Piper NV [link no longer available] sells for $279 USD direct or through online retailers. This is $79 more than the $200 Dropcam Pro or Samsung Smartcam, and ~$29 more than Canary.

Piper also has a cheaper $199 model (Piper Classic [link no longer available]) with 2MP resolution vs. 3MP and no integrated IR.

Compatible Z-Wave accessories [link no longer available] for Piper sell for $44.95 for switches and dimmers, $39.95 for door/window sensors and $24.95 for range extenders each. 

Free Cloud Storage

Piper's cloud storage is free, offering "Up to 1000 snippets of recorded events" according to their support. Dropcam charges $9.95/month (7 days) and up for this service, while Canary offers only 12 hours of clips for free ($9.99/mo for 7 days storage).

Physical Overview

We take a look at the physical construction of the Piper NV briefly in this video:

In terms of size, Piper is much larger in size than Dropcam Pro and roughly the same size as Canary. Below is a side-by-side image of all 3 cameras:

Setup Process

Initial setup for Piper is simple, with the mobile app walking users through creating an account and adding a camera. The camera is setup via wi-fi and after a ~5 minute setup process, the camera checks for firmware before launching to the mobile apps dashboard.

App Overview

In the video below we review the Piper mobile app and each of its functions. 

The app's design is "busy" compared to other consumer models like Dropcam or Canary, with numerous buttons, tabs, and controls. It can be confusing to find specific settings as well. For example, Z-Wave devices are added via a menu in the settings screen, but users must go to the "controls" tab to set a schedule for lights/switches, and to the "rules" tab to associate the device with an event. Consolidating these controls into fewer pages would reduce this confusion.

Home Vitals

Piper includes a "Home Vitals" screen, showing environmental data not common in consumer cameras. Piper shows not only inside and outside temperature/humidity, but noise levels, light levels, and motion levels, in a graph of the last 48 hours. 

Rules and Modes

Users can set up rules for each of four modes (which cannot be changed): "Stay", "Away", "Vacation" and "Off" (notification only). Rules may be triggered based on VMD, audio detection, temperature, or Z-Wave contact input, and trigger recording, the built-in siren, Z-Wave switches, and notifications to the user and/or their "Trusted Circle."

Trusted Circle notifications are limited, however, including only text (or phone call), no video or snapshots. This image shows the content of a sample notification. Voice alerts are simply a text-to-speech reading of this notification.

Note that Trusted Circle contacts do not have access to the user's Piper, either. Each Piper may have only a single account, which must be shared among users.

All the above functions are shown in this video:

Search and Playback

Users are presented with a list of events in the Piper app, with no way of searching for specific types of events or specific dates. Bringing up a clip shows a timeline displaying motion and other events which can be scrolled through, but the timeline is not labeled by time of day or even date, so searching for clips recorded more than a few hours ago is difficult.

Additionally, there is no way to export a clip or even save a screenshot, making sharing video with authorities difficult in case of a crime.

Z-Wave Integration

Piper includes the ability to add Z-Wave accessories [link no longer available], a feature found in few competitors. This is limited to magnetic contacts, switches/dimmers, and range extenders, with no ability to add thermostats, PIRs, or other accessories common in full blown home automation systems.

Z-Wave devices added simply, with users putting Piper in a discovery mode, then pushing the activation button of the device. We had no issues connecting contacts or switches in our tests.

Image Quality

Piper NV is 3.4MP, which is higher than most of the consumer-grade cameras on the market. However, due to the 180° FOV, video is warped, most notably at the edges, seen below.

Piper's video is also darker than many competitive cameras by default. Users may adjust brightness up using a live view control, but this appears to adjust only brightness when viewing, and this setting is not saved, forcing users to readjust it whenever video is viewed.

This image shows the difference in brightness in full light. Note that this control does not function in night mode with IR on.

Additionally, the 180° FOV further reduces PPF as opposed to the 147° FOV of Canary and 130° FOV of Dropcam Pro.

Full Light

In full light (~160 lux) the Piper delivers fewer details than the Canary and Dropcam due to it's low PPF for a 180° FOV. The subject's features are more detailed in the Canary and Dropcam Pro, and lines 4/5 of the test chart slightly more legible (ONVSR/KDNRO).

As mentioned above, warping on the edges of the FOV is a problem, and when we reached out to Piper for comment, they mentioned that "image quality looks normal" and there is no way to dewarp the image.

Dark

In the dark, the Piper NV's integrated IR is weak around the edges of the 180° FOV. However, subject and objects near the center of the FOV are illuminated well, albeit slightly under or overexposed.

In low PPF brings low details in our subject and test chart again, with no camera providing usable images of the subject, and only some legible letters on the first line of the chart.

Piper's IR illumination has a central hot spot, with dim illumination at the edges, seen here as the subject moves across the room:

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