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HolidayBuyer's Guide

How to get started with smart home security tech

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It's easy to feel overwhelmed when you're shopping for a home security system. That's because it's a massive, growing category that covers everything from professional firms like ADT and Vivint to standalone DIY devices like cameras, sensors and locks. Although those two camps are still pretty divided, we're starting to see companies such as ADT embrace third-party device integrations -- and an increasing number of DIY companies are offering features typically reserved for professional firms, like 24/7 monitoring.

Yes, the home security market is a veritable hodgepodge of options. That's great because there's bound to be something that's right for you, but it's also a challenge to sort through the mess of stuff on shelves today to find that perfect device or comprehensive system. Fortunately, we're here to help you make sense of it all so you can move past the product research phase to enjoying a functional home security package.

Professional home security firms

You're probably at least somewhat familiar with the traditional home security model. Firms like ADT, AT&T, Vivint and Frontpoint offer various bundled products and services, install and configure them for you, lock you into a contract that's typically at least two years long and charge you a monthly fee starting at around $35. And, if you decide to cancel the service before your contract period is over, you'll end up paying an early cancellation fee.

Convenience versus freedom

The thing is that the services professional firms offer are still incredibly appealing. ADT offers tons of features from an arm-disarm keypad to door and window sensors, security cameras and more. Professional monitoring is also automatically included in your monthly fee, meaning ADT employees are on call 24/7 to contact first responders like the police or EMS as needed.

Yes, it's a comprehensive solution with built-in convenience (thanks to the professional install and monitoring services), but you're going to have to shell out quite a bit of money for it and sacrifice some freedom along the way.

Ditching the status quo

Interestingly, these firms are becoming increasingly aware that their approach is outdated and many are making changes to keep up with the growing demand for DIY products.

For instance, ADT and LG sell a contract-free security system. AT&T Digital Life integrates with Samsung, Qualcomm, LG, SmartThings and Lutron products and work in select cars via voice activation. ADT also works with Nest and plans to introduce an IFTTT channel -- all unthinkable propositions before the smart home grew in popularity.

This trend is promising, but there aren't any clear shifts happening to the core contract-and-monthly-fees portion of professional security firms. If you're the sort of person who fancies a bit more freedom -- say you live in an apartment and don't plan to live there long or your lease keeps you from having anything hard-wired -- this sort of system isn't for you. But, it is definitely the best bet as far as convenience goes, assuming you're OK with forking over a hefty portion of your paycheck each year and potentially locking yourself in to a multiyear contract.

DIY home security

Do-it-yourself home security, in stark contrast to professional firms, is all about choice. The tradeoff for that level of customization is that you'll have to shoulder a lot more of the responsibility from the install on through to calling the police yourself if you have a security concern (with a couple of exceptions).

And, where professional firms keep it simple with various bundled products and services, DIY purchasing decisions can be more complicated because the options vary widely. You'll come across ADT-style services with 24/7 monitoring and monthly fees (thankfully, without mandatory contracts) to single security devices like cameras or locks, available for purchase at Target, BestBuy and other chain retail stores.

Even if you've decided against a professional firm, there are still a lot of considerations to make before you land on a DIY device or system. We'll explore the various options here and help you find something that works.

Kits

Just because you've ditched the idea of a professional firm doesn't mean that you have to miss out on features. There are a handful of DIY security companies that offer entire suites of security products, including door and window sensors, motion detectors, sirens and more. Some even offer professional monitoring for a monthly fee, but the good news is that you can cancel at any time without having to worry about a penalty.

Abode, SimpliSafe, Oplink, Scout, Viper and iSmartAlarm are all brands that offer multiple security products designed to work together. Here's a quick rundown comparing some of these DIY kits:

Comparing DIY security systems

Abode Scout iSmartAlarm SimpliSafe
Hardware cost $300 (starter kit) $276 (hub and accessories, no camera) $150 (starter kit) $230 (starter kit)
Required monthly fees None $10 None None technically, but you need to pay the $15-$25 contract-free fee to access any remote features
Professional monitoring Yes ($30/month, includes cellular backup) Yes ($20/month, includes cellular backup) No Yes (no extra charge)
Cellular backup Yes ($10/month without professional monitoring) Yes (no extra charge) No Yes (no extra charge)
Power outage backup Yes Yes No Yes
Camera Yes (add $150) Yes (add $169) Yes (add $100) Yes (add $100)
ZigBee/Z-Wave compatibility ZigBee and Z-Wave ZigBee only No No
Smart home partners Alexa, IFTTT, Nest Alexa, IFTTT, Nest IFTTT Nest

For a kit with a camera, we recommend either Abode or iSmartAlarm. iSmartAlarm's initial camera was underwhelming, but the brand brought the new iCamera Keep into the fold in 2015 and it performs much better than its predecessor. SimpliSafe certainly isn't cheap, but it does have lower monthly fees than your typical contract -- ranging from $15 to $25 per month -- and still offers professional monitoring. So, if you're in search of something comprehensive that's like ADT but doesn't have the same rigid contract terms, a DIY kit is a solid bet.

Cameras

Standalone security cameras are another common DIY category. They are particularly appealing for folks who want to keep an eye on one specific area of vulnerability. (Of course, you can buy multiple cameras, but it might make sense to upgrade to a kit with a combination of cameras and sensors if you have a lot of entry points in your home.)

