The Best Home Security System
After spending more than 20 hours on research and a month to test six home security systems, we were most impressed by LiveWatch Total Home + Video, which proved to be simple to set up and dependable in operation. Its touchscreen control panel and smartphone app are easy to use, and the LiveWatch system can be expanded to include security cameras, smart locks, garage door openers, and other Z-Wave devices. The reasonable up-front price and monthly monitoring fee, coupled with the lack of a lock-in contract, make LiveWatch’s offering a safer investment than similar home security systems.
A home security system is not a purchase to take lightly, so we’re confident based on our testing that the LiveWatch Total Home + Video system is the best self-installed home security solution for most people. LiveWatch offers reliable equipment and fair monthly monitoring prices, a contract that doesn’t lock you into years of payments, and an innovative instant messaging system that can help protect your family and reduce the likelihood of false alarm fines.
If you’re looking for much cheaper monitoring without a contract, and you don’t mind paying more up front for the equipment, we like SimpliSafe. It is easy to set up and doesn’t require a contract, and its monthly monitoring is half the price of LiveWatch’s. Unlike LiveWatch, SimpliSafe doesn’t integrate with other home-automation or smart-home devices, and it doesn’t (yet) have video cameras. Still, the equipment and smartphone app, while basic, do their one job well. As with LiveWatch, you can cancel SimpliSafe’s monitoring at any time, and then start up again later if your needs change—though both systems are effectively useless without monitoring if you’re not at home.
Table of contents
- Why you should trust us
- Who should get this
- Do you need professional monitoring?
- How we picked
- How we tested
- What makes a good alarm system
- Our pick
- Who else likes it
Why you should trust us
In the process of writing this guide I interviewed home security consultants, spoke to police departments, and sent security companies detailed questionnaires about their products and services. I also surveyed Wirecutter readers to determine what they wanted and expected out of a security system. I put in more than 20 hours of research before even touching one contact sensor, and then my family and I lived for more than a month with the six systems I decided to evaluate firsthand.
As the former editor of Dealerscope, E-Gear, and Custom Retailer magazines, and as technology editor for Electronic House, I’ve reported on wireless security systems and installers for more than 10 years. I’ve tested and reviewed many smart-home systems, and have installed and programmed security and home-automation equipment ranging from simple DIY surveillance cameras to professional-level Control4 systems.
Who should get this
A monitored home security system is for people who want more peace of mind about the safety of their family and the security of their belongings, and need to know that someone will call emergency services should the need arise. Most homes and apartments will never be burglarized, but if you have reason to worry, and want to feel better about your safety, then these systems play a valuable role. According to the FBI there were 1.7 million burglaries in the US in 2014, which accounted for $3.9 billion in property loss. Of those burglaries, more than 60 percent involved either forcible or attempted forcible entry. “An alarm system might sit there for 10 years and do absolutely nothing,” said Bob Dolph, a home security consultant who has had decades in the business. “You only need it to work that one time.”
A home security system won’t stop a determined burglar from breaking into your house. But it can discourage someone from breaking in if they know you have it, frighten someone away if they do get in, summon cops or firefighters in case of an emergency, and save you money on your home insurance premium.
If you already have a security system, and especially if you’re locked into a contract, there’s little incentive to change to a new one. They all work in about the same way, though newer systems have better control panels and have smartphone apps for remote control. If you have an older, wired system, you may be missing out on some of the new interactive services, but most security providers can supply bridge equipment to update older systems.
A modern security system can tie into smart-home devices like thermostats, locks, and lights, and do double-duty as a home-automation system and add convenience in addition to security. But if your current system doesn’t support these features and you’re otherwise happy with it, it’s not worth buying a new one that does—even the best newer home security systems work with a pretty limited subset of smart-home devices. You’re better off just buying a smart-home hub.
Do you need professional monitoring?
Whether you need 24/7 professional monitoring depends on how much you trust yourself (or your friends, family, and neighbors) to respond to text messages and alarms, how paranoid you are, and perhaps how much you value your stuff.
A monitored system is more secure than an unmonitored one. When the system triggers a call to the service, an operator calls you to verify the alarm. Most monitoring services will double-verify: If you don’t answer, they’ll call a second number. If the service receives confirmation from you that there was a break-in, or if they receive no response, they call 911. A self-monitored system notifies only you, not the authorities, usually via text or push message.
How many times a day do you ignore or miss texts? Imagine if one of those messages was your security service telling you that the kitchen window has been opened or the living room motion detector was triggered. Two hours later, when you leave your meeting or step off the plane and finally see the text, the burglar will be long gone with your stuff.
As silly as it sounds, the most important part of a monitored home security system could be the sign in your front yard and the sticker on your window. A 2012 study conducted by the Alarm Industry Research and Educational Foundation, in which they interviewed convicted burglars, found that 60 percent of offenders would pass by a house if it had an alarm system. However, that doesn’t mean that you should buy fake security signs. Burglars are wise to that game.
