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Netatmo Welcome review: Netatmo's cam faces the future, for better and for worse

Outside of the basics, you can use the profile edit page to customize notifications for each individual. Select whether or not you want notifications when this person arrives. You can specify a time window for these, so you can get notifications when your spouse gets home most of the time, but not on the occasion he or she has to work past your bedtime.

Identify unknown faces, and customize profiles on the Netatmo mobile app. Screenshots by Andrew Gebhart/CNET

You can also set when to record each individual. Maybe you don't want any videos of your family's adults, or maybe you want them only on arrival, but not any subsequent times the camera sees them. However, maybe you do want the camera recording whenever it sees the kids, so you can capture any spontaneous precious moments.

Each time the Welcome sees a face, it'll either associate it with one of the existing profiles you've created, or show you a snapshot with a question mark next to it to indicate that the face wasn't recognized. The idea is that you'll teach the system to know your family and friends, then the only unrecognized faces will be strangers.

Early on, expect it to have a lot of trouble recognizing your family. When you long press an unknown face, you'll have three options: identify, forget this person, or not a face. Selecting identify either lets you build a new profile, or tell the system that it was looking at someone it was supposed to know already. I never encountered a situation where the camera took a snapshot of something that wasn't a face, but after I built profiles for myself and my coworkers, I had to match a lot of unknowns to existing profiles for the first couple of days.

The system's up-front about this. Each profile shows a strength meter for how well the camera knows you. If it's only seen you once, expect the profile to show a strength of one out of five bars. As you move in front of the camera at different angles, and during different times of the day, you'll probably need to tell the system repeatedly that the unknown face it just saw was you, but as you do so, and as it sees you in different lights, it'll slowly get better and better.

You'll have to help Netatmo frequently figure out who's who. Screenshots by Andrew Gebhart/CNET

Netatmo claims it can build a full-strength profile of a person in one to two weeks, depending on whether you linger in front of the camera or pass quickly. In practice, I found it did take around two weeks to get my profile to full strength, but to get it over the hump, I actually pointed the camera at my face while I sat on the couch for a couple of hours.

I haven't asked any of my other coworkers to undergo this scrutiny, instead, they've passed in front of it only as a person would when entering a home. Three weeks after our testing started, we have quite a few profiles at three out of five bars and one at four out of five.

Even up to three bars, expect Netatmo to be confused by the face as much as it gets it right. Once a profile hits four bars, it'll recognize you most of the time, but even with a full profile, I still occasionally have to identify myself for Netatmo.

Netatmo claims this is intentional. It wanted the Welcome to never deliver false positives, and always check when it was unsure. I appreciate that, actually, and found that to be true. I'd rather identify my family member again than have the Netatmo tell me Susie was home when it was actually a stranger who looks similar to Susie.

Netatmo's face recognition software misses a lot, but it acknowledges those misses instead of guessing wrong. Never once during our testing did it identify the wrong person, it simply asked for clarification.

Home and Away

Once you have profiles built, Netatmo's system will organize them into two buckets called "Home" and "Away." When the Welcome sees a face, it moves that person into the Home bucket. Again, you're ideally pointing the camera at the front door, so it can see when someone enters.

The criteria for a person to go back to being "Away" is a little less intuitive. By default, Netatmo marks a person away if it hasn't seen her for four hours. You can change that time window from 1 to 12 hours, but based on the mechanic, I found the names of the buckets a little misleading. Netatmo can't actually tell if someone's home, just if it's seen the person recently.

Netatmo hasn't seen most of us for awhile. Screenshot by Andrew Gebhart/CNET

You can manually tell the system that a person has left after a long press on a profile pic, and there's a button at the top right side of the app to mark everyone away simultaneously. You can also set up geolocation based on your phone's GPS.

Identify yourself to the system by selecting "This is me" on your profile edit screen, and toggle on the "Use my location" option beneath that. In theory, after your phone leaves a 250m radius of the camera (820 feet), it'll switch your profile to away.

Invite any family members with a smartphone to create a Netatmo account and tag their own profiles, and they can also turn on geolocation. Each family member you invite can access the system separately on their own device, but be careful about sharing your camera liberally. You have to add someone for them to get access, so the initial barrier to entry is sensible to me, but once someone's in, you can't limit what they can do. That person will have full control over the camera and the profiles just like you.

Again, Netatmo claims this is intentional. It wants the system to be about sharing with your family as opposed to spying on them. I agree with the logic, I'd just be cautious about trying to give your neighbors any sort of "backup" access. You won't be able to mark their profile as backup in any way.