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The DIY market has grown a lot in recent years and you'll find all sorts of options out there, including indoor, outdoor and indoor-outdoor cameras that range in price from an average of $70 per camera up to $280 or more (there are even a few free options).

You'll also find a lot of differentiation in terms of features. The $280 Piper NV is a great option if you want a live streaming HD camera that covers a wide angle -- 180 degrees, to be exact. This excellent all-in-one camera also comes with motion and environmental alerts, night vision, free cloud-based clip storage, an included Z-Wave hub for adding additional standalone sensors into the mix and a built-in siren to scare away intruders. There are also a ton of notification options, ranging from getting an automated phone call from Piper alerting you to a potential security issue to more complex in-app rules that you can customize yourself.

The Homeboy camera. Tyler Lizenby/CNET

The $150 Homeboy camera is another solid option, although it's totally different than Icontrol's Piper NV. The Homeboy is battery powered, has an SD video resolution (the video quality is much grainier than its HD counterparts) and it doesn't offer live streaming. But, it does have a built in siren and an IFTTT channel for more complex third-party integrations and has the added benefit of a cordless setup.

And, if you want something that will work outside, the Canary Flex and Netgear's Arlo Pro are great options. Both offer rechargeable batteries, flexible installations and integrations with third-party platforms.

You can also find free security options like Manything, Presence and Salient Eye that convert spare Android or iOS devices into cameras for free. All three work well, but we're partial to the Android-only Salient Eye because it lets you arm and disarm your camera and will even turn on a siren if it detects motion while you're away.

Camera-equipped doorbells such as SkyBell and Ring are also available. They send alerts to your phone when someone knocks or rings the doorbell and give you the option to pull up a live stream -- they're basically digital peepholes so you can see and talk to whoever's at your front door whether you're home or away (as long as your phone is connected to a cellular data or Wi-Fi network).

Want more details? Be sure to check out our security camera buying guide.

Locks

Locks are a small, but growing product category in smart home security. We've reviewed the Kwikset Premis, the August Smart Lock, the Kwikset Kevo, the Kwikset Kevo Convert, the Poly-Control's Danalock the Yale Real Living Touchscreen Z-Wave Deadbolt, the Schlage Sense and the Schlage Camelot Touchscreen Deadbolt.

Inside the August Smart Lock. Tyler Lizenby/CNET

August, Danalock and Kevo are Bluetooth-enabled, meaning they pair with your phone when you're within range and either auto-unlock or in the case of the Kevo, let you open the door by tapping the lock. In addition, August sells a separate Connect accessory if you want to access your lock remotely over Wi-Fi and you can upgrade your Danalock for an extra $20 if you'd like to have Z-Wave capabilities.

Yale comes with built-in Z-Wave connectivity, whereas the Schlage Camelot lock requires extra accessories for smart connectivity -- $60 for the Nexia Bridge control unit and an extra $10 a month for Nexia Home Intelligence's home automation system to incorporate automated lights and more.

Both August and Danalock install over the majority of common household deadbolts for a relatively painless setup process. Yale's Real Living Touchscreen Z-Wave Deadbolt, Schlage's Camelot Touchscreen Deadbolt and Kwikset's Kevo use their own deadbolts.

August was our overall favorite for its easy installation, nice design and impressive performance.

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There hasn't been a whole lot of movement in this product category otherwise. We've seen various locks make their debut on crowdfunding sites, like Lockitron, Sesame, Friday and Haven only to have their shipping dates pushed back -- or, in the case of Haven, not even get fully funded.

Third-party integrations

While professional security firms are only just delving into third-party integrations, most DIY brands champion smart home inclusivity. That's partly because a lot of DIY products are available a la carte. So, you might have a Nest Cam and an August Lock and want to figure out how to incorporate other smart home products into the mix without a lot of fuss.

For instance, if you have the HomeBoy or Manything camera, you can use IFTTT to create custom recipes with a Belkin WeMo Switch + Motion, Philips Hue LEDs, a Nest Learning Thermostat and a whole lot more.

You can also go all-in with third-party integrations by using a hub. Hubs like Wink and SmartThings connect to your wireless networking router and are equipped with multiple ways to talk with other devices, usually at least Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, ZigBee and Z-Wave. The idea is they let you access a variety of home security and automation products from a single, universal app tied to the hub.

While voice control is becoming increasingly popular in the smart home category, it isn't quite as established among home security products. Currently, Abode and Scout work with Amazon Alexa devices, the D-Link Omna camera is HomeKit-enabled and August's second-generation Smart Lock works with Alexa, HomeKit and Google Home -- the first security device to work with all three major voice platforms. Click here to find out what voice control platforms work with the rest of the smart locks on the market.

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On the horizon

The home security market is in flux and it isn't just because the gap is narrowing between professional security firms and DIY brands. We're also seeing new tech like wearables and car-related security integrations fighting for a stake in the smart home, as well as an increasing number of voice control integrations with Amazon Alexa, Apple HomeKit and Google Home.

Given that the smart home industry is still in the relatively early stages of development, you can expect it to keep growing and changing rapidly. That certainly makes it an exciting and innovative time for connected home security, but it also makes it more difficult to sort through the options. Your best bet, particularly in the DIY market, is to focus on solving specific security problems, rather than getting caught up in wondering what platform to pick.

My advice? Start with one device -- put a camera near a door or install a connected lock. Once you've tried that out, you'll have a better idea of what you want if you decide to add additional products later on.