Most home insurers offer premium discounts of 8 to 15 percent if you have a monitored alarm system. Depending on the price of your monitoring service and your home insurance premium, this could cover half or more of the price of monitoring. It’s a good idea to ask your insurance company how big your discount would be.
In some places, 911 calls from professional monitoring services are treated more seriously than calls based on alarms from self-monitored systems, if there is no eyewitness or video evidence. (See Care, maintenance, and setup, below). Other places aren’t so strict. In my own small Pennsylvania town (population 17,000) with a crime rate that’s 82 percent lower than the national average, police chief William Tierney told me that the local police department will respond to any alarm trigger—even those from self-monitored security systems.
How we picked
We looked for companies with short or no contracts, and without high cancellation fees. Many companies, especially the ones that offer free or heavily discounted hardware, require contracts of two to five years in order to receive the discounts. Those contracts often renew automatically if you don’t cancel in time. Try to leave the contract early, and you may be billed for the hardware or for the remaining time of the contract.
We prioritized systems with consistently good ratings on review sites such as A Secure Life, SecurityGem, and CNET, plus user reviews on sites like Yelp, Angie’s List and Amazon, when available. We also sent a lengthy questionnaire to each vendor that covered not only their technology, but also such information as UL certifications and details about their user contracts and policies.
A few newer companies are now offering pay-as-you-need systems without contracts. These, such as SwannOne and Scout, require you to purchase the hardware up front (sometimes at a discount), and may function as a self-monitored system until you decide to activate monitoring (our top picks are functionally useless without their monitoring subscriptions). Some allow you to sign up for monitoring for short periods, such as a four-day getaway or a two-week vacation, then turn it off when you return. This type of monitoring is unlikely to earn you a homeowner’s insurance discount, but it makes sense for people who aren’t nervous about break-ins on a daily basis. We didn’t consider any for our main pick, but called in several as a possible alternate recommendation.
We didn’t consider any alarm systems that required professional installation. Our reader survey showed us that people are much more interested in DIY systems. Pro-installed systems usually cost more, use similar equipment, come with long, onerous contracts, and often rely on the same central monitoring companies that self-installed systems use, so there’s little advantage to you.
This means we didn’t test alarm systems from ADT or Vivint, two of the largest alarm companies in the US. The little bit of added convenience just isn’t worth the hassle for most people. We also didn’t test any of the thousands of local and regional alarm companies, because there are far too many to account for. The self-installed systems we tested should be available throughout the US.
How we tested
We called in six self-install security systems and used them for four weeks, testing their control panels, motion sensors, contact sensors, sirens, cameras and smartphone apps. Editor Nathan Edwards already had a Frontpoint system, so he tested its latest control panel and image sensor in his existing security system.
What makes a good alarm system
Self-installed alarm systems do have a couple of drawbacks. Because false alarms are so common, most communities require a permit and yearly registration fee for monitored alarm systems. If you install your system poorly, don’t use it right, or don’t maintain it, it could cause false alarms, which can cost you money. In some cities, if you have too many false alarms, emergency services may stop responding altogether.
Most (but not all!) professional installers are trained and certified. If you’re installing your own alarm system, though, you’re relying on only the instruction manuals and the advice of the alarm company’s customer service representatives. Some devices, such as motion detectors, are very placement sensitive. Because most motion detectors use infrared to detect body heat, they can be fooled by the sun’s rays through a window, or the steam coming out of a dishwasher. Systems that require a network connection (and most do, at least a little) rely on you to connect them to your home network.
Look for a home security system that communicates with its monitoring service via a cellular connection, not just broadband or landline. Otherwise, a burglar could disable your alarm system by cutting your telephone or cable line. It should also have a battery backup so the system still works if the power goes out. A good alarm system should use a central alarm station that is certified by Underwriter’s Laboratory Standard 1981, and the system should have some anti-tampering mechanism to prevent someone from disabling your alarm system by damaging the keypad or control panel. The control panel should carry a UL CP-01 listing, which verifies that it has features to reduce false alarms—that’s a good thing, since false alarms can cost you money.
Just because the system is secure from physical tampering doesn’t mean that it’s secure from hacking. Several reports over the past year have found potential security flaws in the wireless transmissions used by security companies, and some of these flaws have been widely circulated in the media, including a recent hack that exposed a flaw in the SimpliSafe system. While we should hope that security system manufacturers do everything they can to keep hackers out, there’s no such thing as a completely hack-proof system. The products we reviewed are designed to protect against the typical smash-and-run thief, not someone with advanced hacking skills.
