The Best Home Security System
If I were buying a monitored home security system, I’d get FrontPoint Security’s Interactive plan for $43/month (plus equipment).
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I like FrontPoint because their prices and equipment costs are totally transparent and (often) better than the competition, their equipment is wireless so it can’t be cut or shut down without setting off an alarm, it’s easy to install yourself, they have great customer service and fantastic reviews, they’re available nationwide and they don’t rely on sleazy high-pressure sales tactics or door-to-door salespeople. Their equipment is modern and high-tech, you can control your security system from everywhere with their middle-tier service and you can connect it with Z-Wave home automation and home security systems.
And the competition fails in clear ways that make FrontPoint the best option in both theory and our (combined) years of experience with the system. And nothing has as many stellar reviews on Angie’s List or as few negative reviews anywhere as FrontPoint.
This is clearly the best monitored home alarm system around.
You’re not under siege
Let me just say up front this piece isn’t for the doomsday prepper or the guy who feels besieged in his own neighborhood because the demographics aren’t to his liking. This isn’t about making you and your property one hundred percent free from harm or theft or damage. I’m not going to advise you to buy a shotgun or stock up on canned goods or plant claymores in your backyard. You should definitely have good homeowner’s or renter’s insurance.
A home security system won’t stop someone who really wants to break into your home from doing so. If you have a window that can be broken or pried open, or a door somewhere that can be kicked down, a determined burglar can get in. But a home security system can discourage someone from breaking in if they know you have it, can frighten someone away if he or she does get in, can summon the cops or fire department in case of an emergency and can save you money on your home insurance premium.
Plus, if you get a modern, smart home security system, it can tie into home automation, smartphone apps and surveillance systems to make your life easier. A security system that makes your life more difficult is not worth having, because then you’ll never use it.
Side note: they’re called “home security” systems, but because the systems I recommend are cellular and wireless, there’s no reason you couldn’t put one in a rented home, an apartment or even a dorm room.
Who should buy this
You should get a FrontPoint system if you want a home security system that’s monitored by a dedicated center that can call you or your local emergency services if there’s an incident like a break-in, fire or medical emergency.
If you already have an alarm system and it connects to a monitoring station via cable or landline, you should see about upgrading it to use a cellular connection. Your control panel should have a battery backup, too. Your alarm system isn’t any good if a burglar can defeat it by cutting your power—or, even easier, cutting your phone line or cable.
If your modern security system has a cellular connection and a backup battery already and does all or some of the great remote-access and home-automation stuff FrontPoint does—say, if you have ADT’s Pulse or Vivint or ProtectAmerica—you’re probably stuck, because you signed a three-year contract if not a longer one. Getting out of that contract will be a pain in the ass and likely cost you a lot of money. Some companies require you to send a certified letter, and most have an early termination fee that makes cellphone companies look like Santa. Even FrontPoint charges 80 percent of the price of your remaining service if you cancel. On the bright side, if you own the equipment, many of the sensors are intercompatible, especially if your existing alarm uses GE Security parts, so if you switch to FrontPoint once your contract ends you may not have to buy new sensors. Depending on who you’re switching from (and to whom) you may not even need to get a new control panel, though you’ll need a new cellular module at the least.
If your alarm system doesn’t report to a central monitoring facility, the most it can do is make a noise, or flash a light, and maybe scare a burglar off that way. The modern DIY options like Lowe’s Iris or Nexia Home Intelligence or Vera (formerly Mi Casa Verde) can also send you a text or email, but they aren’t monitored remotely, so they can’t call the cops or the fire department if there’s a break-in.
And finally, some people think you don’t need a security system at all. Opinions on the internet range from “just buy the stickers and the sign” to “get a gun, a dog and insurance,” to “have lots of visible security cameras.” But I think a security system is worth getting, and not just for peace of mind. After all, if it didn’t help prevent burglaries, home insurance companies wouldn’t give you a discount for having one, right? Those actuarial tables, dogg.
There is a dearth of real security system reviews on the web. Sure, when you search for “security system reviews” or “best security systems” you’ll find plenty of results, but most are from suspiciously generic websites without bylines, clear ownership or real discussion of any flaws and with affiliate links to the security companies—sure signs of search engine bait. Among the more reputable were reports from Top Ten Reviews, which I only paid attention to because it’s owned by the same company as Laptop Mag and Tom’s Hardware, and a site called A Secure Life, which seems to do good meta-analysis of the existing market. They do a solid home security comparison table. Both Top Ten Reviews and A Secure Life picked FrontPoint as their favorite home security provider for 2013.
But by far the best reviews I’ve found come from one guy: Mike Brown. Mike used to work with me at Maximum PC (and its short-lived offshoot Maximum Tech), and he’s serious about home security and home automation. He’s the only one I can find who’s actually called in, had installed, and tested a bunch of home security systems. He tested FrontPoint, ADT and Vivint systems for Maximum Tech in 2011. He’s now at PCWorld/TechHive, but continues working on home security and automation; he’s tested Nexia Home Intelligence and Lowe’s Iris DIY home automation kits for them.
