Ecobee 3 Lite review

Part of making my house smart besides IoT security cameras was choosing and installing a smart thermostat.  For me, that specifically meant two thermostats, as my two story house has a single unit with two zones.  There are many options in this space, the most well-known of which is probably the Nest thermostat, but Nest lacks Apple Homekit compatibility, and I require my IoT devices to be cross-platform unless there is one specific device that fills a niche so well that nothing else comes even close.  This is what led me to the Ecobee 3 Lite (that’s “eco,” like “eco-friendly,” not pronounced like “echo”).

Ecobee 3 Lite, all images courtesy of Amazon

The Ecobee 3 Lite is cross platform, and works with Apple HomeKit, Google Assistant (including Google Home), and Amazon Echo.  It is the younger sibling to the Ecobee 4, which is slightly newer and slightly different.

So, why did I choose the Ecobee 3 Lite over the Ecobee 4?  Well, as you can see if you checked the links above, the 4 is about $80 more expensive at the time of this writing, and the only real added benefit of the 4 is that it has Amazon Alexa built in.  That would actually be really cool, except Echo Dots are $50 by themselves, and I already have an Echo, two Echo Dots, and a Google Home Mini, so there just wasn’t any point, especially considering the price difference was really $160 more expensive since I needed two of them.  I should mention that it’s $169.99 for the Ecobee 3 Lite, and $249.99 for the Ecobee 4.

The reason you may want a smart thermostat varies, but for me, it was easy scheduling, voice/app control, and remote access.  Many modern home thermostats include scheduling, but the one that came in my house, for example, was so confusing that I just didn’t use it.  It was easier to turn the thermostat up and down manually every night and every morning.

The Ecobee makes scheduling relatively easy via their app or web admin page.  There is a slight learning curve, but it is night and day compared to old, dumb thermostats.  I’ve got schedules set up to automatically heat the whole house (for now, since it’s winter) in the morning so we wake up to a warm bedroom.  Then it automatically heats only the first floor for the rest of the day since the only room we regularly use upstairs is the bedroom.  At night, the whole house cools down since we have blankets and we’re asleep anyway.  During the summer, the thermostats let it get a little warm upstairs, but then cools it down by the time we normally are headed to bed.

Ecobee 4

Voice control is a bit less useful than for something like smart lightbulbs, but that’s only because scheduling is so easy and useful that I rarely need to manually change the temperature.  When the opportunity arises, I use it, and in those moments, I feel sorry for people that have to get up and manually change their thermostats like cavemen.  I use the app very infrequently, considering that between Siri, Alexa, and Google Assistant, there is just no need to go through the extra effort that opening an app requires, despite how little effort that actually is.

Remote access is really all about peace of mind.  I’ve had my AC sustain a refrigerant leak before while I was on vacation, and if I hadn’t had a roommate at the time, the compressor in my AC likely would’ve burned up, which is a very costly repair that would’ve come in addition to the coil that caused the leak and needed replacing anyway.  With the Ecobee, I can not only manually check in on the temperature of the house while away, but I can setup alerts to send notifications whenever the thermostats detect high/low temperature or humidity thresholds that I set.

Besides displaying your indoor temperature, the face of the Ecobee also displays the outside temperature, which is a little redundant for me, since I have that on my wrist at all times.  However, I think it is legitimately useful for most people, and I still like that it’s there.  Besides that, you can manually adjust the temperature, view your settings, and switch between home and away modes from the device.  The app actually mirrors the look and feel of the thermostat, which is a cool ease-of-use design in my opinion.

Speaking of the face of the unit, the Ecobee 3 Lite hardware is attractive and seems pretty solid (note that if you spring for the Ecobee 4, the hardware is slightly different, but overall looks very similar).  However, I did have some WiFi connectivity issues with the upstairs unit.  Ecobee support was entirely unhelpful (they told me that devices just disconnect from WiFi sometimes…okay, thanks, so why does it do that and then not reconnect?).  I legitimately don’t know the cause of that issue, but it went away, and was fixed at the time by “hard resetting,” aka, pulling the thermostat off the wall and putting it back, a solid 2 second process.  Since then, I’ve noticed that connectivity issues tend to solve themselves within a day, which is weird, but I guess it’s better than before.  Most important, those issues are rare, so it’s not a huge deal.

The screen is capacitive, and though it isn’t high DPI, that’s really not necessary for what it is.  It’s as good and as responsive as it needs to be, especially at its price point, and experiences tend to trump specs.  Like I mentioned, the thermostat pops off and back on easily if needed, and the initial install itself is pretty simple, though be careful and read all instructions.