The system should have a wide range of wireless, easy-to-install sensors. Wireless sensors require no messy drilling or unsightly wires, so they are easy to install even in rentals, and can be taken with you when you move. These sensors usually communicate with each other and the control panel using Z-Wave or other RF protocols. Because they’re wireless, they require batteries, but those batteries typically last for several years.
The system should support door and window entry sensors (also called contact sensors), motion sensors, smoke and heat sensors, and glass break sensors. It should also have an audible siren—they’re great deterrents. Almost all home security systems support surveillance cameras, though they usually cost extra up front and require a more expensive monthly plan. Any modern home security system should have a smartphone app that lets you arm and disarm the system and check your home’s status, and many (but not all) smart-home security systems can also control smart door locks, smart lighting systems, garage door openers, or thermostats—but usually not the popular Bluetooth- or Wi-Fi-based ones you’ve probably heard of, like Philips Hue, LIFX, or Nest.
Keep in mind that most security companies don’t make their own hardware—they use equipment from manufacturers like 2GIG, GE/Interlogix, Honeywell, and Qolsys. Many alarm systems use the same equipment, in fact, so you can often reuse sensors (and sometimes even your control panel) if you change alarm providers.
The home security industry has a bad reputation for upselling unnecessary products, for bait-and-switch sales approaches, obfuscatory pricing, aggressive door-to-door salespeople, and gotcha contracts. If you request a quote from a security company, expect daily follow-up calls pestering you to buy. A reviewer with SecurityGem complained that she was called 38 times in 14 days by one company.
Don’t buy your alarm system from a door-to-door salesperson. Many companies sell security systems via door-to-door salespeople—often hitting a neighborhood just after a burglary when residents are nervous and open to suggestion. Sometimes the salespeople have minimal understanding of the systems they’re selling, and may make verbal promises for things that aren’t delivered in the contract. They’re also prone to high-pressure sales tactics to sell you more than you need. Sometimes these people aren’t even real representatives of the (legit) company they claim to represent; sometimes the company they claim to represent is an outright scam.
The LiveWatch Plug&Protect IQ Home Security System with Total Home + Video monitoring is the best security system for most people. LiveWatch offers the best combination of easy-to-use equipment, guided DIY installation, professional monitoring, comprehensive smart-home options, and flexible, no-contract monitoring plans.
The LiveWatch system we reviewed costs $120 to start, which includes a double-UL-listed (both battery and the unit itself) Qolsys touchscreen control panel, two contact sensors for doors or windows (add more for $30 each), an infrared motion sensor (add more for $80 each), an indoor Wi-Fi surveillance camera (add more for $250 each), and a keyring remote for arming and disarming. The price includes a $20 activation fee. Because it includes a camera, this package requires the $50/month Total Home + Video monitoring plan. If you don’t want video cameras, you can use the $40/month Total Home plan. These aren’t the cheapest or most expensive monitoring plans, but they’re in line with the competition, and the low entry price of the hardware makes up for it.
We recommend LiveWatch (formerly known as SafeMart) over our previous pick, Frontpoint, because its service agreement is better. Unlike most security companies, LiveWatch does not tie you into a long contract. You are free to cancel the service at any time, even during the one-year contract, without a cancellation fee or paying for any remaining time. If you cancel within the first year, you have to return the hardware, and LiveWatch returns your money (as long as the equipment is still in good working order). After the first year, you can keep the hardware. Frontpoint, Link Interactive, and Protect America all lock you into a contract and force you to pay a fee if you cancel. Sometimes that charge is ridiculously high: Frontpoint, for example, charges you 80 percent of your remaining contract, which could be over a thousand dollars.
A flexible contract, or no contract, is important not only because you may change your mind, but because life changes happen. You could lose your job, move, buy a big Doberman, or have any one of a million other reasons to stop using the system. Being forced to pay a huge termination fee is just salting a wound.
Like some of the other systems we tested, LiveWatch starts with a phone consultation after you order. During the consult, you’re asked where the contact and motion sensors are going to be placed. When you get the system, each sensor is already named on the box (front door, kitchen window, hallway). All you have to do is stick them on the walls, doors, and windows with the included double-sided tape, and then activate the system over the phone.
The instructions include detailed setup steps, placement advice, and color illustrations and photos of correct installations. Setup took me only about 15 minutes. The activation call is scheduled ahead of time, so make sure you’ve installed everything beforehand. The representative on the call tests all the sensors for you, explains how to use the touchpanel, the keyring remote, and the security camera, tests the connection to the central monitoring service and helps you configure the Alarm.com smartphone app.
The Plug&Protect IQ package includes a Qolsys control panel with a 7-inch color touchscreen.1 The panel is both the main processor for the system and the interface where you can arm/disarm the alarm and control other features, such as smart-home devices (if you have them). The panel includes a 24-hour backup battery, so in case of a power outage, you’re still safe, at least for a day. It uses a cellular signal to talk to the central monitoring service, Z-Wave to the sensors, and Wi-Fi to smart-home devices and security cameras. The system’s smash and crash feature will trigger a silent alarm to the monitoring company if an intruder tries to tamper with the control panel. Monitoring for LiveWatch is handled by Criticom.
