Netgear Arlo: A battery-powered wireless security camera system we really wanted to like

For those with a very narrow set of needs, the Netgear Arlo camera system is a win. For everyone else, maybe not so much.

arlo.jpg

Image: Arlo from Netgear

Some things just aren't quite likable enough.

It's been almost four years since I did a review of the Logitech Alert, a video-over-powerline home and small business security system. I really liked the system, but some of the cameras failed, and just last week, when I updated to Sierra, the Alert Commander software stopped functioning.

Since I've been thinking about adding new cameras anyway, I decided to take a look at the Arlo system from Netgear. What makes Arlo interesting is just how incredibly easy it is to install. The cameras are Wi-Fi based, and they run on battery power, so installation is simply a matter of finding a place for the camera and putting it there, either with a single screw, or a small mounting bracket.

Unlike most security cameras, which require a rat's nest of power and video (or network) cables to be run through the attic and out through the soffits, Arlo is an incredibly simple alternative.

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If, in fact, I could place a camera anywhere I wanted without running wires, a lot of interesting doors would open up. For example, I could replace the Logitech Alert cameras. I could also put some in front of the 3D printers to let me see how prints are coming out. Since the cameras just require a Wi-Fi signal, and can be monitored from the web, I could put some on my parents' property and monitor them remotely.

I could set up one as a pet cam to keep an eye on my pup when we go out. I could use one as a spare camera in the studio. And, because the Arlo is triggered by motion, I could even set up one in front of a computer screen and get an alert when the screen changes -- for example, when I'm doing a long process and don't just want to keep checking back to see how it's coming.

Unfortunately, no.

I bought one camera to test, and while the basic premise of remote monitoring works, I just wasn't thrilled. I'll go into more detail in a minute, but let's discuss how Arlo works.

The Arlo system

The Arlo system consists of a base station and a set of cameras. The base station is, essentially, a dedicated Wi-Fi access point. Mine decided to broadcast an SSID of NETGEAR22. Given the vulnerability recently discovered in Netgear's routers, this did not make me terribly comfortable.

To fire up the base station, you need to plug it into your router or a switch on your network. You then pair the camera with the base station, which is an easy matter of pushing a couple of buttons. Netgear claims you can place a camera as far as 300 feet from the base station. I found that 30 feet through a wall caused intermittent signal drop. Now, to be fair, my house has a lot of metal studs in the walls, but I got nothing like the 300 feet quoted by Netgear.

If you want better coverage, you can use multiple base stations. The base stations must also have a wired connection to your router, so if you don't have Ethernet connections throughout your whole house or office, you'll have to use Ethernet over powerline extenders to get the job done. It seems ironic that to be able to run a network of wireless cameras, you need to extend your wired internet connection throughout the house.

Each base station supports up to five simultaneous streams. You can have more cameras, but only five can be watched at once. If you use more than one base station, and you want to watch more streams, it's time to be prepared to pay a monthly fee.

For seven days of cloud recordings (up to 1GB of cloud storage), up to five cameras, and three months of support, Netgear won't charge you anything beyond the purchase price of the hardware. If you want up to 30 days of cloud recordings (up to 10GB of cloud storage), up to 10 cameras, and unlimited support, you'll need to pay $9.99 a month or $99/year. The top tier is up to 60 days of cloud recordings (up to 100GB of cloud storage), up to 15 cameras, and unlimited support. That'll cost you $14.99 a month or $149/year.

I have no issue with the subscription plans. Free for seven days of recordings seems like a good deal. The subscription prices are generally in line with other camera and cloud storage services.

Product performance

It is the product itself I'm not thrilled with. Again, it works. It's just not that great. The camera is 720p, but the 720p video quality of my four year old Logitech Alert cameras is better than what came out of the Arlo. Color quality is good enough, but there is a bit of a graininess I just don't feel is necessary from a camera in 2017.

Another nit is the battery power. While running on battery is great because it makes installation so effortless, I am not thrilled with the prospect of having to regularly change the batteries. I didn't test battery life, but Amazon reviews and forum posts generally imply that the batteries included with the Arlo provide about a month of coverage, and some aftermarket batteries can provide about six months of use.

Key to battery life is how much the camera is used. The Arlos are designed to be triggered by motion, so if you have a lot of motion, the cameras will operate more often, and therefore deplete the batteries faster. After putting up the test camera in a number of different locations, I realized I am not going to want to climb up around the outside of my house (especially in the Florida heat) to regularly change batteries.

Also, the battery door is a pain to open. You have to slide the door back, but the latch needs to be pushed in a different direction. Opening it is awkward. It became clear that the battery can't be changed with the camera in place on a mount.

Instead, each time the battery would have to be changed, I'd have to take the camera down, fiddle with the uncooperative door, and then put the camera back. That would then necessitate realigning the camera each time, another slightly time-consuming task.

But the deal killer was actually watching the cameras. I used three different methods to view the camera output: web, iPhone app, and Apple TV app. Of the three, the iPhone app worked the best. It worked reliably. Each time I opened the app, I could see the camera's output. It did take a few seconds to spin up an image, but it worked.

The web app took longer to connect. But the deal-breaker was that, after a few minutes, the video would cease to display, with a time-out message. Basically, if you just want to see what the weather is like outside, the Arlo is fine. But if you want to keep an open window on one camera, or a bunch of cameras, you have to restart the web view every so often.

The system will send an email alert if it detects motion, while also recording what it sees to the cloud. As such, the Arlo would be ideal if you own a remote property and just want to be notified if there's any motion.

Because of where my desk is located, I can't see outside from where I work. So I like to keep the camera view window open all the time on a side monitor, and have an ongoing view of what's going on outside. If I were to use an Arlo to watch the 3D printers, I'd also want to keep a window open so I could just glance at it when I want. But that's not possible with the Arlo system.

Finally, the Apple TV app totally failed. I was able to view the camera once. But once I switched from the Arlo app to anything else, and came back to the Arlo app, I got the app's menus, with a white block where the camera feed was supposed to be.

I really wanted to like the Arlo system. The idea of a battery-powered, wireless security camera system appeals to my desire for electrician-free install and multi-use flexibility. But the relatively low video quality, combined with the relatively poor reach, the relatively short battery life, the relatively unreliable monitoring options, the addition of a new Wi-Fi access point of indeterminate security, and the fact that each battery change would be a pain to do, and require a realignment of the camera, just made this a non-starter, at least for me.

If you want a very simple install, don't mind that you'll have to regularly replace the battery, and don't mind the access point and short viewing time, then this is certainly an easy option. Like most tech, whether it's right for you really depends on how you're going to use it.

You can follow my day-to-day project updates on social media. Be sure to follow me on Twitter at @DavidGewirtz, on Facebook at Facebook.com/DavidGewirtz, on Instagram at Instagram.com/DavidGewirtz, and on YouTube at YouTube.com/DavidGewirtzTV.

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