“In Any Moment Of Decision, The Worst Thing You can Do Is Nothing”
Theodore Roosevelt was on the right track. Today we call it analysis paralysis.
It may not be the most critical part of my smart home, but choosing the right video doorbell has been one of the more difficult decisions for me.
There are several good products and many many other ones to choose from. The challenge for me has been finding the product that meets all of my criteria 100 per cent.
In a previous newsletter about smart home upgrades called Out With The Old; In With The New, I listed the criteria I use to help me choose between the “hero” and “zero”.
If you would like to read or re-read the issue, I’ve posted it to my website blog here.
The problem for me is that I have not been able to find a product that meets all my criteria. If a product is great in one area, it falls down in another that is equally important. What to do?
My first reaction was “Expletive deleted, don’t get anything”. That’s the easy way out. The truth is, why should I deprive my household the benefits (and enjoyment) of using a video doorbell just because no single product is perfect?
Smart Home FOMO
I’m sure many of you face the same dilemma. There is something that you want, but it is not perfect. Should you proceed now, or hold off hoping that something better will come along in the future.
In the online social world they call this FOMO — fear of missing out. Let me assure you this is just as real for smart home gadgets and systems. The only difference — by “missing out”, you do avoid spending a lot of money :-)
For me, the answer was to be logical and practical: If the price is reasonable, and the product, provides useful features and capabilities that I want, then stop waiting for perfection (which may never come) and go forward.
You Can’t Always Get What You Want
So here’s the stuff I wanted that no single product could/can provide.
This is not an exhaustive list of all the features of video doorbells, just the things that are important to me.
When you are planning your DIY project, draw up your own list of criteria and then compare possible products against the list. It makes it much easier to choose, especially when there is no clear-cut winner, when you have objective data in front of you.
In a word, it has to look nice. This is a lot easier said than done. The computer geeks that build most of our smart home products have no sense of design.
They don’t understand colors, finishes, or visual aesthetics. Size and shape of an enclosure is limited to what type of sheet metal or plastic they wrap around the product at the last minute when everything else is done.
In my house, along with many of my smart home clients, the first criteria is how the product looks. Before even discussing any of the features or capability, the client wants to see a photograph or sample product to see if it will fit with their architectural style, color scheme, or physical location.
In the systems integration business, we often joke amongst ourselves about getting the SAF (spouse approval factor), CFO approval (chief financial officer), and the ADC sign-off (architectural design committee) for each project — usually all from the same person!
I don’t want to deal with batteries. There is existing wiring for my original doorbell so I know, somehow, I should be able to get a video doorbell that has a hardwired power supply and does not rely only on a battery.
Using a battery powered device superficially solves lot of DIY problems and that is why they are so popular. Mounting can be done (poorly) with glue or sticky tape so no drilling or mechanical effort is needed. But this is wrong, very wrong!
I won’t go into all the tech details here, but doorbells are powered using this weird thing called 20 VAC power. It’s not your normal direct current (DC) power supply and it’s not the typical high-voltage 110V alternating current (AC) in all your wall sockets.
There are subtle issues with cutting in to your existing doorbell power supply and circuity so in this case, the product warnings of “professional installation required” rightly should scare off many DIY’s that don’t have electrical or wiring expertise.
In my home our existing doorbell, which we replaced a lot time ago with a cheap wireless unit from a big box store, did not have a standard ringer. It was wired up more like an intercom system and caused one of our home telephones to ring.
The product I choose has to have a ringer option besides hooking up to the existing doorbell ringer (which we don’t have). Now every video doorbell on the market comes with an app for your smartphone where you can get alerts, but I need a solution that doesn’t require everyone to have the app installed on their smartphone.
It is not acceptable to assume everyone will always have their smartphone with them and with children, guests, and visitors staying in your home (when you are not there), the doorbell needs to simply work — as it always did — with an easily heard ringer.
This is a little more specialized need, but with the layout of our home, we don’t always hear the doorbell. So being able to install an extra ringer of some kind in another part of the house was high on my list. (Not an absolute requirement, but a highly desirable-give-you-extra-points kind of feature.)
This wasn’t so common at first, but since the popular Ring Video Doorbell (spoiler alert — it didn’t make my list) has an optional electronic ringer, this is becoming “table stakes” for all the competing products too.
Real-Time live Video
I want to be able to see the continuous video feed from the doorbell camera at any time, whenever I want, from anywhere in the world (yes, literally). I thought this would be an easy requirement, but it turns out to be one of the things that “separates the men from the boys”.
Although all professional (and most consumer) security camera systems can do this, the majority of video doorbells cannot. Some products only provide video clips when the doorbell is pressed; only provide a live video feed after someone at your door has pressed the button; or have time limits on continuous video viewing.
There are technical reasons for this with the biggest limitations being the use of batteries and cloud servers. That’s why one of my criteria earlier was requiring line power but that is not enough.
My rationale? A video doorbell is mounted in a great spot — right in front of your door at eye level. It’s the perfect location for a security camera and the best example of “hiding in plain sight”.
Video door bells are designed for outdoor use so they already have the weatherproofing and physical design to resist the elements. It’s a perfect candidate for dual-use: serving the function of a doorbell and a security camera at the same time.
Note to manufacturers: When a video doorbell can truly act just like a regular security camera it is worth more and can sell for more. Although pricing was not the most important criteria, I’m ok with my choices being more expensive than the popular Ring doorbell because I’m actually saving the cost of a separate security camera (that’s a $50 to $300 or more savings).
Compatible with Industry Standards
This is often my most important criteria. I want a product that is compatible with key standards such as Amazon Alexa, Apple HomeKit, Google Home, and networking/technical standards.
