Home security cameras can provide a sense of, well, security, but there's something Orwellian about having a lens staring at you like a prop out of an episode of The Prisoner. A more discreet solution is something that doesn't look like a camera and, better yet, combines some other functions to make it more welcome. One example is the Sentri home monitoring system that combines a motion-activated camera with the looks of a digital information center. We powered one up to see what it could do.

On opening, the box contained the Sentri unit, a USB cable and wall adapter, and a set of disappointing mounting screws that could have done with some molly bolts. According to a company spokeswoman, one goal of the Sentri was to make it as easy to install as possible and it scored very well there. The process was a very simple Kindle-like set up, where the device acts as its own set up guide and a user manual that explains its own operations and functions.

Setting up the Sentri involves opening the rear access panel on the device, which also acts as a fold-out stand, and plugging in the included USB cable and wall adapter. Refreshingly, the cable is long enough to be practical, though, like all cables, it detracts from the aesthetics and limits where the device can be set up. The device connects to the home network using Wi-Fi or can connect directly to the router using an Ethernet cable. Once plugged in, Sentri walks the user through the setup, which is little more than entering an email address, selecting a password, and providing the Wi-Fi network password. In all, this took us a little more than three minutes from start to finish.

When it's up and running, Sentri's most notable feature is its 10.1-in touchscreen, which makes it look a bit like an inch-thick tablet. The screen controls the self-contained device and its settings. The Home screen displays the time against a themed background, the room temperature, current weather, humidity, and air quality. Touching the icons for any of these displays trends for the day, week, or month, except for the weather, which displays a seven-day forecast. On each screen there's a link to further explain the page and settings.

Swiping left on the display brings up the Settings screen, which allows the user to switch the security camera between Away mode, which activates the motion detector, and Home, which turns it off. It also lets the user select which image to use for the Home screen background or set it to automatically flip through available images. The screen also allows access to account settings.

Swiping right brings up the Security screen, which displays alerts and provides access to video clips. It also allows the user to add home automation devices that Sentri can monitor and control, such as Nest Thermostat, Belkin WeMo switches, and Philips Hue lights.

Since security is one of Sentri's primary functions, it has a 120 degree front-facing HD camera and microphone backed up by a motion detection algorithm for capturing live video. It also has night vision capability. There's a small built-in battery, too, so it can operate when the power is disconnected, but it can't connect to the Wi-Fi network in this condition and its functions are limited.

The makers stress that Sentri is more than just a camera. In addition to acting as a hub to control other home automation devices, it's also an environmental monitor. Sentri can learn what the normal conditions are in its environment and send alerts when these change. As it watches the temperature, humidity, and air quality of the room, any large change in these or a sudden jolt to Sentri's accelerometers will cause it to activate and send an alert to its owner. In addition, the user can tell Sentri to disregard certain alerts, such as dogs walking through the room.

Another dimension to Sentri is its smartphone app, which the makers say is optional. This allows the user to directly control Sentri and other devices connected to it. Sentri sends alerts to the app when it detects movement, other changes in the environment, or if it's unplugged or disconnected from the power outlet. In addition, the app can bring up environmental readings and trends, provide live video monitoring on demand, and activate a siren to warn off intruders.

Though the device does have some internal memory for the operating system and storage, access to captured video events is mostly via the smartphone app or a dedicated cloud storage service. The system comes with 12 hours of free online storage for footage and alerts, while a subscription of US$9.99 per month will get you a week's worth of archive storage.

The company says that Sentri is still a work in progress with new updates to its software scheduled to roll out. One of this is an auto-dim function, which would be welcome. Currently, Sentri can only be dimmed manually, which makes it less than welcome in a bedroom.

After using Sentri in a home setting, we found it aesthetically beautiful with the looks of an upmarket clock or home information system. It could be regarded as a multifunction clock or a weather station (depending on its mode) at a casual glance without realizing that it has a camera and microphone built in. The design is a bit on the Apple-esque side, but this blends with more modern decor and could be overlooked in a traditional setting.

One major drawback is that Sentri is that, at 9.75-in (25-cm) wide and over 1-in (2.5-cm) thick, it's quite large, which, along with the power cable, limits where it can go. It can be wall mounted or sit on a bookshelf, though the wall mounting turned out to be the most practical for us. Unfortunately, sitting flush on the wall means the fixed camera can only look straight ahead, which limits room coverage. However, the Wi-Fi connection did remain strong wherever it was placed within the apartment.

Another failing is the picture quality. The results tend to look a bit dim in home lighting, the resolution leaves a lot to be desired, and the night vision could be better, but the video system does manage to keep flaring down. In addition, there is currently no means of saving images to another platform.

The Sentri sells for $299, with free shipping until November, 27, 2015, when units start shipping.

Product page: Sentri

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