Whether you are at home or away, video-camera-equipped doorbells can alert you when visitors arrive or packages are delivered, and can even record suspicious activity around your door and entryway. We spent 20 hours testing the three most popular models to find the best one for most users. Our top pick is the SkyBell HD, a doorbell camera that offers high-quality video, an easy-to use app, and a good response time between event (detecting motion or a press of the doorbell button) and notification. And SkyBell doesn’t charge you for cloud storage of your videos.
The SkyBell HD also has a motion-detection sensor, customizable LEDs, and integrations with several popular connected-home products such as the Amazon Echo and IFTTT (If This Then That). It lets you save seven days’ worth of doorbell-recorded videos for free, too. All of the devices we tested cost about the same, so determining the winner largely became a battle over features and execution of each video doorbell’s basic functions.
If the SkyBell HD is out of stock, or if it doesn’t fit the front of your house, our runner-up doorbell camera is the Ring Video Doorbell, which is better known because it’s been available longer than the SkyBell HD. Its video and sound quality aren’t as good, but it has the basic features that anyone buying a connected doorbell could want, including motion detection, the ability to connect to the doorbell for a live view of what’s happening at the door, and night-vision capability. It does require you to pay a small monthly service fee to see the events you may have missed, though.
The rise of connected devices in the home has spawned a lot of excited coverage, as well as hundreds of millions of dollars in venture-capital funding for the startups creating these devices, but not so much real-world testing. When I started covering the smart home back in 2012, I decided to do so from the perspective of a user. My first connected device was Belkin’s WeMo Switch, a Wi-Fi–connected outlet. From there I have added more than 40 devices to a collection of connected light bulbs, locks, and smart-home hubs like SmartThings.
As the creator of the Internet of Things Podcast and a former editor at Fortune covering the Internet of Things, I’ve spent years playing with connected devices, considering their business models, and interviewing their creators. Plus, as a busy parent who travels and who lives in a three-story house, I have plenty of reasons to try to avoid answering the door.
The number one reason people invest in smart-home products isn’t so they can wake up in the morning to a cup of coffee brewing, a favorite marketing gimmick of companies selling connected devices. Rather, the primary reason that 10 percent of US households with broadband have purchased a connected device is home security. And one of the best new devices that provide simple security functionality is the connected video doorbell.
These products connect to your Wi-Fi network and provide a view of your front porch on your smartphone. You can use one to screen your visitors, to pretend you’re home when you’re not, to avoid answering the door when solicitors call, or to keep an eye out for delivered packages. Elderly people, anyone who has trouble getting around, or anyone who can’t (or doesn’t want to) get up to answer the door can warn a visitor that it will take a while for them to get there. And in the event of a burglary, a camera could potentially help you identify the culprits should they enter by the front door, or it could let you see who is stealing your packages.
A smart video doorbell system contains an embedded video camera, two-way audio (a microphone and speaker), motion sensors, an app to interact with the system, and the doorbell itself. When a person rings the doorbell, the device notifies your smartphone and quickly establishes a video feed from your front door. From there you should be able to talk to the visitor, whether you are at home or 2,000 miles away. Most such products record and store the entire interaction for some number of days on a remote company server. Some companies plan to add cloud-storage subscription features that will allow you to keep your doorbell-activity history available for longer periods of time.
Not all doorbell cameras come equipped with motion detection, but the ones that do typically allow you to set them up to send you a notification and record video when movement triggers them. This feature is good for seeing packages being delivered—or for catching package thieves. Last year, as video doorbells became more common, several news stations aired video feeds from doorbells showing package theft. The presence of a doorbell camera might act as a deterrent against such thefts.
The downside of the motion detection is that tree branches, cars driving by, and other nonthreatening motions might set off alerts, producing a string of false positives. If this is a feature you’ll use, a camera that allows you to tweak the sensitivity of the motion detection or limit the space it monitors can come in handy.
Other benefits of doorbell cameras include the ability to see whether a child has come home from school and who is with them, or even to do some detective work to find lost items. During the winter, my family used a doorbell camera to figure out what happened to a missing jacket. We checked the video feed to see if my daughter had it on when she left the house and then to see if she had it when she came home. She didn’t, so we didn’t spend a lot of time tearing up the house looking for it. Instead we checked the lost and found at school and recovered it there.
