When I was in the process of opening my small pharmacy more than 3 years ago, I contacted a security firm and installed several thousands of dollars worth of surveillance and alarm equipment. It works reliably, but it's a huge pain to change any setting in the system (there's no user interface, just a bunch of wires and keys) or get any footage out of it. It feels antiquated compared to today's more modern Internet-connected smart solutions with simplified experiences, but that was the most appropriate choice at the time.
A couple of months ago, I got a Piper unit, a "smart, elegant, security and home automation" system as the company markets itself. It is less than tenth the price of my setup, a hundred times easier to use, and from my experience, less reliable in its current implementation. Despite being targeted for home use, Piper seemed like a good add-on to my pharmacy's setup, mostly because of its monitoring and automation features. The security options felt like a bonus.
With several weeks of use behind me, my doubts have been confirmed. Piper has some shortcomings as a security solution, especially if you try to use it in a small business (as opposed to a home), but it still has a raison d'être and quickly became a mainstay in my pharmacy, next to my more professional setup.
Piper's Hardware Specs
- Processor: TI DaVinci ARM SoC with h.264 encoding
- Memory: 128MB DDR2 RAM; 256MB flash
- 802.11b/g/n (Marvell WiFi chipset)
- Z-Wave controller
- Passive infrared motion sensor (up to 30 feet)
- HD camera with 180-degree fisheye lens
- 1920 x 1080 Omnivision CMOS sensor
- Remote digital pan, tilt, and 10x zoom
- Audio: mic; speaker; 105 dB siren
- Ambient light sensor
- Temperature sensor
- Humidity sensor
- 3-axis accelerometer
- Other features: RGB LED; wall mounts
- Power: 7.5W AC/DC wall adaptor; battery backup
- Operating system: Linux (OpenEmbedded)
- App compatibility: Android and iOS
- Good hardware design and execution
- Rather stealthy look
- Fast and easy setup
- Data conscious system with no unnecessary streaming
- On-demand live view works well, and the two-way audio comes in handy
- Indoor monitoring is cool
- Takes pets into account
- Multiple Piper support for a more robust system
The Not So Good
- Apps looks like a mock-up and not what we expect from a final product
- No option to save or view old footage, unless an event triggered a recording
- No way to automatically enable Away mode
- No setting to change how long or loud the siren sounds
- Might not reconnect after a power outage
- Limited Z-Wave support
Piper started out as an Indiegogo project about a year ago. Indiegogo, shudder, I know. But hear me out, because this story is actually different. The project tripled its goal, raising about $300K, and promising a home security, monitoring, and automation system for an affordable price delivered almost immediately to the US (and a bit later to the rest of the world).
Almost miraculously, the folks behind Piper managed to stay close to their promised product design, features, and delivery date. That's an applaudable feat by itself in the crowdfunding world. Right now, Piper is available for purchase in single units and home packs, along with Z-Wave accessories and kits. The starting price is $199 for one Piper and can go as high as $799 for three Pipers and 5 Z-Wave accessories.
Good Lookin' Hardware
Piper is available as either a white or a black unit. I got the white one, which looks oddly similar to a wall-mounted air freshener, save for a big camera and motion detector in the middle. Despite this resemblance, it doesn't feel cheap or tacky, blending in well with the white and silver accents of my pharmacy. It should do the same in any home or office interior.
Piper is surprisingly well-designed and built, never giving the impression of being a beta or unfinished product. The unit has a smooth shiny exterior, a matte dark grey speaker grill on the top and bottom, and comes with both an aluminum stand and wall mount, allowing you to set it up wherever you want. The aluminum stand clicks in place solidly and holds Piper up without the risk of toppling over from the faintest wobble or movement.
An RGB LED light shines in the middle, varying its colors according to the various states the Piper unit is in. When it's solid green, you know that Piper is on and connected to the network.
Setting up Piper was a straightforward and easy ten minute process. As opposed to having a small team drill holes into walls and wire things for an entire day to place several cameras and sensors, Piper's installation seemed like child's play. But then again, these products belong in different categories altogether.
