Smart doorbell buying guide: Everything you need to know

The bells and whistles and the potential pitfalls of smart doorbells

Smart doorbell buying guide

Buying a connected doorbell solves one of the most obvious pain points in the home: if someone calls at your house and you’re not there to answer, did they call at all?

A connected doorbell means that when someone calls, they’re connected straight through to your smartphone or video device within the home. You can then get a live video feed and see who’s calling, and use two-way audio to speak to them. This can make dealing with deliveries a lot easier (“chuck it over the fence”; “put it in the garage”) and enables you to keep tabs on who’s calling – and it's a lot more natural than just using a smart home camera.

There are other benefits, too. Firstly, security. Burglars will often scope out properties to find out when the owner is home, knocking on your door to ask pointless questions, so you’ll be alerted to anyone snooping around your house. They might even spot the camera and decide your property isn’t worth the risk. What's more, smart doorbells are increasingly integrating with smart locks, so you can remotely open the door for your caller, too.

Who are the big smart doorbell brands?

While video doorbells can be picked up in their droves, decent smart devices are still breaking through. The leader is Ring, which has recently been bought by Amazon after carving out its spot as the market leader. VueBell and SkyBell (available in the US) are also big players – they’ve been in the doorbell game since the get-go, but lag behind Ring thanks to a reliance on wired connectivity. However SkyBell offers free cloud storage, which is pretty neat.

Ring’s success has spawned a huge surge of interest. The end of 2017 saw smart doorbell announcements for the Nest Hello, Amazon Key, August (now owned by Assa Abloy, owners of Yale), Blink (now owned by Amazon), and WiseNet. It’s a busy space that’s moving quickly.


Smart doorbell buying guide: Everything you need to know

Key considerations

If you’re sold on the idea of a smart doorbell and are now looking at the cold reality, there are a few key considerations.

The first is how it’s connected. If you’re replacing an existing doorbell on the front of the house, which is wired in, you’re already winning. Most smart doorbells are designed to support this system, and you can wire them in using these connectors, and ignore the need for batteries forever.

Read this: A beginner's guide to smart home wiring

If you don’t have a wired set up, things get a little more convoluted.

You can either wire in a doorbell, which is less than ideal: chasing home electrics back to a junction box, installing a transformer to step down the power, finding somewhere to chase the wire and then drill through your doorframe. Or you can buy a battery powered version.

But choice here is extremely limited, and only Ring and Blink (which hasn’t yet released) offer respite for cable-challenged doorbell installers.

The next consideration is cloud storage and accessing recorded motion and rings. While answering a ring at your doorbell is part and parcel of the smart doorbell experience, watching video back of missed calls or detected motion usually comes at a price.

This can cost in excess of $25 per year, and is an ongoing cost for having a doorbell, not something that everyone wants to enter into.

Smart lock integrations

An increasing use for smart doorbells isn’t just answering or screening callers, but letting that person in when they arrive. That could be a cleaner, dog-walker or tradesperson – but this requires the doorbell to work together with your door. This is where August comes into its own, given that the doorbell works in tandem with the lock.

Ring also has an integration with Kwikset locks, which means that users can quick switch between the two apps to unlock the door. Not totally smooth, but it’s a little easier than managing yourself.

Nest's Hello doorbell plays nice with the Nest x Yale smart lock, and the companion app will let you both see who's at your door and unlock it simply.

Smart doorbell reviews

We’re busy testing the leading smart doorbells, which is taking a little while – especially as some of the biggest names are still to release their devices. Below are our tests of the Ring 2 and Nest Hello, and a round-up of competitors, which we’ll be updating into proper tests over the coming weeks.


Smart doorbell buying guide: Everything you need to know

Ring 2

$199, ring.com | Amazon

Our top pick of smart doorbells, Ring 2 works superbly well, is available globally and you won’t have to worry about cables, given that it works via a rechargeable lithium-ion battery. If you do have wires hanging out of your door frame, you can still attach them to ensure you don't have to recharge.

The build is a bit big and bulky to hold that big battery and we wouldn’t say Ring 2 is the most aesthetically pleasing doorbell on the market.

The Ring 2 features a full HD 1080p camera with a 160-degree field of view, which is fairly standard. The feed is only 15fps, so it can be a bit choppy at times, but it's a doorbell, not your holiday video. Two-way audio and 1080p streaming works out of the box, but if you want to watch back recorded motion and rings you’ll need a plan. Basic costs $30 per year.

Essential guide: Everything you need to know about Ring

You’ll also need to purchase a Chime, if you want to hear the doorbell in the house. Of course, it’s optional, as you have your phones and a noise from the Ring unit itself. The standard Chime plugs into a mains socket; the Chime Pro works as a Wi-Fi extender to mitigate issues in your home, and this might be a necessity for those with patchy signal.

