SkyBell Video Doorbell review: The second-gen SkyBell is one stealthy door buzzer
SkyBell 2.0's near-immediate push alerts and steady video feed give this smart chime a degree of appeal.
The $200 SkyBell smart video camera-equipped doorbell is different than BOT Home Automation's now-defunct Doorbot and newer Ring buzzer. Where Ring boasts a 720p video resolution, the option between a battery or wired installation and an activity log (but no on-demand live streaming), SkyBell has a 640x480 video image, a wired-only setup and on-demand live streaming (but no activity log).
Still, they share core features. When someone rings the doorbell, you will get a push alert that links directly to a live video feed so you can see who's there whether you're in the basement, at the grocery store, or on a remote beach (as long as your phone has a Wi-Fi or cellular connection, that is).
It's the quality of these basic functions that set SkyBell slightly above Ring. SkyBell certainly wasn't perfect -- it suffered from inconsistent audio, and you can't currently record video or save clips -- but its lower-quality VGA camera never once suffered from the same streaky bandwidth fatigue that made it tough for Ring to clearly display who was at the door. Get SkyBell for its relative reliability, but don't expect this new release to feel like a fully realized product just yet.
Installing SkyBell was a huge hassle at first. As a doorbell novice, I didn't know much about digital versus mechanical models and was not fully prepared for the intricacies of these two buzzer types. The beauty of Ring is that folks who don't have a wired setup can skip that whole discovery process and move straight to the good stuff -- actually using the device.
SkyBell does not afford you that luxury. You have to hard-wire your SkyBell, and you really need to know if your current buzzer is digital or mechanical before you buy. My house doesn't have a wired doorbell, so I took my SkyBell review unit to a house that did.
Removing the existing doorbell and replacing it with SkyBell was a little trying. SkyBell offers a couple of baseplate variations so you can angle and adjust your model as needed, but there's very little room between the base and faceplates, so the blue wire covers provided simply didn't fit. So, I switched to electrical tape and was able to shove the wires far enough back that the two pieces fit together.
The final installation step involves the world's tiniest Allen wrench and a near-microscopic screw that fits underneath the doorbell to secure everything in place. It took me several attempts to get this right.
Thankfully, configuration was pretty straightforward. Enter a long activation code (located on your SkyBell box), hold the doorbell button down until the light flashes red, and follow the Android or iOS app instructions to connect to the SkyBell network and then to your local Wi-Fi network. That part took about five minutes.
But I ran into a fairly significant problem at this point: the doorbell was chiming continuously for no apparent reason. A visit to the SkyBell site revealed that this house had a digital doorbell, that's a computerized chime instead of an actual chime. SkyBell units support digital bells, but you have to buy a separate piece of hardware called a Digital Doorbell Adapter. This is a small $12 circuit gizmo that you have to install at the source of your digital chime.
SkyBell has a tutorial video showing how to do this, but this house had an intercom rather than a single dedicated chime, and its wiring was considerably more complex than what was outlined in the tutorial. As it turns out, the Digital Doorbell Adapter won't work with any intercom setup. So, not only are non-wired doorbell homes out of luck, homes with intercoms are too -- and non-intercom digital doorbell homes will have to install both the SkyBell and the adapter. Complicated.
From there, I tracked down a house with a basic mechanical rig and tried my luck there. Once installed, I didn't experience any of the frustrating, continuous bell-ringing that happened at the digital doorbell house. I configured it and the SkyBell began to work right away.
Physically ringing the bell and enabling the motion sensor feature all resulted in swift push alerts that linked directly to the 130-degree live feed. The quality wasn't spectacular, but it was consistent throughout testing and much better overall than Ring's laggy and streaky 720p. I also spent some time trying out the on-demand live streaming feature; this worked similarly well. Press the button once, and the app will connect to a live feed.
Even though the live streaming button is a nice addition, I really wish it had an accompanying activity log with access to saved clips. Right now, you can only take a snapshot of the video feed. Since it isn't automated, you have to be at the ready to press that camera button whenever you want to capture activity.
And while you can add multiple people to a single SkyBell account, only one person can view the live feed at a time. So if two family members receive the same motion-triggered push notification, only the first person to open the feed will be able to see it. The first time this happened, I though the video feed had stopped working, but, alas, it's just limited to one person.
Unfortunately, the audio quality was pretty poor. Most of the time, it sounded like a bad phone connection, with only every few words coming through. That was very disappointing, since you're supposed to be able to see and chat with whoever's at your door. Still, it's better than Ring's hit-or-miss video feed, the most essential feature to the whole smart doorbell operation.
I noticed something interesting during testing. When we first acquired a second-gen SkyBell unit in December 2014, its motion sensor was located below the camera (pictured above, right). Interestingly, we saw some photos of a slightly different-looking SkyBell unit that wasn't version 1.0 or the 2.0 model we were testing (pictured above, left). As it turns out, SkyBell made a quick sensor update after its early 2.0's had already been released, so your 2.0 could look like either of these models. SkyBell claims that there's no "material difference" between the two, but we decided to focus on the newest 2.0, which has above-the-camera sensors.
SkyBell doesn't have an IFTTT channel or work with any third-party devices or hubs. The company is an Apple HomeKit partner, but this particular product doesn't allow for any Siri-related home automation integration.
SkyBell is a definite step up from its competition, once you've confirmed that it will work with your existing doorbell configuration. After that, you'll get alerts whenever someone rings the bell or triggers the motion sensor -- and you can check in whenever you want via the on-demand video button. That's nice, but the low audio quality and lack of clip storage gives this app a bit of an unfinished feel. It might be the finest smart doorbell offering we've seen yet, but that just shows that this budding market has some work to do.