“Who can it be, knocking at my door?” This line started one of the most memorable songs of the 1980s, but it may as well be the unofficial tag line for video doorbells. It’s a rapidly growing category of devices that let you see and hear whoever happens to be darkening your doorstep regardless of whether you’re at home. Ring security is one of the ringleaders in the industry with its video doorbell cam, while other companies like Nest have followed with products of their own. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for a new kid on the block.
Arbor Home, a Sunnyvale, California company, is that new kid, and its debut product, the Arbor Video Doorbell, just went up for pre-order on Indiegogo for $140. That’s a killer price to be sure, but can it go toe-to-toe with the big guns, or is it destined for the home automation trash heap? Digital Trends was offered a pre-release unit to find the answer to that question.
Did we mention that it’s wire-free?
If you’re planning on buying a video doorbell, the very first question you should ask yourself is whether or not you need a fully wireless model. Some, like the Nest Hello, require a wired installation with a 16 to 24 volt power supply, plus a 10-volt transformer.
If you don’t have a wired doorbell already, or if a powered doorbell would require an upgrade, or you simply want to change the placement of your existing wired doorbell, a fully wireless model is the way to go. The Arbor is one of these, and uses a large, removable, rechargeable battery for its power needs. The company claims that it can last a year on a single charge, assuming eight to 12 recording events a day with each event lasting 10 to 18 seconds.
Unlike the Ring and Nest Hello video doorbells, the Arbor functions as a traditional doorbell right out of the box.
During our testing over a 10-day period, we had about 16 events a day and saw the battery level drop from 100 percent to 75 percent. At that rate, we’d expect to recharge it after just 40 days — hardly a one-year span. However Arbor tells us that the app’s built-in battery indicator is not yet perfectly accurate, but will be much improved by launch. Will it result in a one-year life? We’ll have to wait and see.
Beautiful, but big
Though quite sleek looking, with its aggressively rounded edges and large, backlit bell button, the Arbor is big – bigger in every dimension than the Nest, while narrower and taller than the comparable Ring model. It comes in a choice of black or silver, but even with these color options, the Arbor may not match up with the look of your home. The Arbor’s shiny plastic exterior isn’t an ideal companion to our circa 1885 Victorian semi-detached test house.
Unlike the Ring Video Doorbell and the Nest Hello, Arbor functions as a traditional doorbell right out of the box, thanks to its included hub — a separate wireless unit that does double-duty as a Wi-Fi gateway for the doorbell. It includes an indoor speaker capable of producing various chime sounds and a much louder alarm. So, when someone rings the doorbell, everyone at home can hear it — not just those who have the companion app on their personal device.
To get this feature with the Ring, you need to buy the optional $30 Chime, which does not extend Wi-Fi like Arbor’s Hub. The Nest Hello will let you trigger a wired chime — but only if you already have one. At the moment, there’s no way to adjust the volume of Arbor’s chime or alarm, which we think would be a good option depending on the size of your home.
The Arbor comes with everything you need to install it — a sturdy metal back plate, two optional wedge-shaped spacers that let you angle the doorbell down or to the left, some double-sided tape, and a package of screws and anchors. Though our test unit didn’t ship with a drill bit, we’re told that one will come in the box once the Arbor hits retail. Thanks to its fully wire-free operation, you can place the Arbor almost anywhere you like.
The hub acts as a range extender, significantly increasing your placement options.
We chose to mount the Arbor to the wood molding around our front door frame, which was less than ideal: The molding is narrower than the body of the Arbor, causing it to stick out quite noticeably. Drilling into the brick beside the doorframe would have worked better. Strangely, the wedge spacers aren’t reversible. Because they come with small teeth that are meant to be used to get a perfect alignment with corresponding gaps on the metal back plate, they only work one way.
You can tilt the doorbell down, but not up, and you can angle it to the left, but not to the right. Filing the teeth off is an option, but we think Arbor should make them symmetrical by design.
Another small frustration is that the wedges use different screw positions than the metal back plate, so if you lined things up perfectly using just the back plate, then realized you needed to switch to using a wedge, you’ll have to either, a) put two new holes in your mounting location, or b) use one of the existing holes and be OK with a new doorbell position that is higher or lower than it used to be.
Once the back plate is installed, the doorbell snaps into place and is secured by one hidden screw directly behind the opening for the battery. This will help prevent casual mischief, but won’t deter someone who’s really intent on stealing your doorbell.
Setting up the Arbor Video Doorbell will feel like a familiar routine to anyone who has set up a smart home device recently. The app-driven process takes you through a quick “hello” and sign-up stage before walking you through the connection of the hub to your Wi-Fi network, and then the connection of the doorbell to the hub. If everything goes smoothly — which it did for us — it’s a two-minute process.
No integration with IFTTT, Alexa, or Google is a drawback, as is the lack of facial recognition.
Because the doorbell communicates with the hub, not your Wi-Fi, the strength of your Wi-Fi signal isn’t going to be a deal-breaker if your nearest router isn’t located close to your front (or back) door. The hub acts as a range extender, significantly increasing your placement options over a doorbell that needs to talk directly to your Wi-Fi network.
Needless to say, if Arbor makes any other smart home devices in the future, they’ll probably work through the same hub, which will simplify their operation too.
True to its promise of being a virtually lag-free device, the gap between the doorbell being pressed (or the motion sensor activated) and being able to establish a two-way video feed with a smartphone was usually less than five seconds. In fact, it took more time to fumble with our phone, unlock it, and go to the Arbor app than it took for the app to show us what was going on at the front door.