If you’re security-minded, you’ll likely put such a doorbell on the front door, but if you have a well-trafficked side door or a door to the garage, you may want to use the monitoring capabilities there.
At least a dozen doorbell cameras are available today. Most fall into two categories: models that send a picture to a screen inside your home and models that send real-time video to your smartphone. We chose to focus only on devices that send live video to a smartphone or tablet, because that arrangement offers far more security. It enables you to pretend to be home when you’re not, and it offers more convenience as you move around your home (provided that you carry your phone or tablet with you).
Among the smartphone-connected systems, we eliminated those with poor reviews on Amazon and other sites, as well as those with obviously fake reviews.
We settled on three models, the SkyBell HD, the Ring Video Doorbell, and the August Doorbell Cam. The three doorbells we reviewed all cost the same (around $200) at the time of our testing, so we couldn’t differentiate them based on price. For that amount of money, you should get reliability, decent video, motion sensing, and the ability to live-stream video.
To test the products I installed each doorbell outside one of my front doors. My house actually has two entrances, one facing the street and the other facing a common area and a path to the street parking. The side facing the common area is mostly for guests, while packages and food deliveries come exclusively to the side facing the street. I Installed the SkyBell and the August on the street-facing side and the Ring on the back door. My doorbell installation is perpendicular to the door itself.
Because of the layout of my outside entryway, in order to test the motion detection on the SkyBell and the Ring I had to relocate them to the front of my garage. For this test I used the same Ring doorbell because it had a battery, but I used a second SkyBell HD that came with an attached outlet plug for power since I didn’t have doorbell leads to power that device. I then paced off the range at which I could trigger the motion detectors and made sure that passing cars and dog walkers couldn’t set them off.
Prior to installation I used each product’s enclosed quick-start guide for instructions on how to put each doorbell on the wall. For the SkyBell and August, getting detailed instructions meant going online. Ring gives full instructions on a pamphlet but has more in-depth installation advice online. Both Ring and SkyBell provide installation videos, which are helpful. August offers an illustrated step-by-step guide on its website.
Once I had installed each doorbell, I tested them by ringing them to see how quickly I received a notification on my phone, and then how quickly the app established a video and voice connection with the person at the door. After I did this using my home’s Wi-Fi, I turned off the Wi-Fi and did it again using the LTE connection on the phone. I conducted the tests at different times of day and over a period of at least one week for each doorbell.
If a doorbell camera offered motion sensing, I also tried to trigger the motion sensors and to record how long from setting off the sensor it took to receive a notification. In addition, I tested the products’ blind spots by moving around each model’s field of view. The doorbells also lasted through a Texas rainstorm where wind blew a fair amount of water on them.
I evaluated the functions and ease of use of each app, as well. Elements such as the types of controls and integrations with other home-automation platforms also factored into my overall views of each device.
Finally I tested each doorbell at night and took screenshots to show how their respective cameras handled low lighting or no lighting.
Outside of my own testing, I noted how my guests reacted to the doorbells, to see if the interactions they prompted were intuitive. Every single person noticed each new doorbell, and most recognized that it was video enabled and knew what to do.
All of the doorbells did what their makers said they would do. But none of them worked 100 percent of the time. I had a few cases where the Ring Video Doorbell and the SkyBell HD, both of which offer motion detection, failed to notify me when someone walked by the doorbell. As of September 2016, the August Doorbell Cam offers motion detection, as well; to activate this feature, you have to update to the latest version of the August Home app on iOS. We haven’t been able to test the feature’s performance for ourselves yet, but we plan to update this guide after we’ve had the chance.
After being triggered, each device needs a slight reset time before it will send a notification again. Ring’s seemed to vary in my tests, but SkyBell says its device needs 30 seconds to reset after someone rings the bell, and three minutes to reset after something sets off the motion sensor. So on Halloween night you may run into issues if your home gets a rapid-fire stream of trick-or-treaters.