In addition to parsing the current options on the respective websites of the frontrunners, and reading the few reputable reviews I could find, I interviewed Mike to see if his thoughts on monitored security systems had changed since he wrote his big roundup in 2011. I also checked reviews and complaints sites. I took the reviews on sites like Pissed Consumer and Consumer Affairs with a big grain of salt, lending more weight to sites like Angie’s List (subscription required) which have a paywall and a good userbase. I also checked with the Better Business Bureau. I discounted any feedback that seemed like astroturfing, the legions of near-identical anonymous comments that crop up on some FrontPoint reviews.
A security system is not an insubstantial investment. It’s hundreds of dollars up front, plus an ongoing monthly fee with a years-long monitoring contract. So after dozens of hours of research and cross-referencing equipment, pricing and plans (and eliminating every other option) I called up FrontPoint and bought a security system.
What to look for
After doing my own research and consulting with experts, here are what I consider the must-haves for a modern security system:
Cellular connection and battery backup
Mike Brown says, “Don’t buy any system that relies on a landline to connect to the central office. A burglar can easily disable your security system by cutting your phone line before entering the house. Better systems use cellular service, which can’t be disabled as easily.” A good home security control panel will also have a backup battery, so it works even if the power goes out. Do not get a security system without these two features.
A wide array of sensors
Your system’s control panel should be able to connect to door and window sensors, glass break sensors and motion detectors. Ideally these motion detectors should be able to tell the difference between pets and people. It should do so wirelessly, so you don’t have to run cabling through your walls and ceilings. You should be able to add additional sensors as you need them without having to schedule an installation appointment or buy bundles of things you don’t need. A good alarm service should also be able to monitor other sensors: garage door tilt sensors, smoke and carbon monoxide alarms, even water intrusion and freeze sensors.
Mike Brown, via email: “Incorporating home control features–such as lighting and entry locks–makes any security system better. You can disable the alarm system when you enter the correct code on your keyless entry system, you can turn on lights when you open a door, establish schedules for lights to turn on and off while you’re not home, and so on. I have my security system set up so that if an alarm goes off at night, nearly every light in the house turns on. If the siren doesn’t scare the crap out of him, all the lights going on at once should.”
Wireless and easy setup
Older alarm systems required hard-wired sensors, which meant a professional installer had to come to your house and run wires through your walls to connect the door/window and other sensors. That’s totally unnecessary now. A good home security system uses wireless transmission and sensors with long-lasting batteries (think years, not months). They shouldn’t require any holes drilled anywhere, unless you want to put a recessed sensor inside your door. My favorite options are DIY and don’t involve waiting for an installer to show up at your house.
Continuous professional monitoring
Once these sensors have been set up, your system should be continuously monitoring them. It should have the capability to detect when one of them is triggered and take action. If your system is armed, that usually means an alarm goes off inside your house to scare off intruders. The alarm company’s monitoring service will attempt to contact you to see if everything’s okay. If they can’t reach you or if you give permission, the remote system should be able to contact your local emergency service providers, including the cops. Even if your system isn’t armed, it should recognize that the door is open or the motion detector has been triggered, useful in setting up non-emergency alerts.
Hard to tamper with
Most security systems have an entry delay to give you time to turn off the alarm when you get home. A burglar shouldn’t be able to foil your alarm system by smashing the control panel before it can send the alarm. Systems like FrontPoint and Vivint that use Alarm.com to handle their monitoring have something called “Crash and Smash” protection. Mike Brown explains:
“Alarm.com, which offers central-office monitoring for a number of security companies (including FrontPoint Security and Vivint) came up with a way to protect against these types of break-ins, so that the control panel sends a message to the central office the instant a sensor indicates the possibility of an intruder. If that message isn’t followed by a second message indicating that the system has been disarmed, an Alarm.com employee will be alerted that something is amiss and will proceed as if the control panel did send an alarm message.”
It’s 2013. You should be able to check on your alarm system from a web browser or smartphone, arm and disarm it, and configure it from the web. If you’re out of town and someone opens the front door, wouldn’t you like to know? Fortunately any decent home security system will give you remote access and text/email alerts, although sometimes it’s an additional monthly fee.
No pressure tactics
A lot of alarm systems are sold by door-to-door salesmen who talk their way into your house and use high-pressure tactics to try to sell you a service. Often you won’t see the final contract—or the final price—until the system is already set up, at which point you’ll feel pressured to comply. Sometimes these people aren’t even real representatives of the (legit) company they claim to represent; sometimes even the company they claim to represent is a scam. Don’t buy your alarm system from a door-to-door salesperson.
Transparent costs / contracts
You should be able to figure out the cost of the equipment and the monthly cost easily before the installer is at your house. It shouldn’t be some weird game of hide-and-seek. If the salesperson seems evasive, flee. Unless you’re at home. Then make them leave.
Many home security setups tie you into long contracts. The standard is three years, and you can only cancel via certified letter. That’s space madness. One thing I like about FrontPoint is that you can do as little as a one-year contract. Oh, and don’t get security through your cable provider, because the contracts are super-long and if you ever cancel your cable you’re out.
Good customer support
Good customer support is always valuable, but it’s especially important when you’re dealing with a) expensive, on-contract services and equipment that b) have many things that could potentially go wrong and that c) you trust to protect your home and family. If you look at reviews and complaints sites, most of the praise for FrontPoint and complaints for its competitors are about customer service.
There are thousands of regional home security companies, and absolutely no way for anyone to test all of them. So for the purposes of this article I only looked at nationwide security companies. The largest and most famous nationwide brand is ADT, and they keep their name recognition through a combination of authorized dealers and very aggressive advertising, including door-to-door salespeople. Unfortunately the ADT experience is incredibly variable, with some ADT dealers like BlueLight getting great reviews and others garnering horror stories.
