Netgear Arlo Smart Home Security, First Take: Wireless, waterproof and extensible

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The Arlo is a new version of Netgear's Vuezone camera: it's smaller, with higher resolution and more features, but uses the same efficient low-power wi-fi mesh technology that means multiple cameras work well together.

The mesh technology was originally developed for a DARPA research challenge intended to create tiny cameras that soldiers could drop into an area to build a mesh network that would let them monitor large areas quickly; Netgear bought the company and released the first product while it worked on the cloud service as well as improving the hardware.

The new model is available in with one, two or three cameras in the pack (for £189, £279 and £359 inc. VAT respectively) plus one base station, while the cloud service that stores your video is free for the basic plan.

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Use the Arlo website to set up your cameras and view video.

Setup is simple; you plug in the base station (which uses Netgear's own low-power version of 2x2 802.11n) with power and Ethernet, then visit the Arlo website. Depending on your network setup, the base station may show up automatically; if not, you type in the serial number from the base station. To add cameras, you use WPS-style buttons on the router and the camera -- press them both within a short time and they pair securely (the range is about 150 feet and we had no problem connecting to an external camera). You can name them on the website, and make some handy adjustments like trimming the field of view (a fairly wide-angle 130 degrees) or even inverting the video if you need to mount the camera upside down.

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You can choose video quality and trim the recording area if you want to narrow the focus.

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Arlo on the magnetic mount (left) and with the external screw mount (right). Image: Rob Villanueva

The camera itself is about the size of your clenched fist, with a magnetic dimple at the back that snaps onto the magnetic mounts. You get four of those in the box so you can easily move a camera from one place to another (if you want to monitor a different area when you're away, for example). If you want to use it outside and you're concerned about someone walking off with it (because there probably are criminals who would ignore the fact that you'd have video of them stealing it), there's also a screw-on mount. That takes a few minutes to fit or remove, so you might have enough time to catch a camera thief in the act. The camera is weatherproof; our test unit has had no problems working outside through several months of wet weather. The IP65 certification means it's rated from -10 to 50 degrees Celsius, although Netgear knows of at least one unit that survived -22°C during a New York blizzard.

The Arlo records 720p H.264 video at 30fps, but not all the time; when it detects motion (up to about 15 feet away, as soon as someone comes into the field of view) it starts recording, grabs a still image and mails it to you with a link to watch the video. Unlike Google's Dropcam, you don't have to pay extra to see your videos. The image and video quality -- both the daylight colour footage and the greyscale images you get when the infrared mode is used for night recordings -- are very good. The previous Vuezone model produced acceptable footage, but the Arlo is a significant improvement in quality.

Being motion triggered means the four D-cell batteries last a long time; Netgear estimates you'll get four to six months' battery life if you're recording for four or five minutes a day (it says customers average three minutes of video a day). The batteries that came with our review unit lasted three months in one camera that was triggered multiple times every day. After six weeks (and at least one automatic software update for the router and cameras, which Netgear says improved battery life), the replacement batteries show two-thirds battery life, while a camera that's not triggered as often shows full battery life. (The battery indicators on the website are friendly icons, rather than exact percentages; more usefully, you get an email warning when battery life drops to 16 percent.)

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You can choose video quality and trim the recording area if you want to narrow the focus.

You can create different rules on the website for each camera that you have (including setting how sensitive it should be to motion and how long to record video for after motion is detected), and you can combine those into 'modes'. Those are most useful if you get the Premier or Elite cloud subscriptions which let you switch between different rules at different times of the day or week (as well as letting you add more cameras and keep video for longer: 10 or 15 cameras instead of 5 you can connect to the free account, and 30 or 60 days of storage instead of 7 with the free account -- although older videos often stay in the recycle bin for a while, because two or even four cameras don't fill up your storage quota in a week). That would let you set the system up to ignore motion triggers during the working day and just get alerts at night or at the weekend. That reduces the alerts you don't care about and conserves battery life as well.

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The Arlo Android app.
You can use the Arlo perfectly well without the phone apps; the alert emails include a photo so you can see what's triggered them and you can click to watch the video on the website. And if you just want to take a look, you can start the video on any camera from the site and watch it live. But if you want to watch those videos on your phone you'll need the app, which also gives you all the same settings and options as the website. It's currently available for iOS and Android, but Netgear tells us a Windows app is coming in the next couple of months. The apps get new features regularly: the most recent update lets you zoom in on live video (up to 8x, digitally, which is still handy on a small phone screen); and geofencing is coming in a future update, so you can have a camera indoors automatically turn off the motion triggers when you're in the house.

Also coming soon is integration with other devices and services. That would let Arlo turn on smart lightbulbs or play music on a Sonos player (or perhaps the sound of people talking or a dog barking) when it detected motion, to make it look as if there was someone at home. The most recent software update made the Arlo compatible with the AllJoyn IoT specification, so it should soon integrate with a wide range of systems. And later this year Netgear will have an update for its Nighthawk R7000 wi-fi router that will let you dispense with the base station, making the system even cheaper and more flexible -- the camera on its own costs £109.

Currently, you can save individual videos from the Arlo website as MP4 files. Netgear is working on an update that will let you save videos directly to a USB drive from the base station, and also save them to its ReadyNAS devices.

The Arlo is a great little camera to buy now, and Netgear's continuing investment means it's becoming increasingly useful. Being completely wireless means it's very flexible, while the battery life is acceptable and also improving. Unless you're connecting a large number of cameras you shouldn't need to pay for the premium cloud services.

Topics: Security, Hardware, Reviews

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