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Nest Doorbell (battery) review: Worthless without a subscription

Most of us have a doorbell, but most of us probably don’t have a smart doorbell, even if our house is otherwise loaded with ostensibly “smart” gadgets. It’s actually a pretty useful thing, too, letting you keep an eye on packages, speak to folks that drop by while you’re away, or just see who is at the door. Along with the release of Google’s new security cameras, it’s trying to make them a little more accessible for customers, reducing the cost of the optional subscription and opening up which features are available without one. The new battery-powered $180 Nest Doorbell joins the existing wired option, and it is probably worth a look if you’re heavy into the Assistant ecosystem but can’t plug in, though there are some notable issues.

We did this review in two separate stages. To start, I measured how well the Nest Doorbell works with Google’s Nest Aware subscription, courtesy of the bundled trial. After that expired, I continued using it with only the free features to see how it further stacks up. The short answer is: Not great.

SPECS

Camera 960×1280 (1.3MP sensor), 30FPS, 145° FoV w/ Night Vision (up to 10 feet with 4x 850nm infrared LEDs), HDR, 6x digital zoom
IP rating IP54, 20-85% humidity
Audio “High-quality speaker and microphone,” w/ two-way Audio
Sensors PIR (heat source motion/proximity sensor), magnetometer, the actual doorbell button
Power 6Ah (3.65V) built-in battery or 8-24VAC wired (10VA, 50-60Hz), can be charged via USB Type-C
Connectivity up to Wi-Fi 4 (802.11a/b/g/n) 2.4 & 5 GHz, Bluetooth Low Energy
Colors Snow, Linen, Ivy, Ash
Dimensions 46mm x 160mm x 24mm, 206g
Operating temperature –4°F to 104°F (–20°C to 40°C)
Price $180

THE GOOD

Installation Trivially simple to install — especially if you go the battery route.
All in one place Google’s moving Nest cams over to the Home app, and this is the first beneficiary of that change. Finally, All of Google’s smart home stuff will be in one place.
Night vision Bright video at night.
Video quality Good dynamic range in most scenes.
Low-latency Even on battery, live video isn’t noticeably delayed, and alerts are usually prompt.
Integrations Work (mostly) as expected with the Assistant and related devices. Can even turn your speakers and displays into doorbells if you don’t actually have a wired one — as I discovered I didn’t.

THE NOT SO GOOD

Battery life In my use, it looks like the Nest Doorbell will last around a month and a half on a charge, which seems short to me.
No continuous recording Even if you wire it in, this can’t record video continuously.
Alerts If you’re too fast to tap alerts, you can’t even view the related recordings until you restart the app, which is ridiculous.
Video resolution Low enough it sometimes makes mistakes with person detection on default settings. Wish it were a little sharper.
Limited options You can’t configure or limit which speakers or displays work as doorbells. Google also highlights the on-device person detection, but you can’t disable alerts on a per-person basis, which is frustrating and could be a potential way to save battery life in high-traffic areas. Also no custom recording or trimming/editing of events before exporting.
Subscription-locked features Google touts how much the Doorbell can do with purely on-device AI, including face recognition, but you have to pay a subscription to use that hardware feature.
Bugs and issues There are a lot of big and little problems you can run into.
Announcements need an internet connection It can continue recording without a connection, but the speaker- and display-based announcement/doorbell won’t work without a connection. If you’re wired, it can still use the hardware ringer, though.
Confusing app Google’s Home app is filled to the brim with nested sub-menus and settings. It’s hard to navigate.

Design and installation

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The Nest Doorbell (battery) has a weird name, but since the company renamed the old Nest Hello to the Nest Doorbell (Wired), the distinction is necessary. The new doorbell doesn’t just adjust the name, it also has a slightly different and more attractively minimal design. Gone is the glossy plastic that so easily shows wear, dust, and scratches. The future is matte and big — bigger than the original Nest Hello, but still small enough it should fit on your wall.


Like its forebearer, the Nest Doorbell has two parts: A camera up at the top and a doorbell button on the bottom. The button doesn’t have much tactile feedback, but it shouldn’t be an issue and functions fine. Both parts are embedded in the face at opposite ends of the oblong design, with a Google G logo set in the middle. The face — available in white (Snow), beige (Linen), gray (Ash), and a sort of greenish (Ivy) — is set into a black plastic back that slide-snaps onto the mounting plate.