Of the units we tested, the SkyBell HD provides the most comprehensive assortment of features, plus the widest angle of view with the highest-quality video. It offers motion sensing, great night vision, and free cloud recording. In our tests, the app was responsive, although about a second or two slower than the Ring experience when it came to opening the app and starting the video connection (more on that later). All of this makes it our top pick for a video doorbell.
You install the SkyBell HD at the same height as a standard doorbell, yet the camera angle still allows you to see the face of whoever is at the door. You can’t see a small package left directly under the doorbell, but you can see a 3-foot-tall child who is ringing the bell, and the camera allows you to easily see people approaching or hanging around the door.
Installing the SkyBell HD is a notably simple 15-minute process. Like all of the doorbells in our test group, it attaches using a mounting plate that you screw into the wall. If the holes for the previous doorbell line up with that plate, installation requires only a screwdriver and a hammer for the anchors. If not, you’ll need a drill to make said holes. If you’re installing any of these doorbells, you’ll want to use anchors for drilling into masonry or brick. I was fortunate in that the SkyBell HD lined up with where my original doorbell sat, so I didn’t need to drill any holes to attach the mounting plate.
For the SkyBell HD you then connect the wired doorbell leads to the mounting plate by partially unscrewing two small screws, wrapping the exposed wire from the doorbell connections under the screws, and tightening them. The Ring Video Doorbell also installs this way. Once the SkyBell is connected to power, you wait a few minutes for the device to charge up, download the app to your smartphone or tablet, and then follow the instructions to connect the doorbell to the app.
In the app, you can also personalize two LED lights on the SkyBell HD, so on game day, for instance, you could have the device greet your visitors in your team’s colors. At night the LED provides light to help you see who is at the door.
As noted earlier, the SkyBell HD includes a motion sensor that, when triggered, sends a notification to the user that something is moving about within the door’s visual range. I managed to trigger the motion detector from less than 20 feet away. Motion detection isn’t immediate—you have to be in the line of sight for a moment or two for the motion detector to trigger. That’s actually a good thing, because that sensitivity makes it less likely for a passing car or a stray bird to set the sensor off. In my tests it still triggered properly when I mimed the action of dropping off a package or when I loitered on the porch for more than 10 or 20 seconds.
The Ring Video Doorbell, on the other hand, works from farther away if you’d like, and it tends to go off more frequently, which could produce unnecessary alerts. You don’t have to pause for it to register motion; just walking by will set it off. You can dial back the Ring’s motion sensitivity by reducing the size of the area it scans. In addition, the Smart Alerts feature lets you tell the Ring to track a repeated and similar motion and let you know when that action is finished; this feature comes in handy if kids are playing in the front yard, or someone is mowing the lawn, and you don’t want repeated notifications.
When the SkyBell HD senses motion, the LED on the doorbell flashes, which could alert someone to the device’s presence. More frustrating is that neither the SkyBell HD nor the Ring has a way to capture video continually—they save footage only when triggered by motion or a doorbell press. I did not review the Vivint Doorbell Camera for this article, but Vivint claims that the device has the ability to grab the first two or three seconds’ worth of video prior to the triggering of the motion sensor or the pressing of the doorbell, and that it can show you that video when you play back the interaction. This feature is helpful if you want to see the face of whoever ran up, grabbed your package off your porch, and dashed away. Otherwise, depending on the orientation of your doorbell camera, you might miss getting a clear image of someone.
The SkyBell app is simple and easy to work with. The app opens directly on a page that lets you tap a button to watch a live stream of what is happening at your door, even if no one is there. The video quality, in full 1080 HD, is excellent. In orienting the video horizontally on your screen, the SkyBell app offers a wider view than that of competitors like the August, which gives you a vertical image. Playback controls are limited—we’d like the ability to fast-forward the playback rather than having to sit through a long recording. (The Ring app, in contrast, offers controls that let you pause, rewind, and fast-forward.) The SkyBell app also doesn’t tell you how long the video is.
Videos are saved for free for seven days on SkyBell’s cloud server, and you can download them during that time. For most users, storing the recordings of people’s comings and goings for a week should be sufficient. The feature lets you check back on missed visitors or search your history to find misplaced items.