My HVAC company had a nice big warranty sticker that said I voided my warranty by replacing my thermostats, but of course when I called them, it was only the warranty for the thermostats themselves.  I got this in writing from them, and good thing I did, but the techs aren’t aware of how that stuff works and I was given trouble on two separate occasions about having my own thermostats installed.  But hopefully you will have a more reasonable situation where that either doesn’t apply or isn’t necessary.  Just something to think about if you have a newer house with equipment that’s under warranty.

Ecobee room sensor

The only other thing that I feel like I need to mention about the Ecobee are the room sensors.  The Ecobee contains the functionality with the thermostats alone to – rather than run by a schedule – adjust your system based on whether or not it detects activity.  If it doesn’t detect activity for a while, then it’ll enter Away mode, automatically saving you money.  I personally prefer to use schedules, but that option does exist.

Normally thermostats are in high-traffic rooms, so they can tell somewhat reliably if you’re home.  Sometimes, though, they aren’t great at this and may make your system enter Away mode even when you’re home.  The room sensors exist for you to basically monitor activity in rooms that you frequently use but don’t have a thermostat in.  They can detect activity and adjust the system as necessary, which is the only reason you should consider buying them.  Ecobee advertises that if you have a room that’s too hot or too cold, room sensors are a great addition to your smart thermostat ecosystem, but that’s entirely unnecessary unless you have individually controlled vents in your house (unless you have a very fancy/expensive house relative to your area, you almost definitely don’t have that type of vent).

See, if a room is cold, all you need to do is adjust your thermostat manually, because that’s all the room sensors would do.  Without individual vent control, the entire zone has to turn on, so you might as well just keep the heat set a degree or two higher.

I have been very satisfied with my Ecobees, and in every way except for their support, the product has met or exceeded my expectations.  It feels so incredibly good to be able to save money on heating my house, but still wake up in the morning to a warm bedroom.  And it’s hard to put a price on peace of mind.



Arlo Pro wireless security camera system review

Arlo Pro cameras and base station, image courtesy of Amazon

When I first became a homeowner in 2010, the major reason I never put up security cameras around my house was that I just didn’t feel like running the wiring for a full-blown surveillance system.  It wasn’t the cost of the system itself or that I felt like I was impervious to needing security equipment, I seriously just didn’t feel like doing the wiring or paying someone else a lot of money to do it since that would at least double the cost.

Fast forward to early last year when we bought our most recent house.  I was again ready to spend the money on the cameras, and I was ready to see what my options were for wiring the house for it.  Much to my surprise, though, it turned out there were now completely viable surveillance systems that were completely wireless, namely, the Arlo Pro by Netgear.

As you might guess, the Arlo Pro system does cost more than most wired systems.  The 3-camera system with base station runs around $500 at the time of this writing.  I suspect that most people won’t want less than three cameras, but they are sold in multiple combinations with one to four cameras.

First, I should mention that this is a review specifically of the Arlo Pro system and does not take into account any similar products (please note that I will also touch on the recently released Arlo Pro 2 system toward the end of this review).  This is the only one I have experience with.  Now, on to the reason that you’re here.

The Arlo Pro system linked above contains three cameras, camera mounting points, a base station, and chargers.  This review will tackle each of these components, and then the app and how it works.

The mounting points are basically metal half-spheres that you can mount to a wall.  The back of the Arlo Pro cameras have a divot and an internal magnet that causes the camera to snap into place onto a mount, after which you can easily position the camera how you want it.  Not much else to say about that.

Image courtesy of Amazon

The cameras themselves have a very solid feel, and though they’re weatherproof, I would not put them in the sun.  First, the casing is plastic, so eventually the sun would make that pretty brittle.  Most importantly, though, is the rechargeable battery inside.  Quite frankly, I don’t trust batteries in heat, even if Lithium Ion packs are rated to 140 degrees Fahrenheit.  I’m not sure what the manual has to say about placing them in direct sunlight, but you should follow the manual and your best judgement.

My cameras are in shaded areas, not particularly well-hidden, but shaded.  There are two schools of thought on camera placement – either in an obvious place to deter nefarious activity, or in a hidden place to catch the activity.  I choose the former, because quite frankly, you’d have to be a complete moron to rob a house with cameras rather than a neighbor that has none.  That’s speculation on my own part, of course, but I think they serve as a deterrent first and foremost.

The battery last about 2-3 months, but this duration depends entirely on camera placement.  The cameras aren’t constantly recording, because that wouldn’t be sustainable with a wireless system, so instead, they use motion detection and then record a snippet of what they see, the length of which is up to you.  The default is 10 seconds, but you can have it record for as long as it detects motions, up to 300 seconds.  So, that said, if you put an Arlo Pro camera in a high traffic area, the it will record more often, and the battery will die more quickly.  For example, I have to charge the Arlo on my back porch around twice as often as the one on the front porch because we rarely use the front door, whereas we take our two dogs out many times a day through the back.