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That mounting mechanism seems pretty durable, but it’s important to note that the release is done via a tool key inserted against the top back. When you’re all set up, put that key in a place where you won’t lose it. I suspect you could also use a flathead screwdriver if it were thin enough, though that could cause a little damage if you aren’t careful. You should also mount it with this release tool in mind if you have to take it down to charge it, keeping sufficient space above the doorbell free. Charging it, when you need to, is pretty simple: Take it down using the tool, plug it in, put it back up once it’s charged. (The app gives you a notification when you need to do that.)

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Take it down and plug it in when the battery runs low. The Home app will notify you when it’s charged again, and the “breathing” LED will change to constant.

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Installing the doorbell was a much simpler process than all the bundled hardware and Google’s multiple warnings to watch the video led me to believe. If you want to be super careful, it’s a good idea to sit down and watch the whole wire-free or wired setup videos before you start. The Home app will also walk you through everything in detail and show you these videos again.

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To start, you fire up the Home app, tap that plus button in the corner you use to add any Assistant-compatible device to your home, tap “set up device,” and choose a doorbell. Once you scan the QR code on the back of your unit, the app handles everything that doesn’t need a screwdriver, and will walk you through the bits that do. I should also note, the setup process opts you into Google’s binding arbitration agreement. Here’s a link to easily opt out, as you should.

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Google includes a little wiring connector harness that should make it slightly easier to set up the doorbell while wired, and I had originally planned to use that, but I was deceived by the prior owner of my house. What I thought was a wired doorbell (paired with a mechanical ringer in the basement) was an elaborate legacy ruse. Luckily for me and many of our readers, the new Nest Doorbell works on battery power, too.

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Google’s packaging for the screws, spacers, and anchors was almost origami-efficient and tickled me pink.

However you install it, the process is simple: You screw the plate (and probably the angled wedge) into your wall. Try to get it straight — sadly, Google didn’t build a bubble level into the plate as it does for its Nest thermostats to make that easier, which I think is a notable and unfortunate omission. There are spacers to help level things if your wall is a bit uneven, and Google includes anchors in case you need to drill into brick, mortar, concrete, stucco, or other harder surfaces. Once everything is screwed down, clip the Nest Doorbell (battery) into the plate, and the Home app will show you the camera’s current view. Time to make a funny face and post it on the internet.

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As I touched on, odds are you’ll need that angled wedge if you’re placing it on a flat surface parallel with your door. In my own testing on a surface flat and parallel with the door, the field of view wasn’t quite wide enough without it, and the wedge only angles inward (left/right), no up or down if you have to finagle positioning to accommodate weird siding or other stuff.

Installing the doorbell took me all of ten minutes, even while documenting the process with photos and screenshots. I suspect most of our readers could do it in three to five minutes if they’re using it in battery mode, with maybe a few extra for a wired install (unless you run into issues). All you’ll need is a screwdriver and a drill — and folks screwing into softer wood can probably even get by without the drill.

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Once the hardware is installed, Google walks you through a setup of your preferences and shows you how the doorbell works. You can turn on video recording, visitor announcements on compatible Assistant-enabled speakers and displays in that house, and decide whether you want to use Nest Aware or not. The doorbell comes with a free 30-day trial, and with it, you can take advantage of familiar face detection, store more event videos, define zones for activity detection, etc.

On that note, one thing that upsets me about the paid features is how much the company touted on-device machine learning for object recognition and familiar face detection. Let me be clear, here: Google claims that almost all of the AI magic happens right on your doorbell itself, without having to be uploaded to the big, scary, privacy-invading “cloud.” That’s great, but it’s kind of bullshit, too, because you have to pay for familiar face detection even though Google assures me it all happens on-device independently of its servers and services. As I see it, the company is basically extorting an extra monthly fee just to use the full suite of capabilities that are built right into the hardware you already paid for once. Google does tell me that it plans to add more features to the subscription going forward, though.

Software and performance

Probably the biggest change with the new Nest Doorbell is the fact that it marks the beginning of moving all Nest camera functionality over to Google’s Home app. That’s the right move, and I’m glad Google’s making it, but in a few ways, the implementation in the Home app feels like a work in progress.

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The app has all the basic functionality you’d expect, like zone-based alert detections and configurable alerts based on the things it recognizes. So if your door is near a well-trafficked street, you can easily exclude the sidewalk but still get alerts for your walkway and porch. It can also detect familiar people for you to label later, and it’ll include their names in alert notifications. You can also adjust a whole pile of settings like video recording quality, event video length, the minimum time between events, and sensor wake-up sensitivity, but most people will likely leave things on the default settings — they’re mostly fine. The settings menus are pretty clear that adjusting any of those can negatively dent battery life, and I only cranked mine up after I’d gotten a reasonable estimate with the default settings.