Settings include the ability to change the LED light color and its brightness, as well as to turn it off. You can turn the indoor chime off, too, which is great if you want to take a nap without the doorbell ringing. You can also turn the motion detection on or off, but you can’t control how sensitive it is. Ring offers that ability, though, and August also began offering motion detection at the end of September 2016.
In addition to interacting with visitors, accessing a live stream is useful if you want to check on your property or see whether a package is waiting for you on the porch. All of the video doorbells we reviewed now offer this function. The ability to check in is one of a few ways to use the doorbell outside of its traditional purpose. My daughter, for example, sometimes rings the doorbell just so that she can say hi when I’m not at home. It’s a real-time conversation that she can start at the touch of a button, although it isn’t conducive to a long conversation and she can’t see me.
The SkyBell HD can link to several smart-home platforms, including Works with Nest, the Amazon Echo, and IFTTT (If This Then That). This feature means you can connect the SkyBell HD to a variety of services such as SmartThings, or to Web services. If you have an Echo or a Dot, you can simply ask Alexa to snap a photo or record video of your entryway, or tell the SkyBell HD to turn off the indoor chime so that a child can take a nap. You could also link it to an array of lights through IFTTT and help someone who can’t hear well by programming the lights to flick on and off after someone presses the doorbell.
On top of that, SkyBell was a launch partner when Apple announced its plans for HomeKit in June 2014. The SkyBell HD is likely to be HomeKit certified, but SkyBell won’t make an announcement until Apple does.
Note that the device does not work directly with SmartThings or the Wink Hub, only through IFTTT. So far, the Ring Video Doorbell is the only doorbell that works with other hubs.
SkyBell CEO Andrew Thomas told me that some clever customers have used the IFTTT integration in unusual ways. One is to use the motion-detection feature to trigger lawn sprinklers as a deterrent against neighborhood kids toilet-papering the house or to keep dogs from pooping on the lawn.
CNET’s Megan Wollerton, the only other reviewer to have tested the SkyBell HD as of this writing, also likes it, noting that it has better video quality and more smart-home integrations than its competitors.
The SkyBell HD doesn’t do everything well. I struggled with connecting the app on my Android device, though the iOS connection process was smooth. The bell generates a Wi-Fi network that it uses to connect to your Wi-Fi network; you enter your password and then connect. If you don’t secure your network with a Wi-Fi password, you can still connect the SkyBell HD, although that approach isn’t recommended because of the security risks.
Multiple users can install the doorbell app and receive notifications, but only one person can “answer” the doorbell. The first person who connects is the person who ends up communicating with the visitor outside the door. For some people this limitation may be a flaw if more than one party wants to see what’s happening.
The doorbell itself comes in silver or aged bronze. The housing is plastic, so aesthetically it isn’t as substantial as the August Doorbell Cam, which has a better-looking casing. It does look more like a doorbell than the Ring Video Doorbell, which seems big and bulky on a doorframe or wall. I do wish the SkyBell HD didn’t have its logo on the push button; that seems like a tech-branding move that doesn’t follow the established rules of home hardware.
The SkyBell HD also had the same issues as all of the tested smart doorbells in that it didn’t detect motion some of the time or its video took too long to resolve on occasion. On top of that, after the doorbell is pressed, the system requires a small amount of time to reset. This pause will thoroughly annoy anyone who buys this doorbell expecting it to behave exactly like a mechanical doorbell. In my tests, every time someone pressed the doorbell, it rang—but about 10 to 15 percent of the time, the high-tech features failed.
At 2.8 inches in diameter, this doorbell is also much wider than the average doorbell, which means that if you need to install it on a narrow doorframe, you’ll be left with unsightly overhang or a need to rewire your doorbell. All of the doorbells we tested were much wider than most standard bells, which means that someone with a narrow space might do well to wait for the upcoming Ring Video Doorbell Pro, which is far slimmer.
The delay between motion and alert may bother some people, but in real-world use it isn’t a significant problem. When you know someone is at your door, the delay before the app notifies you can feel like an eternity, but if it’s a ding-dong-ditch situation or a delivery person ringing just to let you know a package is there before running off, they won’t notice the delay.
