Astak makes a socially connected webcam (June 19th, 2010)
Astak's Mole is a remote controlled network camera with a twist: it integrates with a variety of social networks. Astak has thrown every possible feature into the Mole except for perhaps the proverbial kitchen sink. With an asking price of $279, the Mole theoretically offers a lot of features at a fairly attractive price point. But long list of features is one thing; a great user experience is entirely another. We'll see in our review if the Mole delivers both.
Product Manufacturer: Astak
- Great social network component.
- Web-based, OS-independent setup; iPhone site.
- Motion detection and reporting.
- Audio in/out.
- SD card slot.
- Noticeable lag even on a local network.
- Strictly average image quality.
- Loud motors during pans.
- Web tools could use minor improvements.
- SD card not bundled in.
Out of the box, the Mole comes with just a network cable, power cord, Wi-Fi antenna, mounting hardware, and some documentation. We expected the setup to be an arduous task, but the "3 step quick setup" guide suggested otherwise and proved to be accurate. Once we had the Mole plugged into power and Ethernet, we were ready to go. Users access the Mole through a web browser, and no desktop apps are required.
Astak enlisted the services of a company called Yoics in developing their web access for the Mole. Yoics has a web-based SaaS (software-as-a-service) platform that allows Mole owners to connect to their camera from an Internet connection. When first setting up the Mole, you first have to configure a Yoics account. The initial setup took just a minute or two and our only complaint was that we had to create two logins: one login is for the Yoics platform, and another is for the Mole itself. The Mole does allow three levels of user access, and the Yoics platform can let other Yoics users access your devices if you give them permission, so while two logins seems annoying, they both exist for a reason. Yoics does offer a desktop app to control Yoics-compliant products, but in the case of the Mole it simply launches the web browser interface; as such, we don't recommend that users even bother to load the app. Bookmarking the Yoics page is enough.
Software and hardware
Once everything is configured, users are greeted with a very simple software interface with just four tabs. The main tab allows users to actively view and control the camera while the other tabs adjust light settings and other advanced controls. The Mole's lens can be turned and tilted through the online interface. It pans 270 degrees horizontally and can tilt 125 degrees vertically. There are also controls to send the camera through a full range of panning or tilting motions, center the lens, and remember fixed angles.
In the advanced settings, we found controls to attach the Mole to our wireless network; this was quick. Elsewhere in the settings there are options to enable Twitter, YouTube, e-mail notification, scheduled recording times, and motion activation settings.
From a hardware perspective, the Mole is everything users would expect in terms of size and weight. On the back panel of the Mole are connections for audio in and out as well as Ethernet, power, a Wi-Fi antenna, and an SD card reader. Having an SD card installed is a requisite for integrating the camera with social networks, as data is transmitted to YouTube slower than it's recorded. Still shots are automatically saved to the SD card but can be automatically mailed to users on a fixed time schedule. Videos are archived on the SD card, and users will have to occasionally delete content on the card to keep space available for future usage. Without an SD card, the camera simply functions as a live viewing device and offers no recording capabilities.
Astak says that there can be as many as five users logged into one camera at a time. We tested three users: one a Windows computer using Firefox, another a Windows computer using Internet Explorer, and the third an iPhone. Internet Explorer seemed to offer a better user experience in terms of load time than Firefox did, though this may be subjective. We were very impressed with our user experience on the iPhone, however. The video quality on the phone was great, mostly due to the phone's small screen size, but even controlling the camera from the phone worked well so long as Safari didn't take mistake our taps to control the camera as instructions to zoom into the web page.
We tested several of the major features on the Mole, including its motion sensing capabilities and the YouTube and Twitter integration. When we first set up the three features, we had to leave the office for a few moments and forgot that it was ready. Minutes later we noticed that the motion sensor had seen us walking around the office, uploaded three videos to YouTube, and automatically tweeted the YouTube links! It was safe to say that configuring the Mole as a social media integrated security camera is trivially easy.
We do have some complaints about the Mole despite it being so easy to setup and use. We noticed the noise the microphone picked up when the camera was rotating; as we heard in our video below, it's very audible. It could not only drown out quieter sounds in the room but could tip off a thief; that might be a good thing for some, but not for others.
Our second gripe is the intense amount of blurring that motion creates on the camera. While we don't expect HD quality movies out of the Mole, and still shots are alright, we did expect much less smearing and blurring than we actually observed during testing. Again, in our test clip you will see the blurring; although we were expecting the focal distance to change quickly as the camera panned over the rack of DVDs, we did expect better clarity in the process.
Manual control also isn't necessarily as quick as we would have liked. The directional controls on the Mole seem to take too long to respond, even on a local network. As such, we wouldn't use this for remote footage that needs immediate reactions.
The Mole is a compelling pick for those shopping for a network camera loaded with features, particularly for those who want it to integrate with their lives. The social media integration has many potential uses for home security or just for keeping up to date when someone gets home. Added features like motion detection, scheduled recordings, and full manual control are simply icing. While we have some reservations about the software's user friendliness and performance, the Mole certainly does offer a lot for under $300.