Gadget Freak: Your home surveillance network

After years of gadget hoarding, my home office looks like the stock room at an electronics boutique. And while my wife would dearly love for someone to break in and steal all of my beloved gizmos, I feel a little more protective.

The last time I tried to protect my stuff, I looked at the Shell HomeGenie, but it was too pricey and complicated. This time I tried two products that seem to offer more bang for fewer bucks: SafeScout from SentinelVision and LukWerks from WiLife. These systems use motion sensors, cameras, and the Net to alert you when bad guys come a-prowling. They cost less than traditional surveillance equipment and promise easy installation and operation. But for me they proved to be a little more involved.

Overly alarming

You can place SafeScout (US$299 list) virtually anywhere because it doesn't require a PC. This Gamecube-size gizmo features a numeric keypad on top, and a camera and motion detector in front. Normally you'd install it in a vacation home or train it on an expensive piece of gear, like a boat. For my tests, I put it on a table in the family room to see how it handled lots of "intruders" in a short time. I plugged it into an AC outlet and a phone jack, and plugged a separate radio-controlled siren in another room.

Step within range of its motion detector, and it snaps five photos, captures 20 seconds of audio, and kicks off a siren, which sounds eerily like a death-ray gun from a fifties sci-fi flick. To disarm it, use a key fob or punch in a code (you can't schedule it to turn on or off). I quickly learned to carry the key fob at all times.

For US$20 a month SafeScout notifies you via e-mail or phone when the alarm is tripped. For another US$10 it'll call the cops for you, and US$10 more fetches you an alert whenever the alarm is armed or disarmed. Unfortunately, it called me even when I turned the alarm on or off. With a little tweaking (and tech support) I got SafeScout to stop harassing me. Even so, US$299 and US$20 to US$40 a month seems pricey for what's essentially a burglar alarm.

Luk warm

Then I installed WiLife's LukWerks starter kit (US$300 list), which uses a power-line network and your PC. Affix the kit's motion sensor/camera to a wall or window, and plug it into an AC power outlet. Plug its receiver into another AC outlet, and connect it to your PC's USB port. Install the software, and voil\0xE0instant home surveillance system.

Except the setup proved a mite trickier. First I had to tweak my firewall settings so my PC could find the camera. Then I suction-cupped the camera to a window overlooking my porch, and told the software to send video alerts to my inbox and text messages to my cell. LukWerks proceeded to pummel me with alerts. I got 85 phone alerts in 45 minutes, all false. LukWerks sent me so much e-mail that Gmail declared me a spammer and temporarily shuttered my account.

Turns out LukWerks occasionally mistakes changes in light for motion, says WiLife COO Grant Beckmann; my porch's gently flickering party lights convinced the camera that there was indeed a party going on. It relaxed after I cranked down the camera's motion sensitivity and defined zones where the camera should look for movement.

LukWerks has some nifty features, though: You can display six cameras at once (US$230 each), watch them from anywhere via the Web, or search through video archives. Software that limits the frequency of e-mail alerts should be available now.

For the same initial outlay, LukWerks offers a lot more than SafeScout--with no monthly fees. This level of video surveillance from a firm like ADT would cost you US$2000 for a single camera, plus US$20 to US$40 per month for the service.

You could do worse than hire LukWerks to protect a small business or to guard your gear. Then again, maybe it's time to have a garage sale instead.

Contributing Editor Dan Tynan is the author of Computer Privacy Annoyances (O'Reilly Media, 2005). You can send him e-mail at gadgetfreak@pcworld.com.

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