Let’s ring in the New Year with a review of the Ring Doorbell. As smart doorbells become increasingly popular, I have noticed the Ring appear on more and more front doors around the neighborhood. Ring, as a company, is a great comeback story. It was famously rejected for investment by the “Shark Tank” before it was eventually purchased by Amazon in early 2018 for over $1 billion.
So, what makes a doorbell smart? They replace your existing doorbell and chime in your house just like your existing doorbell. What makes them Smart is that they will also ring on your mobile phone. The doorbell and your phone act as an intercom allowing you to speak to anyone at your door regardless of your location. Additionally, the doorbell contains a camera so that you can see who is at your door. The video is one directional so you can see who’s there, but they cannot see you.
Smart doorbells are commonly pitched as security devices. Ring considers itself a security company that competes with companies such as ADT. Ring even uses the slogan “ring of security” to describe their ecosystem and product suite. I have always been skeptical of this claim. While burglars are known to ring doorbells before breaking and entering, are they likely to ring a doorbell that they know will record their face? And with millions of these units sold, will burglars be fooled into thinking you are home when you answer a Ring chime from the beach on vacation? I personally think the security is not from the doorbell itself, but rather the embedded camera and motion sensor. The Ring Doorbell will not only notify you when someone rings the doorbell but will also notify you when someone even approaches your door. While this can certainly be a deterrent against burglars, having a single camera at the front of your house hardly addresses the security needs around your home. Burglars will often target other access points besides your doors. Ring does offer other security cameras and window sensors as part of their product suite. Perhaps putting these all together begin to form the basis of a home security system.
The most direct competition to Ring in the smart home space is Nest, which also offers doorbells and other security-related smart devices. Ring and Nest are now owned by Amazon and Google respectively. When building your smart home, one of the important questions you need to ask yourself is: which smart home ecosystem are you buying into, Amazon or Google? If you are an Amazon user and own one of the Echo devices that has a screen (i.e. the Echo Show), then when someone presses your Ring Doorbell you will be able to see and communicate with them on the Echo device. If, however, you are a Google Home user and want that same functionality, you are out of luck unless you have a Nest Doorbell and vice versa. This, of course, is not consumer friendly but is the unfortunate result of fierce competition between the big tech companies for your smart home.
If you are building or renovating a home, planning for a smart doorbell will be important. Your contractor, without direction, may install a wireless doorbell or even a sophisticated Intercom system. However, if you want a smart doorbell that does not require you to replace batteries regularly, you will want to make sure you have the proper low voltage wiring that will allow you to install a smart doorbell. Placement of the wiring so the camera can get a proper viewing angle is also important and may be different from the most convenient placement of a standard doorbell. If your home does not have the required wiring, you will have to settle for a smart doorbell model that is battery operated and replace the batteries as necessary. As you will see, you give up more than convenience when using a battery-operated version of the doorbell, even if you hard wire it.
Ring has recently introduced the neighborhood App that allows users (even non-doorbell owners) in a local neighborhood to post notices about suspicious activity or other safety issues. Looking at my area (Teaneck) I see a report of an unhealthy coyote, a resident complaining about illegal dumping, a lost cat, a suspicious man looking for the mall, among others. While these reports sound somewhat benign and this service can potentially become a hyper local social media platform, one can easily envision using shared knowledge to avert a real threat. In fact, Ring is now working with police departments nationwide to enable them to potentially view users’ footage (with user permission) to help solve local crimes. Privacy advocates argue that this puts too much power in the hands of law enforcement. While Ring does not currently offer facial recognition, its owner, Amazon, does have this capability and this combination takes us a big step closer to the potential of a surveillance state. On the other hand, it is also hard to deny the potential this feature has in helping to get violent criminals off our streets.