The new “Sightline” video history playback UI uses a side-scrolling timeline you can easily scrub through. While it is convenient for reviewing clusters of events immediately after they happen, It would be even more convenient if there were a way to compress the timeline to show a wider range visually at once. The only view offered shows roughly a two-minute section at a time, which takes ages to scrub back any useful amount of time.

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Individual alerts come with an event detail page that shows you everything the camera recognized during that event, including faces, object recognition classes, and which zones were triggered during the alert. This is also where you can download clips — unfortunately, you can’t cut them or combine them.

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One of the things I do like about the Home app integration is the “priority events” feed, which shows stuff that recently happened. However, the way it’s laid out seems a little pointlessly organized to me, with events grouped by recognition type rather than more intuitively/chronologically: You’ll have a Package feed and a Doorbell feed, etc. You can get a chronological feed, but it’s nested in a deeper “home history” menu that’s circuitously accessed either by opening the camera, tapping History, and then tapping “full history,” or by tapping “see more” on one of those grouped recognition types and then dismissing the filter, and it’s still not ideal. I’d like the option for a simpler chronological feed on the Home app’s events tab, maybe with colors or easily recognized icons for alert types.

That complexity touches on another thing I don’t like. Frankly, the Home app is already a mess, and the new camera tools only make things worse by piling on even more deeply nested menus and seemingly a billion different ways to get to slightly different versions of the interface you’re looking for. I’m not a UI/UX designer, and I don’t have a solution. But, the Home app is becoming such a chaotic and confusing place, it’s hard for me to recommend products that use it unless you’re technically adept at wading through endless options and menus. For our readers, that’s fine, but I wouldn’t buy this for my mom.

Above: Low-light video can blow out faces unless they’re stationary long enough for it to drop exposure progressively. Below: Normal daytime video has great dynamic range and this is about the worst you should see, though that weird flicker at the beginning is pretty common. Note both examples were recorded at higher-than-default setting to show the best the camera can do.

In my brief ahead of the product launch, Google essentially claimed that resolution on security cameras is just a number, and that other details can and do matter more. I generally agree with that, and I’ve used 1080p cameras that cover a range from potato (sorry, Wyze Cam Pan) to fantastic (Wyze Cam 3, Nest Cam Battery). But, given a decent sensor, more pixels isn’t a bad thing, and I do kind of wish Google had squeezed some more in the Nest Doorbell (battery). At 960×1280, I’d say Google gave the camera the minimum viable sharpness for functionality, and even then, you might run into a few issues.

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Google touted how good the on-device AI is at recognizing faces even at a distance. In my experience, that isn’t always the case, and part of the problem seems to be the limited resolution. I’ve had to merge together folks that are clearly the same person in instances where overly aggressive edge sharpening (compensating for the limited resolution) made them seem different enough. Low-light performance is good for stationary scenes, but if someone is moving quickly, the camera probably won’t recognize them either. I wish Google had given the doorbell a higher resolution sensor.

The two-way audio is pretty handy. When I was stuck in New York after the recent storm, I was able to let folks that dropped by know I was out of town for longer than expected. (I’m friendly with my neighbors and had some contractors working on a project.) The one complaint I heard from folks I spoke to through it is that audio on their end is a bit quiet and hard to hear over ambient noise, even with the volume cranked up.

Many of our readers asked me to keep an eye out for things like lag and latency. I can report that the live feed video is nearly lag-free — at most a second or two behind reality for me. However, I did run into some issues with latency in other ways. For example, loading that feed can take a while. Sometimes the doorbell-replacing “visitor announcements” from my Assistant-connected speakers were delayed — usually not by more than a few seconds, but once in a while by longer. If that happens when an important delivery is happening, I might miss it, and I know for a fact, once it didn’t even ring my speakers at all when someone pressed the button. Thankfully, I was home and saw them at the window, but the app confirmed later that there was a doorbell alert, and there was no corresponding speaker announcement. Big yikes.

Google tells me that any lag I might have observed was caused by the current workflow for that process (doorbell -> cloud -> my speakers) and that the company is working on a local network solution in the coming months that should speed things up. In the same vein, if your internet connection goes out, using the speakers as your doorbell won’t work until Google has a system like that in place. There’s one humorous unintended side-effect, too: If someone rings the doorbell while your internet connection is down, once it’s back up and Google uploads your offline recordings, you’ll get an after-the-fact ring on all your speakers. Great job, Google. Offline recordings otherwise work as expected, though once you’re back online and it gets uploaded.

Google apparently hadn’t considered that I, Ryne, might not want warnings every time Ryne is spotted on the deck.

