A video intercom doorbell lets you see who's at your front door, and is handy in apartments and large homes.
But what if you could see who's outside your home, no matter where you are, by looking at your smartphone?
That's what smart doorbells are for.
Smart doorbells are an internet-connected device that work like a video intercom – but are much smarter and can do so much more.
You can be notified when someone rings your front doorbell, and monitor it using your smartphone. Some models even have a motion sensor to let you see who's hanging around your front door even if they don't press the button.
A smart doorbell can either be activated when a button is pressed on the doorbell located at your front door, or it can constantly monitor activity around the device and send a notification to your smartphone showing a live video scene.
A smart doorbell is a small device with a video camera, a microphone, and a button that's connected to the internet through your home network. You'd generally put it in the same spot you'd put a traditional doorbell, but it can deliver a range of additional features through internet connectivity.
This ability to connect to your home network and the internet means you can use your smartphone to monitor who is around your front door, have a conversation with the person standing next to the smart doorbell, and possibly even record video.
As with a traditional doorbell, pressing the button on a smart doorbell lets you know someone is at your front door – but where a traditional doorbell might chime or ring somewhere in the home (via a wire or wireless connection from the doorbell to the ringer or chime), a smart doorbell provides additional options.
Smart doorbells usually have a button to call, a camera to capture the person in the viewable area and sometimes a motion sensor to capture movement in the viewable area.
Firstly, a smart doorbell can send a notification to a registered smartphone so you can check who's there, even if you're not home. You can even talk to the visitor if you like.
Alternatively, the pressing of a button could start a chime somewhere in the home that's connected via the wireless network. You can also set up the smart doorbell to play a recording on a network speaker (via Google or Alexa) to call out to someone in the family, such as "Hey Jane, get out of bed and answer the door!".
Some smart doorbells can sense someone is in the area before they even press the bell, and others support a chain of events happening in the home once the button is pressed. All these actions are possible because it's a smart device and can be connected to all the other smart devices in your home.
Some smart doorbells come with a chime module in the package
Do smart doorbells need Wi-Fi?
All smart doorbells operate over your wireless (Wi-Fi) network. This is how they send notifications to connected devices such as your smartphone or TV, while you're at home or away (via remote access).
What makes a good smart doorbell?
A good smart doorbell has video and sound quality that's clear and recognisable, it should be easy to use, and it should be secure against hacking attacks. A good response time means there's no delay between the time the person takes when pressing the main button to the time you get notified on your mobile.
What makes a bad smart doorbell?
Poor smart doorbells deliver sound that's grating and unintelligible, and video quality that doesn't show who is actually at your door. The installation and set-up for some of the worst models will most likely lead you to putting the device in the 'too hard basket' and returning to a simple $30 doorbell.
All the smart doorbells we've tested come with a camera, and one of the best things about the device is being able to see the person at your door. Unlike security cameras, there's no real need to record the footage, but some of the models can capture video to view later.
Angle of view can be an important part of the camera performance. The models in our smart doorbell review ranged from around 100 degrees, which is fairly narrow, right up to 180 degrees, which means you can see who's at your door even if they're standing off to the side.
Most are capable of capturing high-definition video but a few support higher resolutions. This added detail can be useful if you need to identify features or objects in the footage, but it also relies on the quality of the lens and processor. For example, a smart doorbell may be able to capture 2K footage, but it will still lack detail if the camera optics are poor.
Offsite storage in the cloud lets you access footage remotely, though this often requires a monthly subscription fee (to cover server costs).
Most doorbells with this feature can back up footage automatically by either constantly recording, uploading and overwriting footage throughout the day, or isolating and uploading specific interactions such as a package delivery.
They also typically identify and isolate events and interactions so the footage isn't deleted by mistake.
Some doorbells can learn to identify regular visitors over time, such as family members, the mailman, cleaners etc. You can change or disable alerts for these familiar faces.
You can start with a smart doorbell and add a chime or smart door lock later on.
IFTTT (If This Then That) allow a series of actions to be performed when a button is pressed, by linking with an app installed on your smartphone.
Once you add features like a chime and smart lock, you can tell Google to let someone in the house or even customise the chime feature to work with a smart speaker to let you know someone is at the front door.
Improves video quality in low light conditions.
Usually a microSD slot or hard drive connected via your local network. A useful alternative if you don't want to pay for cloud backup.
Check the specifications to make sure that the doorbell has some kind of weather sealing, even if it's in an alcove or undercover. Generic terms like "weather- or water-resistant" are OK but an ingress protection (IP) rating is much better. This rating will outline the water and dust protection in detail.
Smart doorbells with cameras let you see who's at the door anywhere at home or when you are away, but it's important to note that these are internet-connected and as such are vulnerable to attacks.
Some of these devices also send information online through internet servers that the user has no control over once the 'permissions' button is pressed. The problem is that the permissions button must be pressed to provide access to all the cool features you may want.
Our testers look at the following to help you decide to what level you need to be concerned about the security of the smart doorbell you buy. We look at:
- Where data is stored. Does video go to offshore servers for processing or storage? Most data is stored in different countries with variable levels of security. Our tester could find the destination for some of the servers for the models we tested, but others weren't disclosed. This could be an issue as you basically send your personal information out into the internet without knowing where it's stored and for how long.
- How easy it is to change your password and update the software. We found the ability to delete personal information after our test finished (factory reset) was more difficult than it should be.
Protecting your privacy
There are a number of things you can do to ensure security for your smart doorbell, and these actions should be carried out for all the smart devices in your home:
- Change your password as soon as you install the device (don't keep the default).
- Don't make your new password a simple, easy-to-remember word, as hackers will find it simple and easy to crack.
- Keep up with the security updates as they come out.
Protecting neighbour privacy
With cameras getting better and wider angles of view, some neighbours may be less than happy with your new smart doorbell installed close to their property. But unlike security cameras, these devices aren't really focused on recording all the information going on around your home, just the period of time when someone walks up to your door.
Some smart doorbells include features such as activity zones to force the camera to only activate within a certain area.
For many smart doorbells installation is a simple matter of screwing the device into the wall next to your door and if it has a chime, plugging the chime into a powerpoint in your home.
In most cases, installing a smart doorbell will be an afternoon's task for most people, requiring no more than a couple of screws into the wall next to the door.
The biggest part of installing a smart doorbell is connecting the device to your home network and setting up the app on your smartphone, and for this you may need the expertise of someone else.
A smart doorbell and security camera may seem to perform the same task, but there are a couple of important differences to consider before you choose one or the other.
A security camera offers features like video streaming, saving video either on your home network or in the cloud, while smart doorbells offer this feature as an option only. Security cameras are also designed to perform well at night when it's dark, and they also incorporate motion sensors.
Security cameras also don't have a button to let you know there's someone at the front door.
Stock images: Getty, unless otherwise stated.