After spending more than 40 hours researching and two months testing 12 monitored home security systems, we found SimpliSafe to be the best self-installed option for most people. SimpliSafe gives you the benefits of a 24/7-monitored security system without locking you into a long-term contract, and it’s affordable, reliable, and easy to install and use. SimpliSafe also offers the most comprehensive choice of systems for homes and budgets of all sizes.
The current incarnation of SimpliSafe sports a stylish design that can go almost anywhere, and offers add-ons like video cameras, smoke alarms, and additional sensors to cover your entire home, large or small. SimpliSafe also has the lowest price we’ve found for live monitoring—low enough that it could be mostly covered by the discount you receive from your homeowners insurance for having a security system.
If you want to integrate security into a smart-home setup, the Abode system includes support for Z-Wave and Zigbee, as well as Nest, Amazon Alexa, Google Home, and IFTTT, though not Apple’s HomeKit. It’s more expensive than our main pick, but it can serve as a self-monitored system if you don’t want to pay for monitoring all the time. It also features live-monitoring plans for three, seven, and 30 days of service, which makes it useful for people who want monitoring only for special occasions like vacations.
LiveWatch Plug & Protect with Total Home + Video requires a contract, but the company preconfigures your system for your home, so setup is easy. It has a touchscreen controller that makes it easier to use than the keypads included with our other picks, it works with Z-Wave smart-home devices and many other popular connected products, and an innovative instant-messaging system can help protect your family and reduce the likelihood of false-alarm fines. And unlike with most traditional security systems, LiveWatch’s contract doesn’t charge a fee if you cancel before the contract is up; you just have to return the hardware if you cancel within the first year. However, the monthly monitoring plans aren’t as flexible as those of our other picks and cost significantly more. (Note: LiveWatch will soon change its name to Brinks Home Security.)
Why you should trust us
In the process of writing this guide, we interviewed peers, home security consultants, police departments, and insurance agents. We also sent security companies detailed questionnaires about their products and services.
Rachel Cericola has covered consumer electronics for over 15 years and has tested scores of smart-home products, from remotes and security cameras to AV receivers and speakers. Formerly, as an editor for Electronic House and Big Picture Big Sound, Rachel wrote buying guides for multiple consumer-electronics products, and she has written tech articles for Wired, Woman’s Day, GeekMom, Men’s Health, and other publications.
Grant Clauser, author of a previous version of this guide (and editor of this version), has reported on wireless security systems and installers for more than 10 years. He has tested and reviewed countless smart-home systems as the former editor for Dealerscope, E-Gear, and Custom Retailer magazines, and as the technology editor for Electronic House.
Who should get this
Most homes and apartments will never be burglarized. According to the FBI, the number of property crimes dropped in 2016, making it “the 14th consecutive year the collective estimates for these offenses declined.” Still, those burglaries accounted for $15.6 billion in property loss in 2016, so if you want more peace of mind about the safety of your family and the security of your belongings, and you want to know that someone will call emergency services should the need arise, a security system can play a valuable role. “An alarm system might sit there for 10 years and do absolutely nothing,” said Bob Dolph, a home security consultant who has spent decades in the business. “You only need it to work that one time.”
Just know that 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 anywhere from 8 to 15 percent on your home-insurance premium.
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 (PDF) conducted for the Alarm Industry Research and Educational Foundation, in which the researchers 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 you should buy fake security signs—burglars are wise to that game.
A professionally monitored system is more secure than an unmonitored or self-monitored 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, the service will call a second number. If the service receives confirmation from you that there was a break-in, or if it receives no response, it calls 911. A self-monitored system notifies only you, not the authorities, usually via text or push message to your phone. That means you need to be on call at work and at play, watching for notifications.You’ll also be the one calling police and fire departments if something is triggered. Whether you need 24/7 professional monitoring depends on how much you trust yourself (or your family, friends, and neighbors) to respond to text messages and alarms, how paranoid you are, and perhaps how much you value your stuff.
How we picked
We looked for companies that offered monitoring, both with and without a contract. Many companies provide free or heavily discounted hardware in exchange for a service commitment. We found no-contract systems to be the most flexible, allowing for unexpected life changes. They also cost less in the long run and allow you to be in total control of the equipment you use, as well as how and when you use and pay for monitoring services.