Check out our full Ring 2 review.

the ambient verdict
Ring 2
Nine times out of ten, the Ring 2 just works, although you will suffer the odd outage, missed ring or dropped connection – however, for our money, it’s one of the best systems out there. The app is easy to use and the audio and video is decent quality. Our one beef is the charges for storing video, and we’d like to see 24 hour playback thrown in for free. Otherwise, Ring is a superb system that comes highly recommended.
PROS
  • Easy to install
  • Removable battery
  • 1080p streaming
CONS
  • Bit of a bulky design
  • No Ethernet option
  • Cloud storage costs extra


Smart doorbell buying guide: Everything you need to know

Nest Hello

$199, nest.com

While we marked down Ring 2 for being big and bulky, the Nest Hello is slim and good-looking. When it comes to features, most of it is pretty standard. There's the 1600 x 1200 HD video at 30fps that's nice and clear, with HDC to make things easier to see at night. It's also set up at a 4:3 aspect ratio rather than 16:9, which will help you see people head to toe.

The Hello shines with its smart features. You have quick replies that you can select from the app, that can do things like tell your UPS deliverer to set the package at the door, there are also motion, sound and person alerts at your disposal. If you've got the $5 monthly Nest Aware subscription, there's also facial recognition, which will learn the faces of people who frequent your place the most and let you tag them in the app. If you've got a Nest Cam IQ or Google Home, they'll even announce them.

There's a wireless chime in the box, which is good, but you'll still need a wired connection to work this one – that might stump some people. Nest Pro installation is recommended, though it will cost you a couple of hundred dollars or less depending on how much work your home needs done.

Check out our full Nest Hello review.

the ambient verdict
Nest Hello
The Nest Hello is a great choice for those who want to put the smart in smart doorbell. It's got high-end features like facial recognition, pre-recorded responses and full video streaming (not just clips that start recording based on motion or sound). It's arguably the best designed smart doorbell in the game, but one of the most expensive too, from starting price to installation to the Nest Aware subscription.
PROS
  • Facial recognition
  • Small and sleek
  • Pre-recorded messages
CONS
  • Expensive
  • Needs to be wired
  • Some niggles with app



Smart doorbell buying guide: Everything you need to know

August Doorbell Cam Pro

$199, august.com | Amazon

As a standalone option, the August Doorbell Cam Pro isn't the best on offer here, but it really comes into its own when paired with an August Smart Lock, meaning you can open the door for visitors even if you’re not home. On the tech side the August Doorbell Camera has 1080p recording and a built-in floodlight to handle callers after dark - which worked really nicely in testing. You can also speak to visitors using two-way audio via your smartphone app, although we found this better for shorter interactions.

Essential reading: Complete guide to the August ecosystem

We also found that the August Cam Pro has a much narrower field of view than either Nest or Ring, but on the plus side, we received far fewer “false” motion alerts. The motion-activated light is handy, as is Hindsight, a feature that buffers a few seconds of video so that you capture footage of a visitor just before they press the doorbell.

Although the August does feature a lithium-ion battery, this is for backup only, so you’ll need to have a wired connection in place to install it. Bad news for those without, and an advantage for Ring.

the ambient verdict
August Doorbell Cam Pro Review
If you are just starting out on your smart home door upgrades, August is a very good option – the integration between its devices, plus option to connect with a variety of smart home systems, give August the broadest appeal of all the doorbells. As a standalone option however, its competitors offer more in terms of style and design, and options for actually fitting on your door. If you have or want an August door lock, the August Doorbell Cam Pro is an easy choice, but if you are just looking for a smart doorbell, there are better options.
PROS
  • Integration with other August devices
  • Color view at night
  • Motion-activated light
  • Easy-to-navigate app
  • Fewer false alerts
CONS
  • Awkward design may not fit on some doors
  • Narrower view than the competition
  • Hardwired only
  • No indoor chime option
  • Hindsight videos failed


Smart doorbell buying guide: Everything you need to know

SkyBell HD

$199, skybell.com | Amazon

SkyBell’s connected doorbell may not offer too much from a tech perspective on its rivals, but with zero fees for storing and playing back videos for seven days, it’s one of the strongest systems out there. That’s essentially $25 a year saved over Ring, which is not to be sniffed at.

You get 1080p video (which can be scaled down if your internet connection isn’t great) and there’s 5x zoom, two-way audio and the ability to take stills. If someone spends 10 seconds within range of your doorbell, the SkyBell will automatically alert you and takes a video, which is stored in the cloud.

There’s also decent integrations, with IFTTT, Amazon Echo, Works with Nest and Kwikset locks support, among others. The only downside is that the SkyBell HD requires a wired connection – so if you don’t have an old doorbell hooked up, it’s probably one to swerve. We're working on sourcing a test unit for review.


Smart doorbell buying guide: Everything you need to know

Blink Video Doorbell

$99, blinkforhome.com | Coming soon

Given the amount of wired doorbells in this list, thank heavens Blink’s new doorbell cam offers two years of battery life, so you can do without nasty cables. But that isn’t the best bit. The Blink Video Doorbell only costs $99, if you already have a Blink hub, and $129 if not, making it superb value for your front door.

Things are still a little shady on details, as the Blink doesn’t launch until later in 2018. It went awfully quiet for a while, but the doorbell recently showed up at the FCC, suggesting it's close. The company states “HD quality”, so at least 720p and two years’ battery life from a pair of AAs. What’s more, you get free cloud storage for watching back clips, both from rings and the motion detection sensor. It’s a strong set of features, and we’ll be working to test the Blink as soon as it lands.

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