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SkyBell’s internet doorbell gets faster with always-on Wi-Fi

SkyBell’s internet doorbell gets faster with always-on Wi-Fi


Second-generation model improves nearly every feature

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Raising more than half a million dollars on Indiegogo is no small feat. Just 56 projects have done it since the crowdfunding site launched six years ago, and one of those is SkyBell. It turned the complex video intercom systems aimed at offices and large apartment buildings into a simple doorbell replacement for homeowners and small businesses. The company raised $583,679 (more than five times its goal) to get its first model off the ground, and now it's back with a new version that improves just about every single feature and promises to work with other smart home gadgets.

This new version, which replaces the old model and runs $199, is still basically a webcam combined with a digital doorbell. The two work in tandem to send your phone an alert when somebody rings, and will let you see, hear, and talk to the person on the other end — even if you're halfway around the world.

There's no more hiding from the camera

The lens, motion sensor, onboard memory, and Wi-Fi are all improvements on the first model, which went on sale back in January. The swiveling 90-degree lens has been replaced with a fixed one that views up to 140 degrees, making it easier to see people who may attempt to evade the camera by standing out of its field of vision. There are similar improvements to the motion sensor, which will trigger the system to turn on, and infrared lights, which let you see in the dark. That new camera hardware also uses the infrared sensors to light up dark patches in an image so that you can see people and faces more clearly if they're in a shadowy area.

But the biggest change is one you won't see on the outside or even necessarily in your recordings. It's a new Wi-Fi chip that SkyBell co-founder Andrew Thomas says dramatically trims the time from when you get a notification on your phone to when you're seeing what's on the other end. Where the first model could take up to a full minute to connect, the new one promises to do that in less than five seconds.

Startup time went from one minute to five seconds

The big thing that kept the old Wi-Fi chip from running at all times was the amount of power it would draw, Thomas says. Previously, the company was using off-the-shelf parts that were not very efficient, whereas the company designed its own power management chip for this new model. "Now we can start feeds faster," Thomas says. "The server just says ‘hey, open up the camera,' and it happens almost instantaneously."

Another issue was installing SkyBell in homes with digital doorbell chimes, which play a sound file instead of physically striking bells. Because the two devices shared the same power line, the addition of SkyBell could cause those types of doorbells to hum. Now the company includes an adapter in the box that's wired into those doorbells and makes sure the doorbell completes its cycle.

Skybell top

One last change is the amount of memory the company has built in, which improves performance and promises to open up the system to integrations with other smart home device makers. Thomas says that running different smart home wireless protocols would have meant a performance hit on the older hardware. "For a while it was like you had to commit to one [system] or the other, but we figured it out," he says, adding that various standards that were effectively at odds a year ago have since matured. "Everybody's using the same protocols now."

"Everybody's using the same protocols."

SkyBell isn't announcing any partnerships now, but Thomas offers Wi-Fi-connected smartlock system August as a good example of where things could end up. If the two played nice together, you could verify who a person is with SkyBell's camera, then hit a button in its app to unlock the door. That scenario already exists with Goji, which is a door lock and camera in one, but is not a doorbell replacement.

The extra memory also paves the way for new features that Thomas says will come in the next few weeks and months. One of those is scheduling when the motion sensor is active, something that will allow people to turn it off when they're at home. Another includes storing any activity it picks up, so you can get a log of motion alerts, doorbell rings, and a record of when people had conversations. After that, the plan is to store footage in the cloud so that you can watch it later. That includes both conversations you've had with visitors and a way for people to record a message for you on your doorstep. That is arguably impractical in an era of text messages, but Thomas says it's better than not seeing who was at your door in the event that you couldn't launch the app in time to see them.

Others are angling to be your next doorbell

SkyBell is an early mover of Wi-Fi doorbells, but it has a growing rank of competitors. One of its closest rivals is Ring, which also records motion events and offers a way to talk with people in front of your door. There's also Chui and i-Bell, neither of which are out yet. Chui in particular promises to do many of the same things as SkyBell and smartlocks like August and Kevo, and even combine the two technologies with facial recognition to let you unlock your front door by scanning your face.

The new model goes on sale today in both the original silver and a new bronze color that blends in better with wood and other dark surfaces. There's no retrofit kit for people who bought the first version, though Thomas says he plans on giving first-generation buyers a discount if they're upgrading, and that the old version will continue to get bug fixes and new software updates.