Arlo is known for making high quality, highly expensive wireless security cameras. The Arlo Pro 4 and the Arlo Ultra are both Top Picks here at The Ambient, getting praise for superb video quality, easy wire-free setup, and excellent features.
But did we mention they're pricey? Plus, they require a hub - so another white box to stick in your router. So, you can imagine how excited we were to hear about a cheaper, hub-free offering from the company formerly known as Netgear Arlo.
The Arlo Essential Spotlight security camera costs just $130 and boasts almost all of the features of its more expensive siblings, for a lot less. It's a genuine budget conscious smart home security camera.
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You sacrifice video quality (it's 1080p with a smaller 130-degree field of view and no HDR), battery life/ease of use (you have to take the whole thing down for charging), and the benefits of a hub (such as range).
But you keep the completely wireless experience, the high-powered spotlight, color night vision, 12x digital zoom, 300 foot line of sight, built-in siren, and all the advanced software features, such as live streaming, smart alerts, rich notifications, and customizable motion zones.
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It also works with Alexa, so you can view footage on Alexa-enabled screens, set up motion announcements on Echo speakers, and use motion at the camera to trigger a routine. And it integrates with Google Assistant, allowing you to see a livestream in the Home app or on a screen, but there's no HomeKit compatibility.
Does the Essential strike the perfect balance between features and price? Or is it still worth laying out over $500 for a higher-end Arlo setup? We've been living with the Essential for three weeks now, read on for our full review.
Arlo Essential Spotlight: Design and installation
The Essential looks a lot like the Ultra and Pro 3. It's a hare smaller and lighter, but has the same shape, comes in white or black, and features an integrated spotlight.
The differences are in the mounting system and charging ports. The Essential has a screw in-base and a Micro USB charging port (as opposed to the magnetic offerings on the other cams).
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Install is straightforward, and as there is no need to pair to the base - just charge it up (with the laughably short included USB cable and plug), screw the base where you want it, and attach the camera using an easy screw mount. You can then angle it to get the ideal coverage.
The app provides a camera positioning screen what tells you how good your bandwidth is in the area you're trying to install it. We were well in the "Good" bandwidth zone while installing the camera above an attached garage.
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No hub means no long range installation options, but the Essential will pair with an Arlo base station if you want to try and stretch things further.
You can also choose to add Arlo's $49.99 solar panel to extend your battery life - which might be a good option if you want to install it in a hard to reach spot, because based on our testing you'll be taking the entire camera off the wall at least once a month to charge it.
Arlo Essential Spotlight: Features
Hardware features are the main differentiation between the Essential and its base-station tied stablemates, all the software features are the same (apart from HomeKit compatibility).
To get a cheaper price-point the Essential downgrades to 1080p HD video with a 130-degree field of view, it lacks HDR imaging and doesn't have a removable battery and you can't keep it plugged in.
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There's no local storage on the device - although you can pair it with a base station for a local option. It does have - as the name implies - an integrated spotlight to help illuminate matters, plus a built-in 80dB siren (pretty quiet to be honest), it also has two-way audio, color night vision, and is weather-resistant.
No required base station means you're not tied to a hub, and the camera connects directly to your WiFi. but also means shorter range and potentially shorter battery life.
Although Arlo claims this camera can last up to 6 months on a single charge, the same as the Arlo Pro 3 cameras, the base station has tech that helps extend battery life, and in our testing getting even a month out of this battery was challenging (more on this later).
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On the software features front, the Essential records based on motion activation (there's no option for continuous video recording), and sends alerts directly to your phone when motion is detected.
You also get the option of rich notifications, including a snapshot of the action and the option to play a live view from the lock screen. This is very cool and means you don't have to open the (somewhat laggy) Arlo app to see what's happening.
You can also activate the built-in siren, call a friend, or e911 right from the notification - bypassing the app altogether (which is a good thing as the app is problematic).
For storing recordings and smart alerts (AI detection that distinguishes between people, cars, and animals) you need to pay for the Arlo Smart cloud service (the camera comes with 3 months for free).
The cloud plans start at $3 a month and get you customizable activity zones, e911 services, 30 days of cloud storage, and the advanced detection features. Without the subscription you basically have a way of viewing good quality, live footage of your yard and not much else.
Finally, a feature we really like is Modes. This lets you have your camera turn off when you're home and on when you leave (or any variant of), a nice privacy feature for those who don't want their everyday life recorded.
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Crucially, it can do this based on geo-fencing, which rivals like Ring don't offer, so you don't have to worry about turning it on or off manually.
You can also create custom modes to tell the camera exactly what to do in different situations, such as record a 30-second video when the motion sensor is activated on a specific camera but not alert you. This is good for vacations, night time adjustments or for when you're mowing the lawn.
Arlo Essential Spotlight: Performance
The most important thing about a security camera is does it deliver good quality footage so you can see what's going on. And the Essential does. Despite only 1080p HD quality, video is clear and detailed, with rich color and an excellent 12x zoom.
As you can see in our test video above, we could see the face of the "perp" sneaking around in our driveway very clearly, and the camera's pre-roll feature captured a few moments before the action so we didn't miss her coming round the corner.
Night vision is good, but not great. Faces were a little blurry, and the spotlight - which gets you full color vision - doesn't help with clarity. Also, as you can see in the test video below, motion detection distance drops significantly, so we missed the person as they walked up the driveway between the cars entirely. Which wouldn't be good if someone was trying to break into one of them.
While video quality was good, and night vision better than comparably priced cameras from other budget options from Ring or Blink, we had significant issues with pulling up live feeds and using the two-way audio features.
Despite our camera position having "good" bandwidth according to the Arlo app, viewing a live feed took 10-15 seconds - more than enough time for the person to have moved on.
If we did manage to get the view loaded in time to talk to someone, the lag on the audio was excruciating, resulting in us talking over each other. The audio was clear and loud on both ends though.
Most of these problems stem from Arlo's app, which is slow, laggy, and unintuitive. When you click on a notification it doesn't take you to a live view, it takes you to the the "Library" - the events stream of recorded footage. But the recorded video often hasn't uploaded yet, so you have to click to the Devices tab, then tap play, wait, and then click again to get a full screen view. All this takes way too long to be useful.
If you pay for Arlo Smart, you do get the option of rich notifications, which allow you to almost entirely bypass the Arlo app, as you see a snapshot of the action in the notification and can press and hold to activate the siren and go directly to a live view.
The camera's AI features are impressive however, sending reliable alerts distinguishing between people, vehicles, animals and other motion. There's also the option of package detection - which we thought would be handy for outside our garage (where delivery drivers like to leave things rather than tackling our steps). Unfortunately, it often got confused between packages and people.
Arlo security cameras put to the test
Our biggest gripe however, is with battery life. We installed the camera on August 21 and by September 2, two weeks later, it was at 12%.
We were using the Optimized power management settings - which balances video quality with battery life, the other choices are Best Video and Best Battery Life - and the camera was in a busy area. But we also installed an Arlo Pro 3 Floodlight in a similarly busy area at the same time, and it was still at 50%. Clearly, Arlo saved money here with a smaller capacity battery.
Also, you have to remove the entire thing to charge - not the case for the other Arlo cameras, which all have removable batteries, and there's no option of an outdoor-rated charging cable, but you can hook up a solar panel (you'd better have a lot of sun though).
- No base station needed
- Good video quality
- Completely wireless
- Built-in siren, spotlight
- Smart alerts
- Remove entire camera to charge
- Poor battery life
- Slow alerts
- Slow live feed
- Subscription essential