The best smart-home systems are modular, letting you add sensors and devices to meet your home’s exact needs, and they should be easy to install too. Piper, a home security camera with additional sensors and Z-Wave support, meets those two requirements. But I didn’t find it reliable enough to justify its $199 price tag.
When it works, it’s great—the camera’s wide angle can see an entire room at once, and Piper’s app is well designed and easy to use. In fact, the app was what let me know the camera was losing its network connection pretty much every day, usually just for a few minutes, but sometimes for hours.
Great for renters
Piper is super easy to set up. You can mount it to a wall, but it’s even easier to just attach the sturdy metal stand and place the Piper unit on a shelf or a mantle. It does need to be plugged in to power, but three AA batteries provide backup if your power goes out, and let you move the camera to a new spot without taking it offline. On the flip side, on a few occasions when I wanted to power-cycle my Piper, I had to unplug it and pull out one of the batteries to get it to turn off, but most users won’t have occasion to power-cycle their Piper as often as I did during testing.
Piper’s easy installation makes it great for renters, along with the fact that the camera unit also has built-in sensors for temperature, motion, and ambinet light, and a microphone to detect sound. So you can get more detail about your home without having to buy and install extra sensors.
But Piper is also a Z-Wave hub, so if you do want extra sensors, you can add those—I tested it with a basic door/window sensor as well as a plug-in module to turn a lamp on and off. Piper’s site claims it’s compatible with “hundreds of Z-Wave automation accessories: wall switches, door/window sensors, freeze sensors, and the line will expand to include even more.” But the online store only offers four Z-Wave products, and the site lacks a comprehensive list of what’s supported right now.
You make the rules
Once you get Piper plugged in, the companion app for iOS and Android helps you add it to your Wi-Fi network, and then you’ll use the same app to set up rules for its behavior in the Rules tab. You can have separate rules for when you’re home, away, or on vacation, as well as Notify Only rules that happen all the time, regardless of where you are. But like the name says, you’re only notified—these rules can’t trigger video recordings, or Piper’s ear-meltingly loud built-in siren. It should also be noted that you set your own status (home, away, vacation, or off) in the app; it doesn’t automatically change based on your phone’s location or anything like that.
As easy as it is to set up rules in the Rules tab, I was disappointed by some of the results. A few times I popped open the app and saw an alert like a loud noise or motion detected—but I hadn’t gotten the push notification I’d requested.
The app’s Live Video tab lets you peek in on what your Piper’s ultra-wide-angle camera is seeing—and it can see a lot. With practically a 180-degree angle, the camera even showed me objects on the same mantleplace as my Piper. The camera lens is fixed, but within the app you can pan and zoom around inside that fixed field of view. There’s even a four-up view that lets you set four different views from the same camera. Pressing the microphone button lets you send your voice to the Piper’s speaker, for two-way communication, in case you want to yell at your kids to stop hitting each other or tell the dog to get off the couch.
The Rules tab offers to record video when the Piper detects motion or hears a loud sound, but you can’t save those videos, nor can you capture the video in the Live Video tab. Dropcam, in contrast, can be set to record video all the time, but it’s saved to the cloud, so you pay cloud-storage fees. Piper has no monthly fees at all, but that also means your video is more or less disposable.
Piper’s video quality isn’t as good as Dropcam’s either, and it has no night vision. So don’t try to use it as a baby monitor, or expect to be able to share a clip with friends if Piper catches your dog doing something funny.
Vitals tab doesn’t live up to its name
The Vitals tab is just a graph showing the data from the Piper’s built-in sensors: It shows the temperature outside your house (which it gets from weather data at your location), the temperature inside your house, the humidity, the amount of ambient light, the noise level, and the amount of motion that was detected. You can see about two days’ worth of data in the graphs, but you can’t isolate one section, or scroll the graph at all. I guess it could be useful in some cases—if you want to schedule your robot vacuum for times when no one’s home, maybe?—but I didn’t get much utility from it.
Vitals could give you ideas for new rules, though. For example, if you happen to notice in Vitals that your house gets really warm in the mid-afternoon, you could plug a fan into a Z-Wave module, add that module to Piper using the Controls tab, and then set a rule that when the home’s temperature rises over 80, the fan should turn on, and your pets will be just a little bit cooler. If you’d rather schedule that fan, you can do that in the Controls tab too.
Speaking of pets, Piper’s settings has a “pet at home” switch that is meant to adjust the sensitivity of the motion sensor so you don’t get a notification every time your pet moves. I have no pets, so I wasn’t able to test that.
My main issues with Piper were how the notifications didn’t always show up as push notifications, even though they appeared in the app, and the fact that it dropped its network connection at least once a day. That might be my entire network going down (I have Comcast, after all), since the Piper and my router are close enough to each other that range shouldn’t be a problem.
The app could be more helpful with troubleshooting, too. I had to resort to the support site for more details about setting up the Z-Wave plug-in modules and door sensor, for example, since the bare-bones instructions in the app didn’t fully explain what to do. I’d also like an easier way to dismiss alarms inside the Piper app. I’d get a vague message that “an alarm is active, tap here for dashboard,” and I would, and I’d see that everything was fine, but I couldn’t figure out how to tell Piper that, other than turning the rule in question off entirely, or switching to Home and then back to Away.
Still, the easy installation, flexible rules, and Z-Wave compatibility make Piper an intriguing option for people just starting to dabble with connected home products. Parent company iControl offers a 30-day return window (just for Piper, not for the Z-Wave accessories), so you can take it for a spin at your own house with minimal risk.