Top of Mind: The Subscription is Optional My Ass!

Michael Brown

Welcome to the first edition of my new column, Top of Mind, in which I’ll discuss a variety of issues percolating at the top of my brain. Some topics will be from the news, others will spring from my life as a tech geek, and many will be related to my day-to-day work as reviews editor here at Maximum PC.

One trend that’s been bugging me lately is the proliferation of products that come with subscription plans attached. I’ve recently encountered three examples where subscriptions are ostensibly optional, but where much of the product’s value and appeal vaporizes if you don’t pony up for the subscription.

Schlage's new LiNK system is fabulous, but the annual subscription fee is as welcome as a case of herpes.

When I built a new home about three years ago I incorporated a lot of technology into its infrastructure: A home-run with CAT5e wiring to every room, Logitech’s Wi-Life surveillance cameras, about 40 of Intermatic’s Z-Wave lighting-control devices (dimmers, switches, and outlets), and more. Since I do so much product testing at home, we’ve taken to calling the place Maximum PC Lab North. You’ll find some information about it here , but since that story is now two years old, I’ll update it in a future column.

I’ve been looking for a good Z-Wave controller and an Ethernet bridge/gateway ever since we moved in, because Intermatic’s controller is riddled with bugs and the company never developed an bridge/gateway that would enable me to monitor or control the Z-Wave devices with my PC or via the Web. While attending an open house at Sigma Design a few months back (Sigma acquired Z-Wave developer Zensys in 2009), I saw an intriguing demo of Ingersoll-Rand’s Schlage LiNK system.

The wireless camera and the thermostat are purchased separately from the LiNK starter kit.

The $250 LiNK starter kit consists of a deadbolt lock with a numeric keypad and a Z-Wave lamp module; more importantly, it comes with a Z-Wave-to-Ethernet bridge/gateway. The LiNK ecosystem also includes a $180 wireless security camera and a $150 programmable Z-Wave thermostat manufactured by Ingersoll-Rand’s Trane HVAC division. I requested the whole kit and caboodle for a review that will appear online and in the debut issue of Maximum Tech in September.

The system works great. I never thought I’d care about having a deadbolt lock I could monitor—and unlock—from afar, but considering how much time I spend away from home, I’ve found it very reassuring to be able to check on it using Schlage’s smartphone app or my PC’s web browser. I dig the thermostat, too, which enables me to program—using my PC a—four heating and cooling events for each day of the week or any combination of days.

But after you’ve spent $580 to acquire the Schlage products described above, and paid between $50 and $75 for each Z-Wave dimmer, switch, and outlet, forking over an additional $13 $9 per month to access and control the devices over the Internet flat-out stinks. Remote access and

remote programmability are at least half the appeal and value of this hardware, and it’ll cost you more than $150 per year.

Schlage’s system includes an optional indoor wireless IP security camera, but the camera doesn’t have a motion sensor, so it can’t automatically snap pictures when it detects motion when the house is supposed to be empty, and it can’t send alerts to my smartphone. I recently bestowed a 9 Kick Ass verdict on Logitech’s new Alert video surveillance system. Logitech offers indoor and outdoor cameras—both of which have motion sensors—and the outdoor camera features built-in night vision. The cameras automatically record a video clip when they detect motion, a feature you can turn off when you’re scheduled to be home, and you can monitor the cameras in real time over the Internet for free.

But if you want the system to send alerts to your smartphone and/or email address, or remotely view previously recorded video clips—to see more details about what triggered an alert, for instance—you’ll have to cough up $80 per year for Logitech’s Alert Mobile Commander and Alert Web Commander services. What’s even more grating is that Logitech’s system doesn’t tie into your Z-Wave network, so if it’s dark and you want to see what’s happening inside your home, you’ll need Schlage’s service to turn on the lights. Now you’re paying $20 per month plus the cost of the equipment for your home-control system.

Now some home-server manufacturers want to get in on the act. I recently reviewed Verbatim’s DLNA-compliant MediaShare server (also for Maximum Tech), which boasts the ability to send emails to friends and family inviting them to share music, photo slideshows, videos, and other digital media stored on your home server. It’ll upload your digital photos to your Facebook account and back up your local PCs, too. But if you’d rather upload those snapshots to Flickr, or if you have more than three users who’d like to share the device, or if you want to access the server from your smartphone via the Internet, you’ll need to sign up for Verbatim’s “premium” service, which costs $20 per year.

Verbatim's MediaShare server is priced at $200, but it costs an extra $20 per year to unlock all its features.

The ability to control electronic devices over the Internet should not be this expensive. I understand these companies need to recoup their R&D expenses and must maintain servers to render these services, but give me a break. You can buy the OEM version of Microsoft’s Home Server operating system for less than $100 and access your home server remotely via the Internet for absolutely no additional cost.

I don't begrudge companies earning a profit on their products, but these subscription plans are getting out of hand. What do you think?

Editor's Note : This story was updated to reflect Schlage's new subscription fee.

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