All I had to do was remove the aluminum stand, put the batteries in, hook the power cable, and put the stand back on. A power button on the back of the unit turned it on. I followed the instructions to download the Piper app, create an account — no Google sign-in unfortunately — then connected it to my WiFi network and changed some of the default settings. All in all, it was a surprisingly fast and painless setup. Despite that, Piper's website also offers detailed support pages with tutorials and answers to the most common concerns.
Poorly Designed App
Just forget what you know about good Android app design for a bit. (And iOS for that matter.) The current Piper app follows no guidelines, it just feels like an execution from the doodle someone did (and never revisited) when they were trying to figure out what the app should do.
That alone almost ruined the experience for me. But I soldiered on, because I'm a dedicated gadget reviewer and that's what we do. For a few weeks, the app's responsiveness was also wonky, but that seems to have been completely fixed in the latest update — or maybe I became immune to its jerkiness?
These issues aside, the app is your central hub for viewing the data gathered by Piper and controlling everything about it. It houses 5 main screens:
- Dashboard is where you see which Piper rule is activated, your latest events, and access your recordings and settings.
- Vitals houses a graph view of Piper's sensor recording for the last 48 hours, including indoor temperature, humidity, light, sound, and motion.
- Live Video launches Piper's camera to show you what's happening now, with options to enable multi-angle views and start two-way audio.
- Controls is Piper's home automation area where you can connect Z-Wave on/off switches, dimmers, and open/close sensors.
- Rules lets you figure out the different settings for when you are home, away, on a vacation, along with other always-on monitoring notifications.
Ugly, ugly app!
Monitoring With Piper
Vitals And Sensors
Sensors are the main reason I was drawn to Piper. Unlike most security cameras, this one promised to not only be my eyes when I'm away, but also my other senses. Piper has dedicated sensors to measure indoor temperature, humidity, light, motion, and thanks to its microphone, it also monitors sound.
The app keeps a tab on all of these vitals for the past 48 hours and plots them next to the outdoor temperature (most likely gathered from an online source). Of course the graphs help you make sure there weren't any security threats or unexpected changes at odd times, but being a stats geek, I find myself fascinated by some of the more specific data:
- How the indoor temperature is being naturally regulated (I don't have a thermostat) despite the variations in the outdoor one
- How the light varies (my pharmacy's opening hours, with the lights on) compared to the average day/night cycle
- How the sound and motion graphs show the busiest and slowest times of each opening day.
Monitoring the vitals. See the several hour break in the second screenshot? That's a reconnection issue that I will talk about later.
For a business owner (and even for a household or office), Piper's data can be quite fun to go through. But I wish it saved more than 48 hours worth of stats and allowed me to analyze them. What was my busiest day? How low or high does the outdoor temperature have to be for the indoor one to start varying more? Does the outdoor day/night situation affect how loud or busy the indoor is? And so on.
Another way you can use Piper to monitor your home or work is via the camera. By default, Piper does not stream or save any video, but if you launch the Live Video tab on the app, you will trigger a live stream from the fish-eye camera.
For one single camera, the amount of detail and data captured is impressive. Thanks to a 180-degree fish-eye lens, you get a wide field of vision that is as close to being there in person and seeing things with your own eyes as possible.
A regular camera's field of vision (left) compared to Piper's (right) from the same spot. You can see the plant and part of the counter!
Piper's interface lets you choose between one fullscreen view or four separate smaller ones. This obviously comes in handy when you have multiple Piper units set up, but it also lets you divide the big field of vision of a single Piper unit. In my case, I can have one frame for the full picture and three frames dedicated to specific areas within Piper's field. You can reframe all of these with simple pinch and zoom, and dragging gestures.
With one Piper, you can focus the frames on 4 different areas, with varying degrees of clarity depending on the zoom level. Quite cool!
Another awesome feature is the two-way audio communication. Not only can you hear what's going on, you'll also be able to speak back to Piper. "Why?" I hear you ask. Well, the easy answer is to entertain house pets or creep out thieves should you be the unlucky victim of a robbery. But I've also used it while I was away on vacation to surprise and confuse my assistant and fill-in pharmacist. "Hello." And I saw them jump up, completely startled by my omnipotence. Beware, I am everywhere.