More control, please
The Arbor can live stream and record video and audio from its wide-angle lens and built-in mic. It captures video anytime its motion sensor is triggered or when someone presses the doorbell button, but our review unit gave us no way to manually initiate a recording.
With a full-HD 1080p resolution, the Arbor should have much better video quality than a camera that can only do 720p.
When viewing the live feed, our only option was to snap a photo, which saves to your smartphone’s camera roll. Arbor’s spokesperson told us the manual-record feature will be ready when the first units begin to ship later this summer. Like dedicated security cameras that can live stream at a lower bitrate while simultaneously recording at full quality, the Arbor will reportedly be able to do both at launch. Unfortunately, that feature wasn’t ready at the time of this review — all we could view were the lower-quality live streams.
We also couldn’t download recorded videos, though this too we’re told will be working via Arbor’s web portal at launch. We’ll update this review when we get the opportunity to review Arbor’s full functionality.
With a full-HD 1080p resolution, the Arbor should have much better video quality than a camera that can only do 720p. For the most part, it does — the motion and still frame detail is really good. But detail isn’t everything. We found that the frame rate (fps) varied a lot, creating a weird, jerky quality to both the live and recorded videos.
There was also some compression that showed up on occasion, blurring what otherwise would have been very crisp areas of the image. It’s unclear whether these problems are the result of wireless interference (though the app told us everything was fine on that front) or part of the energy-saving settings needed to keep battery life maximized. Regardless of the cause, video quality was still sufficient to see who was at the door and what was happening.
Be alarmed. Kind of.
A cool feature of the Arbor is the ability to trigger an alarm siren immediately from the app when you’re interacting with the doorbell. The downside is that the siren — while respectably loud at 115 dB — is only emitted from the hub, not from the doorbell itself. Depending on where your hub is located, it’s possible that the person at your door — whom you’re trying to scare off — won’t even hear it. Meanwhile, your pets will definitely be freaked out.
Interacting with a visitor through the two-way voice feature works well. Voices are clearly heard at both the smartphone and doorbells sides of the conversation. One potential drawback is lag. In our tests, we found a roughly one-second latency between speaking into the smartphone mic and our voice being transmitted through the doorbell speaker. This created an annoying echo effect. We’ve been told that Arbor’s engineers are working on eliminating this problem by the time the doorbell hit retail this summer.
Not so smart
To truly keep up, the Arbor will need regular software updates and enhancements like facial recognition and integration with services..
One area where we’re really hoping to see some further development is integration with leading voice assistants like Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant. We’re told that Alexa integration is part of the short term plan, but at the moment, the Arbor stands alone, relying on its app for all notifications and unable to trigger any other smart home actions. Given that the app can only deliver notifications on-device — no emails or text messages can be sent — this limits their value. You can choose to add additional users instead as a workaround for now.
There’s also no facial recognition, a feature which is becoming more and more common on video security products. Being able to tag familiar faces like children, cleaners, dog-walkers etc., would be alleviate the need to check a recorded video every time the motion sensor is triggered.
One area where Arbor differentiate itself from the competition is subscriptions. It offers free storage for 48 hours worth of recordings, something that Ring and Nest do not do for free. If you want to keep a longer period of video, a $3 per-month subscription plan will be available, though there’s no word yet on how much video storage this will buy.
The Arbor Video Doorbell comes with a one year warranty, which includes replacement if your doorbell is stolen. It also comes with a lifetime of technical support.
The Arbor Video Doorbell seeks to fill the gaps left by other video doorbell products, with better video quality, longer battery life, an included chime and alarm, and free video storage for 48 hours. It mostly succeeds here. But to truly keep up with Amazon and Google’s offerings, it will need regular software updates and enhancements like facial recognition and integration with services like Alexa, Google Assistant and IFTTT.
Is there a better alternative?
You’ll find lots of video doorbells out there, but few check all the boxes that Arbor does. If you have a hardwired doorbell with the right voltage, we think you’ll prefer a hardwired product like the Nest Hello ($230), SkyBell HD ($160), or August Doorbell Cam Pro ($200). But for a truly wireless installation, we haven’t found a product that offers all the features of the Arbor, at any price.
But, Arbor is an unknown quantity, and its video doorbell is its first product. If you prefer the security of a big brand, the Ring Video Doorbell 2 ($200) has many (if not all) of the same features, at a similar price — but you’ll still need to pay a subscription fee.
How long will it last?
As a crowdfunded product, the Arbor Video Doorbell deserves a lot of scrutiny when it comes to longevity. While we’ve got no reason to think the hardware won’t hold up as well over time as many other wireless units on the market, we have no idea if Arbor will be around as a company over the long term. That could be a problem, because the company’s cloud servers are currently the only way to access the doorbell’s recorded videos. There’s also no guarantee they’ll continue to update the firmware or continue to make the product more compatible over time with other smart home devices and services.
Should you buy it?
If you need the freedom of a fully wireless doorbell, hate the idea of having to pay a subscription fee to access recordings, and don’t mind the inherent risk of a new company selling its first product via crowdfunding, the Arbor Video Doorbell does what it promises, and we think it’s a good deal at $140. The full retail price of $200 is a little less appealing, but still very competitive with products like Ring.
If, on the other hand, you don’t need a wireless solution, or hesitate when a big brand isn’t backing your purchase, we think you should pass on the Arbor for now. If the company is still going strong a year or two from now, definitely take another look.