X

Aura review: A unique and expensive home security gimmick

The Aura is super easy to setup and fun to use, but it doesn't have enough to justify its over-the-top cost.

Dong_Ngo.jpg
Dong Ngo
Dong_Ngo.jpg

Dong Ngo

SF Labs Manager, Editor / Reviews

CNET editor Dong Ngo has been involved with technology since 2000, starting with testing gadgets and writing code for CNET Labs' benchmarks. He now manages CNET San Francisco Labs, reviews 3D printers, networking/storage devices, and also writes about other topics from online security to new gadgets and how technology impacts the life of people around the world.

See full bio
7 min read

Cognitive Systems' Aura is a unique idea for a home security system: instead of cameras it uses a wireless signal to detect intruders. Better yet, it's super easy to setup and use, and it sends out timely alerts to your phone.

aura-6.jpg
5.7

Aura

The Good

The Aura security system is easy to to set up and fun to use. The system can deliver motion alerts to your phone in real time and provide a detailed event log.

The Bad

The system is expensive, has limited coverage area and sparse settings. It needs to connect to the vendor at all times to work well.

The Bottom Line

The Aura is more of an expensive gimmick than a real home-security system, especially for a medium or large home.

Unfortunately, it has a long list of shortcomings, like the small area of coverage and the lack of integration with other devices such as smart locks. What is a deal-breaker, however, is the price. At $500, it's just too expensive for what it offers, as well as the demographic its performance suits best, namely those who live in small homes or apartments. If you're serious enough about home security to spend that much, or if you have a medium or larger home, check out one of these alternatives.

aura-6.jpg

The Aura includes two hardware pieces, a hub (right) and a sensor.

Dong Ngo/CNET

How it works

The Aura system comes with two pieces of hardware, a hub that's about the size of a coffee mug and an even more compact palm-size plug-in sensor unit. When placed up to some 50 feet away from each other, the two link up using a proprietary 2.4GHz wireless signal -- similar to Wi-Fi -- to form an invisible, elliptical zone of motion detection. When a person or object enters this sphere the disruption to the signal will trigger an alert to your phone motions will be detected, alerts will be sent to the owner's phone and -- if enabled -- the hub's built-in alarm will sound.

In short, the system will tell you if something is moving inside your home, for how long and the intensity of their movements. It also retains the log of detected events with graphs, similar to a quake detector. Keep in mind that since this is a wireless system, it can be susceptible to jamming devices.

What I like about it

Easy setup: The setup of the Aura is like that of a Wi-Fi system. You download the Aura mobile app, sign up for an account and then follow through with the onscreen instructions. The whole process took me less than 10 minutes. To put this in perspective, it took me half an hour to mount just one security camera alone.

Part of this ease of use is the fact that, unlike camera-based systems, you won't need to look for any particular place to place the Aura's hardware units and there's no mounting involved. Basically you just need to connect the hub to your home's Wi-Fi network, place it at one end of the area that needs to be monitored and then plug the sensor unit into a wall socket at the other end.

aura2.png
Enlarge Image
aura2.png

The Aura app delivers timely alerts and provides a detaled event log.

Dong Ngo/CNET

Easy and fun to use: As long as your home is connected to the internet, the system is easy to use and you will get a notice via the app in almost real time (there's a delay of a few seconds). You can also view a detailed log of what happened in the previous seven days using the mobile app or its web portal.

The owner of the system can also add more users by inviting them via email. These users can then download the Aura mobile app, login and also monitor the system as well as get identified by the system itself via what Cognitive Systems describes as "geofencing." Basically, when you login with using the mobile app, the process registers the phone you used with the system. When a registered phone enters the protected sphere, the system will recognize it and behave accordingly, such as automatically disarming or sending an alert that an user has come home etc. Similarly, when the user leaves the sphere, the system will record the departure and can automatically arm itself.

Another cool thing is, similar to SimpliSafe, a competing home-security system, the Aura doesn't require line of sight to work. This means the two units can monitor a fixed area with multiple rooms, on multiple floors, that would otherwise requires multiple cameras cover.

Long battery life: Each unit of the system has a built-in battery that lasts a long time. In my testing, after working unplugged over night, the hub still had some 5 percent battery life left. Generally you can expect the Aura to work through a four or five hours of power outage.

