I recently made the switch from Google WIFI and NEST Cameras to Ubiquiti Unfi and Protect. A few things motivated these changes and I wanted to talk about them in this blog post.
The most significant motivator was some network reliability issues that I was experiencing on the Google WiFi. In the end, the problem was not related to the Google WiFi but I could not diagnose without logs which the Google Wifi encrypts. Though I was able to walk through the issue with Google support and ultimately able to localize the issue it took several days of back and forth and required me walking them through exactly what to look for.
The Google Wifi actually performed great overall but we do have an above average number of devices in our house and sometimes we would experience what I believed to be congestion. This is likely because Google Wifi only supports SU-MIMO, the UniFi solution, on the other hand, supports MU‑MIMO. MU-MIMO allows a Wi-Fi router to communicate with multiple devices simultaneously. This decreases the time each device has to wait for a signal and dramatically speeds up the network as a result.
I also experienced some cases where the Google WiFi was falling back to the Mesh wireless solution even though I had a wired backhaul. I never figured out why this was happening but it was not a huge issue.
Finally, we have an outbuilding that is currently using our guest network but since it is on a Guest Network it can not do any IOT style networking where one device talks to another. To address this I needed to either set it up with a physically isolated WiFi of its own or configure a VLAN which I could not do with the Google WiFi.
As a plus, since it is a product designed for home it has features like parental controls which are useful and though it could it could use some work on usability it was actually quite useful.
To be honest, I can not say enough positive things about the Google WiFi, it is a great product that for 99% of people is probably perfect but the sad reality is that we started to outgrow it.
Google NEST Cameras
We had five Google NEST Outdoor Cameras and a Hello doorbell at our house. They worked great and were pretty reliable. We really only had four complaints about these devices.
The first of which is that they did not support POE, this meant when we set them up we had to buy USB to POE adapters and find ways to hide the long and bulky USB power cable they came with.
The second issue is that some of the cameras were on the absolute edge of our wireless network and we would, in rough weather, lose the wireless connection as a result. We did buy another Google WiFi to help with this issue but again it would have been ideal if the cameras were POE based and then this wouldn’t have been an issue.
The third issue is that the move notifications tended to be a bit annoying, we did configure zones help manage this but it was still more obnoxious than I would have liked. To configure zones we had to pay the per camera monthly fee also, this did feel a little bit like extortion — e.g. pay us not to annoy you with notifications.
The fourth and final issue was that the cost and nature of cloud storage. With a total of six cameras, the yearly cost of the NEST solution was significant. It also was dependent on cloud storage which meant my data was being stored exclusively on the cloud. As a Google employee, I have faith in the companies practices relative to managing this data but the recent issues with Ring and Alexa from Amazon poorly managing the data they store relative to their competitive offerings did give me pause.
The reality is that if it were not for the Google WiFi change I discuss above I would have likely kept the NEST Cameras. This is because, despite the above, I was pretty happy with the solution but since I was buying into the Ubiquiti ecosystem it felt like unifying on their solution would not only address the above concerns but overall make things simpler to manage in the long run.
Despite being a very advanced product capability wise it has a pretty easy to use interface for managing. I wouldn’t recommend putting the concepts it exposes in front of the type of users I end up supporting in my personal life but the reality is once it is set up you never really have to deal with that stuff.
Since it is really designed as a business solution and not a home solution it is missing some features that a modern home user might expect. For example, it has no way to share IOT devices as Google WiFi does. It is not integrated with home automation systems either, for example, you can’t use presence and activity of devices to infer if people are home as part of the way you configure your home automation. And it has no “parental controls” concept, though you can manually configure something roughly equivalent.
With that said, since UniFi was designed for businesses, many of its access points are physically attached to the house. This means you need to run wires in walls but it also means you do not have a pile of devices sitting around on horizontal surfaces.
It also does smart channel and power management so you don’t need to worry about such things, so similar to Google WiFi it is largely a set it and forget it solution.
What you end up with when you go with a UniFi based solution is a professional, flexible, moderately easy to use, high-performance solution that is physically installed and as a result non-intrusive to the overall environment.
Ubiquiti has two video solutions, Unfi Video that is slowly being replaced and UniFi Protect. I am using the UniFi Protect offering as it is integrated with the CloudKey Gen 2 Plus which I am using to manage my wireless.