Next, we prioritized systems with consistently good ratings on review sites such as ASecureLife, SecurityGem (now part of Reviews.org), and CNET, plus customer reviews on sites like Yelp, Angie’s List, and Amazon when available. The basic packages varied, but we looked for home security systems that included the following:
- Live 24/7 monitoring: Getting a text when danger arises is great, but unless you plan to be on call all day every day (including during vacation), you want a service that will contact emergency services when you can’t.
- A useful package of sensors and accessories: A home security starter package should come with door/window contact sensors and motion sensors. It’s rare for a company to include things like glass-break sensors, water sensors, and cameras—these are typically sold as add-ons—so we considered those a bonus. The size of your home will dictate what devices you need and how many of them.
- An audible alarm: Signs and stickers could make a burglar think twice, but a piercing alarm will send them scurrying.
- Battery backup: You shouldn’t have to let your guard down when the power goes out. Most systems have some type of battery backup.
- Cellular connection: A landline connection to the monitoring service can be too easily cut.
- Keypad: A smartphone app is a must for use when you’re away from home, but you don’t want to fumble with your phone when you’re coming and going. A keypad can sit by the front door, making it easy to arm and disarm the system.
- Fire prevention: Preventing break-ins is only one part of a security setup; most systems also offer protection against fire and carbon monoxide, although those devices cost extra.
- UL approval: We asked manufacturers if each system met industry standards like UL Standard 198 or (for systems with control panels) UL CP-01, though we didn’t rule out systems on this basis because there’s no federal requirement to meet those standards. (The UL CP-01 listing means that a control panel has features to reduce false alarms—that’s a good thing, because false alarms can cost you money.)
We didn’t consider alarm systems that required professional installation. Pro-installed systems usually cost more, use similar equipment as DIY systems, come with long and onerous contracts, and often rely on the same monitoring companies that self-installed systems use, so they offer little advantage.
How we tested
We narrowed the list to 12 self-install security systems, which we installed across two homes and used for four weeks, testing their motion sensors, contact sensors, sirens, and smartphone apps. We used a minimum of two contact sensors and one motion sensor from each system, but also tested cameras and keypads when available. We tested systems tethered to power, as well as unplugged.
We lived with each system for four weeks, arming, disarming, and spying on each system both from inside and outside the home. We also triggered each system a minimum of five times to gauge reaction times for the monitoring company. However, keep in mind that how fast the monitoring company calls you has absolutely nothing to do with the speed at which your local authorities will respond to the alarm—if they respond at all. In Los Angeles, for instance, all alarm calls must be verified, either by an eyewitness or through 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 are designed to limit the time and resources that police and fire departments waste on false alarms.
Our pick: SimpliSafe
SimpliSafe is a flexible, affordable, and easy-to-use live-monitoring security option that offers the same essential security features as other systems. Furthermore, it’s one of the most reliable, with customizable alarm triggers and consistent monitoring response times. It’s also easy to set up and scalable to small and large homes, and it offers a variety of accessories to cater to more specific needs.
SimpliSafe offers the security-focused person just what they need, and doesn’t push more than what’s necessary for basic monitoring. Because of that, it doesn’t charge more than what the service is worth. The $230 Foundation package includes the Base Station, a keypad, one entry sensor, one motion sensor, a yard sign, and two window decals. (SimpliSafe is the only no-contract company we looked at that includes a yard sign in the starter kit.) For $15 per month, you can add around-the-clock professional monitoring and a cellular connection, so the system can communicate with the monitoring service without a traditional landline. The $25-per-month Interactive plan adds support for iOS and Android smartphone apps, push and email alerts, and 30-day event-footage storage for unlimited cameras. (If you opt for the $15 plan, you can add recording for $5 per month per camera. This addition maxes out at $10 for unlimited cameras, but at that point you should just opt for the Interactive plan.)
SimpliSafe is a no-contract security system, which means you pay for monitoring service on a month-to-month basis rather than on a long-term contract. It also means you may have to pay more up front for hardware than you would with some of the companies that want to lock you into a lengthy service agreement. However, paying for the equipment up front provides you with a lot of control over what you get, where you can put it, and how you use the service. You can start and stop the monitoring service as many times as you want. 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 is now in its third incarnation, which delivers its simplest and most stylish experience to date. The Base Station is curvier and the sensors are smaller, but the range is better, so you can place equipment almost anywhere in an average-size home. SimpliSafe is also the only no-contract system that provides a stand-alone, wireless keypad as part of the starter package; this keypad doesn’t need AC power, so you can mount it anywhere. Keeping the two pieces separate is a smart move, because even if a burglar manages to break the keypad, they haven’t actually disabled the system. The soft keypad buttons provide good feedback as you press them, and the system reacts quickly along with each press. SimpliSafe also preprograms the Base Station and devices to make installation easy.
