As homes are getting smarter and more connected so have the number of cloud-connected home-surveillance webcam offerings on the market. Until recently, customers had to choose between cheap hardware and awful user interface or expensive hardware and better interface. Admittedly, there were also some awful-everything.
Arlo is a refreshing take on a market currently dominated by products like Dropcam Pro, which has been acquired by Nest, which was acquired by Google… Arlo does not compete directly with Dropcam however, on the contrary: Arlo is meant to be an outdoor camera which is just as easy to use. This addresses a market that has been glaringly ignored by Dropcam, despite a huge demand from its user base.
Arlo is battery operated, so that makes it extremely easy to install and operate around your house. We took a couple of cameras for a real-world spin over the past few months, and here’s our take on the whole system.
Arlo has a very cute and well thought-out design. The pack comes with two white cameras. At this time, there are no other colors available. The really interesting part in their design is that the back of the camera has a power magnet – powerful enough to easily hold the camera’s weight.
Because it’s an outdoor camera, it can withstand rain and sun without a problem. In fact, we used it during the “Rainpocalypse” in California, and there was no downtime or damage. The smooth plastic is easy to clean, and after wiping them, they looked as new again.
You have guessed it: it also comes with attachments that can be screwed to a wall (or tree) then the metallic balls shown below let the user orient the camera very precisely. It is also possible to use a screw similar to a tri-pod connector, so there are plenty of options, including DIY ones, at your disposal.
In terms of design, I thought that the plastic used for the Arlo camera is high-quality. It doesn’t feel at all like the cheaper D-Link or no-brand webcams that you frequently find in this market segment.
Arlo comes with its own WIFI base station, which acts as a central HUB for the many cameras that you may have around the place you want to keep an eye on. I had one camera at 8 Feet with minimal obstruction (3” of wood) and another one at 40 feet with a couple of walls in between. Both worked well and had 4/4 bars or ¾ bars of WiFi reception, according to Arlo’s data.
Here’s what videos from an Arlo camera look like when compared to a Dropcam Pro:
Arlo’s image does not have such a wide angle. Depending on how you want to use it, your mileage may vary. It isn’t as sharp as Dropcam’s video (watch the full-size, full-resolution version on Youtube) as well and we suspect that it is due to an extreme caution from Netgear’s Arlo for low-power, while Dropcam can draw a lot of power from the USB cable.
Regardless, it is good enough and you can see what’s going on and if someone is around, etc… You will probably recognize a person you know, but it’s not always easy to identify someone you don’t know – that’s normally difficult with a 720p surveillance camera, but here the video quality would make it even harder. You would need to have a really close up shot.
At night, the IR illumination looks pretty good it will likely work for most homes. If you live in a big property, be aware of the range of the camera’s IR illuminator, which I would estimate to be 6-7 yards.
Installation (uber easy)
Installing the camera outside was a piece of cake. It didn’t even have to use the provided metallic support because walking around I quickly found a couple of places with metallic objects to which I could stick the cameras. That was it.
The HUB just needs to be connected to the network (I used Ethernet), and once it has an Internet access, you can see your setup on the Arlo administration website.
“THE MAGNETIC ATTACHMENT IS AMAZING” The camera placement will have a dramatic impact on the battery life, so do your best to avoid areas where things move regularly (shadows, passing cars…). More on that in the Battery section. Watch this video, it’s pretty well explained – the point is this: the more false-positive you get, and the faster your battery will deplete.
At night, the camera uses infra-red sensors to pick on heat signatures. It is sensitive enough that cats and small animals can trigger recordings. In fact, I have quite a few footage of cats walking around at night. Again, you may consider this to be false-positive which may affect battery life.
Netgear has a good video that show how to setup Arlo, and you can read more about their motion detection technique on their site.
User Interface (easy, efficient)
I was glad to see that the Arlo web administration interface was fast and efficient. It cannot be overstated how bad the web surveillance industry is, so companies who are not using 1990s stuff like Java runtime or ActiveX should always be considered in priority by consumers.