The Ubiquiti cameras I chose are the G3, mainly because they were the cheapest of the set and seemed approximately comparable to the NEST Cameras they were replacing. This was important as I intended to sell my NEST cameras to cover the cost of the change.
The G3’s do not have as nice an industrial design as the NEST cameras, they also look more commercial and essentially have no market of third-party accessories (for example skins to obscure the cameras) but they look reasonable enough.
The G3 also does not have a speaker (some other models do, for example, the G3 Micro, though it is an indoor camera) so there is no chance of two-way communication, though they do have a microphone so you can record what’s going on with the video.
I think the biggest gap in the G3 cameras relative to the NEST is they have no zoom, you have to step up to the G3 PRO which is 3x the cost of the G3 to get this.
The upside of this solution over the NEST can be summarized as:
- No monthly fee per camera,
- Cheaper cost per camera,
- Data is stored locally vs on a public cloud.
There are some things that I will miss from the NEST solution, in particular:
- Using computer vision to analyze the video, for example, do not send notifications when it is a family member, send notifications when a familiar face is seen, or ignore movement unless you see a person (some of these capabilities are only available with the new NEST Cam IQ camera).
- It is not integrated with home automation systems, Alexa, Google Home or Siri. For example with Google Home, you can ask Google what is happening on a given camera and it will display it on your TV.
- Having an integrated doorbell solution. I will be keeping NEST Hello, for now, to fill this gap, though having one camera there and the rest in another system is far from ideal.
- There are no applications to integrate the cameras with AppleTV or ChromeCast so getting the cameras displayed on these devices will involve casting a browser session which lame.
With all that said, the TCO for a multi-camera NEST system is pretty high if you want to retain video and the Ubiquiti solution addresses this effectively.
Wishlist For Ubiquiti
I am installing this system into a home, and that’s not squarely where Ubiquiti is aiming this product at. With that said many new homes get Ubiquiti installs now and if I was in the product team at Ubiquiti I would seriously be looking at what I could do to better serve that market.
Based on my current experience with the product here are some things I think would be nice to have from Ubiquiti.
- A doorbell camera, it is a shame I need to have to keep the NEST camera to have a complete solution.
- There should be better camera choices; not having a zoom or speaker in a security camera in 2019 is lame.
- It is disappointing there is no affordable 4k camera option when consumer products do offer them.
- I would love to see a less obvious industrial design for the cameras that would work well with skins so you can hide the cameras more easily.
- Produce a rack kit that allows placing both the security gateway and the CloudKey in a single 1U rack location.
- I would like to be able to put the Protect server and cameras on one VLAN leaving the network controller on another; they are two different security domains and shouldn’t have to be co-mingled like they are currently [added this to the list after the article was posted].
- There should be better integration between SDN and Protect, for example, I should not have to set aliases in both manually [added this to the list after the article was posted].
- If I am going to have to have a Nest Hello and the Protect software it would be ideal if the Nest Hello was integrated into Protect [added this to the list after the article was posted].
- Integration with Alexa, Siri and Google Home should be in the box.
- Basic computer vision capabilities in-box, or at least able to opt in to use a cloud CV solution such as Google Vision API or Amazon Rekognition to do intelligent filtering of movement signals in the video.
- Register the UbiquitiHome.com domain, do dynamic domain registration for subdomains/hosts as part of the on-boarding experience in setup, use Let’s Encrypt to get a certificate for that domain and do away with the self-signed certificate that is currently used.
- Since the product line is geared towards small businesses and I suspect a good chunk of the home user market is enthusiasts it would be great to have a robust REST API with Webhooks available so custom solutions could easily be added without going into the database to extend capabilities.
- With a robust set of REST APIs, they could offer a marketplace of applications that users could use to integrate with other systems (IFTT, Google Home, Alexa, etc).
- Alarm.com integration of NEST Protect would probably be a real winner for the enthusiast community and I would explore a partnership there if I were Ubiquiti.
Though I am technically not even done with my Ubiquiti journey it is clear that so far the Ubiquiti networking solution is technically superior but their camera offering still leaves a bit to be desired.
It does seem with the introduction of Ubiquiti Protect which currently has a 20 camera limit, they are looking at how they can better serve users like me. That said, only time will tell how far they go towards providing solutions that are competitive with the consumer-focused offerings.