I’ve already mentioned FrontPoint. The other national names that pop up a lot, besides ADT, are Vivint, SimpliSafe, SafeMart, LifeShield and ProtectAmerica. All of these offer some variant of the kind of modern, connected home security system we’re looking for.
How much should I pay for this?
Expect to pay between $30 and $50 per month for a monitored alarm system with a cellular connection, not counting equipment costs.
FrontPoint’s Interactive plan, the one I recommend, is $43/month. Their $35/month plan skips out on some of the things I think separate a great security system from an okay one, and their $50 plan adds support for extensive home automation and for wireless streaming of video from your house to your mobile device, which can be nice to have but isn’t necessary for everyone.
Cheaper plans from other companies typically have dealbreaking flaws. ProtectAmerica’s cheapest plan with cellular monitoring is barebones in the extreme and only $42/month. That’s essentially the same price as my recommended FrontPoint Interactive plan, with fewer features.
Some plans cost more and offer less than those from other companies, too. For example, competitor Vivint’s $50 Home Security plan includes remote access plus support for door/window sensors, motion detectors, glass break sensors and fire/smoke/CO alarms. However, it doesn’t support thermostats, deadbolts or lighting control, like FrontPoint’s $43/month Interactive plan, or live video and home automation like FrontPoint’s $50/month Ultimate Monitoring plan. Vivint’s equivalent to FrontPoint’s $50/month plan is $70/month. And most cheaper plans don’t use cellular monitoring or have really lengthy contract times (or have other dealbreaking flaws which I’ll discuss later). You can check out Vivint’s comparison chart here and FrontPoint’s here.
As for the equipment, the end cost varies greatly. Many companies give you steep discounts on equipment when you buy a bundle and commit to a contract, and most don’t actually tell you what their equipment costs straight-up. FrontPoint is among the most straightforward security companies; they list their equipment prices on their website, and you can order a la carte. ADT lists some additional equipment if you order from its webpage, but since the prices include installation and are on top of a preexisting package, they’re quite a bit more expensive. Expect to pay in the range of $200-700 for a control panel and your door/window and motion sensors, depending on the length of your contract. If you go whole hog and get a keyless-entry deadbolt, thermostat, light control and video cameras, you can end up spending a few thousand bucks. I would start out with the basics and move up from there if you like the system. Some companies don’t subsidize their equipment at all, so the upfront costs are greater, but you’re usually rewarded by shorter (or no) contract lengths on the monitoring.
I picked FrontPoint and its mid-tier Interactive Monitoring service because it fits all of our criteria for a home security system and doesn’t have any of what I would consider dealbreakers. When I get into home automation later I can expand the system with a smart thermostat (though not, alas, a Nest), a smart deadbolt, light control, video cameras and more.
Let’s look back at the criteria for a good home security system and see how FrontPoint does under scrutiny. Most of these features aren’t unique to FrontPoint.
Cellular connection, battery backup, and remote monitoring: FrontPoint’s control panel is the Interlogix (formerly GE Security) Simon XT, which isn’t the newest around but is compatible with a huge range of sensors and Z-Wave devices. More importantly, it uses cellular monitoring rather than a landline, cable or broadband connection, and it has a backup battery so that a criminal can’t foil your security system by cutting your power or phone lines. There are newer, fancier control panels out there (Mike Brown really likes the 2Gig panel that Vivint gives you), and my FrontPoint rep told me that FrontPoint is planning on upgrading to newer panels soon. They actually skipped the Simon XTi, the successor to the XT, because it didn’t meet their quality standards.
FrontPoint, like a lot of other alarm companies, uses Alarm.com for its interactive and remote monitoring back end. Alarm.com doesn’t actually provide the emergency response service in the event of an alarm; rather, they pass the signal through to the monitoring service that the alarm system uses. FrontPoint uses Rapid Response, which is one of the few monitoring centers certified by the Fire Department of New York to monitor fire alarms in that city. FrontPoint calls FDNY approval “the toughest in the industry.”
Wireless and easy setup: When you order a system from FrontPoint, the sensors and control panel are preconfigured for your home. The kit they send you contains easy-to-follow setup instructions. All you have to do is plug in the control panel and attach the sensors using 3M Command Strips. It took me about fifteen minutes to attach four door sensors and a motion detector. FrontPoint’s QuickStart guide is really helpful here. Once you have all your sensors placed, you call FrontPoint and they’ll make sure everything is working and activate your system.
Hard to tamper with: FrontPoint’s control panel will work even if a crook cuts your power and phone lines, and the $43/month Interactive plan and $50/month Ultimate Monitoring plan also have Alarm.com’s “crash and smash” protection, so even if a burglar gets into your house and smashes your control panel, the alarm will still trigger.
The FrontPoint system comes with a preconfigured master disarm code, but you can create others that you can give out and revoke at any time, and you can use the Alarm.com mobile app to see who’s accessing your system, so you know whether it was your mother-in-law or the babysitter who just got to your house. You also have a secret passphrase you have to tell them in order to cancel an alarm, so a burglar can’t call FrontPoint and have them turn off your alarm. That’d be silly.
