What's the Best Home Security System?
The Internet of Things has made it easier than ever to set up a smart home in which you can remotely control your door locks, lights, thermostats, vacuums, lawn mowers, and even pet feeders, using your smartphone and an app. It's also made it simple (and relatively affordable) to monitor your home from pretty much anywhere. Smart security systems are highly customizable and available as do-it-yourself kits or as full-blown setups that include professional installation and monitoring.
Depending on your needs you can go with a system that you monitor yourself, or pay a subscription fee to have your home surveilled 24/7 by professionals who will contact your local fire and police departments when alarms are triggered. You can even take advantage of on-demand monitoring services for when you're away on vacation. Of course, the more coverage you have, the more you can expect to pay.
If you're not ready for a dedicated security system, there are plenty of individual devices available that let you monitor your home from anywhere using your phone or tablet, including indoor and outdoor security cameras, video doorbells, motion sensors, and smart locks.
Here's what you need to know when deciding how to secure and monitor your home while you're away.
Streamlining Security and Home Automation
A smart home security system connects to your Wi-Fi network so you can monitor and control your security devices using your smartphone and an app. Entry-level systems usually include some door and window sensors, a motion detector, and a hub that communicates with these devices using one or more wireless protocols such as Wi-Fi, Z-Wave, Zigbee, or a proprietary mesh network. You can add extra door, motion, and window sensors to provide coverage for your entire house and build a comprehensive system that includes door locks, garage door openers, indoor and outdoor surveillance cameras, lights, sirens, smoke/CO detectors, water sensors, and more.
A word about wireless protocols: In a perfect world, all home security components would use the same wireless standard to communicate with the main hub, but factors such as power requirements, signal range, price, and size make it virtually impossible to settle on just one. For example, smaller components such as door/window sensors typically use Z-Wave or Zigbee technology because they don't require a lot of power and can be powered by smaller batteries. They also operate in a mesh topology and can help extend the range of networked devices. However, neither protocol provides the bandwidth that you get with Wi-Fi, which is why it is usually used in security cameras to provide smooth video streaming, and in other devices that require a fat pipe. Moreover, Z-Wave and Zigbee devices are connected and controlled using a hub, while Wi-Fi devices can be connected directly to your home network and controlled with an app. Finally, Z-Wave and Zigbee devices use AES 128 encryption, and since they operate in a closed system with a dedicated hub, they offer more security than Wi-Fi devices.
Any smart security system worth its salt offers components that work together in a seamless environment and can be manipulated using customized rules. For example, you can create rules to have the lights turn on when motion is detected, have your doors unlock when a smoke alarm goes off, and have a camera begin recording when a sensor is triggered. Some systems store recorded video locally on an SD card or a solid state drive, while others offer cloud storage. Locally stored video is a good choice for do-it-yourselfers on a budget, but you have to be careful not to overwrite video you may need later. Cloud storage makes it easy to store and access recorded video, but it can cost hundreds of dollars per year depending on your subscription. Some systems offer both cloud storage and local storage, and some provide a dedicated storage drive that gives you DVR capabilities with time-lapse recording, which makes it easy to find a video event that took place at a specific point in time.
All of the systems we've tested feature an app that lets you use your smartphone as your command center to arm and disarm the system, create rules, add and delete components, and receive push notifications when alarms are triggered. Most apps also allow you to do things like view live and recorded video, lock and unlock doors, change thermostat settings, and silence alarms. Some apps will even use your phone's location services to automatically arm and disarm the system according to your physical location. The more expensive systems usually come with a wall-mounted panel that acts as a communications hub, with a touch-screen display that allows you to do everything the app does. The display lets you communicate with a professional monitoring service when an alarm is triggered and view video from any of the installed security cameras.
Professional Home Security Systems
While many systems use wireless components that are installed using double-sided tape, some high-end systems use components that require professional installation. These soup-to-nuts systems typically cost considerably more than DIY systems and offer 24/7 professional monitoring, but you may have to enter into a multi-year contract and pay a hefty termination fee if you break it. They usually use touch-screen hubs thatcontain RF, Wi-Fi, Zigbee, and Z-Wave radios, allowing them to communicate with and control a multitude of components including door and window sensors, door locks, glass break detectors, indoor and outdoor cameras, light switches, motion and water detectors, smoke/CO alarms, thermostats, video doorbells, and a host of other home automation devices.
With a professionally monitored system, when a smoke or intrusion alarm is triggered, an agent will first try to reach you via the two-way control panel before calling your listed phone number. If you fail to respond, the agent will call 911 to dispatch an emergency responder to your home. The nice thing about professionally installed systems is you don't have to lift a finger; after you've placed your order a technician will come to your home, set everything up for you, and show you how the system works. It's important to note that in some areas you may have to file for a permit to have a security system installed in your home.
Nearly all of the latest DIY and high-end home security systems offer support for voice control via Amazon Alexa, Google Assistant, and in some cases Apple Siri, which allows you to unlock doors, change thermostat settings, open the garage, and arm or disarm your system with a spoken command to a connected device like an Amazon Echo or a Google Home speaker. Many also offer support for IFTTT (If This Then That) applets, which use triggers from IFTTT-compatible web services and devices to create an action. For example, you can create an applet that says if a garage door is opened to turn on the floodlight.