Ubiquiti has set a new standard in home camera systems. With exceptionally designed products with a great price point there's so much to love about UniFi Protect.
A home camera system can provide you with peace of mind, save you money on home insurance, and in the unfortunate event of a crime, help you to gather evidence. Home surveillance used to be a complex install procedure, but that has all changed.
Ubiquiti has given their UniFi video system a massive overhaul in the form of UniFi Protect. To take advantage of it, all you’ll need is a Cloud Key Gen 2+, and at least one camera. But is it robust enough to meet the challenge and simple enough for anyone to set up? Let’s find out.
A Typical Camera Setup
Generally speaking, modern camera systems are comprised of three parts: cameras, switches, and a Network Video Recorder (NVR). The cameras need both network and power, and Power over Ethernet (PoE) switches do just that. PoE switches, as the name suggests, use a single cable to provide both power and network using standard network cabling.
An NVR connects to the same network as the cameras and stores the video feed from the cameras. The NVR is also responsible for displaying the live camera feeds and for playing back recordings via computers and mobile devices that connect to it.
Having the cameras and NVR connected to the same switch provides the best overall results as it eliminates any bottlenecks. Also consider that when running cables outdoors, you have to ensure they’re well protected. This can be done using outdoor rated network cabling, or PVC pipes. While Wi-Fi cameras are available, PoE cameras provide the best performance and stability.
The Problems With Current Camera Systems
Some camera manufacturers, however, require high monthly subscriptions if you’d like to store and access your own data. Nest, for example, will set you back $30 per month for your first camera for 30-days worth of recording with a slightly discounted rate for each camera thereafter. Over time, that can equate to significant money.
Then there are off the shelf CCTV systems that are peppered all over Amazon. At a glance, these seem cost-effective, but they typically have clunky interfaces, functionality is limited, and remote access is tricky to set up. Not to mention the recording quality not being too great either. Many of these manufacturers also bundle a single camera type with their systems.
Cloud Key Gen 2+ with UniFi Protect Specifications
- Dimensions: 5.16 x 1.07 x 5.28 inches (131.16 x 27.10 x 134.20 mm)
- Weight: 1.28 lb (582 g)
- Enclosure: Anodized Aluminum
- HDD Capacity: 1 TB / upgradable to 5TB
- Services: UniFi Protect / UniFi SDN
- Max Cameras: Up to 20 UniFi Cameras
- Processor: APQ8053 8 Core
- RAM: 3 GB
- Memory: 32 GB eMMC
- Bluetooth: Yes
- Networking: 10/100/1000 Ethernet Port
- Power over Ethernet: Yes (802.3af)
- Alternative Power: Quick Charge 2.0/3.0 (USB-C)
- Rack-mountable: Yes (optional kit sold separately)
- RRP: $199 from Ubiquiti Store (The regular Gen 2 is $179, but doesn’t support UniFi Protect)
UniFi has you covered with camera choices for any use case. You have your typical bullet style cameras which you’d install outdoors. If your pockets are a little deep, you can even splash out for 4K ones! Indoors you’d typically want to install the dome style cameras as they’re a bit more discreet.
The G3-Flex is the most popular choice if you’d like to mount a camera on a surface or desk. The Flex can also be adjusted very easily as the camera itself articulates up and down and the base rotates smoothly.
The G3-Micro is really interesting as it is no larger than a golf ball. It has a wide angle lens, a speaker for two way audio, and Wi-Fi capabilities. Its magnetic base allows you to move the camera around easily and it comes with a host of mounting options to place it pretty much anywhere. The Micro also comes with a power supply if you’d prefer to connect it over Wi-Fi as opposed to PoE.
All of the current camera models have Infrared lights to help them see in the dark, as well as being PoE enabled. Not to mention all the cameras are equipped with microphones. Your ideal setup then will have the cameras and Cloud Key Gen2+ running off a single PoE switch. This will provide you with the best experience possible.
Cloud Key Gen2+
The Cloud Key Gen2 is hands down one of the most beautiful pieces of technology I’ve set my eyes on. Its enclosure is made from anodized aluminum and will compliment both server racks or a desktop. There’s an LCD display on the front which cycles through the status of your network and the devices that are attached to it.
The underside houses the release latch for opening the hard drive tray, and the top is where you’ll find the LED indicator. On the rear, there is the PoE ethernet port, two USB-C ports, and the reset button. One of the USB-C ports is used for power, and requires a Qualcomm Quick Charge 2.0 power brick or later. If you had both power supplies connected, the Cloud Key would fail over to the USB-C port in the event that PoE one died.
There’s also a battery backup, so if all power is removed, the Cloud Key can shutdown gracefully and avoid corruption. The Cloud Key Gen2+ is a massive upgrade over the Gen1 both in terms of specs and functionality. Not only can it do its usual duties of being a UniFi controller but it simultaneously runs UniFi Protect.
The Cloud Key Gen2+ is equipped with a 1TB hard drive and is rated for support for up to 20 cameras. If you are using it as a UniFi controller as well, you would need to use a maximum of 15 cameras and up to 50 UniFi devices. While you can use more devices than the ones here, these are the numbers recommended by Ubiquiti.
