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iSmartAlarm review: Do-it-yourself home alarm system changes the security game

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You can't put a price on peace of mind, but that doesn't mean you have to overpay for home security. Now, with Indiegogo darling iSmartAlarm on the market, you don't. Its complete home security packages start at $199 with no contracts or monthly fees. Just set up the motion sensors, cameras, and alarms as you see fit, then monitor everything using the company's free app. It's smarter, more affordable home security for a new generation of DIY-ers.

The Good

iSmartAlarm offers comprehensive and intelligent home security for do-it-yourself-minded consumers, all for a fraction of fee-based home security set-up.

The Bad

This alarm system won't call the police for you, and getting the iCamera video add-on to work with the system can be a challenge.

The Bottom Line

With its reliability, its overall ease of use, and its undeniable value, the iSmartAlarm is an intriguing, legitimate alternative in home security, especially for small-home owners and budget-minded consumers.

Skeptics might be quick to point out that unlike the more established heavy hitters of home security, iSmartAlarm doesn't currently offer live monitoring. If somethings triggers your alarm, it won't alert an operator. Instead, you'll get a text message alerting you to the breach, as well as an automated phone call. From there, calling the police is left up to you.

Secure some time with iSmartAlarm (pictures)

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For me, these concerns were less important than the fact that the highly touted iCamera was too temperamental. Still, it's hard not to like what iSmartAlarm is doing. It isn't the system I'd use to protect a Picasso, but for lower-stakes scenarios, it's truly a game changer. Consumers who have long felt priced out of home security finally have a legitimate and affordable alternative, and the appeal doesn't stop there -- even if money is no concern, you might still prefer iSmartAlarm's control and customizability.

Simply put, if you're thinking about securing your home, there really isn't a good reason not to give iSmartAlarm serious consideration. And if you've already gone with a more expensive option, you might want to look into switching to iSmartAlarm and saying goodbye to those monthly fees.

Flexible features, customizable control
iSmartAlarm's variety of sensors promises comprehensive coverage of your home security needs. Its Preferred Package, which runs for $199, includes a motion detector, two contact sensors for detecting when doors or windows are opened and closed, two remote tags that clip onto your keychain and allow you to arm and disarm the system, and the system's brain, the CubeOne, which also features a built in panic siren. For $150 more, the Premium Package adds the iCamera to your setup. Whichever package you choose, you'll be able to add additional sensors, sirens, cameras, and remotes a la carte style, so customizing the system to fit the specific size and needs of your home won't be a problem.

Colin West McDonald/CNET

No matter how many devices you end up purchasing, you'll control all of them through the iSmartAlarm app, a free download for iOS users that's coming soon to Android devices, too. The app's four-button home screen mirrors the remote tag, allowing you to arm the system, disarm the system, activate the panic siren, or go into "Home Mode," which disables the motion detectors but leaves the contact sensors active - perfect for protecting your house without having to worry about the pets triggering a false alarm.

If you spring for the iCamera, be prepared for potential frustration with the setup process. The folks at iSmartAlarm acknowledged that it tends to not play nice with about 10 to 15 percent of routers on the market today, although they maintain that they're able to help all users ultimately get it up and running smoothly. My experience wasn't quite that simple, which I'll get to.

When the camera does work, the app will display the iCamera's field of view for you, and also let you move it around just by swiping your fingers. You can also pre-set the iCamera's default viewing angle -- if the alarm is ever triggered, the camera will maneuver back to this framing and automatically save what it sees to the cloud, hopefully capturing the intruder on film. The camera won't detect or follow movement, though, which would have been a very nice added feature.

You can rename each sensor within the app to help keep things straight ("Front Door," "Back Door," and so on). You can also set names for the owner of each remote tag, which will help you track who's coming and going. For both the sensors and the remotes, you can upload photos, which doesn't really add any functionality, but still helps to personalize the app and make it more visually appealing. If someone else downloads the app and wants to link up with your security network, they'll just have to scan a QR code on your phone.

Colin West McDonald/CNET

When something triggers the alarm, the panic siren sounds automatically, and you'll receive a text alert notifying you exactly what part of the system went off. This is where renaming each sensor really comes in handy -- getting a 3:30 a.m. message that says "Contact Sensor No. 3 has been opened" is a lot less helpful than one that says "The back door has been opened."

In addition to the text alert, you'll receive an automated robocall from iSmartAlarm telling you that the alarm has been triggered and warning you not to return home until you are sure that it's safe. Like with the texts, you can set multiple numbers to receive this call.

Usability
For the most part, I found the iSmartAlarm's user experience to be one of the best of any of the home automation systems I've tested so far. The system's base of operations, the CubeOne, is beyond easy to install -- just plug it in, connect it to your router, then let the app walk you through the rest. From there, the contact sensors, motion detectors, and remote tags all connect to the system in mere seconds. From the time I opened the box, it was less than a few minutes before I had the core components of the system up and running.

The exception to this ease of use is the iCamera. I followed the instructions for linking it up with the system to the letter, and still had major problems getting the video to display properly, or at all (most of the time, the best I could get was a white, locked-up screen and an endlessly spinning wheel of frustration). Troubleshooting the problem pointed to a port issue with our building's router, so I tried to start fresh and set the system up on a completely separate home network. Still, the issue persisted, making me 0 for 2. Ultimately, after some fiddling, I got the camera working, but performance was spotty, and before long, the video once again dropped out completely.

