DIY security versus the CNET Smart Home

We covered the CNET Smart Home in cameras and sensors to see if do-it-yourself products really can keep a whole house secure. Here's what we learned.

Megan Wollerton Former Senior Writer/Editor
10 min read
Watch this: Tackling security in the CNET Smart Home

We launched the CNET Smart Home in mid-September, our new 5,800-square-foot headquarters in the Kentucky countryside for reviewing connected devices. But this space is more than that -- it's also an opportunity for us to design our very own "home of the future."

In that spirit, we've already outfitted the house with a new router and range extenders and a bunch of connected gadgets, including a main hub, app-enabled LEDs, adaptable thermostats, Wi-Fi garage door openers, an Amazon Echo and HomeKit-enabled voice control products. And now that we can ask Alexa to turn on our Philips Hue bulbs and instruct Siri to open our front door , it's time to tackle something a bit more serious -- home security.

Since we've reviewed DIY products exclusively up until this point, we wondered how easy -- or hard -- it would be to set up a comprehensive security system in this house ourselves. The CNET Smart Home has six exterior doors -- one in the walkout basement and five on the first floor -- and a lot of windows, making this quite an undertaking.

So we combed through this three-story house, inventoried the vulnerable spots and chose an assortment of sensors, cameras and more from two competing DIY brands. Then, we installed and configured everything to see if either system had the chops to tackle large-scale home security.

(Note: At the request of our parent company, CBS, we have a professionally monitored security system from ADT installed at the CNET Smart Home. While this was a corporate mandate, it will also give us the chance to test the ADT Pulse system and compare it directly to other security firms as well as the few DIY brands that offer live monitoring services. For the purposes of this piece, we acted as if the ADT system wasn't there, but we will be reviewing it soon.)

Here's the gear you'll find in the CNET Smart Home (pictures)

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Ready, set, secure

From standalone live-streaming cameras to multi-sensor kits , DIY devices represent a growing segment of the home security market. Because there are so many options out there, it can be tough to decide exactly what to buy -- or if going the DIY route even makes sense at all. A smaller house or apartment, for instance, might only need a single camera like the IControl Piper NV to watch over a front d00r. But the CNET Smart Home needs a whole lot more.

And while there are quite a few DIY security kits available on the market today, in the end there we narrowed our picks to two systems -- Simplisafe , a sensor-based kit with professional monitoring that won an Editors' Choice Award in 2013 and SmartThings 2.0 , a second-gen ZigBee and Z-Wave hub that has its own IFTTT channel, an active developer community and a ton of official third-party partners.

Again, we do plan to review professional security services now that we have a dedicated test space, but for this post we really wanted to find out exactly how much effort it would take to outfit an entire house ourselves with keypads, cameras and sensors, in true DIY fashion. We also want want to put the SimpliSafe and SmartThings systems head-to-head. Here's what we did:

Is Simplisafe as simple as it seems?

Simplisafe is available in a variety of bundled kits, but we decided to buy a custom, a la carte system to accommodate all of the doors and windows on the basement and first floor. Simplisafe doesn't work with third-party devices and security cameras aren't included in its offerings at all, so we tried to make up for that with a ton of sensors -- eight glass-break sensors, six door/window sensors and four motion sensors. There are also three pieces of hardware that you have to get with any Simplisafe system -- a $115 base station, a $70 keypad and a USB-equipped keychain, which is a free accessory. That comes out to a grand total of $674.80 to outfit the CNET Smart Home.

After trying to download a Simplisafe app to configure my new system, I soon learned that there's no way to access either a mobile or a comprehensive Web app for Simplisafe products out of the box. That's fine for folks who don't want to involve technology in this process, but it's a very old-school approach to home security. It has become standard practice for us to get a new security product and immediately download a related Android or iOS device to follow a setup tutorial, but none of that is available with Simplisafe (at least, not immediately).