The Ring Video Doorbell is the oldest one we reviewed—and it shows. This device shoots only in 720p HD, and it doesn’t provide free cloud storage. For the same price, the SkyBell HD is far more compelling on the feature and video-quality front, while the August Doorbell Cam has great design and HD video and will soon offer competitive features. But “soon” is not today, and without being able to test the August’s forthcoming features, we can’t say how well they stack up. Another ding against Ring is that the company charges you $3 a month (or $30 a year) to save your videos on the cloud (for six months) versus SkyBell’s free seven-day storage.
Ring recently raised $61 million in outside funds and released a newer $250 HD version of this doorbell. We were unable to review that model this time around, but we will update this guide as soon as we get our hands on it.
The Ring Video Doorbell has the distinction of being the only doorbell in this group that can work even if you don’t attach it to your existing doorbell wires. A rechargeable battery powers the Ring; to access and charge the battery, you remove the doorbell from the mounting plate, connect the included charger to the USB port on the back of the doorbell, and wait about half a day. Ring says that a complete charge, which is supposed to last a year, takes about 10 hours.
Since I wired my Ring test unit, I didn’t test the battery life, but PCMag’s John R. Delaney writes that the Ring battery lasted for only about two and a half months before needing a recharge. However, as a gadget reviewer, he does receive a lot of packages.
The battery pack makes the Ring bulky. At 4.9 inches tall by 2.4 inches wide, this doorbell isn’t something I’d personally want greeting my guests. It comes in four color options: silver, Venetian bronze, aged brass, and polished brass. If you elect not to wire it, you’ll have to buy an additional accessory called the Chime (currently $30) if you want to hear the doorbell inside your home. This option replicates the function of a mechanical doorbell for anyone who doesn’t have a smartphone or who leaves it on silent. (If your phone is in silent mode, the Ring notification won’t ring, either.)
The only other notable feature of the Ring is its motion detection. It uses an IR sensor that detects body heat, so tree branches or shifting shadows won’t set the motion detector off. Cars, however, will set it off, so if your home sits close to the street, you’ll want to refine the motion sensing.
Unlike the SkyBell HD, the Ring Video Doorbell lets you control the motion-based notifications according to how sensitive you’d like it to be and where you’d like the detection to stop. So if your doorbell is close to the road, for instance, you can dial back the number of feet the motion detector monitors. This way you don’t get a notification every time someone walks in front of your house; the system waits until something is 10 feet from your door before notifying you.
The Ring doorbell also connects with services such as IFTTT and Wink, and it has a companion outdoor-camera product called the Stick Up Cam that sells for $200 at this writing. I used the Ring with a Wink Hub to create a recipe that turned the porch light on when the Ring detected motion at night. It had about a five-second latency, but it worked.
The most marketed video doorbell, the Ring is actually the company’s second attempt at getting a connected video doorbell right. Initially the company made one called DoorBot, and that model was terrible, as it didn’t load video in anywhere close to real time and suffered from glitches.
However, the company learned from that, and the current Ring model is not a bad choice if you don’t mind the $3 monthly charge for cloud storage. The fee is not unreasonable in comparison with, say, the Nest Cam’s $10 monthly fee, but not everyone wants to pay for a subscription.
Design-minded buyers might appreciate the August Doorbell Cam a bit more than our other two picks. When we first tested it, this video doorbell didn’t have the motion sensor or the cloud storage of the other two models. But in September 2016, with an update to the August Home smartphone app, August added both abilities. Once we have the opportunity to test how these features perform, we will update this guide with our findings. The August doorbell also offers a high-quality build and beautiful HD video. As with the SkyBell HD, the image quality for the August is incredible.
Unless it’s operating at night, that is. Like the SkyBell HD, the August Doorbell Cam relies on a low-light camera to show you nighttime activity, but unlike the SkyBell or Ring models, it doesn’t have an LED to brighten the area around the doorbell. So if you don’t have a lit porch light or any other surrounding illumination, the August’s camera is blind.
My husband views this limitation as a dealbreaker since we don’t keep a porch light on all night, and our neighborhood has no streetlights. The August model could become a good choice because it offers sharper and less pixelated video than the Ring for the same price, and the company recently added the ability to capture and keep recordings for a limited amount of time, which may make it a more compelling option. At present, to get storage with the Ring, you have to pay $3 a month. And the SkyBell HD doesn’t have a monthly fee but saves video for only seven days.