And what I don't like

Limited coverage: The size of the protected area depends on the distance between the two units, the longer the distance, the larger the coverage area. In testing in open space the best distance I found is about 50 feet. Further out, up to some 100 feet, the system might still work but its detection rates are no longer reliable.

Similar to 2.4GHz Wi-Fi, obstacles, like walls or large objects, greatly reduce how far you can place the Aura's hardware units from each other. Cognitive Systems suggests that there should be no more than three walls in between the two units. In my trial, the Aura could hardly cover a home of merely 1,500 square feet. Generally, when there are walls, you can't leave the two units more than 30 feet away.

Also keep in mind that the two units can only monitor the area in between them. That means if somebody comes in from behind either of the unit, their motions won't be detected. And since no home has the shape of an ellipse, there will always be part of the house that's not monitored. For example, it's very hard, if not impossible, to have the Aura monitor the outside your home, such as the driveway, or to detect if somebody opens the front door or a particular window.

According to Cognitive Systems, for now, the Aura doesn't support extra sensors so if you have a large house, there's no way you can make the system monitor the entire home. This is one of the chief drawbacks of the system, and what makes its high price tag hard to stomach. Most other security hardware, from cameras, to whole home, sensor-based systems, cost between $100 and $300.

aura1.png

The Aura requires a home address before you can use it and use your phone's location to determine who's home.

Dong Ngo/CNET

No smart-home integration or customizable filter for small objects, quiet alarm: The Aura also doesn't work with any existing home automation devices. You won't be able to connect it with locks, lights, or other smart-home devices over Z-Wave, ZigBee, or or even Wi-Fi.

Cognitive Systems says that the "Aura works with IFTTT to connect to other smart-home products," and it's working on getting partnerships and that's the future. For now, the Aura only functions as a standalone security system and that means its hub's built-in alarm is the only deterrent mechanism. Unfortunately this single-volume alarm is rather quiet. At just 73db, it's not loud enough for anyone from outside the house to hear, making it more of an annoyance (when unintentionally triggered) than being effective.

What's more, the system doesn't let you customize the size of objects that would trigger the alarm. In my testing, my playful 15-pound poodle mix tripped the sensors all the time. Cognitive Systems told me that it will update the system's firmware to auto-adjust its sensitiveness according to the environment in a near future.

Privacy risk: You need to provide a home address to register an account with Cognitive Systems before you can use the Aura, which will be used for its geofencing feature. And to work well, both the system and the Aura mobile app need to connect to Cognitive Systems at all times. All of these issues amount to a privacy risk, if your information is ever compromised and could renders the system useless when there's no internet. It can even produce inaccurate triggers.

Take the geofencing feature mentioned above for example. It's not based on the Aura's real-time location but rather on your phone's location which presumably Cognitive Systems keeps track of. In other words, if you set up the Aura at one location, then move it to another location, such another home address, the old location will still be used as "home" and still trigger geofencing events, until you update it with a new address.

This also means that once you've signed in with the Aura mobile app and allows the app to access your smartphone's location service, Cognitive Systems can know your whereabouts at all times. Cognitive Systems told me that it only "looks for the phone to enter the proximity of the address associated with their Hub" and doesn't track where an user goes. The Aura app does have the option to turn off motions and member data when the system is disarmed. By default this option is turned on.

aura-2.jpg

The two hardware units don't require line of sight to work but the distance between them can be greatly reduced by walls and obstacles.

Dong Ngo/CNET

Should I buy it?

The best thing about the Aura system is the ease of use, but the system fails on value, and more importantly, effectiveness, which is the most important thing in home security. If you have a small guest house or a separate Airbnb apartment that you want to keep tabs on, the system will get the job done. But if you live in a residential home, and not even a big one, chances are the Aura won't cut it. That make it impossible for me to recommend it.

Still, the technology behind Aura's design is promising, and at least according to its statements, Cognitive Systems sounds committed to improving it. Keep this one on your radar if it sounds interesting, but I'd think twice about buying it right now. If you have an immediate need for security system check out one of these.

aura-6.jpg
5.7

Aura

Score Breakdown

Features 5Usability 5Design 7Performance 6
Shopping laptop image
Get the best price on everything
Shop your favorite products and we’ll find the best deal with a single click. Designed to make shopping easier.
Add CNET Shopping