Lots of sensors: The basic components of a home security system are door/window sensors and motion sensors. The former consists of a pair of sensors that trigger if they’re more than an inch or so away from each other, so they’re useful on doors, windows, cabinets and basically anything that opens. FrontPoint also sells recessed sensors that sit out of sight within the door and frame, but you have to drill out a space for them. Motion sensors do what you’d think they do, and they’re useful for covering large areas of your house, like a foyer or living room. FrontPoint claims that theirs are smart enough not to trigger for pets under 40 pounds, but I don’t have pets or small children so I couldn’t confirm this. Glass break sensors are useful if you have windows that don’t open or rooms with lots of windows. They stay on even when your system is set to “arm stay,” unlike your motion detectors. They also have garage door sensors, flood sensors for basements, freeze sensors for your pipes, extra keypads and touchscreens, panic buttons, key fobs and more.
FrontPoint also sells connected smoke and heat detectors and carbon monoxide sensors. You should have these anyway, but having your smoke detector hooked up to a monitoring service that can call the fire department for you is a great added value.
Expandable: If you decide to add any of the above sensors to your setup (or a smart thermostat, or lighting control), you can order them a la carte from FrontPoint’s website and they’ll ship preconfigured for your system. You can also buy Z-Wave-compatible devices elsewhere and connect them to your system yourself. Most companies with Z-Wave-compatible home automation systems support most Z-Wave devices, but as both MaximumPC and GeekDad confirm, ADT restricts its compatibility list to certain Z-Wave devices and won’t let work with things that aren’t on the list. Worse, as Mike Brown points out, “ADT and Vivint both include a number of sensors in their package, but will happily sell you more if you need them now or down the road. If you order them later, however, you’ll have to pay to have them installed—these companies won’t allow you to add them yourself.”
Good equipment prices: All of FrontPoint’s equipment prices are clearly listed on their website and tend to be cheaper than their competitors. They’re about the same price as on Amazon, although you’ll have to configure them yourself if you get them on Amazon.
Here are a few comparisons for you:
ADT Pulse (installed)
No pressure tactics: FrontPoint doesn’t use door-to-door salespeople, unlike ADT and Vivint, and I’ve rarely even seen an ad for them except on Angie’s List. Compare this to the 20+ unsolicited letters from local ADT dealers I’ve gotten since I moved into my new house. When I called them to order my system, the rep even convinced me I didn’t need all the sensors I had thought I needed, and didn’t try to upsell me to a longer contract.
Transparent costs / contracts: FrontPoint lists its equipment costs and monthly monitoring fees on its webpage, and there aren’t any hidden fees—even the discount you get for signing a long contract is clearly spelled out. Other companies obfuscate their activation fees, install fees or discounts and it’s often not clear how much you’ll actually pay upfront. Vivint, for example, has activation fees that start at $99 for their Home Security plan and go up from there based on your credit score. And ADT makes you hunt around on their website for pricing, though if you go to their Shop you can find something approaching an actual price, albeit with lots of “instant savings,” limited-time offers, and fine print.
Get-out-able: Unlike some home security companies (e.g. SimpliSafe), FrontPoint doesn’t offer no-contract monitoring, but they do have contracts as short as one year. Most security companies have a three-year minimum contract, and some are even longer. One year isn’t as ideal for me as month-to-month, but it’s short enough that if I hate it I’m not stuck with the service forever. That said, it’s better to avoid canceling if you can, because per FrontPoint’s fine print you’re still responsible for 80 percent of the cost of the time left on your contract. This is one of the few things I’m not thrilled with.
The good news is there’s a 30-day money-back trial period, and my rep was able to extend mine to 60 days with no problem.
The sensors are off-the-shelf and compatible with other security systems, so you can reuse them if you change providers. And because the whole thing is wireless, you can use it in a rental house or apartment and take it with you if you move.
Good customer support: FrontPoint has a fantastic reputation for customer support. There are 11 complaints on PissedConsumer and 28 with the Better Business Bureau. Compare with 133 PissedConsumer complaints for Vivint, 75 for Protect America and 276 for ADT (although many of those are doubtless due to local authorized dealers rather than the parent company). SafeMart and LifeShield only have one complaint each, but they’re newer, smaller companies.
In other “the plural of anecdote is data” news, Brian Lam has had FrontPoint for three years and loves their customer service, and I have had nothing but positive interactions the two or three times I’ve talked with them on the phone.
Who else likes it
We like Mike. Mike Brown is the only person we could find with a multi-decade history of tech journalism and expertise in home security and home automation who actually tests this stuff in his own home and writes reviews.
Mike Brown really likes FrontPoint. In his 2011 review, he said “We find the company’s straightforward and consumer-friendly approach to the home-security business refreshing. You don’t have to jump through hoops to find out how much anything costs, both the hardware and the monitoring are reasonably priced, and you’re free to buy only the components you want, versus getting stuck with a prefab package that might not fit your needs (although the company offers those, too).” Mike doesn’t much care for the aging Simon XT control panel that FrontPoint uses; he prefers the 2Gig control panel Vivint ships with.
AngiesList members really like FrontPoint: there are 2800+ reviews of FrontPoint on Angie’s List (subscription required), and 85 percent of them are As. Ten percent are Bs. FrontPoint got Angie’s Super Service award in 2011 and 2012. FrontPoint has a BBB score of B+, not the best in the business but respectable. SimpliSafe and SafeMart both have A+ ratings, but that isn’t the whole picture; I’ll discuss each of them in more detail below.