The Qolsys panels’ built-in speakers and microphone allow for two-way communication with the central monitoring station. The system also has a 91-decibel siren (also UL listed), which—based on testing by me and my dog—will leave anyone nearby shaking their scattered brains for the rest of the day.
Compared with the touchscreens on the Protect America controller and the Link Interactive controller, the LiveWatch Qolsys panel is a luxury. The touch panel’s interface and menu were the easiest to use of all the systems I tested, and responded quickly to any status changes (such as when a door sensor triggered an alarm or when I armed the system through the iPhone app). It’s simple enough that a person unfamiliar with the system will likely be able to figure it out in a few minutes, so if you have in-laws or a babysitter visiting, a two-minute tutorial will be enough to keep them from accidentally summoning the police.
The rest of the components supplied with LiveWatch’s system were also among the best I tested. The contact sensors for doors and windows are small and discreet. The bargain-priced systems (SimpliSafe, Scout, and SwannOne) all come with much larger contact sensors that are uglier and have trouble staying fixed to moulded door frames.
Except for Scout, all the systems use similar-looking motion sensors (Scout’s looks like a big bug eye). The LiveWatch sensor has a wide field of view and had no trouble detecting me when I moved in the rooms it was surveying.
A burglar caught on camera counts as a verified alarm for many police departments and may be treated with a bit more haste than a door sensor alert (sometimes sensors just fall off, triggering an alarm). The Alarm.com camera (which LiveWatch, Protect America, Link Interactive, and Frontpoint also use) records extremely clear images—clear enough to indentify intruders’ faces. The camera has a darkvision mode, making it effective for use at night, when most crimes take place.
While the control panel is nice, most people will usually interact with the system through their smartphones. LiveWatch, like Link Interactive, Frontpoint, and others, uses Alarm.com for its interactive and remote-monitoring middleware as well as its smartphone app (iOS and Android). In all my tests the system responded very quickly to smartphone commands. Alarm.com also has an Apple Watch app that lets you arm and disarm the system and operate any smart-home devices you have integrated.
In addition to basic arm/disarm control, the app and web interface allow you to access a number of smart-home features. You can add smart door locks, lighting control, smoke detectors, freeze sensors, and Wi-Fi garage door openers and thermostats, and use custom rules to get them to work together. For instance, you can have the house lights come on when the motion sensor is triggered. The app also allows for geofencing, which will use your phone’s location to trigger events, like automatically reminding you to arm your system when you leave the house. One of the reasons many systems “fail” is that people simply forget to use them, and this addresses the issue nicely.
One of LiveWatch’s unique features is a system called ASAPer. When an alarm is triggered, ASAPer sends everyone (your family and emergency contacts, most likely) on a list that you’ve created a text message with a link to a text chat. Users can ask a question (“Hey, what’s going on at home?”), confirm the emergency, or declare it a false alarm. This way, the person with the best knowledge of the situation (such as the person at home who accidently tripped the system) can let everyone else know that things are fine (or that they’re not fine). It’s a nice feature, works fast, and should help put your family’s mind at ease and reduce false alarms.
Because this is a self-installed system, adding additional smart-home devices is largely up to you, but LiveWatch’s customer service will help with any issues. Every time I called the main customer service number, I was quickly connected to a live person who was able to answer my questions.
Who else likes it
The home security website SecurityGem gave LiveWatch a five-star rating, and while it did score Frontpoint and Link Interactive sightly higher, the site doesn’t appear to have taken the contract flexibility into account—and that’s important. A Secure Life also puts LiveWatch overall in the number three position, but like SecurityGem, doesn’t emphasize the difference in contracts. Top Ten Reviews gave LiveWatch a 9.5 out of 10 score overall and a full 10 for alerts based on the ASAPer system. As of this guide, there were 87 reviews of LiveWatch on Angie’s list, and the company had an overall A rating.
Flaws but not dealbreakers
While the $120 entry price sounds attractive, the default package doesn’t come with enough sensors for a medium-size house. If you have multiple entry doors and easily accessible windows or you want to add smoke and carbon monoxide detection, you could easily double that cost—though that would be the same for just about all of the systems reviewed here. In fact, LiveWatch’s à la carte pricing is significantly less expensive than better-known brands ADT and Vivint, because those two companies insist on sending a tech to install the products for you.
Setting up automation and contact rules, creating your ASAPer list and figuring out geofencing could be confusing to some people, especially if they’re new to smart-home and security systems, but I found the LiveWatch phone representatives patient and helpful. They have to be: With no contract commitment, they need to do everything they can to keep your business.