Once your family has the app and access to your camera on their own phones, they can all turn on geolocation to make the Away bucket more location based than time based. Except, I had a lot of trouble getting geolocation to trigger at all on my Android based Samsung Galaxy S5. My colleague Megan Wollerton, with her iPhone 6 plus, did get geolocation to successfully trigger once.

The Home and Away feature would make more sense if this aspect of it was polished, and perhaps it will be in a future update. For the time being, "Home" and "Away" are just more catchy ways of saying "seen recently" or "Not seen recently."

Security performance

It's a shame the Home and Away feature proves inaccurate in practice, because you can smartly customize the security notifications of the camera based on whether or not someone's home.

The Netatmo Welcome can send you push notifications in three circumstances: when someone known arrives (as in it's seeing them for the first time in a few hours), when it sees an unknown face, or when it detects motion.

After you identify yourself, you'll also get a unique notification reading "Welcome Home!" when it sees you for the first time in awhile.

You can be notified of unknown faces always, or only when no one's home. Similarly, you can set the camera to record on motion detection, and notify on motion detection -- never, only when nobody is home, or always.

It's a smart system that fits with the theme of being more alert when you're not around, and keeping your privacy intact when you are. I just wish it had a few more detailed options. For instance, I wish there was a way to turn off notifications for a person or group of people. If either parent is home, I don't need push notifications. If it's just the kids and the babysitter, I'd still want the system on high alert.

You can get different notifications based on whether you're home or away. Screenshots by Andrew Gebhart/CNET

More problematic is the speed and accuracy at which notifications are delivered. Watching the live feed, you'll notice about a 10-second delay. The same delay occurs with alerts. The Welcome is smart enough to frame recordings to start a couple of seconds before the trigger and run a couple of seconds after, so you'll still be able to see the whole event. In an actual emergency, though, that 10 seconds could make a big difference, and if a burglar is wary enough to recognize the camera and unplug it after breaking in, you won't be able to see any footage until the camera's plugged back in. If it's smashed, that footage will likely be lost for good -- a potentially big downside to keeping all recordings saved locally.

The Netatmo Welcome proved mostly reliable in terms of alerting to and recording every trigger, but it wasn't perfect. Even with the camera set to high alert -- all people marked as away and all notification options turned on -- we were able to fool the motion sensor by moving very fast or very slow past it.

It did catch us more than half of the times we tried to fool it, but better security cameras like the Piper NV will catch you every time, and there's no way to adjust the sensitivity on the Netatmo Welcome.

The Netatmo Welcome is a sentry that tries hard, but is a little slow on the draw. It's slow to pick up motion and slow to learn faces. It'll sometimes miss triggers, and it's very slow picking up that a face is even present, especially at night.

The Welcome's full of promise, but a little slow on the draw. Tyler Lizenby/CNET

When I walked past the camera after hours, I got alerts that it had sensed motion, but it had a lot of trouble telling that it was a person, let alone that it was me. As a result, Netatmo's dedication to privacy backfired a little bit.

I took the camera home to test it over a weekend. I told it I didn't want it recording me, and it had a pretty good idea of who I was at this point, but I wanted it recording motion and sending me relevant notifications whenever I wasn't home, and always sending me a notification when it saw an unknown face.

Because of the way the Away system works, and because it's slow to pick up faces, it went into high alert mode 4 hours after I went to bed. That's fine, since I would want a sentry to perk up at night. But when I woke up for a mid sleep glass of water, it sensed motion, but couldn't tell it was me, and it recorded me walking sleepily around my apartment in my PJs.

Thankfully, my coworkers deleted their accounts before they saw this footage. In a lot of ways, that could have been much worse, and it shows that Netatmo still has some work to do to polish the Welcome. It's promising, but not quite there yet on security or privacy.

The verdict

I have a lot of respect for what Netatmo is trying to do here, and at every step, it airs on the side of caution. If it's not sure it recognizes a face, it'll say it's unknown and let you identify it. I appreciate that, as it's a little more work on your part, but you won't get false positives from someone that looks like your spouse. Unfortunately, it's always slow and sometimes unreliable. It has trouble picking up any face if you move past it quickly, and it might not even register that there was motion.

The Welcome has an appealing concept here, to be sure. Record any strangers, get notifications when the kids arrive, and tighten security when no one's home. The Netatmo Welcome swings for the fences, as no home device has successfully implemented face recognition before. Simplicam tried, but mixed people up frequently. Netatmo comes much closer, and might get there soon with future updates. For the time being, it's a fine option if you want to be on the cutting edge and play with facial recognition. If you want the best connected cam or security cam out there, you can find a lot of better options, specifically the Nest Cam and Piper NV .

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