Here’s a Doorbell Camera You Don’t Have to Feel Guilty About

No more spying for the police

Photos courtesy of the author.

If you’ve spent any time walking down a neighborhood sidewalk recently, you might have noticed an increasing number of doorbell cameras from companies like Amazon’s Ring. These cameras are observing you, yes, and they’re also uploading all of the footage they collect to a dizzying array of cloud servers.

I own one of those internet-connected doorbells, a Nest Hello from Google, and while I find it useful for seeing who’s at the door when I’m away, the thought that I’m slinging endless footage of innocent people into a cloud I don’t control bothers me. When it emerged that Ring has partnerships with hundreds of police forces, I started searching for an alternative I could host myself, without relying on a cloud owned by a company like Amazon.

Until recently, there weren’t really any options on the market, but when Ubiquiti’s new G4 Pro Doorbell camera was released late last year for $199, I finally decided to ditch the Nest Hello in favor of a more privacy-friendly approach.

UniFi’s G4 Doorbell is incredibly similar to the Nest Hello, sporting a camera, microphone, and speaker for talking to anyone that rings your doorbell, but it adds a little screen that allows you to set a message like “Welcome,” or set up an automatic response like “Leave the package” when you’re not available.

Ubiquiti’s cameras connect to a system called UniFi Protect, which allows you to store footage on a device within your home without ever sending it beyond your network, which was exactly what I wanted. The company has a dizzying array of cameras from the tiny, $29 indoor camera to a high-end 4K camera with optical zoom, all of which can be connected to a single system.

Unlike Nest and Ring, which require you to pay a monthly subscription fee to store footage on their servers for as long as you use them, you’re in control of your data and don’t need to pay any fees.

You do, however, need to buy an extra device to actually store all of that footage inside your home. The simple option is the company’s Cloud Key Plus, which includes a hard drive with 1TB of storage, but because I already have an overkill network made by the company, I was able to simply slide a hard drive into the UniFi Dream Machine Pro that I already use as a router, which allows it to double as camera storage.

Installation is simple. If you have an existing powered doorbell, you just need to pop it off the wall, connect the right wires to the right screws, and drill a few new holes in the wall. If you don’t have a doorbell chime at all, like me, you’ll need a power supply to fire it up because there isn’t one in the box — luckily the one I used with the Nest Hello worked, so it took me less than 10 minutes to swap it over.

You can access the camera via a UniFi Protect web app or mobile app for both iOS and Android. The mobile app is slick and well-designed, and notably much more responsive than Nest’s app, which tends to be slow to load and laggy, given it needs to load footage from the cloud rather than locally. The doorbell features “smart motion” detection, which highlights cars and people in a carousel across the top of the home screen for quick access, which makes it easier to quickly find an event that happened recently.

The quality of the footage from the G4 doorbell is good, but not quite as clear as that from the Nest Hello, unfortunately, despite recording in a similar 1600 x 1200 resolution. With the G4 doorbell, however, I do have full control over picture quality settings, so it’s likely I need to tweak it manually a bit more to get them on par–a compromise I’m willing to make to have more control over the footage and avoid monthly fees.

I quickly ran into a problem related to my lack of actual doorbell chime, however: I had relied on Nest’s integration with Google Home, which announces “someone’s at the door” on my smart speakers when someone rings the doorbell. The G4 doorbell has no such integration, so the only way to get alerts was via push notifications on my phone, which isn’t ideal.

Some quick research revealed the benefits of local control of the device, though. I could set up an automated process with a system like Home Assistant or HomeBridge myself. These open source tools allow home automation enthusiasts to extend their smart devices to do more than manufacturers allow, such as having incompatible devices work together, or creating one dashboard to bring together all of your gadgets.

While it involved extra tinkering to wire it all up just to make it do something similar to the Nest Hello, I was able to set Home Assistant up on a Raspberry Pi and make it work. After about an hour, I could play any sound I wanted on my Google Home when someone rings the doorbell, a feature that Nest doesn’t offer. This process was a hassle, but on the other hand, it was a tiny delight to be able to do it at all, rather than be locked out of a device I owned if the integration isn’t there, as I was when Nest shut down its integration API in 2019.

Using a camera like the G4 Doorbell does mean more tinkering to get it set up, but I’m now able to store 38 days of footage, on my own network, across the two cameras I’ve got set up. With Nest, I was paying $8 per month to have access to just five days of footage before it was deleted from their cloud — to upgrade and store 30 days of footage as I am with local storage, it would cost $45 per month.

More importantly, it feels good to know I’m not feeding a larger surveillance machine that could hand footage over to authorities without my permission. Moving to a system I own means I control who gets access to that footage, not whoever has access to the cloud it ends up on, which makes me feel better about having a doorbell camera in the first place.

Developer, accidental wordsmith. OneZero columnist trying to debug the why behind tech news. Follow: https://twitter.com/ow Blog: https://char.gd

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