Relatedly, I was also a little annoyed that you can’t adjust the visitor announcements to only ring specific speakers. Right now, it rings all of them unless you have other settings like personal results or do-not-disturb enabled on them (all of which also interfere with other things I want to keep enabled). The reason that’s a problem is that the announcements aren’t all synchronized, so I get a weird and essentially unintelligible cacophony out of all my Assistant displays and speakers when someone rings the bell. If they can’t all be synchronized to go off with perfect timing, I’d rather trim it down to just a few centrally located speakers, but I can’t do that.

I often found myself wishing that the camera’s field of view was just slightly wider, and I’m not really sure why Google settled with the numbers that it did. The installation recommends that you mount the doorbell four feet from the ground. If you do, that’s high enough it can’t actually see smaller packages directly underneath it. Just a few extra degrees here would have made a notable difference.

Battery life was pretty mediocre for me. Based on my expected use and current remaining life, I’ll probably need to charge mine every month and a half to two months. Google hesitates to state a concrete estimate for battery life, given the variables in customer use, but that’s on the low end of the 1-6 months I was told. However, I should moderate this by explaining that I get a lot of superfluous alerts because I use my front deck quite a bit when weather permits, and the camera has a view of that deck. Still, it’s frustrating that, even though the doorbell has fancy on-device person recognition, Google apparently hadn’t considered that I, Ryne, might not want warnings every time Ryne is spotted on the deck.

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I asked Google about that last issue and why a feature I see as pretty obvious wasn’t implemented, and the company told me to try to use a Home & Away setting to simply disable all alerts while I’m home instead, which isn’t really the same thing. And in this gig, it’s good to know when there’s a package at the door even while I’m home. It would be nice to blanket disable alerts for certain people — and if it’s all happening on-device, as Google claims, I bet that could result in some battery life benefits, too. Google does at least have an eight-minute cooldown on per-person detection, so you don’t get a continuous flood of alerts if you’re out there, just a steady stream of them.

Probably my biggest complaint is one that Google says they’re fixing, and that’s the fact that, if you open an alert too fast (because that’s a thing, alert notifications change as the Doorbell sees more), the app won’t let you view that event’s recording, even long after it’s finished, unless you outright kill and restart the app. That’s kind of ridiculous in my opinion. Google claims that it will instead take you to the live view so you can watch it in progress, but there seems to be a limbo period between the event ending and it being uploaded where if you open the event, you get neither — that or the live video simply doesn’t load correctly for me at those times.

Google tells me it’s planning to allow the app to refresh the timeline and play those event videos back without having to be killed and reloaded, but it’s astounding to me that wasn’t a feature at launch.

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Randomly, some of your recordings may not play at a later date, even though previews of the events will appear in your history, with the app claiming “your device couldn’t record or upload this video” even when it may have worked before. The live view also breaks, showing only audio and no video on some of my third-party Assistant displays.

At times, the event sensitivity itself seems a little off, and my camera starts recording just after it should. This is a sensitivity setting you can adjust, but the default level sometimes sent me alerts after I’d expected it should, upon review. Once in a while, that lack of context has made an alert seem more concerning than it actually is. If the doorbell offered continuous recording, that wouldn’t be a problem, and I could just go back and see what I missed. But because it can’t do that (even if I were wired-in), I’m beholden to what the algorithm decides is worth capturing and can’t scrub back before that. In the same vein, even with the snazzy new playback UI, you can’t trim video before exporting it if you’d like to save or share something. A simple built-in editor would be handy.

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Left: Two events of around two minutes in total of an “Animal,” all while the doorbell missed an actual event at the start, detecting only the very end of the door being closed. Right: Sometimes the new UI bugs out and won’t show the timeline correctly.

I do have one last alert-based woe, and that’s the fact that sometimes the AI goes a little crazy, seeing things that aren’t there. I have a few long recordings where it saw an “Animal” that was actually something else, like a box, a cooler, or a bag. Google said it trained the animal AI model on 2.5 million synesthetic cats, but maybe they were particularly low-polygon, I don’t know.

Should you buy it? Rating 7/10

Nest Doorbell (battery)

I may have ended our assessment with essentially a list of issues, but I still fundamentally like the Nest Doorbell (battery), dumb name and all. However, I don’t think it’s for everyone, and given the issues I ran into and the missing features like no continuous recording and the seemingly limited battery life, I think anyone after an Assistant-connected doorbell who also has doorbell wiring in their home is better served with the existing Nest Hello, now called the Nest Doorbell (wired).

For the subset of folks that are deeply invested in the Google Home/Assistant ecosystem and who don’t have a wired doorbell, I do think it’s a good buy. But, part of that is the fact that it’s also basically your only buy. Nothing else will integrate as well or as deeply, and that’s a bummer.