Before you add the Ring Doorbell to your online shopping cart, it will be important for you to understand the different features in the array of models available. The Ring Doorbell has four primary versions: The Ring at $99, the Ring 2 at $199, the Ring Pro at $249 (If you are in the tri-state area, I am currently running a special on basic installation of the Ring Pro at the list price $250- Contact me) and the Ring Elite at $499. Each version has the two-way talk feature we previously discussed as well as night vision. However, there are many nuances between these doorbells such as image quality, face-plates and the physical size of the device. I will focus on the most important technical differences; power and motion detection. The Ring and Ring 2 models are battery powered but do have a hard wire option. If you don’t currently have a wired doorbell then the only options available are the built-in battery powered Ring that requires you to remove the device to replace the batteries or the Ring 2 which allows you to remove the battery pack alone. Even though the Ring and Ring 2 have the hard-wire option, I strongly recommend you do not buy these models unless you do not have wires and specifically require the battery. The reason is that the battery-operated versions only offer limited features. Most significantly, the battery-operated versions offer Adjustable Motion Detection vs. the wired only versions (Pro and Elite) which feature Customizable Motion Detection. I suspect, the differences between these versions will also be significant to software upgrades in the future. There are also potential implications for Shabbos.
The motion sensor functionality will alert you to the mailman and the Amazon delivery person. If you have a view of the street, it will also alert you to the motion of passing cars and dog walkers. Fortunately, there are settings that will allow you to control the area for motion detection.
The Ring and Ring 2 version use three Passive Infrared sensors (PiR) for motion detection that detect the heat signature that humans emit. On these doorbells, you can control the area of motion and attempt to limit the circumference of the three areas monitored to avoid false alarms.
Many users have reported being frustrated with the numerous false motion alerts on the Ring and Ring 2 doorbells. In response, the Ring Pro and Ring Elite models use the camera itself and run sophisticated algorithms to detect human motion, rather than using the PiR sensor. The Customizable Motion Detection on the Pro and Elite versions allow users to draw up to three separate polygons (see kids, you do need geometry in real life) to identify the exact areas you are looking to monitor, ignoring other areas such as the street. The Customizable Motion Detection greatly increase the effectiveness of Ring’s motion detection and in my opinion is worth the price upgrade.
It would be nice if the Ring had facial recognition features and let you know who is arriving at your door without checking the video feed. The option of getting special notices or perhaps no notices at all when your children or spouse arrive home would be a welcome upgrade. The Nest Hello Doorbell currently offers facial recognition features but Ring does not. I suspect this feature is in the pipeline for Ring, given Amazon’s capabilities in this space but for now, if you have alerts set, you will be notified regardless of who is at your door.
It is important to know before you purchase a Ring or a Nest doorbell that when you are notified of someone at your door you can see who is there live at that moment. However, if you want to see who was at your door earlier in the day or even just one minutes ago you will need to subscribe to the Ring Protect service. Ring Protect Basic is $3 a month or $30 a year and allows access to videos of every ring and motion for up to 60 days. The interface does do a good job of showing the event timeline and granting ease of use and access. This though, is the first home automation device that I own whose basic features require that you purchase a subscription. If you look back to my review of the Wyze Cam, you will notice that this simple $25 camera, if placed facing your door, will not only notify you of motion at your door but will also store those clips for you for free for 14 days. Your Ring or Nest cameras at multiples of the cost will unfortunately not have this basic feature unless you pay the subscription fee. Wyze does not currently have a doorbell connected to its camera. Should one wait to purchase a Wyze doorbell if/when it becomes available? Perhaps. But for now, both Ring and Nest have a subscription-based model for this service. I should note that Nest Aware service begins at $5 monthly or $50 a year and includes up to 5 days of history. Personally, I have Lorex security cameras around my home so if I want to know who was at my door or what triggered a motion alert, I can check my security camera footage. While this is certainly not as convenient as the Ring App, it does do the trick and saves the monthly fee. A Wyze camera with a view of the front door will also accomplish the same for those who have an aversion to the monthly fee.
With the motion sensing and notification features of the Ring Doorbells are there ways to make it more Shabbos compatible? Please stay tuned for the concluding part Two of this article where we attempt to address the Shabbos issues in depth.