Review: Arlo Ultra 4K

With Security Cameras, What’s the 4K Difference?


July 26, 2019 Reviews By Photo by Arlo

Arlo’s battery-powered Ultra 4K ($376+) is among the first home security cameras to deliver true 4K resolution, and it uses that capability to the max. Though pricey compared to other DIY systems, it offers unique and useful features as a result of this enhanced imaging power, including the ability to track and zoom in on people and moving objects, and it has a bright, clear image that’s almost competitive with the likes of most 4K action cameras. You can identify people, read license plates and scan a wider swath of property from each camera.

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The Good: First and foremost, the 4K resolution is top-notch, delivering stellar images in a variety of lighting conditions. But the system also throws in with color night vision, a loud alarm, a spotlight, motion detection, a two-way microphone and an almost bewildering array of connectivity and streaming options. Finally, it’s battery-powered, which means you can place the camera anywhere you like without having to worry about running power to the device.

Who It’s For: The system is great for apartment owners who just want a single camera to scan their whole place, but it’s truly optimized for those with multiple camera needs and the desire to mount them in a wide variety of places. This is especially true if the locations are not always accessible via power cable – whether that’s outside, in an awkward placement high up on a structure, or even if the owner tends to move the cameras around a great deal for whatever reason.

Watch Out For: Pricing is a big gotcha, with the single-camera and hub systems priced normally at $400, and the two-camera and hub system at $600. (This, of course, is in addition to the service plan.) Also, though the setup is fairly painless, the app that you use to manage everything isn’t the most intuitive ever devised. There are multiple entry points to the same screens, pages that look similar even if they’re not, and functions that tend to be buried in awkward places. It takes some getting used to, and you’ll find yourself hunting quite a lot until you do.

Alternatives: Google’s Nest Cam IQ Outdoor ($399) also uses a 4K sensor—though it streams in only 1080p – and it delivers many of the same capabilities at a similar base price. It does also offer facial recognition for an extra monthly fee, which the Ultra doesn’t offer. Rather, Arlo is able to detect people, just not actually identify them.

Review: Security cameras are funny things, in that people don’t always use them precisely how they were intended. They might be installed by frequent travelers to keep an eye on the plants in their apartment, or just take a peek at the home front every now and then for peace of mind. Pet owners use them to check in on the dogs and cats. We look for packages on the doorstep, make sure a recent big storm didn’t knock over any trees, or even make time-lapses of snow accumulation during a blizzard. We look for pests in the garden, and watch aquariums remotely for a mid-day moment of zen at the office. Sometimes, people even install them for actual security purposes – as protection against intruders, deterrents, and evidence-gathering devices.

Not surprisingly, 4K resolution enhances each of these motivations, making Arlo’s Ultra a highly attractive proposition. The camera delivers, too, with bright, clear images, effective use of high dynamic range to even out the exposure, and the ability to zoom in and track people as they pass through the field of view, so you can identify them even in the absence of facial recognition capability.

Full 4K is the system’s key selling point, and it exploits it in a variety of ways beyond the above. Thanks to the Wi-Fi smart hub that comes with the base system, it allows for streaming of the live view to the smartphone app, and access to 4K footage via cloud storage or through an on-board SD card. Of course, you need to ensure that the camera is within range of a strong Wi-Fi signal at your home, lest the ability to transmit the images be compromised. This robust connectivity, combined with the wireless power option – the chunky batteries are apparently good for 3 to 6 months of use, and will charge in just a few hours – make for a highly versatile system. You can stash the things anywhere, and move them around as you please, as long as the aforementioned Wi-Fi signal persists.

Mounting the camera can be done in two ways. One is through a simple but secure screw-mount on the back of each camera, and the other is via a magnetic mount that holds the camera in a cradle that you can screw easily into most surfaces. This was perhaps the most frustrating part of the system because it’s not quite as easy to aim as you’d want such a system to be, especially because the magnetic charge cable interferes with the base and limits the camera’s range of motion. (This is only a problem if you choose to keep the camera continuously powered, which some people may opt to do.) In general, however, you’ll eventually gravitate to a mount location that positions the camera precisely as you like.

The 4K resolution enables a strong gamut of camera field-of-view options, from ultra-wide 180 degrees down to a more familiar 120 degrees. (The wider views make use of an anti-distortion algorithm that helps minimize the fisheye effect.) It also smooths out night-views, illuminated by infrared LEDs, and it captures sudden, bright contrasts very effectively, such as when the built-in, motion-detection – activate spotlight goes off on an unsuspecting target. The camera adapts quickly to the sudden light, allowing you to identify the subject easily. Are those subjects not quite startled enough? Activate the loud siren yourself remotely once an alert comes in, or have it synced up to motion detection, too.

One of the problems with security cameras that send out alerts to your smartphone is the sensitivity of the motion detection system. It can be a challenge to dial that in precisely enough to weed out things like rustling leaves or passing cars. Arlo helps that process in two ways: 1) a sensitivity dial that tunable from 1-100, rather than just, say, high and low; and 2) the ability to mark out several zones in the camera’s field of view that it will pay attention to, ignoring movement in the rest.

If it sounds like the system is overflowing with features, it kind of is. Using the Ultra can be a bit overwhelming at first, so the trick is to just fold in features and adjust them over time. You get a free year of Arlo’s Smart plan, which typically costs $3 per month and includes A.I.-based detection systems, and the custom detection zones. Bumping up to $10 a month for the Smart Premier plan adds the ability to instantly call 911 to your house in an emergency, via the app, and incorporate up to ten cameras. You can also pay an extra $2 per month for cloud storage of full 4K clips, accessible from anywhere.

Verdict: Arlo’s system is relatively easy to use once you grasp the app functionality and the logic behind all the features, and you’ll need to buckle up for a possibly protracted period of messing around with things after the installation to get it properly tuned. Once you do, however, it’s an extremely functional and useful system. For between $400 and $600, you’ll get one of the most robust DIY home security systems you can buy.

What Others Are Saying:

• “The greater level of [4K] detail can be particularly useful for businesses, which tend to have more reasons to capture high-res images and zoom in if necessary. Really, the only significant difference between the added features is that the Ultra includes an integrated spotlight, something the other models don’t have. Again, this is a feature more suited toward businesses, but certain homeowners may appreciate a spotlight as well.” — Tyler Lacoma, Digital Trends

• “Not only do the Arlo Ultra’s 4K cameras deliver the best quality we’ve seen from a wireless security camera, but it also uses that extra resolution to enable digital track and zoom, which makes it easier to follow and ID a person as they move across the frame. A built-in spotlight also enables color recording at night, and it has dual microphones for better audio.” — Mike Prospero, Tom’s Guide

• “If you want a flexible, easy-to-install-and-use indoor/outdoor camera that delivers 4K streaming and a high-quality image sensor, the Arlo Ultra is a solid bet. Its $600 price and disappointing lack of free cloud storage will hold a lot of people back, though. Think about what makes the most sense for you and go from there..” — Megan Wollerton, CNET

Key Specs
Image Sensor: 8 megapixels
Max Resolution: 3840 x 2160
Digital Zoom: 12x
Field of View: 180 degrees
Features: weather resistant, night vision, motion detection

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Arlo provided this product for review.

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