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News Coverage

VTech Audio/Video Doorbell Answering System (IS7121-2)

October 23, 2013

There are few things more annoying than having to stop what you're doing to answer the doorbell only to find it's either a pushy salesman or yet another visit from the folks down at the Kingdom Hall. Knowing who is ringing that buzzer can not only save you the hassle of dealing with door-to-door solicitors, it can help prevent a worst case scenario, such as a home intrusion. If you don't have the finances for a decent multi-camera home surveillance system like Dropcam Pro $199.99 at Amazon, there are alternatives.

The folks at VTech, best known for their affordable home phone systems, have recently introduced the Audio/Video Doorbell Answering System IS7121-2 ($119.95 list), a hybrid cordless phone system that includes two telephone handsets and a doorbell unit with a built-in camera and microphone. Billed as caller ID for your front porch, the IS71721-2 provides a live video feed from your front door and takes a snapshot of whomever has come a-calling, but the use of a low-end camera limits what you'll see when the bell rings and the camera angle is too narrow. On the plus side, it's a snap to install and functions flawlessly as a cordless phone system.

 

Design and Features

The IS7121-2$116.37 at Amazon contains two handsets, a base receiver, a charger for the second handset, a doorbell with a built-in video camera and microphone, alkaline batteries, an AC transformer for the camera, rechargeable batteries for the handsets, and mounting hardware. The doorbell measures 4.7 by 1.9 by 1.5 inches (HWD) and is black with a silver doorbell button in the center of the faceplate. Above the button are a camera, two night vision infrared LEDs, and an LED indicator that lights up when the doorbell has been rung. To the right of the doorbell button is a small embedded microphone and below the button are a speaker and a silver VTech logo.

The back panel of the doorbell unit contains a gasket to keep the internal compartment dry. Here is where you can install two AA batteries to power the doorbell. You can opt to attach the transformer wires if you want to power the unit from an AC outlet, but it just complicates an otherwise easy install process and requires drilling holes and running wire to the doorbell from an outlet inside the home. The only advantage to this option is having the ability to initiate a video session via a handset (while operating on batteries, only ringing the doorbell can initiate a video session). You can also use existing doorbell wiring to have both the VTech doorbell and your existing doorbell ring simultaneously.

A lever in the rear compartment lets you manually adjust the camera lens angle up, down, left, or right. This is fine if everybody who rings the doorbell is the same height, but since you only get an 18-inch vertical viewing angle from the lens you'll only see the top of shorter people's heads or the chest area of taller people (depending on how you set the camera angle). For example, I was able to see my six-foot-tall neighbor's face when he rang the bell, but my shorter 10 year old had to jump up to be seen. Having the ability to change the lens angle remotely is a must for this camera to be truly effective.

The base station cradle offers all of the features you'd expect from a typical home phone system including digital message recording (up to 14 minutes), caller ID, call waiting, speakerphone, and speed dial. You can store up to 50 entries in the Directory and use the remote message retrieval feature to play messages from the road.

 

The handset is 7.5 inches long and has a rounded back and a glossy black faceplate with silver trim. There's a 1.1 by 1.4 inch color LCD screen at the top, two soft keys below the screen, five buttons in the middle (view, volume up/down, talk, off), and a number pad on the bottom with mute, speakerphone, and redial buttons. On the right side is a PTT (push-to-talk) button that also takes a snapshot while the handset is in video mode. The number pad offers blue LED backlighting.

Installation is easy but you'll have to drill two holes. First you have to find the optimal location for the doorbell unit. The owner's manual warns not to locate the unit in direct sunlight or anywhere where sunlight can cause reflections, which may be problematic for those whose front door faces east or west. Once you've located a good spot, use the back of the unit as a template to mark off where to drill the two mounting holes, but first have someone stand 20 inches away from the unit to see if you've got the right height. Drill the holes and use the included mounting hardware to attach the unit to the wall. Now all you have to do is attach your phone line to the base station and plug in the power adapter and you're good to go.

Here's how the video doorbell works: Once the doorbell is pressed, the chime sounds on the doorbell unit and the camera takes a snapshot of whoever presses the button. A second or two later the handsets also chime and each one displays a snapshot of the caller. The system keeps a log of up to 100 photos so you can view who came calling while you were out. Once the View button on a handset is pressed (only one handset can answer the doorbell) you have the option of pressing the Speak soft key to communicate with the caller while viewing a low-resolution, 120-by-120-pixel, 3fps live video feed. You can also adjust the video brightness using the ISO soft key. The video session lasts for 45 seconds but you can extend the session for another 30 seconds by pressing the View button. If a phone call comes in while in video mode, pressing the Talk button terminates the video and answers the phone call.

 

Performance

As a phone system the IS7121-2 performed as advertised. The handsets provided clear voice communications with plenty of volume and showed very good range, staying connected throughout the house, basement, and backyard. Recorded messages were clean, and since the phones use the DECT 6.0 standard, which operates at 1.9GHz, the handsets did not pick up any interference from other household appliances such as my microwave oven or Wi-Fi router. The backlit number pad made it easy to dial in the dark, and messages on the bright color LCD were easy to read.

The PTT feature is a handy convenience that worked well during testing. As a walkie-talkie the handset was free of interference and we had clear voice communications throughout the house.

 

As a video doorbell, the IS71721-2 didn't fare as well. No matter what time of day it was, the camera couldn't handle daylight very well and produced washed out video with colors that faded in and out during the transmission. The snapshot was certainly clear enough to identify who rang the bell, but not what you would consider high quality. The night vision feature, which works in black and white, wasn't much better, but we were still able to identify the caller, which is the whole point of this product. The only time the night vision video looked somewhat clear was when the porch light was on (the light was positioned just above the camera). Audio quality on the handset was adequate as long as the caller wasn't standing too close to the microphone. Likewise, the doorbell's speaker delivered clean voice communications from the handset.

Conclusion

The VTech Audio/Video Doorbell Answering System is a neat idea that needs a little tweaking. The phone system works quite well and the handsets are slim and attractive, but the video monitoring part of this equation comes up short due to the use of a low-end, grainy camera with a fixed position. Granted, you do get a snapshot and a live video feed when someone rings the doorbell, but image quality is subpar and you'll have trouble identifying who is paying you a visit if the caller is too short or too tall. A better camera and handsets that let you pan and tilt would go a long way to making this a killer front porch surveillance system.

 

 

 

Originally published on 2013-10-23 by John R. Delaney at PC Mag .