Instead, the free USB keychain acts as the main point of access between you and your system and you're supposed to connect it to your computer or laptop's USB port to get started. This should launch a "startup wizard," but people with Apple products will have to call customer service to get this to work, as it's optimized for Windows users.

This is where you'll set your basic preferred settings, including a four-digit master pin and more. And, every time you make tweaks to your security settings using the USB keychain, you have to eject it from your computer and manually connect it to the base station to ensure that it has received the new information.

The base station, or hub, is a long cone-shaped device with a built-in cellular chip and a USB port; as it's completely separate from your Wi-Fi network, there's no need to plug it into a router. It simply plugs into a wall outlet with the included adapter and you're done.

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Here's a snapshot of assorted Simplisafe hardware from our original review.

Colin West McDonald/CNET

The keypad is wireless and is supposed to go somewhere near a main entry/exit point in your home, say in the hallway leading to the garage or near the front door. The problem is that interference with nearby electronic devices, like thermostats, or even metal objects, like stainless steel appliances in your kitchen can make it tough for the hub to communicate with the keypad, so I spent a lot of time on the phone with customer service moving the keypad and the hub around the house in order to get a solid connection between the two. In the end, both pieces of hardware worked best in the "sun room," a first-floor room that leads to the back yard and isn't especially convenient to get to for manually arming and disarming the system.

Setting up the various sensors was simple enough, but the sheer number of devices made the process a bit more daunting. Even though we had mapped out the installation plan for all of these sensors, it still took a couple of hours to walk around the house and actually set everything up. But, they paired to the hub easily enough -- removing the pull tab that separated the batteries from each device does the trick.

To test out the system and make sure that all of the devices are actually working, you can put the keypad in "test mode." In test mode, the base station will say "entry sensor," "glass break sensor," or "motion sensor" if the devices are working. Since the base station comes with backup batteries (and since opening a door in the basement would be out of earshot of the hub), I simply carried it around the house and opened each door and pressed the "test" buttons on the glass break and motion sensors to make sure they were working. (Simplisafe told me that you can test the glass break sensors by clapping loudly when the system is in test mode, but they're also supposed to pick up on the frequency of glass breaking, so I played a YouTube video of glass breaking instead. This worked pretty well, although the sensors didn't respond as reliably as I would have liked.)

If you don't pay for monthly monitoring, that's all you get: the base station, the keypad, the keychain and the sensors. You arm and disarm the system either from the keypad or the keychain and if one of the sensors is triggered when the system is armed, the 85-decibel siren that's built into the base station will sound. But, you won't get alerts on your phone or otherwise have any clue that something might be happening in your home.

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Simplisafe's subscription services.


That's because you have to pay to have any sort of true remote access to your Simplisafe system (see the fee options above). So, we paid for the $25 interactive subscription for 24-7 professional monitoring, email or text alerts and access to the Simplisafe mobile app. Then I was actually able to access the full features in the web app, too, and name the various sensors and set up customizations (see below), but it took another hour to walk around the house and record the serial number of each device after they were already installed and add them to the Web interface.

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Configuring the sensors in the Simplisafe web app is only possible after you pay a monthly subscription fee.

Screenshot by CNET

And while you can technically arm and disarm the system from the mobile app, I found it to be very oddly designed and tough to navigate. You can see the mobile app's home screen pictured below -- I cropped out the very top portion, which displayed the address of the house, but you get the idea. This home screen is bizarre and I'm not sure why there's a temperature reading of 0 degrees on display in the center.

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The home screen on the Simplisafe mobile app.

Screenshot by CNET

Is SmartThings a better security buy?

SmartThings, a startup that's now owned by Samsung is an entirely different story. We reviewed the brand's $99 second-gen Z-Wave and Zigbee hub last month and decided to stick one in the CNET Smart Home due to its impressive array of potential integrations with devices ranging from switches and lights to thermostats, sirens, cameras, speaker systems, sensors and more. Basically, you can use this device as your smart home starting off point and piece together a comprehensive security and automation system that's all accessible from SmartThings' universal app.