It’s all downhill after Mike Brown in terms of experts.
After this, we get into the realm of one-off blog posts, search engine bait, user comments, and stuff that looks like astroturfing. If you google some variant of “best home security system,” as I’m sure many of you will do or have done, you get a lot of results, and most of them are nearly meat-free. There are two sites we trusted more than the others, but we still relied mostly on our own research and Mike’s expertise than we did these “home security review sites.”
TopTenReviews picked FrontPoint as its top home security company. The only things they didn’t like were that the equipment warranty is only for two years and the control panel doesn’t have a two-way intercom for speaking with the monitoring service. We give TopTenReviews some credence because their reviews have bylines and their parent company runs LaptopMag and Tom’s Hardware, two reputable review sites.
A Secure Life has picked FrontPoint as its top pick for three years running. Michelle Schenker writes, “Our experience with Front Point showed us that the rep spent more time listening to our needs, and less time telling us what they thought our needs were (how would they know, anyway?).” A Secure Life does solid meta-comparisons of the home security providers—essentially a lot of the same stuff we did in researching this piece, and we like that they don’t just do home security system “reviews.” They’re attached to a publishing company that really exists, they use bylines and the bylines correspond to actual humans with LinkedIn profiles and Twitter handles and so forth. It’s a little SEO-baitey, but at least it seems to be done by humans.
Various other “home security review” sites also like FrontPoint the best, but they are very light on content, lack bylines and aren’t related to any reputable company that we could find. We’re more or less ignoring them.
The step up: FrontPoint Ultimate Monitoring
If you want to add networked video cameras and home automation, like controlling your thermostat or locking your door remotely, or setting your lights to turn on when the door unlocks, you’ll need to step up to the Ultimate tier at $50/month. You don’t have to do this when you get the security system, though. I just started out with the basic door and motion sensors on the Interactive plan, and I’ll swap up to the Ultimate plan when I get a smart deadbolt and thermostat.
Most of the competitors I list below offer some variant of these three tiers of service. Vivint calls them Home Security, Energy Management and Home Automation. SafeMart’s are Interactive, Premium and Complete 2.0. ADT has Traditional, Control and Video. Und so weite. Regardless of who you go with, I’d recommend getting the middle tier (or the lowest with cellular monitoring, web/phone access and customizable alerts) and upgrading to the higher tier if you end up needing cameras or a deadbolt or something. FrontPoint lets you change tiers at any time.
The step down: SimpliSafe
hits a lot of our must-haves. It has a base station with a cellular connection and a backup battery, and it can also take a phone or Ethernet line for backup. It doesn’t have Alarm.com’s crash and smash protection, exactly, but its keypad is located elsewhere from the base station, so if a crook smashes the keypad they won’t disable the alarm. We like the DIY installation, and they have all the sensors you’d expect—fire, CO, motion, door/window, glass break and flood. It also has 24/7 monitoring and remote access from a smartphone or the web. Best of all, there’s no contract at all, and all the equipment is purchased up front. The 19-piece “Complete” kit is $520 but includes the base station and keypad, a keychain remote, two motion sensors, six door/window sensors, two smoke detectors, a flood sensor, freeze sensor, CO sensor, panic button, key fob and extra siren. That’s a lot of gear for the price; my FrontPoint system was about $350 and only included the base station, four door/window sensors, and a motion sensor. You can add extra sensors at checkout, and the prices are low. The “Interactive” plan is only $25/month and includes remote control. They even have a three-year warranty on their equipment.
SimpliSafe doesn’t have support for Z-Wave home automation, smart thermostats or wireless cameras, and they use their own equipment rather than more proven off-the-shelf equipment. This isn’t ideal if you plan on building a unified home automation system, but I can actually think of a use case: if you’re using other “smart home” stuff that isn’t Z-Wave compatible. If you have a Nest thermostat or a Dropcam or you’re planning on getting a Lockitron, Goji or August deadbolt, you’re not going to be able to integrate that stuff with a Z-Wave-compatible security system like FrontPoint or SafeMart, so you might as well save money and get the SimpliSafe system.
SimpliSafe has an A average on Angie’s List with 156 reviews. They also have an A+ on BBB.org. A SimpliSafe kit on Amazon.com has a 4.4-star average over 375 reviews, but reviewers noted the in-house alarm is a little anemic-sounding, and not everyone’s pleased with the customer service. CNET is a big fan of SimpliSafe, making it an Editor’s Choice and calling it “a comprehensive, easy-to-use system.” Apartment Therapy really likes it, too.
We still think FrontPoint is better for most people because of the greater range of sensors and Z-Wave modules that work with it. FrontPoint also has many more positive reviews. But SimpliSafe looks like a good option for people who already have other “smart home” appliances that don’t play well with others. The low price and no-contract plan make this a good step down from FrontPoint Interactive.
