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How We Test Home Security Systems and Services

These testing procedures help us recommend the best home security system for every reader.

SimpliSafe home security system: sensors, keypad, and home hub
Home security systems range from do-it-yourself collections of gadgets to professionally installed and monitored services. Here's how we test them.
Chris Monroe/CNET

Home security is one thing you want to be sure works before you buy it. After all, if an emergency ever does happen, you want to be confident your system will be up to the task of catching would-be burglars, scaring them off and promptly notifying you and the authorities.

Buying into one of these systems can cost a lot -- both upfront and after factoring in monthly fees -- and paying that price requires a lot of trust. We've tested every major DIY home security system and professionally installed and monitored home security service in a home setting to offer our recommendations on the best ones to buy.

Here's how we test home security systems at CNET.

Step 1: Checking the security basics

Most home security systems, DIY or professional, essentially do what they're supposed to do. If you trip an armed entry sensor, an alarm will go off and you'll get notified via phone. Ditto motion sensors, glass break sensors, leak detectors and all the other simple devices that comprise any given home security setup.

Testing the reliability of the security product

The first part of home security testing is simply confirming that each of these devices responds properly to its stimulus -- and the vast majority of the time, they all do. (It's a big red flag if they don't, considering reliability is a core selling point of any safety-related technology.) I usually do this initial set of tests when I set up the system for the first time.

Testing promised features

The second phase of testing introduces a little more complication. I check to make sure all the more complex devices (such as security cameras, video doorbells, keypads and base stations) work properly. This means laying out the list of included features (such as smart alerts and motion detection zones), then testing each of them one by one.

simplisafe-cam

Cameras are a little harder to evaluate than simple entry sensors or leak detectors.

Chris Monroe/CNET

Again, I do these tests as I set up each device, and the outcomes are usually a little less clear-cut than the simple device tests: A leak sensor either detects or fails to detect water, after all. A video doorbell may sense motion reliably and identify deliveries semi-effectively, but be less consistent in labeling animals (assuming that's a feature).

I make note of all the features included on these more complex devices, as well as how they perform in an initial battery of tests. Then I move on to the next phase.

Step 2: Real world testing

I always test home security systems in a home setting, installing and using them for at least a full week. This ensures that I don't just get "lab results" that are abstracted from the real-world use case of a security system. In short, I want to see them in action, getting practical use, over the course of a week.

As I do this, the testing becomes less formal and more experiential. Do the beeps from the hub every time a door opens get annoying? If so, how simple are they to deactivate? Is the base station easy to use, or do I default to the app in most cases? Do I experience false alarms or connectivity issues? If an alarm gets set off, how quick are the notifications -- and what kind of alerts occur with professional monitoring? Can I check back through the camera feed to figure out which neighborhood critter got into our garden? If I pull up the livestream of the back door camera, can I clearly hear my kids playing in the yard or does the wind interfere with the sound quality?

xfinity-home-app

We test every home security system in real homes to make sure they're genuinely useful.

Josh Goldman/CNET

There are innumerable questions here, and I try to put myself in the shoes of as many potential users as possible. How do kids or pets change the equation? How would the system work in an apartment? Which types of chimes are the video doorbells compatible with -- and can they be used wirelessly?

This section of the review is often the biggest for two reasons. First, it's the most representative of how you'll actually experience the home security system. Unexpected elements that you'd only discover if you lived with the system for a few days often emerge. It's during this phase that I've found some cameras don't have adequate dampening of environmental noise, and their sound is essentially useless on a windy back porch. Or I've found that a video doorbell with plenty of great features takes a few seconds too long to pull up its feed via app, making it impractical for intervening during a package theft.

The second reason why the section is often large is that there are so many elements to home security systems. Unlike stand-alone devices, these systems depend on integration -- their ability to work as a team. You can only get a feel for how well that coordination actually works if you test them over time in the environment they're meant to be used in.

Step 3: Measuring the value

At the same time that I test all the individual devices and make note of their extra features, I also record their prices. This gets a little tricky, because home security systems are notorious for offering huge discounts all the time. That means the MSRP might not reflect what you'll pay for the hardware, but it provides a useful starting point.

Then, while I'm performing real-world tests in the background, I spend a day or two thoroughly comparing each device to the equivalent one in each other system on the market. How do the prices match up? What about the extras? Ultimately, I'm trying to figure out how the value compares.

For simple devices, this process is often straightforward. A system that charges half the price for entry sensors -- as long as they perform well -- offers better value than its competitors. For complex devices, this can quickly become its own miniature review. Stand-alone security cameras and video doorbells can range from $20 to $300, and their features vary as widely. The same goes for cameras that integrate with home security systems.

wyze-vs-blink-wireless-doorbells-4

Some home security devices, such as video doorbells, have become much more affordable in recent years. Both Amazon Blink and Wyze offer wireless video doorbells for under $100.

Chris Monroe/CNET

It's not just the hardware prices that factor into the overall value assessment, though. Most home security systems require -- or at least work best -- with monthly service fees. These fees often scale to include everything from rolling cloud video storage to full-fledged 24/7 professional monitoring.

Many of these services rely on the same underlying approach, but slight differences in price and feature offerings can make a big difference over time. Generally, I look for systems that offer a lot of possible configurations. Your home security needs are particular, so your home security coverage should be customizable for your household.

I also look at the industry norms. App support and self-monitoring are almost always free; cloud storage is almost always available for a small monthly fee; professional monitoring is almost always available for $25, give or take. If a system significantly departs from such norms, I make note of it. Sometimes, such as when Wyze Home Monitoring originally launched $5 per month professional monitoring, that departure might be a standout feature. Other times, like when companies like Cove charge monthly fees for any app access, it can be a big criticism.

A few more considerations

While I prioritize value and performance when it comes to home security systems, a few other aspects of a service are worth considering.

Reviewing the home security installation process

Professionally installed systems come with, as you may have guessed, installation. While I often write about the installation process, this typically doesn't impact the overall evaluation much since installation can vary, depending on the region and particular installer.

Reviewing the home security provider's customer service

Likewise, I always use the provider's customer service channels rather than troubleshooting with media representatives. That way I get a basic sense of the customer service. I will often make note of significant differences in these offerings but again, because of such a low sample size, I avoid generalizing my experience when it comes to scoring or the final evaluation.

Some publications look to consumer surveys or online reviews to weigh customer service. While I test it and will often touch on it in reviews, I avoid relying on third-party reports of customer service for my reviews. Ideally, a system shouldn't need customer support except in unusual circumstances, anyway. If it does, that likely indicates another problem altogether.

Putting together the score and recommendation

Different people need different home security systems. That's why I don't simply make one recommendation and call it a day. Instead, I aim to offer the best systems for everyone's needs -- whether you own or rent, whether you're looking to spend hundreds or thousands, whether you're hoping for a professionally installed and monitored system or something more DIY and self-monitored.

Regardless of what you're looking for, I always aim to find the best home security systems with reliable hardware, flexible services and unbeatable value.

Recap: Every testing step we take

Here's everything we do when we review home security systems and services:

  • Review setup
  • Review reliability 
  • Review promised features
  • Review user experience over the course of a week
  • Review the overall value
  • Review installation and customer service

Each of these features come together to help us score any given product and list each product appropriately in a variety of lists, whether it's the best for everyone or for some customers in select circumstances.

If you're looking for more information, check out our recommendations for the best home security systems, the best home security systems for renters, the best security cameras and the best video doorbells