Finding the BEST 4K Security Camera NVR Package (Reolink vs Amcrest vs Swann)

October 23, 2019

Today on the hookup I’m going to test out amazon’s bestselling 4k NVR security camera packages from Swann, Reolink, and Amcrest and I’m going to show you why after extensively testing all three systems, I decided to recommend the Reolink 4K NVR system to my good friend who asked for my help installing video camera on his house.

Modern network video recorders or “NVRs” are purpose built devices that combine the functionality of a PoE switch, video decoding hardware, and networked storage for significantly less money than you could put together yourself.  When building your own system there’s a huge range of hardware to choose from, but even if you settle for the cheapest parts available you won’t even come close to matching the value of an NVR package.

In this video I’ll be testing out the three best selling 4k NVR packages on amazon:  The cheapest package, the Reolink RLK-800 B4 comes with 4 4k cameras, an 8 port PoE NVR and a 2TB surveillance grade hard drive.  The next most expensive is the Swann 885-804 which also features an 8 port PoE NVR with 4 4k cameras and a 2 TB hard drive, and last and most expensive is the Amcrest NV410-8E system, an 8 port PoE NVR with 4 4k cameras, but without a hard drive, for comparisons sake I’m going to add a $60 2TB surveillance hard drive for testing.  Based strictly on initial value the Reolink package earns the first point in this NVR showdown.

Digging a little deeper there are some important differences worth mentioning.  First: the Reolink and Swann cameras are not ONVIF compatible, which means they only work with specific NVRs from their own brand, which becomes important if you want to individual parts of your system later.

The amcrest system comes with their IP8M turret cameras which are ONVIF compatible and can be used with any NVR that supports the widely used ONVIF standard.  Amcrest earns an easy point in this category for camera compatibility.

Speaking of ONVIF, according to the listing the amcrest NVR also has limited compatibility with cameras from other brands that support ONVIF, and in my tests I found that the Amcrest NVR was compatible with cameras manufactured by Dahua but not any of the other camera brands that I have including reolink, ubiquiti, Hikvision, HFWS and tuya.  This compatibility isn’t particularly surprising since it seems that the Amcrest NVR is actually just a rebranded Dahua NVR.  Although the documentation of the Reolink NVR says it doesn’t support cameras from other brands in my tests it had similar limited compatibility to the Amcrest NVR and was able to automatically detect and add network connected cameras from Amcrest and HFWS in addition, of course, to my other reolink cameras, but it wasn’t compatible with my Hikvision, ubiquiti, or Dahua cameras.  I also tried to directly connect cameras from other brands to the NVR without success, so if you want to add other cameras to the Reolink NVR they will need to be connected to your main network via a different PoE switch.

The Swann NVR doesn’t appear to have any ONVIF compatibility and only detected Swann brand cameras that were directly connected to the NVR.  In the NVR compatibility category I’m going to give the Amcrest and Reolink half a point each for their limited compatibility with other brands, and no points to the Swann that has no intercompatability with other manufacturers.

The area where you’ll be making the biggest sacrifice by using a dedicated NVR is the user interface, which seems to be exactly the same as I remember it from when I bought my first NVR 15 years ago.  PC based NVRs like blue iris offer an intuitive and responsive user interface while standalone NVRs still require you to memorize the right combination of right and left clicks to get to the menu you are looking for and rely on a clunky onscreen keyboard to enter information and change your settings.

I didn’t have any issues with NVR functionality, all three brands were all able to display the live view, review recorded footage, and export footage as long as you know which menus to use and which buttons to click, but to me the Amcrest NVR seemed to have a slightly better user interface than the rest, so for NVR interface I’m going to begrudgingly give a point to Amcrest for having the least terrible interface.

Even though it seems like I’m being hard on these NVRs for their interfaces it’s important to remember that dedicated NVRs are purpose built devices that are relatively underpowered compared to a PC, so they need to dedicate their resources to recording and previewing the video streams from your cameras, and not to a beautiful user interface.  Even though the blue iris NVR interface is MUCH better, it’s probably not $600 better, which is about the difference in price between a dedicated NVR and a PC that is powerful enough to handle 4k cameras in Blue Iris.

One nice thing about NVRs is that the setup wizards have come a long way in the past few years which means that even a complete novice user can be up and running in a matter of minutes after plugging them in.  This is one area that a dedicated NVR gives a much more enjoyable experience compared with a PC based NVR like Blue Iris which can easily cause feature and option overload for a new user.  Since all the NVRs were equally easy to setup so I’m going to give them all a point in this category.