Colin West McDonald/CNET

I've seen the iCamera in action before, and it's an impressive part of iSmartAlarm's system when it's working as promised. But given how finicky it was during testing, I can't recommend splurging on one when you're choosing your iSmartAlarm setup. For now, I say stick with the $199 iCamera-less Preferred Package -- you can always add a camera later if you decide you need one.

iDesign
The glossy, white finish of the CubeOne, with its white, softly "breathing" LED is an obvious callback to earlier generations of iPods and MacBooks, and the rest of the system's design feels equally lifted from the Apple portfolio. I'm not saying this is a bad thing -- it suggests a certain accessibility that comes with Apple's old all-white aesthetic, and given that iSmartAlarm is making home security more accessible, that's probably an accurate fit. Still, you can't help but wish they had borrowed just a little bit less from Apple's mid-2000s playbook, not to mention from the playbooks of the countless other companies that have mimicked Apple's approach to branding.

Lifted looks aside, the iSmartAlarm is designed quite well from a standpoint of functionality. The CubeOne, which needs to stay connected to your router, should fit in nicely on whatever shelf you've designated for your network accessories. Its likely proximity to your television and other high-end electronics commonly targeted by thieves make it a logical choice for housing the system's main panic alarm. If you keep your router someplace other than the living room or bedroom, you might consider purchasing an extra siren to ensure the panic alarm sits in earshot of your home's more highly trafficked areas.

Colin West McDonald/CNET

The contact sensors apply easily to doors and windows with the included peel-off sticky tags, and are designed to give you plenty of freedom about where they go. Place them high or place them low, as long as each one straddles the gap between the door and the frame, they'll work as promised. This flexibility also means that you can get creative about how you use them. If you're leaving the kids at home for the weekend, you can quickly relocate a sensor onto the liquor cabinet, for instance. You'd have to call a technician to come and rewire your system if you wanted to do that with a subscription-based security service.

Performance
Aside from the disappointing iCamera performance, the iSmartAlarm system left me thoroughly impressed. After the painless setup process, everything just worked the way it was supposed to. The motion detector and contact sensors were easy to get situated, and they performed exactly as promised, never failing to catch a trigger.

The remote tags were another huge plus, as there's just something reassuring about having a physical button to press, as opposed to being forced to fiddle with an app every time you wish to arm or disarm the system. In fact, after setting the system up, you wouldn't ever have to use the app if you didn't want to -- just press the arm button on the remote when you leave the house, then the home button as you're coming back in. If someone tries to break in, you'll get a phone call. That level of simplicity is undeniably appealing when we're talking about home automation - the whole point is to make life less complicated, not more so.

Colin West McDonald/CNET

The important take-away is that this is a system you can feel comfortable relying upon. For smaller homes in particular, the protection it offers rivals what the established brands can offer and perhaps even surpasses it. Unless you have an especially large home with multiple rooms and openings to protect, the iSmartAlarm will likely be a strong enough performer to grant you the peace of mind you're looking for. I wouldn't set it up at Fort Knox, but for my 800-square-foot apartment, it'd do just fine.

Maintenance
Once you've got it up and running, the iSmartAlarm suite is about as hands-off and maintenance-free as it gets. Just set it up, get into the habit of arming and disarming it according to your schedule, then rest assured that it will be there when you need it. As the smartphone app continues to improve, expect fairly regular updates -- these should download in a matter of seconds, and may well bring new functionality to the system in months to come.

If you decide to upgrade your setup with additional sensors, adding them to the system is a quick process - just turn them on and tell the app to scan for them. Moving the sensors someplace new isn't a problem either; just make sure to disarm the system first. If you use the included sticky pads to attach the contact sensors to your doors or windows, it might take a few minutes of elbow grease to scrub the residue off after removing them.

Colin West McDonald/CNET

With the exception of the CubeOne and the iCamera, all of the iSmartAlarm's sirens and sensors are battery operated. The motion detector uses three AA batteries, which come included, while the contact sensors and remote tags each use a single CR2032 button battery, also included. The app includes a separate battery reading for each device, and will let you know when they need to be replaced.

Service and support
iSmartAlarm offers a one-year limited warranty on each system sold. In addition, systems purchased directly through www.ismartalarm.com can be returned unused and in their original packaging for a full refund for up to 30 days following the shipping date.

Technical support is available via e-mail, and also through the system's Web site. iSmartAlarm uses a "support ticket" system, meaning that all support requests can be tracked by the user as they're processed by iSmartAlarm.

Colin West McDonald/CNET

Conclusion

Many people see home security systems as an unaffordable luxury, and in many cases rightfully so. After factoring in the contractual period of subscription fees, the cost of even the most basic security package can soar well over $1,500 over a period of just a few years. Installing a home security system definitely wasn't affordable for me back when I was in college, even though I lived in a high-crime area and could have used the protection. Sure enough, our place got robbed one night when a thief broke in through our bathroom window. Amid the anger, fear, and sense of violation, I remember feeling frustrated that our only choices seemed to be spending more than we could afford on additional home security, moving, or continuing on, largely unprotected. My friends and I chose the latter option, though we never really felt safe in that house again after that.

I've been thinking about that robbery quite a bit as I've been testing this system. What I needed back then was a better option, and I'm convinced that iSmartAlarm is that better option. In the case of that bathroom-window break-in, I think that there's a very good chance that the iSmartAlarm's panic siren would have scared the thief off, just as an expensive subscription service probably would have. The key difference is that at $199, the iSmartAlarm is a system that would have been accessible to me back then, and that, more than the technology itself, is what's truly game-changing here. People who've never been able to even consider upgrading their home security finally have access to a legitimate alternative. To me, that's tech at its best.

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8.2

iSmartAlarm

Score Breakdown

Features 9Usability 8Design 9Performance 7