As a home-automation system, LiveWatch is limited to Z-Wave switches and sensors, some smart door locks, a few basic smart thermostats, and some garage door openers (you can see all supported products here). You can’t connect popular Wi-Fi products such as a Nest thermostat, Belkin WeMo smart plugs, or Philips Hue lights.
One possible flaw with the camera—at least if you compare it with stand-alone devices like Piper, Nest Cam (our pick for best IP camera), or Canary—is that it doesn’t include its own motion detector, and it isn’t constantly recording. You have to link the camera’s recording feature to other device triggers in the system, such as contact sensors and motion detectors. This isn’t difficult to do, and the representative on the activation call will do it for you, but it does mean that your camera won’t catch anything that slips past your sensors, or anything happening outside your house that doesn’t trip them.
A good budget option
If you want a cheap monitored security system with no contracts, and don’t care about cameras or compatibility with other smart-home systems, SimpliSafe is a good option with a monthly fee half the cost of LiveWatch. The Interactive monitoring plan (which allows remote access) is just $25 per month. Because there’s no contract, the equipment is more expensive, starting at around $200. Unlike most of the systems we tested, SimpliSafe does not integrate with any other smart-home devices, and it doesn’t have security cameras yet. But it’s still a good choice for basic, no-hassle professional monitoring.
Price is SimpliSafe’s biggest draw. For $25 a month, you get round-the-clock professional monitoring, a cellular connection, and the SimipliSafe smartphone app. Monitoring is month-to-month, with no contract and no cancellation fees. If you cancel, you lose the monitoring and remote access, but the sensors and sirens still work, so you’ll still have an alarm you can set when you’re home at night.
The SimpliSafe equipment was simple to install, though I had a brief problem getting the base station to connect to the cellular service (customer service resolved it easily). Unlike most other systems, SimpliSafe separates its keypad controller from the brain of the system, called the base station. This is a smart move, because even if a burglar managed to break the keypad, he or she hasn’t actually disabled the system.
The base station includes a cellular connection to the central monitoring station, a 48-hour battery backup (twice as long as most other systems), a blue light for alerts, and an 85-dB siren. (You can add a stand-alone 105-dB siren for $60.)
SimpliSafe’s keypad is the least fancy of any of the control panels we tested, and it takes a while to get used to navigating the menu via the forward and backward buttons. The contact sensors are larger and more conspicuous than those by most other companies—I managed to knock one off of a doorframe while carrying a Christmas tree outside—but they work.
The COPS monitoring service is fast and polite. I accidently tripped the system one night when I went outside to let my dog do his dog thing; the door sensor alerted the central monitoring station, who called me before I could run back into the house to turn the system off. I gave the operator the password over the phone, and peace was restored.
We’re not alone in liking SimpliSafe’s budget system. The base package has a 4.5-star rating on on Amazon, with more than 7,700 reviews. Ry Crist of CNET gave the system 4.5 stars and an Editor’s Choice award, and calls it “a flexible, comprehensive home security option.” Apartment Therapy gave the system a Strong Recommendation, noting that it’s particularly good for apartment dwellers because it’s easy to take with you when you move (though the same could be said of most of the systems we tested). The website A Secure Life had a more mixed reaction to the system, giving it four to 4.5 stars (out of five) in most categories, but it had only an average of two stars based on user reviews.
While we recommend SimpliSafe as a basic and affordable security system, it does have a flaw that might give you pause. Several tech news outlets have reported on a security flaw that enables a hacker to arm or disarm the system by intercepting and replaying the disarm signal between the keypad and the base station. The hack requires custom hardware and code and a fair level of tech savvy to pull off. A SimpliSafe spokesperson told Forbes that the company plans to release updateable hardware to address the problem, but that it can’t be fixed in existing hardware. Most home break-ins are random and opportunistic, so the prospect of a skilled hacker targeting your home is slim, but the possibility exists.
SimpliSafe is competent as a basic emergency alarm system, but that’s all it is. It doesn’t support any smart-home devices, doesn’t yet have a camera, and doesn’t even act as a monitor-it-yourself system, because access to the smartphone app only comes with the $25/month plan. Other unmonitored smart-home systems, such as Lowe’s Iris, Scout, and SmartThings, now offer similarly flexible monitoring plans through ADTs recently launched ADT Canopy. Those systems will still act as user-monitored security systems even when you’re not paying the monthly bill, though none has cellular monitoring, so they’re more vulnerable to being disabled than our picks are.
FrontPoint Security’s Interactive plan was our favorite home security system from 2013 to early 2016. Editor Nathan Edwards, who wrote the last version of the guide, is still using the system he bought in 2013. Its equipment, monitoring plans, and features are almost identical to LiveWatch’s: Both use the same Qolsys touchpanel or Interlogix Simon XT control panel; have similar or identical sensors and cameras; use Alarm.com apps; and support the same types of home-automation equipment. However, Frontpoint’s plans are slightly more expensive for the same level of service, its contracts are longer, its cancellation fees are onerous, and its pricing is less transparent than LiveWatch’s.