In theory you won’t need to use the NVR interface at all because the mobile and PC based applications will provide you with all of the features that you need, but in practice that’s not really the case.

For mobile apps the reolink system uses their Reolink iOS or android app, which I’ve really enjoyed.  It gives you the option to select the live view of any of your cameras, put multiple cameras on the screen, and view recorded footage from any of your cameras either by full playback or motion events only.  Even though the Reolink app is by far the easiest to navigate and find the footage that you want, saving footage was not reliable.   Exporting 4k footage from the mobile app did not work, and neither did exporting footage from non-reolink cameras.  The only export function that worked consistently was from my Reolink RLC-410 cameras which exported quickly, easily, and with great quality.  Hopefully these bugs will be addressed in future updates, which would make the reolink app my favorite mobile interface out of these three brands.

The Swann NVR uses the “swann home safe” app which allows for easy live view, but only in a distorted 4:3 format, and the playback feature is similar to the clunky channel based search system you’d find on the NVR, which is far from ideal.  There is no option to save recorded video from the app into your camera roll though you can record clips of the live view directly into the app, but I’m not really sure when that would be useful.

The Amcrest NVR uses Amcrest View Pro, which has a very similar user interface to the Swann NVR, but with slightly more polish.  You still need to search recorded footage by date and NVR channel, but you do have the option to record that footage to the camera roll and every feature of the app seemed to work flawlessly.

For mobile app usability I’m going to give a full point to Amcrest because everything worked exactly as expected, but I’m also going to give half a point to reolink because their app feels the most modern and has the best user interface.  If saving 4k footage worked on the Reolink app I would have given it the full point, but until we get an update it isn’t working reliably enough to fully recommend it.  The Swann app combines the less than stellar user interface of the Amcrest app with the bugginess of the Reolink app, so no points for them.

Also important is mobile app connectivity since you’ll want to be able to access your cameras from outside your network.  In the past this required you to have some knowledge of port forwarding and dynamic DNS, but now these NVRs handle all the hard work for you.  They each use a Unique Identifier called a UID to link your specific NVR to your IP address via their own cloud.

The reolink and Amcrest apps seamlessly transition from local to mobile data and the interface for the user experience is indistinguishable no matter where you are.  The swann app technically works on other networks, but mobile data introduces significant lag to the live view and in my tests accessing recorded footage while on mobile data was not possible.

In the mobile connectivity category I’m going to give 1 point eachAmcrest and Reolink, and no points to Swann.  The Swann app technically works on mobile data, but not well enough that I’d ever be happy using it.

Next are the PC apps.

A good PC app should offer continuous live view as well as access to recorded footage.  This is another area that dedicated NVRs are going to be extremely inferior to blue iris which offers both an amazing native UI and a web based UI each with full functionality.

The first software that I downloaded was SwannView Link, which didn’t work at all with the 4k swann NVR.  After looking around the Swann website a bit a found a different app called HomeSafe View that sent me to a very professional dropbox link to downlaod.  The HomeSafe view app was able to add the NVR, and live view worked fine, but even though the search function worked to find recorded footage I wasn’t actually able to playback that footage.

Reolink offered their own program called Reolink Client, which to my surprise was actually the same program as SwannLink View and the installer got confused as to why I was trying to install the same program twice.  In this case I was able to add the Reolink NVR easily but initially I was pretty unimpressed by Reolink Client because it kept crashing the NVR, but I was able to trace the issue to the Amcrest 4k camera that I had added via ONVIF.  After removing the Amcrest 4k camera the rest of the cameras functioned perfectly and playback was smooth, even though it still uses same calendar and channel based search function that I’ve already complained about so many times in this video.

Amcrest offers it’s own unique program that worked decently well after I got the hang of the interface and it offered both live viewing and a decent user interface for viewing recorded footage.  In this category both Reolink and Amcrest had working solutions, but neither of them were great, and they are miles behind blue iris in terms of features and usability.  Half a point here for both Amcrest and Reolink.

Apps and programs don’t matter at all if the cameras aren’t able to perform their primary function of recording motion on your property.  Each of these NVRs have highly configurable motion detection with standard options like scheduling, motion sensitivity, and zones of interest.  The swann NVR also includes a bunch of other options that have to do with the PIR sensors on the front of each camera.  These PIR options were the feature I was most excited to test because I’ve been really impressed with the PIR sensors on the battery powered cameras I’ve been testing, but swann’s implementation has been a major letdown.  In theory PIR should be less susceptible to false motion events because it tracks movement of heated objects rather than just changes in image contrast, but in my tests it just didn’t work.  Not only was it slow to detect me, often not triggering recording until I’d been in the frame for a few seconds, but it seemed to have equally as many, if not more false alarms than standard contrast based detection.