If you're a programmer, you can even get in on the developer community action, an opportunity for anyone to add unofficial, but functional integrations between the SmartThings hub and third-party devices that the brand hasn't yet added to its growing list of compatible products. The thing is, not everyone has that developer-level know-how, and certain popular products, like Nest thermostats don't work with SmartThings (yet).

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The second-gen SmartThings Hub and various sensors.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET
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The SmartThings app often crashes when you're trying to edit devices.

Screenshot by CNET

For our own DIY SmartThings security system, we got three Samsung SmartCam HD Pro's with built-in motion sensors, six door/window sensors and four motion sensors. That came out to a grand total of $1,065.90 (including the hub that was already installed). Definitely more expensive than Simplisafe, but that's only because Simplisafe doesn't offer cameras, something that we consider pretty key for home security.

The biggest problem with SmartThings is that the app is very confusing to navigate and occasionally glitchy. (The team has introduced at least two app updates since my initial review and it's only slightly better than before.)

By far the hardest part is adding devices to the app and trying to sort them by room -- a seemingly simple prospect, but the app often crashes when you try to add or edit a device.

It has some other strange quirks, too. For instance, you have to create a room for a device before you can edit that device. And, you can only edit a device if it's the "featured" device in a room, meaning it's the first one in the list of connected devices. I can't tell you how many times I had to delete entire rooms or switch out the "featured" device just so that I could make changes to the settings.

But, once you do get it set up, you can create custom rules using a feature called the "Smart Home Monitor." Basically, this is the same as Simplisafe's arm and disarm modes, but it all happens through SmartThings' app interface. So if you arm the system through the SmartThings app and activity is detected either by the door/window sensors, the motion sensors or the Samsung security cameras, you can elect to receive a push alert and/or a text. You can also add additional devices like third-party sirens and lights to sound or flash if a potential security threat is detected.

And, the Samsung cameras will record video clips when a breach takes place, too. Recorded clips will be free through 2015 (the feature is still in beta now), but will become a "premium feature" next year and cost $5 per month.

Which system to pick...

Although Simplisafe is limited without security cameras and doesn't offer much in the way of "smart" features (even if you pay the $25 monthly fee), it does offer professional monitoring and the system itself did perform well after all the hassle. It's responsive and I would trust the sensors to pick up on any potential security concerns. I tried various "test" scenarios where I tripped the system and the alarm was always fast to act.

And if it were a real scenario, Simplisafe's professional monitoring team would call to make sure everything was okay by requesting a "safe word" that you set during the initial configuration. If you don't produce the safe word or if you don't answer your phone, they will send the police. In that way, Simplisafe is much closer to a professional security firm like ADT or AT&T Digital Life than its DIY counterparts.

At the same time, if I wanted professional monitoring for the CNET Smart Home, I'm fairly confident that I would just pay to have a professional firm come out and set everything up for me. For a house this size, I really do think a involved system like Simplisafe with serial numbers and USB keychains would be worth paying a professional to install.

While SmartThings' app interface is tough to navigate, this system is very responsive and performed well as a large-scale security sentry for the CNET Smart Home. It also works with a lot of different devices, so that you can add in new products to keep building a comprehensive home security and automation solution.

The verdict

So are either of these DIY systems strong enough to secure the CNET Smart Home? Yes and no.

Although neither system "wowed" us, both Simplisafe and SmartThings have what it takes to maintain basic lines of defense between the house and potential intruders. But SmartThings is more consistent with the needs of the CNET Smart Home both in terms of its smart security features and its overall ability to work with third-party connected gadgets. And, even though our setup with SmartThings cost more than Simplisafe up front, you don't have to pay any monthly fees to enjoy basic features like push and text alerts.

For now, then, we'll be using SmartThings as our DIY security system. We're still on the hunt for an "ideal" system, though, so visit our CNET Smart Home landing page often for the latest project developments.