CNET has kept its finger on the pulse of the growing do-it-yourself security market for some time -- reviewing tons of modular security setups. But now, thanks to the CNET Smart Home, I have the opportunity to review whole-home systems.
Of course, professionally installed security is a different animal from more modular options. Instead of assembling individual products, like a thermostat, an alarm or a lock, you sign an extended contract, get a fully integrated system, and pay a monthly fee till the contract ends. That means we have to work with companies more closely than usual. After arranging an install of one of AT&T's Digital Life packages, though, I finally got a chance to spend a week and a half testing it out at the CNET Smart Home.
Overall, Digital Life is very recommendable. The app interface is slick, the security features are market-competitive, and the home automation devices, while a little basic individually, benefit from beautiful integration. The biggest weakness of AT&T Digital Life is the price point. Between a two-year contract, monthly fees of $40, $55 or $65, initial equipment fees ($50, $150 and $200, respectively), and potential cancellation fees, consumers should be wary of jumping onboard without due consideration. But for anyone in need of professionally monitored smart-home security -- especially those trying to avoid the guesswork of installing do-it-yourself systems -- Digital Life is one of the best options out there.
What are my security options?
I wanted to approach the AT&T Digital Life install like any customer would, so I began by surveying the various security systems available to the average consumer. I knew plenty of do-it-yourself security systems, like SimpliSafe and iSmartAlarm, sell for a few hundred bucks and require no contractual obligations. Usually, these include a couple contact sensors -- devices that indicate whether doors or windows are open or closed -- a motion detector or two, a remote, an alarm, a camera or any combination of these gadgets.
And many of the base packages for professionally installed systems looked similar. AT&T Digital Life's "Smart Security" package, for instance, included six contact sensors, a motion detector, a keypad and an alarm.
As you upgrade, though, you can add cameras, flood sensors, connected outlets, smart door locks and more. For this review, AT&T installed a slightly personalized version of the "Premium Security and Automation" package. What became apparent was, whereas DIY systems will fit the needs of some smaller houses and apartments, professional systems like AT&T's will scale to the needs of almost any home.
Besides scaling, professional security has another major advantage over DIY systems: 24-7 professional monitoring. In the case of an emergency, AT&T Digital Life, like other professional systems, will contact the appropriate authorities. Many DIY systems will send you a smartphone notification or set off an alarm, but they won't call the police or fire department. (Some DIY systems are adding this feature, though it will entail a monthly monitoring fee.)
The problem with professional monitoring is the contract that's usually involved. Most security systems will cost you at least $30 a month, and they often include additional fees for installation, technology, or both. AT&T Digital Life's system, over the full two-year contract, will charge you between $1,010 and $1,760, not including any extra devices you elect to purchase beyond the packages. Plus, if you decide to cancel after the first two weeks, you'll have to pay off about $30 per month remaining in your contract.
So, professional security...
From early on, I liked Digital Life for a few reasons. First, it has the most straightforward pricing of any professional security system. On the website, you can find all the basic information for contract lengths, initial equipment fees and monthly costs. Listed alongside that information is each package's included devices. Many comparable companies require customers to call in for a quote, contract lengths and other pricing particulars.
AT&T's packages are also well designed (except for the mid-range $55 one; more on that later). The $40/mo "Smart Security" package matches the rates (plus or minus $5) of similar packages from Frontpoint, Protect America, ADT, and other leading providers. The "Premium Security and Automation" package includes loads of gadgets, and slides in at $65/mo, just under Vivint's priciest package (although Vivint's initial setup fee is lower). In addition, you can personalize your package by starting with the basics and adding individually priced packages like "cameras," "locks," "energy" "water detection" and others.
When it came time for the installation, like any customer, I waited while AT&T specialists -- all of whom receive background checks before assuming home installation duties -- placed sensors and other gadgets around the CNET Smart Home. The technicians were professional: each even donned booties when inside the home.
Post-install, the on-site manager walked me through the Digital Life system and answered my questions. AT&T clearly fulfilled all the must-haves I was looking for: wireless connection, tamper-alarms, diverse sensors, professional monitoring, and remote access. The one big difference between our setup and the typical Digital Life installations was the alarm triggers. Local police and fire departments really hate false alarms from security monitoring services, and rightly so, since those false alarms waste municipal resources. For the purpose of this review, AT&T put the monitoring service in test mode. They could see our system, but they wouldn't automatically trigger any 911 calls.
Overall, my installation experience was really positive. That said, AT&T and the installers knew they were working with CNET, so it wasn't exactly a blind test. They made sure to optimize the strength of every signal before they finished installing. They said they would do that for everyone, but, as with any national service provider with regional installation teams, your mileage may vary depending on who actually comes out to your house, how busy they are that particular day, etc.
Good technology, great integration
Essentially, our setup looks like this: we have the basic "Smart Security" gadgets like motion and contact sensors, a siren, and a keypad. But we also invested in an extra motion detector, a smoke detector, a CO sensor, a glass-break sensor, a thermostat, two smart door locks, two garage door controllers, two cameras and four smart plugs. We opted out of the water sensors since we already had those covered. Our personalized package would actually cost $5/mo less than the "Premium Security and Automation" package, but its install price would be much higher, especially given the extra camera and lock.