For this article, Nathan upgraded his system from the Simon XT keypad to the Qolsys control panel. Unlike LiveWatch’s nearly identical version of the panel, the Frontpoint system suffered from frequent lag, and froze several times while disarming the system.
When we recommended Frontpoint, we praised its ease of setup and use, great customer service, clear and competitive pricing, one-year contract option, and no-pressure sales tactics. The customer service and ease of use are still fantastic, and the equipment—with that one exception—is robust and reliable.
Frontpoint is consistently rated in the top three (usually number one) by most home security review web sites. Some of those websites seem to overlook similar or better features from competitors, or emphasize Frontpoint features that aren’t substantially different. Like cable companies, no security company has a great reputation for customer service, but Frontpoint’s is better than most.
Because their equipment and plans are nearly identical and both Frontpoint and LiveWatch both use Alarm.com for their smartphone apps and backend, the biggest differentiators between the two systems are the contracts and LiveWatch’s ASAPer system. We’re still happy with Frontpoint’s equipment, customer service, and reliability, but the greater expense and more restrictive contracts, along with a number of complaints we’ve noticed regarding recent changes in the company’s sales tactics, keep it out of the top spot this year.
Frontpoint’s default contract is three years, and if you leave early, you have to pay 80 percent of the remaining contract cost. When we first recommended them, Frontpoint offered a one-year contract option in addition to the three-year option. In June 2015, a Frontpoint spokesperson told us, “Frontpoint still has a one-year agreement. Because the three-year agreement comes with the best offer we won’t proactively offer anyone a one-year agreement.” However, many readers have told us that Frontpoint representatives denied the existence of a one-year contract when asked, instead pushing hard to get them to sign up for three years. Frontpoint told us that the one-year contract is available, but will cost $300 more for the initial equipment.
Where Frontpoint’s equipment and plan pricing used to be clearly listed on its website, the new website is sales-oriented and makes it impossible to compare monthly plan prices online—you have to give them your contact information and let them call you with a quote.That said, the monthly fees work out to be about $5 more than LiveWatch for each tier. You can still find equipment prices on their website if you look hard enough, but they’re not as easy to find as they were in prior years.
In addition, many commenters have told us that after they gave Frontpoint their contact info, reps called them constantly to try to get a sale—exactly the kind of behavior we praised Frontpoint for not doing in years past.
Link Interactive offers service very similar to LiveWatch and Frontpoint. Like them, it uses Alarm.com for its backend and smartphone control. The Link system uses a 2Gig Go!Control panel with cellular connection to the monitoring station, plus Wi-Fi and Z-Wave for peripheral devices. The backup battery lasts for only eight hours, while the batteries in LiveWatch and Frontpoint systems last 24 hours. The 4-inch color touchscreen isn’t as roomy as the 7-inch Qolsys screen from LiveWatch, but it’s not difficult to navigate. Its built-in 100-dB siren is particularly piercing. Its contract terms are even worse than Frontpoint’s, though: If you cancel during your contract period, you have to pay for the entire rest of the contract.
This system came with the worst setup instructions of any we tested. The controller even needed to be fully assembled before it could be plugged in. Sensor setup was also poorly explained. We expect an average user—one who hadn’t done this several times before—would be calling customer service almost immediately.
Professional monitoring starts at $40 and you can add video recording for $5 more a month. That’s $5 less than LiveWatch, but you pay more for Link Interactive’s equipment. If you buy it through Costco (you don’t have to be a member) the service fee is $10 less per month. A basic product package consisting of a Go!Control panel, three door/window sensors and a smoke detector is $180, or you can build a custom package. The system we tested included the same Alarm.com indoor camera that LiveWatch offers.
Aside from the shoddy installation instructions and my preference for the Qolsys panel, the Link system works pretty well, and is not significantly different from LiveWatch, Frontpoint, and Protect America. The main difference is that Link locks you into a three-year contract, which automatically renews for a year at a time unless you’ve notified the company that you want to go month-to-month. (Link told us that it offers a one-year contract option, but it’s not mentioned on its website, and, like Frontpoint, it substantially increases the cost of the equipment package.) If you decide to leave the contract early, you have to pay for the remainder of the contract. If you’re comfortable with all of the above, it’s still a pretty good security system, and an especially good deal if you get it through Costco. But LiveWatch has better setup, a shorter contract, and a better equipment package, and Frontpoint has better setup and marginally better cancellation terms.
The Protect America system is easy enough to set up and use, but it’s costly and restrictive. The monitoring fees are high and increase with the number of sensors you have, and the company locks you into a three-year contract that you can’t break without paying for the full term.