I expected to give the Swann an extra point in this category, but in practice it’s not any better than the Reolink or Amcrest at detecting motion, so one point for each system here for having passable working motion detection.  If you really want to be sure you will have footage when and where you need it I’d always recommend enabling continuous recording for those zones, it’s one of the features that makes hardwired cameras superior to the wireless battery powered cameras that are becoming so popular.

So with the NVR portion of our comparison out of the way here’s the current score.

But these packages also come with 4 4k cameras, and they make up a significant portion of the cost and value so next let’s take a look at those.

First let’s talk about installation.  I love the Reolink mounting system and I think it should be the standard for all bullet style cameras.  A single hex screw loosens all of the joints just enough to allow the camera to be aimed properly and then easily tightened.  In contrast the Swann cameras have the worst mounting system imaginable: A separate screw for each axis, two screws for the roll adjustment, and to top it off, when I finally got the camera into the position I wanted I tightened a side screw only to have the threads break free and become unusable… meaning that camera could never be properly aimed again.

The Amcrest cameras that come with the kit are turret style, well designed, easy to mount and aiming is done with a single set screw like most turret cameras.  For mounting, one point each for Amcrest and Reolink, zero points for Swann, in fact the experience was so bad that I’m tempted to take a point away from Swann’s total score.

Next lets check out the daytime clarity of these cameras.  To do this I mounted each camera in the same location and held up a sign at 10ft, 25ft, and 50ft.  For comparison the winner from my last video was the Reolink RLC-410 which produced this image at 25 feet.  This time the Reolink 4k camera came out on top, and while you can tell that these images are all higher resolution than the cameras in my last video, the compression artifacts are very noticeable.  The swann camera had the worst distortion, followed by the amcrest, and as I said, the clearest image came from the Reolink which was able to produce an impressively legible image of the 72 point font from 25 feet away.  One point to the Reolink for daytime clarity.

At night the results were similar with the Reolink producing a really impressive image from 25 feet, and that result only becomes more impressive when compared with the other two cameras which had pretty poor nighttime performance.  Another point for Reolink in the nighttime clarity department, and the Reolink has emerged as the clear winner as far as camera performance is concerned. It’s clear that all the companies are doing post processing on these images, but Reolink seems to have really perfected their algorithms, check out these images from 15 feet, the reolink image looks almost fake, but it’s just the result of their specific post processing.

As I mentioned before, the downside to the Reolink cameras is that they are only compatible with the reolink 4k NVR and not with blue iris or NVRs from other brands, but the good news is that the Reolink NVR does output an RTSP stream of each of its channels, so you can still add them to home assistant and they even work with the new stream protocol so you can embed them in your home assistant notifications and stream them to your google cast devices… and I want to reiterate that the video quality of these cameras is absolutely insane for the price.  For under $500 you’re getting 4 fantastic 4k cameras, a PoE switch, a 2TB survalience drive, and enough computing power to preview and record video.

If you don’t already have an existing system and you want the best value the Reolink 4k nvr package is an easy choice and gets my full recommendation.  If you already have an existing system using Amcrest or Dahua cameras the Amcrest system is also pretty solid, and if you want the option to switch to Blue Iris later on the Amcrest 4k cameras will be able to be reused in that system, unlike the Reolink 4k cameras. Aside from video quality, the main thing that prevents me from recommending the Amcrest system over the Reolink is the price, at $660 the Amcrest is over 30% more expensive than the Reolink.  Compared with the other two packages the Swann system is just bad, I’d like to be able to say something positive about it, but overall it was just bad and you shouldn’t buy it.

As I mentioned earlier, after finishing this review I helped a friend install a Reolink system at his house and we finished off the kit with the cameras that I recommended from my last PoE camera video, the reolink RLC-410 and RLC-420 5 megapixel cameras.  The results are great and I can’t believe the total cost for a system of this quality for just over $600.

As always links to the exact products I tested are down in the description and I’ve also got an 8% off coupon from Reolink direct.  If you want a camera system but don’t want to run wires, I’m also working on a review and comparison of all the major battery powered cameras including longevity and battery testing, so make sure you’re subscribed if you’re interested in that.

Thanks to all my awesome patrons at patreon for supporting my channel and allowing me the freedom to buy and test hardware from competing brands to give you guys the best information when making decisions about your smart home.  If you’re interested in supporting my channel, please check out the links in the description.

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