Most significant, and this is where otherwise great consumer products fall down, I want a video doorbell that is compatible with established, widely used streaming video standards for cameras. Specifically, the RTSP video stream and (optionally) the ONVIF auto-configuration protocols.
There are technical reasons and business reasons why most video doorbells do not support these standards. As a former computer/network engineer, I know full well that designing a product to adhere to a standard is simply a pain-in-the-ass (PITA). Engineers hate being told how to do something and then being graded yes or no as to whether they met the objective.
Greed is Good?
I believe the real barrier is greed, not techology. Video doorbell manufacturers wants to reap the benefits of very profitable and ongoing revenue from monthly cloud storage/hosting fees. By refusing to make their cameras compatible with de facto standards, the homeowner is forced into a walled-garden and can’t buy the most cost-effective products and can’t use them with other systems.
I have not found a video doorbell that meets all my requirements including supporting all these standards. In the end, I compromised here in order to proceed as no ideal choices exist (or existed).
And The Runner-Up Is…
My second choice, and the product I have been using the past two years is the DoorBird video doorbell. Yeah, it’s a weird name. This thing is engineered and manufactured in Germany, but available worldwide.
The DoorBird passed the ADC (architectural committee) with flying colors and until recently was the only product available with continuous video. I really like that it supports industry standard ONVIF and RTSP streaming video protocols so it can be connected to many different software systems for live viewing and recording.
The DoorBird has a full API (application programming interface) allowing it to be controlled by many automation systems including consumer and high end commercial systems like Control4. It’s a favorite of professional installers for this reason.
The DoorBird is line powered and uses industry standard Power-over-Ethernet (PoE) or a regular DC power supply. It does not use the funky doorbell 24VAC power supply.
Another key consideration was the support for auxiliary electronic ringers. These wall mounted devices are nicely designed, work on either Ethernet or Wi-Fi and you can use more than one to put ringers anywhere in your house that you want.
For limitations, I have to say the smartphone app works and is ok, but won’t win any design awards. The product is expensive, but includes options for controlling electrically operated door locks and a secondary wired doorbell button, so it is very flexible. They have plans to support RFID keyless entry, video intercom systems and other features geared more towards mansions, apartment buildings, or larger installations.
We Have A Winner!
My first-choice, and the video doorbell I am now using at my home, is a new product but not a new company. The Nest Hello, from the same company that literally invented the modern smart HVAC control with the Nest thermostat, has done it again.
Many pundits said they were very late in bringing out a doorbell (there are many other competitors now), but they didn’t just do a “me too” product. IMHO, the Nest Hello is superior to industry leader Ring and every other product on the market (as of this writing).
I’m simply blown away by the video quality! The Nest Hello has combined a high resolution camera with HDR (high dynamic range) capability typically found only on high end TV’s.
The video from this thing is far better than any other doorbell in both bright sunlight and darkness. The unique HDR feature means that when the camera adjusts the brightness so you can see the person in front of the door, the background is not blown out as a solid white blob — you can see full details on the background street view behind the person.
The Nest Hello requires the 24VAC doorbell power supply so it is not the easiest or simplest to install but it doesn’t need babysitting like the other products using batteries.
The Nest Hello wasn’t the ugliest, but it failed the initial ADC (visual review). With it’s small streamlined size, I was able to mount a standard light switch decorative metallic wall plate behind it to provide a more acceptable visual look. I also found colored plastic sleeves on Amazon that cover the jarring white plastic casing so with these mods it gained ADC approval.
Live, continuous streaming video, even when nobody is at the door or pressing the button, is available both from the smartphone app (iPhone or Android) or any web browser.
So you can monitor your home from your work computer with any browser — a very convenient feature. This is lacking in most other products (but the DoorBird can do this also, by the way).
The Nest Hello uses the same app as the Nest Thermostat. If you already have a Nest, that’s one less app to juggle. The app is very high quality with all the features easily available. It is slick to use and very responsive.
The ringer situation is not ideal. The Nest Hello can use a Google Home Mini (small Wi-Fi speaker the size of a donut) as an auxiliary ringer. This is an added $49 expense plus more if you want a plastic bracket to hang it nicely right on a wall plug, but it works.
Although Nest does not support Apple HomeKit, it is compatible with Google Home and will also work with Amazon Alexa. If you have an Echo Show, the Amazon Alexa with the built in video display, you can even see the live camera feed.
Nest is a closed-system — you’ll have to purchase a cloud storage plan from Nest if you want access to video clips. There is no interface for 3rd party video streaming or recording systems so you have no choice but to deal with Nest on this one.
One More Thing..
In addition to having the best camera technology, Nest has tapped into the massive computing power and software expertise of their parent company Google and their technology for machine learning and artificial intelligence.
If you log in to your Nest account with a web browser, you can create “activity zones” for your camera feed. Nest shows you the video from your doorbell and you draw any sized 2 dimensional shapes with your mouse. This zones are areas that will generate alerts when Nest detects motion. You can also outline areas to ignore — very handy if there are tree branches, street with cars, or anything else you want to ignore and not generate notifications constantly.
Event better — the Nest Hello has facial recognition and identification. The Nest can not only identify people in the video feed, but once you assign them actual names, it will remember their names and announce them. The App, or the Google Mini remote speaker will say “Robert is at the door” instead of just “Someone is at the door”.
These advanced features do require a paid cloud storage plan as the real brains behind these features is the processing done in Google’s massive data centers behind the scenes. Fortunately, Nest recently added an affordable 7-day plan for only $5/month.
Do you have a video doorbell or are you considering installing one? Which one? Let me know what you think.