Once everything is connected, the Cloud Key will let you know to download the app from the iOS or Play Store. Upon launch, the app will find and pair your Cloud Key using Bluetooth. This is very convenient compared to finding the Controller over a network.
After you set a name, you will need to choose how you’d like to log in and if you require cloud access. I recommend using the Ubiquiti Single Sign-On (SSO) method as it makes the experience seamless. It’s important to note that Ubiquiti is just the authentication broker when you’re accessing UniFi Protect through the cloud. That means that you connect directly to the Cloud Key and no data gets stored or passed anywhere else.
It’s possible to get your system set up in two minutes. If you’ve ever configured a camera system before you will understand how amazing that is. Everything, including remote access, is now configured and ready to use. This would typically take exponentially longer on other systems and having the process as easy as this means anyone is capable of doing it.
The UniFi Protect app comprises of four sections: Cameras, Activity, Users, and Settings. Cameras is where you’ll spend most of your time viewing live feeds as well as past recordings. But where the app really shines is the timeline view, called Time Lapse.
Clicking on a camera will bring up a timeline style view of a camera’s feed. Both motion events and alerts like camera disconnects and firmware updates are visible on the timeline. Moving through time is as easy as scrolling back in time, and the scrubbing responsiveness is absolutely perfect. Using a pinch gesture allows you to scale the timeline to have more or less time in the view.
Every single camera setting can be tweaked for a perfect picture along with setting motion and privacy zones. Privacy zones are used to mark areas of the video that you don’t want to be recorded, and motion zones can be set up to ignore motion in specific areas. The latter is useful, for example, if you’d like to isolate your driveway from your neighbors. Zones are created using simple to use touch screen controls, and you can use any shape you desire.
Some fantastic features complement the on-screen video controls. You can take snapshots, delete a clip and export it. The ability to export directly to your phone is such a valuable feature because once it’s in your camera roll, you can edit, share, and pretty much do whatever you want with it.
The Activity tab is where you can find a collection of any events that happened on your system. So if you wanted to go to a specific date and see what happened on that day, this is the tab you’d go to. To make it simple, clicking on any event will take you straight to the recording on the time lapse. Finally, the Users tab is for sharing the camera feeds with other users as well as restricting which cameras they can view.
Access Through The Browser
UniFi Protect can also serve your cameras through a modern web browser like Chrome, meaning you’re able to view your cameras from your PC or Mac as well. In Live View mode in the Web User Interface (Web UI), you can create different layouts and share them with other users on the system. The web interface is essential because you may want a permanent display with your cameras in your house. Now you can just use anything that supports a modern browser and has your cameras on full screen all the time.
There are some more advanced features such as adjusting bitrate and frame rates for your cameras and creating backups of your configuration. All the features and functionality of Time Lapse are all right at your fingertips along with all the past events. Clicking on an event slides out a window letting you play that even download the clip straight to your machine.
In an ideal world that would the end of this review, but UniFi Protect does have some gaps. All of them are software related which is understandable as it looks like they’ve focused on delivering core functionality over and above any bells and whistles that are less important.
The context menu to export the clip doesn’t launch if you access it through the events tab within the app. This seems like a small bug that is easily rectifiable though. It would also be nice to have a carousel style live view in the browser so that cameras can be rotated automatically. In the Web UI, it would be nice to export multiple clips from the events tab as opposed to doing each one individually.
The big issues are that you’re currently only able to lock down users to access within the app and not the Web UI. This is important as you’d want to lock down a permanently logged-in browser window. The biggest problem, however, is that alerts cannot be scheduled. This means that if a camera has a motion alert enabled, it will send you alerts throughout the day.
This leads to a flurry of alerts when you don’t exactly need them. Indoor cameras, for example, are going to have motion in the day time, and you don’t need to know about them compared to motion during the night. There does seem to be a column in the Web UI showing “When to Send,” but that can’t be configured yet. So hopefully they add the schedule feature soon.
Yay or Nay?
Ubiquiti have managed to pull off something that many companies try and often fail to do. That is taking something which can be quite complex and packaging it in a way that makes it deployable by anyone. UniFi Protect is the best of both worlds. You get the quality and feature set of an advanced system with so much of the complexities taken care of by their brilliant software.
While so many other companies are forcing you into costly subscriptions, UniFi has sided with the consumer and leave your data where it belongs, in your hands alone. This is a welcome anti-pattern. The wide variety of quality cameras combined with the exquisitely designed software gives you a camera experience that will trump anything else in its class.
Some might object to being locked into using UniFi cameras only, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The Cloud Key Gen2+ is beautifully designed, easy to maintain, and is not just capable of running your cameras, but will easily handle the rest of your network as well.
I’m not sure how they managed to get the Time Lapse scrubbing so smooth, but that feature alone makes UniFi Protect worth the money. There are some gaps in the software, but they are relatively small fixes that Ubiquiti can implement quickly. Ubiquiti have redefined what a camera system should be and have seriously upped the game for all other vendors in this space.