Unproven honorable mention
SafeMart also does a lot of things right. They use the same GE security equipment that FrontPoint does, with optional cellular monitoring. They have most of the same sensors and accessories and sell them a la carte, with prices clearly shown on the website. Installation is DIY, like FrontPoint’s. They use the same Alarm.com remote monitoring as FrontPoint and Vivint, and the system is Z-Wave compatible, so it’s got the same support for home automation and control devices. Their contracts are for one year and month-to-month after that, like FrontPoint’s shortest contract option. They even offer the Alarm.com services—remote access, remote arm/disarm and text/email alerts—at their $30/month package; FrontPoint’s cheapest plan with those options is $43/month. They have an A+ rating from the BBB and an A rating on Angie’s List, with 89% of their 91 reviews As (subscription required to view link). We’re still going with FrontPoint for our main pick because there are so many more great reviews–2800 Angie’s List reviews is a lot more than 91–but SafeMart looks like it’s about as good. It’s just not as proven, and you want a home alarm system to be proven.
FrontPoint isn’t actually Mike Brown’s favorite monitored home security system. That honor goes to Vivint, which has a newer, fancier control panel with a two-way intercom, and steeper subsidies on its hardware when you sign a long contract so the upfront cost is less. It’s not a DIY solution; when you buy a security system from Vivint, they send an installer. Other than that, they’re nearly identical to FrontPoint: they offer roughly comparable tiers of service, have the same sensor types, use Alarm.com on the back end and support lots of Z-Wave devices. But there are a few dealbreakers. First, whether or not you can see equipment and plan pricing on their website seems to have a lot to do with what browser you’re using on what platform, so it’s fair to call their pricing obfuscatory. Second, when you can see their prices, their equipment and monitoring prices are higher than FrontPoint’s—Vivint’s Energy Management tier is $7/month more expensive than FrontPoint’s Interactive tier, and its Home Automation tier is $20/month more than FrontPoint’s Ultimate for the same level of service. And because all of their sensors include installation fees, they’re much more expensive than the FrontPoint equivalent. Third, they have a three-year minimum contract; FrontPoint’s minimum is one. Fourth, like most alarm companies, they have plenty of negative reviews. They have 133 PissedConsumer complaints and they’re in AngiesList’s “Penalty Box” for unresolved complaints. The Better Business Bureau has pulled their accreditation, and they have government actions against them in six states for deceptive business practices. Even if they’re cleaning up their act, Vivint just isn’t as good a deal as FrontPoint, nor is its customer service as highly rated.
ADT Pulse is very similar to FrontPoint and Vivint at first blush. It has the same sort of sensors, the same basic types of monitoring, Z-Wave compatibility, remote smartphone access and 24/7 monitoring. ADT is also a much bigger, older company. But its vast network of authorized dealers and affiliates makes the ADT experience incredibly variable based on which dealer you go with. They also obfuscate their pricing, require three-year minimum contracts, and have a confusing web of limited-time offers, instant savings and activation fees on their websites. The monthly monitoring charges are more expensive than FrontPoint’s (at $50/month for the equivalent of FrontPoint’s $43/month plan). Buying additional sensors from ADT is much more expensive than with FrontPoint, since ADT has to send out an installer. You could add your own Z-Wave devices, but as Mike Brown’s review notes, “ADT prohibits you from installing any Z-Wave device not on its list.” FrontPoint and Vivint let you try, at least, and often their systems will work with devices that aren’t on the official compatibility list, because that’s what standards mean.
ADT doesn’t offer the “crash and smash” protection that Alarm.com’s providers (including FrontPoint and Vivint) have. Instead, as Mike told me via email, “ADT won’t discuss how [it protects] customers, but I think it boils down to mounting critical components inside heavy metal boxes that they bolt to the wall in a closet or somewhere else out of sight. The burglar might destroy the control panel that you use to activate and deactivate the alarm, but another component inside this box can still trigger the alarm unless the burglar manages to find these metal boxes, rip them open, and smash the electronics inside before the alarm delay ends.“
In practice, this may be just as effective as what Alarm.com offers, but it requires a more extensive and complicated installation. FrontPoint is cheaper, more flexible, offers shorter contracts and more expandability, has better a better sales experience, doesn’t use high-pressure tactics or door-to-door salespeople and doesn’t work through a network of affiliates and authorized dealers.
LifeShield’s Gold monitoring package seems like a good deal at first, since it’s only $36/month and comes with the control panel, a separate console, a touchpad controller, three motion sensors, a fire safety sensor, a motion detector and a keychain remote. That’s with zero equipment cost, no activation fee, and a DIY option that means you don’t even need to pay an installer. You can add more equipment when you order for generally reasonable rates. So what’s the catch? Well, to get that price you need to sign a five-year contract. They also offer a three-year contract, but the monthly price goes up. LifeShield has an option that includes wireless video monitoring for $40/month, but it has no Z-Wave compatibility, so a LifeShield system doesn’t have the home automation potential of FrontPoint. Also, unlike FrontPoint, ADT and Vivint, they don’t sell fire and CO detectors that hook into the security system. Instead, LifePoint has a “fire safety sensor” that listens for the siren from your existing fire and CO detectors. This is nice if you already have those detectors in your house (which you should), but it’s still a bit of a kludge. We do like that it has broadband, landline and cellular connections, but ultimately FrontPoint is a better deal because its contracts are shorter and it’s more powerful and flexible. LifeShield has a B on Angie’s List with 66 total ratings.