The Base Station is the brains behind the system. It includes Wi-Fi and (optional) cellular connections to the central monitoring station, which means it doesn’t need to be connected to a router, making it easy to place anywhere in the home. It also features a 24-hour battery backup, blue and red lights for alerts, UL certification, and an adjustable 95 dB siren—not the loudest alarm, but more than sufficient for the average-size home. (If you want to go louder, or you have a large home and need more than one siren, you can add a stand-alone 105 dB siren for an additional cost.) The Base Station provides voice prompts during setup, as well as when the system is arming, disarming, and triggered. When the system is triggered, the voice alerts you to enter your passcode before the system starts beeping.
SimpliSafe’s contact sensors for doors and windows are small enough to hide in white trim; the motion sensor is noticeable, but not an eyesore. The motion sensor is quick to respond, but in our tests it was never triggered by a 30-pound dog. SimpliSafe also sells extra entry sensors, water and freeze sensors, glass-break sensors, panic buttons, and cameras. You can also purchase additional window stickers and yard signs.
Although entry and exit triggers are customizable (up to 4 minutes, 15 seconds), the response time was always consistent: In every one of our tests, the COPS monitoring service called exactly 44 seconds after the alarm sounded. The service was also always polite; and for security, it requires a safe word to restore the peace.
We’re not alone in liking SimpliSafe. Though reviews of the third-generation hardware are scarce at this point, Home Alarm Report gave it a 7.87 (out of 10). That site’s biggest gripe is limited smart-home integration options, which the company only began to add in early 2018.
Flaws but not dealbreakers
As of April 2018, the Nest Thermostat and August Smart Lock are the only smart-home services that integrate with SimpliSafe, although the company plans to add support for Alexa, HomeKit, and Google Home, plus lights and other locks, later this year. The company is also planning to release a 1080p indoor camera, an outdoor camera, and a video doorbell this year.
Unlike some of the other no-contract systems we looked at, SimpliSafe really needs a monitoring subscription to be most effective. Some systems (like the Nest Protect) will send push notifications when triggered, even without a service plan. This gives you the option to peek at cameras or call police on your own. However, SimpliSafe’s self-monitoring option is limited to local use: In the event of a trigger, the siren will sound to scare away prowlers, but the system won’t alert you if you’re away from home. In fact, smartphone push alerts don’t even come with the $15 plan; they’re exclusive to subscribers paying $25 monthly for the Interactive plan. That said, SimpliSafe still offers the cheapest month-to-month plan that includes both live monitoring and fire protection. If you’re willing to lock yourself in for a year, Abode, our runner-up, has a slightly better price on a 12-month plan ($240 compared with SimpliSafe’s $300). But if you’re looking for live, monthly monitoring, we still think SimpliSafe is the best bet—and will only get better once more smart-home integration kicks in later this year.
If you can’t wait for SimpliSafe to add smart-home integration, the Abode security system currently works with Z-Wave, Zigbee, AbodeRF (radio frequency), IFTTT, Nest, Amazon Alexa, and Google Home. The system isn’t as pretty as our top pick, however, and it’s pricier overall.
You need to manage those integrations through the Abode Web portal—you can’t do it through the iOS and Android apps. Why? We’re not sure, but it’s annoying. The app is easy to use, and allows you to arm and disarm the system, access cameras, view the event timeline, and control third-party devices such as the Nest thermostat, Philips Hue bulbs, and more. The company says that the capability to add devices and create automations via the Abode app will come in the next mobile app release, which is slated to roll out by the end of April 2018.
Installing the Abode system is as easy as with any other system on our list, but placement is more limited than with the SimpliSafe system, because the Abode hub needs to be connected to your network router with an Ethernet cable. (The Abode system includes cellular backup, but it’s just that—a backup for emergencies.) Be sure that location isn’t overcrowded: The Abode Gateway is a little bulky—about the same size as a standard router. In addition to the network connection and cellular connection, it has a backup battery.