Arlo is very easy to get up and running, and this is great because the initial setup friction is the primary thing that drive users crazy when they try using cloud surveillance (or just surveillance). That’s not the case here.
Arlo’s user interface is divided into 45 distinct sections: Cameras, Library, Mode and Settings.
Camera: this is where you can check your life cameras, or add new ones. Arlo allows up to 5 cameras without paying any subscription, and that includes recording. This is a huge advantage over Dropcam in terms of pricing. I really like that you can get that stuff for free.
Library: all the motion-triggered recordings will be available here. From there, you can either play or download. I found the interface to be very clear and concise.
Mode: This is a very simple page to enable/disable the motion detection (if you do so, the Cameras only transmit images when you request a video stream via the web interface or the app). It is also possible to schedule when motion recording is activated. This is great for people who don’t like to be recorded when they are around.
Settings: This is where all the small settings are: account information, subscription, various rules and base station settings. Most are rather simple and self-explanatory, so I don’t think that you’ll get any issues. If you have a question on a specific setting, drop a comment below.
Settings > Friends: Like most webcam platform, it is possible to share some cameras with friends. Typically, you would do that to let someone you trust keep an eye on things and call you if something urgent happens. Don’t forget to revoke their access when you’re done!
Battery Life (can vary greatly)
Netgear says that Arlo cameras can go on for 6-months on one battery pack. This may be true, but I recommend looking at this as a best-case scenario. It really depends on how much activity there is where you put it.
To make the best of your batteries, you need to have some basic understanding of how the motion detection works because how often the camera is triggered and goes into recording mode will define battery life.
“MY EFFECTIVE BATTERY LIFE WAS ABOUT 2.5 MONTHS” The camera recording will be activated based on motion (daytime) or heat (night time). During day time, things like moving trees, shadow movements or sudden light changes can trigger the recording mode. At night, heat sensors will detect the presence of humans or pets.
To make the best of your battery life, you should place the camera where it does its job, but won’t be triggered by uninteresting events. For example, I had to move it to avoid moving trees (caused by the wind) from its line of sight. Also, I had to move another one slightly to avoid recording the cat’s motion.
In fact, Arlo would also be great for indoors applications (when WIFI is availale) such as storage rooms, closets and back alleys.
All in all, my effective battery life was about 2.5 months, before I optimized the placements of the cameras. I’ll have to see how things get after optimizing the camera placement.
I want better power options
Arlo is pretty awesome, but there are a few things that would make it even better.
For one, I would LOVE to have a rechargeable battery that I can charge with USB. Depending on your usage, buying the batteries many times a year is not that hot and in the long run, it adds up to the total cost of ownership — especially if you have 5 cameras.
Being able to use it on a standard 12V outdoor lighting plug would also be a great idea, and of course, being able to charge it with a small (and cheap) solar panel via USB would also be pretty amazing. All these options are realistic and would considerably improve the value proposition. After all, these cameras are not cheap at all… They are more expensive than many entry-level Android phones.
At $1.78/ battery, and 4 batteries per camera, each charge cost $7.12. In the best case, it would cost you about $15/camera/year (6-month battery life), or much more if you get a lot of false-positive.
That would also improve the video quality since the focus on power saving wouldn’t be so high that transmitting low-bitrate videos would be such a necessity.
Netgear has done its homework. By looking at the market needs, Arlo addresses, huge pain points that Dropcam has left wide open, namely outdoor coverage, a 100% wireless solution and free video recording. Arlo absolutely has the right feature set, and if you set it up well to avoid false-positive recording, it will work great. This is will pretty much determine how happy you will be with Arlo.
“A VERY COOL CAMERA, LIMITED BY ITS BATTERY” That said, all it takes is to have animals walking around your property or big trees that cast moving shadows to get into power-consumption trouble. This would also make Arlo a great option for indoor surveillance as well (this is where the limited power options hurt). Netgear needs to improve the power options for many types of customers, or risk losing them to the competition.
Overall, it is very nice to see Netgear enter this space with a good product like Arlo. The web interface and apps may look a bit Spartan, but it works and is a solid foundation to build on. Competitors like DLINK or Samsung Techwin still have to catch up to that.