ProtectAmerica uses GE security equipment (including the Simon XT control panel that FrontPoint uses) and they also have Z-Wave compatibility and remote monitoring, as well as smartphone arming and disarming. They’re DIY only, and they don’t have equipment fees for their basic packages. They come up second at TopTenReviews and A Secure Life, just behind FrontPoint. Still, we prefer FrontPoint because ProtectAmerica’s shortest contract is 36 months, their equipment packages are less flexible than FrontPoint or SafeMart’s and their Silver Cellular package is $50/month—$7 more than FrontPoint’s Interactive. The Silver package comes with 10 door/window sensors, which is more than many people need. You can call to swap some of those sensors for other, more useful sensors—choosing from the same array of sensors and Z-Wave modules as most of the other systems on the list—but you’ll have to do it over the phone, and there are no equipment prices listed on the website. You also have to call ProtectAmerica to get pricing quotes beyond the basic monthly rate. They also have a B rating on Angie’s List (subscription required). FrontPoint and SafeMart are cheaper per month, more flexible and have shorter minimum contracts.
Comcast Xfinity Home
Do you really want to get a home security system from your cable company? Aside from the three-year contract, you get to deal with weird cable company pricing (e.g. “$39.95 for the first six months!”). There is a DIY install option, or you can go with Comcast’s installers, if you’re into that kind of thing. Xfinity Home does have Zigbee (not Z-Wave) home automation integration, and it connects via broadband with a cellular backup. On paper it has a lot of the things we like to see. But the monthly cost goes up to $50 after six months, it requires a “compatible” broadband internet connection (read: Comcast), and it’s only available in certain markets where Comcast internet is. Do you really want to have to change your home security system if you change cable providers or deal with Comcast customer support if something goes wrong? You’re better off with FrontPoint, SafeMart or SimpliSafe, in that order.
AT&T Digital Life
See Comcast re: getting a home security system from your cable company. AT&T Digital Life looks a bit better than Xfinity Home on paper—for example, you don’t need AT&T internet or cable to use it—but it’s not available in all markets, and it’s not at all clear whether it’s compatible with Z-Wave or Zigbee. It requires a broadband connection, but the fine print says it uses AT&T’s wireless service for its primary means of communication with the monitoring station. That’s fine, but if you don’t have good AT&T signal, you could be in trouble. FrontPoint has multiple cellular carrier options depending on the signal where you live. Plus there’s no DIY installation option. Each additional set of sensors (water, or door, or video) adds to your monthly bill, unlike FrontPoint. There’s a minimum two-year contract. Add that to the fact that it’s brand new on the market, and there’s just too much we don’t know about Digital Life. There are plenty of better options.
What about unmonitored home automation and security kits?
There is a huge array of “smart home” and home automation kits and ecosystems out there—enough to justify a future Sweethome or Wirecutter roundup. There are even more on the way.
Lowe’s Iris, Nexia Home Intelligence, and Vera (formerly Mi Casa Verde) are all home automation setups that can be configured as home security systems by adding Z-Wave sensors. They all do alright, more or less—Mike Brown gave the Nexia 2.5 stars out of 5 and 3 out of 5 stars to Lowe’s Iris. Of the three, I’d go with Vera for its robust community, lack of monthly fees (sorry, Nexia), and guaranteed support for every Z-Wave device. But none of them report to a central monitoring service. Via email, Mike explained why that’s not a good idea:
“A system that’s monitored by a central office provides the best security. If a sensor goes off indicating a possible break-in, the service will call you first, to ensure it’s not a false alarm. If you direct them to, they will call a police dispatcher and request them to investigate. They can also install smoke and carbon-monoxide sensors in your home and alert you if those are triggered, possibly saving your life in the event of a fire or a furnace malfunction.
“If there’s a break-in while you’re home, the alarm and lights will probably scare off an opportunist burglar, but can you be sure you’ll be able to reach your phone to call the police before a hardened or desperate criminal reaches you? What if you’re asleep and you don’t hear the alarm, be it a break-in, a fire, or a carbon-monoxide event? And if you’re away from home, can you rely on your neighbor or neighborhood watch to call first responders? What happens if your neighbor is away or doesn’t hear the alarm?
I don’t mean to sound like a fearmonger, but there are just too many holes in that type of security. Oh, and there’s another benefit of a centrally monitored system: you can get a discount on your homeowner’s or renter’s insurance. Insurance companies won’t give you a discount on your alarm system if it’s not monitored.”
SmartThings is another new smart home kit, and it’s notable for being the first of many Kickstartered or IndieGogo’d home control kits to actually reach the market. It has good Amazon reviews, and its Hub can talk to Z-Wave, Zigbee, or IP-controlled home automation and security stuff, which is great. You can control it with your smartphone and even set IFTTT recipes that include SmartThings. This is rad, and it might be a good alternative to Vera, but for home security purposes we’re sticking with monitored options. Again, if there’s demand, we’ll look into these systems in a later roundup.
Not real yet, and probably unmonitored
The home security market is perceived as old and entrenched, so there are tons of Kickstarter-age companies looking to get their disrupt on. Most of them aren’t real yet (SmartThings being the exception), but here are a few that might (might!) end up being interesting. All of them give you remote smartphone access to your home automation stuff, and a lot of them promise to combine multiple home automation standards.
Canary is an all-in-one home security device in a pretty can. It’s not out until mid-2014 at best.
Revolv is a hub and smartphone app that supports Z-Wave, Zigbee (soon), Insteon, Philips Hue bulbs, Sonos, Belkin WeMo and other home-automation stuff. It’s preorder-only.