Unlike every other system we tested, Protect America’s monthly fee goes up depending on how many sensors you have on your system, presumably to cover the cost of the additional equipment. The cheapest cellular monitoring plan is about $40 for the Copper plan, for a system with only three door/window sensors and a motion sensor. There’s no upfront cost for that equipment (aside from a $50 activation fee) but the larger the package you select, the more your monthly fee is. For instance, if you need more door/window sensors, instead of paying for the sensors, Protect America moves you up to the Silver plan for $50 a month, which over three years costs about $400 more than the Copper. If you want to add video monitoring, your first camera is free, but your monthly fee goes up by $10. Additional cameras cost about $180 plus another $5 a month. The Silver plan, with cellular monitoring, nine sensors for doors/windows, and one video camera costs $60 a month. None of this is obvious; their website is a nightmare to navigate.
The system we used included a control panel with a 3.5-inch color touchscreen, several small door/window contact sensors, a motion sensor and the same indoor security camera used by LiveWatch and Link Interactive. Protect America offers its own iOS or Android smartphone app rather than the Alarm.com app LiveWatch, Link and Frontpoint use.
Protect America starts you off with a phone consultation to select your package and then pre-configures the sensors. The instructions are decent, and the company offers online video tutorials if you’d like to set up your system yourself, or you can wait for your scheduled phone call. During the phone call a rep will guide you through installation, setup, and testing.
The Protect America Simon XTi controller (a new one for the company and not currently shown on the website) is bulkier than the others we tested, and the tiny touchscreen isn’t as high resolution as LiveWatch’s or Link’s. Menu navigation isn’t as fast as the others, and we didn’t find the menu intuitive (it took some searching to find the volume control for the system beeps), but it works well enough. The controller lost connection to my home network a couple of times, though it’s hard to tell if that was the system’s fault or my network’s fault.
Once installed, the Protect America system worked fine, but it’s disqualified by the archaic three-year contract, 100 percent cancellation fee, and byzantine pricing structure. The company also has an online reputation for pushy sales tactics and poor customer service, but I didn’t experience either of those myself.
The no-contract competition
Aside from SimpliSafe, we tried two other no-contract basic systems: Scout and SwannOne. Both combine flexible, no-contract professional monitoring options with smart-home control, but both gave us enough trouble in other areas that we don’t recommend them as security systems right now.
Scout has cool-looking equipment, cheap no-contract cellular monitoring, and integration with popular smart-home systems, but its equipment is bulky, it has no control panel, it requires an Ethernet connection, and it requires a monthly fee even for self-monitoring.
Because Scout’s system has no contracts, you have to pay for the equipment up front. The main hub costs $120 and sensors range from $30 for a door/window contact sensor to $70 for a door sensor with RFID arming and a built-in chime. Professional monitoring costs $20 a month, and self-monitoring is $10.
Unlike LiveWatch, Frontpoint, or any of the other traditional alarm systems we tested, Scout integrates with popular smart-home systems such as Nest, Amazon Echo, LIFX, Philips Hue, and IFTTT.
Unfortunately, we had a couple of issues with Scout. While its app is easy to use, there’s no keypad or control panel—so you need the app or an optional RFID key fob to arm or disarm it. The main hub has a cellular connection to the monitoring system, but also requires a wired Ethernet connection to your home network. This can be a problem for people who don’t keep a router in a central location. We also experienced long delays between pressing the arm button on the app and the system actually responding.
We didn’t like the size and aesthetics of some of the Scout sensors. The front door panel with siren and RFID reader is particularly huge, though the regular door/window sensors are smaller, and the motion sensor is bugeyed.
Finally, while Scout will work as a functional smart-home system without a security monitoring plan, you still have to pay $10 a month just to get the basic features to work.
SwannOne has the most flexible and affordable monitoring options of any system we tested: you can sign up for as little as three days. Unlike SimpliSafe, it functions as a basic smart-home system without any monthly fee. It works with popular products like the Nest thermostat, Chamberlain MyQ garage door openers, and Philips Hue lights, plus a variety of Z-Wave and Zigbee devices (unlike Scout). But in our testing, the SwannOne’s system was flakey, the app and web interface were slow to load, and it lacks an audible exit timer.
Like Scout, SwannOne has only a hub and an app, no keypad or touchscreen controller. Also like Scout, the SwannOne system doesn’t lock you into a contract. You can start and stop monitoring as you need it, even for a weekend out of town. A full year of monitoring costs $250. Two days of monitoring is $8. This is the most flexible monitoring menu we’ve seen. When you’re not paying for monitoring, the SwannOne still functions as a monitor-it-yourself system by sending push notifications to your phone.