The overall price of the Abode system is also higher than our top pick’s: For $280 you get just the gateway, one door/window sensor, one motion sensor, and a key fob. The free plan allows for self-monitoring, three days of video and timeline storage, and the capability to connect up to 155 devices. For $10 per month, the Connect plan bumps storage up to 14 days and includes phone and email support but no professional monitoring—for that, you must subscribe to the $30 Connect + Secure option, which adds 24/7 live monitoring and 90 days of storage.
You can customize entry and exit trigger delays up to four minutes. When you put the system into Away mode, it sends a push confirmation. The system also sends an instant push notification if the alarm is triggered.
In our testing, the system performed well both in self-monitoring mode and when connected to the monitoring service. With the latter, service calls varied between 70 and 120 seconds after the alarm was triggered. The service rep was always polite and required a four-digit PIN code to keep police from being dispatched for a triggered alarm.
In addition to the Z-Wave/Zigbee products and sensors that you can add to the system, Abode sells glass-break sensors, door/window sensors, acoustic glass-break sensors, 1080p cameras, and much more, including a smoke alarm monitor that works in conjunction with your existing UL-listed smoke detector. The Abode system itself is not UL-certified; according to the company, the system has the necessary components and satisfies all requirements.
Upgrade pick: LiveWatch Plug & Protect with Total Home + Video
If you want to spend little to nothing up front and you’re willing to pay a higher monthly fee and commit to a longer-term contract, we recommend LiveWatch and the company’s Plug & Protect with Total Home + Video monitoring. LiveWatch’s standout feature is the ASAPer system, which includes live messaging with a predetermined contact list whenever the system is triggered. This makes it easier and faster to distinguish between a false alarm and a real emergency event if some people are home and some aren’t. The system’s LCD touchscreen gives you deeper control of sensors and cameras and more information about system and device status than a simple keypad, and lets you manage connected smart-home devices too. LiveWatch (which will soon change its name to Brinks Home Security) ships to your home preconfigured, and you can expand it with popular smart-home devices, including support for Amazon’s Alexa (through Alarm.com) and a wide variety of Z-Wave accessories.
Like most traditional security companies, LiveWatch offers multiple (sometimes confusing) packages. Plug & Protect Basic and Plug & Protect Complete both do the same essential tasks, but the Complete version comes with a larger LCD panel (pictured above) and includes Bluetooth for hands-free geofenced arming and disarming.
LiveWatch is similar to other traditional security systems like Frontpoint and Protect America, which offer pretty much interchangeable hardware and all use the Alarm.com app. The differences among those systems are mostly in their subscription plans and packages. Systems like this are usually free or cheap up front but require a high monitoring fee of at least $40 a month to subsidize the cost of the hardware. We find that unless you like the expanded smart-home options available through Alarm.com, these systems’ high monthly fees, plus whatever up-front costs you pay for the hardware, make them more expensive with little added benefit compared with a good no-contract system.
But LiveWatch offers a less restrictive contract than most other traditional security systems: You’re free to cancel the service at any time without a fee or paying for any remaining time; the only restriction is that if you cancel within the first year, you have to return the hardware. (Frontpoint, Link Interactive, and Protect America all lock you into a contract and force you to pay a fee if you cancel. Frontpoint, for example, charges you 80 percent of your remaining contract, which could be over $1,000.)
The LiveWatch system we reviewed currently costs $100 plus a $20 activation fee, and includes a touchscreen control panel, two contact sensors for doors or windows, an infrared motion sensor, an indoor Wi-Fi surveillance camera, and a keyring remote for arming and disarming. Because it includes a camera, this package requires the $50-per-month Total Home + Video monitoring plan (without the camera, the plan is $40 per month). Any additional equipment you want to purchase—such as extra contact sensors or motion sensors—costs extra. A $35-per-month plan is also available, but you don’t get access to the Alarm.com smartphone app or any smart-home features. Note that the package makeup and pricing change frequently.