The cameras and garage door controllers both need to be plugged into power outlets, but everything else is battery powered, and all of those devices talk wirelessly to the main controller box AT&T installed in a closet in the house. Such wireless installations are common among contract providers.
When it comes to the particular devices, AT&T Digital Life takes advantage of its third-party partnerships, which results in a hit-or-miss effect. The great products like the Samsung SmartCam HD Pro, for instance, stand out against more mediocre fare like the wonky tablet or the generic thermostat.
AT&T is developing partnerships to expand and strengthen its current lineup of individual products, though. Qualcomm, Lutron Electronics, Samsung, and Nest are already partners, and according to AT&T, Nest Learning Thermostat integration should be coming as early as Q1 2016. This should help raise the level of consistency among the devices.
The two devices I liked most, aside from the Samsung camera, were the smart plugs and the Yale Touchscreen Deadbolt. The plugs are surprisingly well designed. Although they don't boast the hardware to measure energy consumption, like the iDevices Switch or the Belkin WeMo Insight Switch, they have something no other decent indoor switch does: two outlets. I know -- that sounds insignificant. But it's actually really helpful to have an "always-on" outlet and a remote controllable outlet.
The Yale Deadbolt, like the Samsung camera, has been a standalone product for some time. I liked it as its own device, but it works even better as part of the Digital Life system. For instance, not only can you give personalized entry codes to friends or family like before -- now you can "Program" those individual codes so they trigger different device commands inside the house. Check out the program I made for delivery people in the screenshot below.
Overall, I like most of the products, but there was one notable stinker: the ZTE tablet. This device is featured in both the mid- and high-level packages, and it's terrible. The interface is at once more simplistic and more unresponsive than the app and the online portal interfaces. Half the time I used the tablet, I turned it off because it froze on the loading screen. In the end, I started to pull out my phone instead of using the tablet as a result of its wonky touchscreen controls and limited capabilities.
I also noticed some semifrequent latency when I sent commands to the system via the app or the AT&T website, called the online portal. To be clear, the sheer number of devices we've installed in the CNET Smart Home creates a very busy testing environment in terms of wireless reception. I don't want to ding anything unfairly for poor responsiveness when it's simply a result of the noise in the house.
But after having a technician optimize all of the Digital Life connections, when he later walked me through the app, he didn't seem bothered when we experienced some commands lagging for 10 or 15 seconds. Although I haven't seen any home automation system accomplish totally smooth remote access, my experience with the Digital Life system underscores a common complaint with these products. Sometimes, it's just faster to walk over and flip the light switch manually.
Despite its minor latency issues, the real star of Digital Life's system is the online interface -- both through the phone app and the Digital Life online portal. They're both organized and intuitive. User sharing is simple: you just share an account. And anyone with the account information can do automation, like scheduling commands or setting up triggered "Programs." The two downsides are that you have to sign into the app every time you want to use it (why no simple keypad sign-in like with ADT Pulse?). And you can't create accounts with varying levels of access (think: kids can control the lights, but not the water valves). Neither of these shortcomings is detrimental, but each mars the app's otherwise clever design.
The coolest element in the app and the online portal is the "Programs" feature. Essentially, you can make any input into any gadget trigger any output from any other gadget. I'm not a programmer, but as soon as I figured out the system, I had a ball creating programs. I created one that, when I set AT&T Digital Life on Away Armed mode, locked my doors (after an appropriate delay), set my thermostat to drift a little (to save money), and turned off all my plugged-in lamps. When I unlock the front door, all these devices go back to normal.
I can see plenty of creative users building cool programs -- and the possibilities will only expand as the roster of equipment does. One expansion coming in the near future is voice recognition and automation. According to AT&T, this technology is in a trial stage right now. If it works well, it could push Digital Life ahead of most of its competitors.
Finally, I also really like the Digital Life website interface for buying additional products to add to your system. This is important, since -- for security reasons -- you can't buy your own products from whomever you want. With the flexible purchasing system, you can personalize your system and also your bill.
Is it worth the money?
This is the big question, and the answer depends on what you need. At the CNET Smart Home, AT&T Digital Life worked really well -- the relatively large house felt integrated and secure. Sure, it didn't make the home feel super futuristic, but it was an effective system.
The basic $40/mo "Smart Security" package is competitively priced and well-designed. The $65/mo "Premium Security and Automation" package is a treasure trove of equipment and has a bright future. The only package I can comfortably advise against is the $55 "Smart Security and Automation" package, which simply costs too much more than the basic package for too few added features -- especially when one of those features is the useless tablet.
But bottom line, AT&T Digital Life is a slick system. For apartments or small houses, a DIY security system might be more appropriate. But anyone considering home security and automation should examine Digital Life closely. And for those hesitant to invest in a two-year contract now, Digital Life will be a system to watch, especially for its developing technology partnerships and growing automation features.