$180 may seem expensive, but if you actually compare it against battery-powered doorbells, it isn’t too bad. Eufy charges more for its (though it offers local storage). Arlo’s Essential Wire-Free is also $20 more. Notably, the Wyze Video Doorbell and Chime is only around $50, and though I’m glad Wyze is being more honest about pricing these days, that price is an outlier, and it doesn’t offer the same kind of feature set or integrations that Google does. Wyze’s app and alert detections are also worse, in my experience, though it’s still probably my first choice for the budget-conscious.

Google’s Nest Aware features and subscription are both kind of worth it and frankly mandatory, given what the experience is like without a subscription. However, I do think it’s pretty dumb that at least some of the Nest Aware features are ostensibly fully on-device, and yet Google still expects you to pay a subscription for them.

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Ultimately, I do recommend the Nest Doorbell (battery), but only with those caveats: If you can’t run a wire for a doorbell, you’re deep in the Assistant and Google’s grasp, and you’re willing to cough up the dough for Nest Aware. If you answer “no” to any of those, steer clear. Google does tell me that it plans to address many of the issues I raised, but we review products as they are now, not as they will be in six months. Right now, the Nest Doorbell (battery) is just an okay product, with plenty of problems.

Buy it if…

  • You’re deep in the Assistant ecosystem and…
  • You can’t run a wire for a smart doorbell.

Don’t buy it if…

  • You prefer another digital Assistant like Alexa.
  • You have a wired setup now or need continuous recording.
  • Paying a subscription to use it seems unreasonable.

Where to buy

UPDATE: 2021/10/13 14:21 EST BY RYNE HAGER

No subscription, no buy

Now that I’ve had enough time to use the Nest Doorbell without the associated Nest Aware subscription, I feel very, very comfortable saying that under no circumstances should you buy the doorbell if you aren’t going to be a paid subscriber. It’s as simple as that.

That might seem obvious, but Google stressed the features the camera still had when you didn’t pay for a subscription, and with a $180 up-front cost, I honestly just assumed there was a good-faith effort on the company’s part to make the product at least usable, but there really wasn’t. It turns out that three hours of free recording is continuous, even though the camera can’t actually record continuously. That’s confusing, right? It’s not some bucket of three hours that fills at whatever rate your device detects stuff, as you might think — as I first thought. It’s a flat three hours. As in: If you get an alert at midnight, that alert is gone when you wake up in the morning, having disappeared at 3:01 AM.

While you also lose familiar face detection without a subscription, other features like animal and package detection are still present, so it’s not all bad. But the experience changes from being a useful product to more of a demo — a demo that you paid $180 to experience.

I asked Google about why they placed such harsh limits, since you can straight-up sleep through an alert without a subscription and never even know it happened, and the company stressed that the cost of the subscription has gone down and doesn’t increase now with multiple cameras, on top of offering a free 30-day trial. The company also believes the three-hour window is competitive with other products. I should point out, Wyze offers free 12-second cloud recordings with a 5-minute cooldown stored for 14 days, Eufy records locally for free, and though Arlo doesn’t offer cloud recordings at all without a subscription, it has a “direct storage” mechanism for saving them locally for free. When I pointed out that the three-hour wording could stand to more explicitly clarify that period is continuous (even when recordings aren’t), the company told me it would consider adjusting that language in the future to avoid confusion.

I get it, Google’s here to sell subscriptions, but the fact that such an expensive security camera is very nearly useless without one still feels wrong to me. The value proposition in my own mind simply yells that either the subscription should subsidize the price more than it currently does, or the camera should do a little bit more without one.

I’m also continuously frustrated with just how the camera decides when to start recording. I’ve been playing with various detection settings, but no matter what, a concerningly large number of my alerts only begin recording after the event I want to actually see. Mailman dropping off a package? It picks him up walking away, not up, so I can’t easily see where he placed it. The same goes for the paperboy or any number of other random porch visitors (I’m friendly with my neighbors). My doorbell camera has gone from a way to save time and effort into a mechanism that occasionally amplifies it, randomly adding to my stress with vague and falsely concerning alerts.

I hesitate to say no one should buy the Nest Doorbell (battery), but it does have a lot of shortcomings and limitations. And with Google claiming that it’s working on a new wired doorbell, my advice to potential customers is to wait. And if you need a battery-powered doorbell, find a way to get it wired up instead if that’s at all an option — honestly, it’s not a very complicated circuit, and you can at least run the wires to the door yourself, even if you’d rather have an electrician handle the transformer-end.