The August model records video in 1280×960 resolution, which gives it a more of a portrait, rather than landscape, frame that works if you keep your phone vertical. Of the doorbells we tested, it’s the only one that does this; both the Ring and SkyBell systems force you to turn your phone on its side to orient the image but give you a wider view of your entryway.
Thanks to the August doorbell camera’s ability to integrate with the August lock, you can see someone on the cam and then give a command to open the door lock from within the same app. Again, this sort of feature would be great for people who can’t easily move around or who are away from home and want to let in, say, the cleaning person.
In my tests, installation for the August doorbell was a bit more trouble than for the SkyBell model, because I had to drill new holes in the wall. At 2.9 inches square, the August unit is the largest doorbell to place on a doorframe. August provides the most installation accessories to ensure that you mount it securely and the device remains waterproof. It comes with a mounting wedge in case your layout requires you to install a doorbell perpendicular to the door, as mine does. It also comes with a secondary mounting plate in case you make a mistake with the first one.
Unlike Ring and SkyBell, August chose to forgo connecting the doorbell leads under a screw. Instead, it provides plastic dolphin connectors that you string its wires and the doorbell wires through; afterward, you crimp the dolphin connector to seal the wires together. I found this method a bit more fussy and error-prone than just attaching the wires using screws. It also means that you need a wire crimper or pliers for the installation.
The August website has a little help section that lets you enter measurements for your doorbell installation location. The website then suggests the drill bit type and size, and whether you should use the wedge. I was a wedge user, and installing the wedge was easy.
The most challenging aspect of installing the August was figuring out what the included foam pad and black goop were for. A call to the company garnered an explanation: The foam pad and black goop are to waterproof the doorbell as much as humanly possible. However, none of the instructions explained this, so I left those components out. When I permanently install my doorbells, I caulk the edges to keep water out. You should too.
Andrew Thomas, CEO of SkyBell, said his company is testing a slim, 1¼-inch-wide version of the SkyBell that will be available sometime in the future. We look forward to testing that model once it’s available.
The recently released Ring Video Doorbell Pro, which is slimmer and equipped with more features than the current model, shoots in HD and has more finely tuned motion sensing.
Later this year, we’ll see the Notifi doorbell from HeathZenith, which will tie in to the Chamberlain garage door opener and assorted lights. The Notifi is interesting, because it will take its power from a porch light and work with that device. Other products include an upcoming video doorbell camera from the lock company Yale, a model from Go Control, and perhaps Chui, a crowdfunded startup that hopes to ship a product sometime this year.
We avoided doorbells that come only as part of a security system or a connected-home package. For example, Vivint sells and installs a full-featured video doorbell, but you have to sign a five-year contract at $60 a month to get it. That’s a shame, because compared with all the doorbells we tested, the Vivint video doorbell was the slimmest. And when you are trying to fit something on a doorframe, size does matter.
As for the cheaper doorbells available on Amazon, we saw lots of ratings that appeared to be fake sprinkled in among heavy complaints about difficulty in getting the doorbells to work. Lelec doesn’t even manufacture the version of the Wi-Fi Doorbell that Amazon sells anymore.
We dismissed the DoorBird as too expensive given the solid performance we got from competitors that cost $100 less.
We considered the Lelec E20051 doorbell, but it has been discontinued.
In the case of the Zmodo Greet Smart WiFi Video Doorbell, the company has gone through at least two listings on Amazon since the beginning of the year. Fakespot gave the product’s Amazon listing an F grade for having a high number of apparently fake reviews or reviews given in exchange for free products.
We dismissed the Ctronics CT-DB01W because of poor user reviews plus an abundance of seemingly fake reviews, including some that appeared to be referring to a different product.
We briefly considered the Wumal Wi-Fi Video Doorbell, which looks like a copycat of the SkyBell HD, but a glance at the reviews indicated that it was buggy and saddled with poor documentation.
(Photos by Stacey Higginbotham.)
Originally published: June 22, 2016