The Live Video tab also has a brightness slider to improve the visibility if the video is too dark, and a lamp button to turn on any connected Z-Wave lights.
Securing With Piper
Dat siren! Here's a friendly warning. If you plan on testing the siren feature of Piper, just don't stand next to it. Also make sure you have a quick plan to turn it off. I tested it while I was two feet away and the loud sound shocked the sense of logic out of my brain. I was useless for a few seconds, then I pulled its electricity plug and removed the batteries. That did shut it off.
The above sentence represents everything that's right and wrong about Piper as a security system: it is surprisingly powerful for its size, but also easy to circumvent and thus unreliable.
You can set rules for Home, Away, and Vacation modes, along with an always-on monitoring rule. The default rule triggers are motion, sound, and temperature. The default actions include sounding the siren, recording a video, notifying you (push message, phone call, email, and/or text message) or someone in your trusted circle. That last option can come in handy while you're on vacation for example.
You can also delay the siren (hard-set to about 10-15 seconds) to give you time to leave the house before Piper activates, and there are settings to let the motion detector account for pets of different sizes.
All of these work as advertized. If a rule triggered a video recording, it will be uploaded and made available to you on the Piper app, with either the fullscreen view or the four-frame one.
The problem with Piper, however, is that it is too reliant on an internet connection, electricity, and your good'ol memory:
- You will have to manually set the Away mode every day, there's no scheduling feature and not even an automatic one that detects when your phone isn't connected to the same WiFi network. You'll also have to remember to disable the system when you get back before the dreaded siren wakes up the entire street.
- On the off-chance that something bad happens the day you forgot to set the Away rule, you can't go back and see any recorded footage. Piper doesn't keep any videos unless an event triggered them.
- If a thief disconnects the electricity, Piper will switch to the battery mode, but without a router, it is next to useless in letting you know what has happened.
- If a thief has canvassed the place before, he could easily disconnect Piper's electricity power and remove its batteries to circumvent its presence.
- When faced with long power outages (like the ones that occur frequently in my country), Piper does well in switching to the battery mode, but may take hours reconnecting to the network after the power has been restored. I've faced this issue at least four times in the past months — enough to completely dissuade me from its efficiency as a security system.
By comparison, the archaic security systems that are often used in homes and businesses keep at least a few weeks worth of video recordings, are easily triggered and disabled with a key or combination (and hence harder to forget), have a bigger backup power generator, and remain mostly functional despite the lack of electricity or an Internet connection.
These differences are the reason why I wouldn't recommend using Piper as your sole security system, especially if you are protecting valuable home items or a small business.
Automating With Piper
Piper's Z-Wave controller support includes on/off switches, dimmers, open/close sensors, and range extenders. The Piper store has a selection of tested accessories, but you can also use many existing Z-Wave products with it. These will act as either triggers or actions in Piper's rules.
This integration is very awesome when you consider Piper's monitoring capabilities. Motion detected? Turn on the light and start a recording. Door open? Notify me. These are just a few examples of what you could have Piper do.
Despite starting out on Indiegogo, Piper is a surprisingly capable and well-executed project. The hardware is close to perfect, but the app needs a complete redesign and many more functional updates. Thankfully, software can be modified a lot easier than hardware. But as a general rule of thumb, don't consider getting Piper unless you're willing to live with what the app looks like now, just in case it doesn't get updated.
As for its functionality, there are very few solutions on the market that can do as much as Piper does for its price. For a home setup (single unit for a small apartment or multiple units for one with several entrance points), it could be a bit of a gamble to use it for security. Piper may just have enough features to do the job on most occasions and will save you a lot of money in the process. However, its biggest shortcoming is the inability to view old footage, and that won't change. Piper only has 256MB of memory so it can't save files locally. And if it starts streaming everything to Piper's cloud, that will negate the data-conscious aspect of the service. That's a tough spot to be in, and I hope the next generation unit has at least a few Gigabytes of storage to save the last 24 hours of video as a minimum.
That's why, if you have the cash to spare, you may well be served by other solutions that tackle monitoring and automation independently from security, even for a small apartment. You're also definitely better off with a dedicated security system if you own a big house or a small business.