LiveWatch’s ASAPer system does what no other security system does: When an alarm is triggered, ASAPer sends a text and email message to everyone on a list you’ve created—generally your family or other emergency contacts—that includes a URL where the people on your list can engage in a group chat and resolve the alarm. For example, if the alarm was accidentally tripped by someone at home, that person can quickly and easily let everyone else know that the situation is fine (or not, if it’s something else) and make sure 911 isn’t needlessly called. It’s a nice feature, it works fast, and it can help put your family’s mind at ease and reduce false alarms.
The alarm panel acts as both the main processor for the system and the interface where you can arm or disarm the alarm and control other features, such as smart-home devices (if you have them). The panel includes a 24-hour backup battery, a cellular signal to talk to the central monitoring service, and a built-in microphone and speakers that allow for two-way communication with the central monitoring station. It also includes Z-Wave and Wi-Fi support to talk to smart-home devices and security cameras. The system’s smash protection triggers a silent alarm to the monitoring company if an intruder tries to tamper with the control panel. And a 104-decibel siren will leave anyone nearby shaking their scattered brains for the rest of the day.
Although 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 to allow you to control the system through the devices you already own. The rest of the LiveWatch system’s components are small and discreet. In our tests, the motion sensor had a wide field of view that had no trouble detecting us when we moved in the rooms it was surveying.
What to look forward to
Ring announced plans to ship the Ring Alarm in spring 2018. The $200 starter kit includes a base station, a keypad, one door/window contact sensor, one motion detector, and a Z-Wave extender, and requires a subscription. Additional Ring sensors are available for $20 to $35 each.
Abode Systems announced the Iota, a single device with a 1080p camera, two-way voice, and support for Z-Wave, Zigbee, Apple HomeKit, Amazon Alexa, and Google Home that you can use with Abode’s recurring or on-demand professional monitoring. The company says that our runner-up pick isn’t going anywhere; the Iota is a new item that will work as a gateway or in tandem with the current system.
Scout has made a few upgrades since our previous update to this guide. The no-contract system now features Z-Wave support, a smaller door panel, and a few new add-ons. However, the Scout system still needs to be tethered to a router, is bulkier than other no-contract options, and did not include fire monitoring at the time of this writing (though the company says that’s coming soon). Like our top pick, it offers only local service without the monitoring plan. It doesn’t do that as smoothly, though, because you get very little alarm customization and the company doesn’t offer any sort of keypad option.
Frontpoint Security’s Interactive plan was our favorite home security system from 2013 to early 2016. Its equipment, monitoring plans, and features are almost identical to LiveWatch’s: The two use similar control panels, 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.
Nest Secure could be the best-looking no-contract option if price were no object, but at $500, it’s also the most expensive. And the cost goes up when you add Nest cameras (which essentially require the Nest Aware service) into the mix. Smart-home fans may be willing to pay that price because it features Works With Nest support, but the lineup of compatible devices is limited right now, with additional partners coming later. MONI (soon to be Brinks Home Security) supplies the monitoring but doesn’t include fire service with the Nest Protect. And though geofencing is appreciated, we had several errors with it during testing.
Although Link Interactive offers one-, two-, and three-year contracts with the option of month-to-month extensions, the cancellation terms are even worse than Frontpoint’s: If you cancel during your contract period, you have to pay for the entire remainder of the contract.
The Protect America system is easy enough to set up and use, but 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.
Samsung SmartThings ADT Home Security packs no-contract ADT monitoring into a touch panel that doubles as a SmartThings hub. Aside from the SmartThings functionality, the $400 system seems dated, with clunky sensors and the SmartThings app, which in our tests had routine problems loading the ADT portion. (Samsung updated the SmartThings app in March 2018, but at the time of this writing the ADT system is limited to the “classic” version.) During testing, we received automated ADT calls on three separate days stating that the system wasn’t communicating with the monitoring company, even though everything looked okay on our end. Also, in our tests of response times, ADT failed to call in two of our six tests.
Ooma is the least expensive option on our list, but it’s also the only one that doesn’t have an actual live person call you in case of emergency. Instead, an automated call alerts you when the system is triggered, with the option to call 911. This package includes phone service but little else, with no battery or cellular backup, and no smart-home integration.
Like the Scout system, SwannOne doesn’t offer a keypad but works with popular devices like the Nest thermostat, Chamberlain MyQ garage door openers, and Philips Hue lights, plus a variety of Z-Wave and Zigbee devices. But in our testing, the SwannOne system was flaky and the app and Web interface were slow to load; the system also lacks an audible exit timer.
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