Scout is a good-looking Zigbee-compatible home security system, but it’s not actually real yet, and so far they only have a few types of sensors. The website promises offsite monitoring for as little as $10/month, but no details as to who will do the monitoring. It could be great, but it’s preorder-only for now.
Alertly looks intriguing but with few backers and fewer details, it’ll be a long time before Alertly is real enough to consider.
Care, use, maintenance and repair
Your alarm system isn’t going to do anything for you if it’s not armed. The best thing you can do is train yourself to arm it whether you’re home or not. Mike Brown explains: “Most alarm systems have two modes: “Arm stay” for when you’re home, and “arm away” for when you’re not. When you arm away, the motion sensors can trigger the alarm if someone gains access to your house through a door or window that’s not protected by a sensor. When you arm stay, the motion sensors are deactivated, so you’re protected from a break-in, but you can still walk around the house without triggering the alarm.”
This is one place where I find the Alarm.com service (offered with FrontPoint’s Interactive tier and above, as well as many of the competitors) so nice. You can set up notifications (text, email, or push) based on a pretty wide range of triggers. For example, if the alarm isn’t armed by a certain time every night, I’ll get a reminder notification.
With FrontPoint’s Interactive monitoring tier, you can set up “geo-fences” for your cell phones via the Alarm.com control panel. Mine sends a push notification to our cell phones if both of our phones leave the neighborhood without turning on the alarm.
The notification system isn’t just useful for arming reminders, though; there are all sorts of clever things you can do.
Insurance, insurance, insurance
I mentioned it before, but I’ll do it again. You need to have good insurance: homeowner’s if you own the place, and renter’s if you don’t. Even a very good monitored alarm system isn’t foolproof. Unless you have bars on the windows and triple-reinforced doors, a very determined robber will find some way into your house. A security system can discourage them from trying to break in or summon the police if they do, but it’s not going to stop a desperate thief from making off with your valuables. Especially if the system isn’t on.
Many alarm providers will reimburse you in the event of a robbery, but the print is both fine and stingy: if the alarm was set up properly and it was armed at the time of the break-in (and it somehow malfunctioned) the alarm company will typically reimburse up to $500 of your insurance deductible.
You. Need. To. Have. Insurance.
On the bright side, most insurance companies will give you a discount on your premium if you have a monitored home security system.
Alarm permits and false alarms
Most places require you to get an alarm permit if your home security system is capable of calling the police, fire or ambulance services. FrontPoint (and most alarm companies) will walk you through the process of getting a permit. It costs the city money to send emergency services to your house, so you may be charged for false alarms. I live in Houston, where a residential alarm permit is $50/year, and the false alarm penalties are relatively mild: the first three false alarms are free, the next two are $50 each, your sixth and seventh are $75 each, and after that it’s $100 and they reserve the right to stop responding. Remember that FrontPoint tries to call you before they call emergency services, and they only call emergency services if you don’t respond or if you ask them to. So if you accidentally set off your alarm, don’t just let it ring.
Other safety tips
Whether or not you have a monitored alarm system, there are some things you should do to secure your house. Lifehacker compiled a good list based on a StackExchange thread, and the comments are good too:
Don’t look like a target
Have a good deadbolt on every exterior door
Don’t have fancy stuff in plain sight from outside
Secure your window A/C units
The Chicago Tribune has some recommendations for people who don’t have security systems, though they apply to everyone: “Cheap and effective alternatives are quality deadbolts on doors, substantial window locks and motion-sensor lighting outside. You could get a dog, although its care might turn it into a pricey option. You could bluff by posting a Beware of Dog sign or the window stickers from alarm companies.”
Lifehacker also has a good post on what to do if you get robbed.
Long-term test notes
I’ve now had the FrontPoint system since July and I have nothing but good things to say about the customer service. They’ve been helpful and responsive every time. Since I wrote the piece I’ve added two connected smoke detectors, a glass break sensor, and a Z-Wave-compatible door lock, and each time getting them attached to the system took less than five minutes on the phone with the company. Adding the Z-Wave door lock bumped me up to the $50/month Ultimate plan, but it’s worth being able to check the status and lock and unlock my door from the Alarm.com app on my phone.
One suggestion: if you use FrontPoint’s smoke detectors and you have textured walls or ceilings, mount the detectors with screws, not the attached double-stick foam. Both of my smoke detectors ended up pulling the paint off of the ceiling and falling to the ground, triggering a fire alarm in both cases. The second time it happened, I wasn’t home to turn off the alarm, and FrontPoint called me within one minute of the incident to see what had happened. Since I didn’t know my house wasn’t on fire, I had them call the Houston Fire Department, which was on scene within 10 minutes. FrontPoint replaced both smoke detectors at no charge after the falls, and I attached the replacements with screws. The lesson: FrontPoint responds quickly, customer service is still great, but maybe don’t rely on 30-year-old ceiling texture to support the weight of a smoke detector.
Wrapping it up
A monitored home security system is a good way to help keep your home, valuables and loved ones secure. It’s not foolproof and you’ll need to remember to arm it, but it can provide peace of mind, deter crooks, call the cops or firefighters in an emergency, give you a discount on your home insurance and hook into home automation systems as well. We like FrontPoint the best because of its powerful, time-tested equipment, great customer service, clear pricing and short contracts. It’s not the only home security company that offers what it offers, but it’s strong all around and we think it’s the best choice.
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