The cameras can also be set to record when they detect sound, which may be useful for some.  I personally do not use this, because between neighbor dogs barking and our own dogs barking, the cameras would record a bit too much extraneous video.

The battery charges through a standard micro-USB cable.  I’d rather the newer USB-C standard, but more importantly, I’d rather if you could charge the batteries directly without an expensive add-on.  To charge an Arlo Pro camera battery, you have to take the camera down and plug it in.  If you have an extra battery, which I do, the only way to charge it is by putting it in a camera, so you can’t have multiple standby batteries fully charged and ready to replace your dead ones.  Well, that is, unless you buy the $60 Arlo charging station.

Finally, the only other point about the cameras that I haven’t mentioned is that they do have night vision to record in the dark (in black and white, of course), and they have tiny speakers on them, which allows you to talk (albeit awkwardly) with someone that’s near the cameras.   More on that later.

All in all, the battery charging issue aside, I’ve been pleased with the camera design.

The base station is the part of the system that goes inside and communicates with the cameras.  You hook it up to your router via an ethernet cable, and it takes care of sending data back and forth to the cameras.  It also has a siren, so if you arm your system and it detects motion, the siren will sound from the base station.  That said, that’s only a useful feature if your cameras are setup indoors.  You don’t want a siren going off just because the mailman is trying to drop of a package at your front door.  Or hey, maybe you do.

It also has a USB port on it for you to hookup a hard drive for storing local video footage.  The Arlo Pro system comes with free cloud storage for 7 days worth of video, which honestly is perfect and fair for most people.  There are paid upgrades for that, but you’re probably fine with the free offering.  If you need more storage, the local USB storage is exactly what the doctor ordered.  Well, unless you have a NAS, which the Arlo Pro system doesn’t support.  Sorry my fellow techies, USB only.

Arlo Android app, image courtesy of the Google Play Store

Now, all of these hardware components are fine and dandy, but management of this stuff would fall apart without a solid administrative experience.  Luckily, the Arlo app and website are pretty good.  I use the app almost exclusively, but the web admin panel does exist and offers the same/similar functionality.

How you receive alerts from the cameras are entirely up to you, but your options are via email, push notification, or no alert at all.  You can set the cameras on a schedule as well, so if you’re gone from 7AM until 6PM, the cameras can alert you only during that time, or all the time, or never.  Again, it’s up to you.  The same works with the siren, recording, and what the trigger should be (audio or motion) – it’s all pretty customizable.  You can set the sensitivity of the motion detection as well, which is important, because the cameras are sensitive enough to picking the shadow of a tree blowing in the wind at 100% sensitivity, which I’m guessing you probably don’t need a recording of or an alert from.

Within the app, you can select a camera and push a button to talk to someone that’s by that camera.  There’s a slight delay, so you probably shouldn’t use it extensively, but if there’s someone at the door and you need to tell them to hold on for a couple of minutes, it would suffice.

One of the great things about this system is that since the cameras are wireless, you can move them around as needed.  I have brought one inside before to keep an eye on my dogs while I was away for the day, and with the app, I could talk to them and watch their ears perk up as they searched for where my voice was coming from.

Arlo Pro 2, image courtesy of Amazon

Now, I have to tell you that the Arlo Pro is not the newest version of this camera.  Netgear recently released the Arlo Pro 2, but don’t worry, this review is very applicable to that system as well.  The Arlo Pro records in 720p, whereas the Arlo Pro 2 will record in 1080p.  The Arlo Pro 2’s cameras are also ever-so-slightly larger, I assume to accommodate for the additional processing power/battery that encoding and transferring 1080p video requires.  As far as I can tell, those are the only real notable differences, other than the price, which is $449 for the base station and two cameras – a slightly worse deal for the slightly better hardware.

I really like my Arlo Pro security camera system, but I will say that it isn’t for everyone.  You couldn’t realistically use this product to watch over a vacation house or something of the like, since the batteries need to be recharged every so often.  And speaking of charging the batteries, you’ll probably have to climb up and down a ladder to do that, which makes these not accessible for some.  And while you can change the recording settings to make video quality better at the cost of battery life (and vice versa), the 720p Arlo Pro might not be good enough for some, making the Arlo Pro 2 more attractive.  For those that need constant recordings, whether there is motion or not, clearly this system is not an option at all.  So while there are plenty of pros, there are cons to consider.  Personally, I think for most home owners, this is a slam dunk, but as far as reliability goes, there’s no substitute for good, old-fashioned wires.