A basic system consisting of the hub, one indoor camera, two door/window contact sensors, a motion detector and a keyring controller costs $400. An extra $100 gets you another keyring controller and a smart outlet for controlling a lamp. The camera captures enough detail to easily identify an intruder, but the live view lags by at least a minute, so if you’re seeing something through the app, it’s already long over.
We ran into several problems with the system we reviewed. The hub refused to connect to my Wi-Fi network, so I connected it via Ethernet. All the other devices connected to the system fine except for the camera, which wouldn’t connect to the Wi-Fi network until I changed routers.
The app and the web portal are extremely slow to open and slow when activating features. And unlike most security systems, SwannOne lacks an audible exit delay so that you can leave the house after arming the system.
We like the SwannOne system’s flexible monitoring options and its smart-home integration, but as a security system it’s not worth spending money on.
Setup, care, maintenance, local fees
While most security companies offer preconfigured starter packages, they may not be enough to cover your whole house. Most companies offer a phone consultation before you install your system, which is an opportunity for you to figure out which sensors to add, but also for the company to try to upsell you. Adding loads of sensors can drastically increase the initial price of the system, so don’t rush to cover every square inch.
You should have contact sensors (which trigger when opened) on every entrance door to your house, but you probably don’t need them for every operable window. If there’s no easy way into your second floor, for instance, you can probably skip sensors for those upstairs windows. First-floor rooms with many windows can be covered by a glass-break sensor and a motion sensor rather than contact sensors on every window. You probably also don’t need motion detectors in every room–one or two on the main floor are usually enough. Once you get a system, you can practice getting around it, and getting around inside the home with it armed, to determine if there are any obvious holes; the company should let you put the system in test mode for this. You can always add more sensors later.
When you order your security system, the company should let you know whether your municipality requires an alarm permit, and should walk you through the steps to get one. Without one, you could face hefty false alarm fees.
Make sure you know how your local police department treats alarms from monitored security systems, or reports from owners based on unmonitored ones. In Los Angeles, for instance, all alarm calls must be verified, either by an eyewitness, or video or audio from a surveillance camera or microphone. Salt Lake City has a similar ordinance. Phoenix will accept 911 calls from user-monitored systems as well as professional monitoring stations, as long as there’s audio or video confirmation of a crime taking place. Rules like this change are designed to limit the time and resources that police and fire departments waste on false alarms.
The sensors in most wireless home security systems use Z-Wave or other mesh network protocols to communicate to each other and to the control panel. The batteries in the sensors can last several years, but it’s important to test them frequently to make sure they’re still reporting to the system the way they’re supposed to. Low batteries can trigger false alarms, so don’t let that happen.
Sometimes the double-sided tape holding your sensors to the walls or door frames wears out. Give the devices a tug now and then to make sure they’re secure. A sensor that falls off the wall while you’re away could trigger a false alarm, a visit by the police, and a fine.
What to look forward to
The self-installed monitored security business has gone through a lot of changes in recent years, and we expect that to continue. Professional installers are facing stiff competition, both from DIY monitored alarm services like LiveWatch and from smart-home systems. The most obvious sign of that is ADT’s new Canopy plan. ADT is the leader in installed home security systems, but later this year (2016) will allow DIY systems to use its Canopy monitoring service. While a traditional ADT system is expensive and locks you into a long-term contact, Canopy is expected to be cheaper and more flexible, so you can use it for one month, cancel it for the next, and start again the month after that. Lowe’s Iris, Scout, Wink and SmartThings home-automation systems have announced that they will incorporate Canopy later this year, and more are expected to follow. So far, none of the systems that will offer Canopy monitoring have a cellular connection, and few have battery backups for their hubs, so they’re still vulnerable if your Internet or power go out. We hope that in the next couple of years there’ll be a great DIY self-installed system with no contracts, great equipment, and pay-as-you-need monitoring with cellular backup, but we’re not there yet.
Wrapping it up
Like an insurance policy, a security system is something you have but hope you never need to use. Anything that relieves anxiety and allows you to enjoy the snow or the sun a little more is a good thing. Most of the systems reviewed here will handle that job just fine, sending you alerts when their sensors are triggered and keeping you aware of what’s going on at home when you’re away. The differences lie in how easy they are to set up and use, and how tightly their contracts bind you into a long-term relationship. Your satisfaction with one will largely depend on your own expectations, and how much time you put into learning how to use it. Most mistakes tend to be user error (someone forgot the passcode, forgot the system was armed, or armed it in the wrong mode) than technology error, so study the manuals or tutorial videos, train your family members and don’t be surprised if the police show up anyway because a three-year-old sensor fell off the door frame.
Also keep in mind that pricing and equipment changes frequently in the security business. The prices and policies listed in this article were the best we could confirm at the time of writing.
(Photos by Grant Clauser.)
A Secure Life, ASecureLife.com
Our Top Home Security Reviews, Security Gem
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Originally published: April 13, 2016