Smart home security and monitoring
By Liz Ransome-Croker
We explain how smart home security systems work and whether they are any better than regular security cameras and burglar alarms.
There are now a whole host of ways in which you can monitor and control your home from your smartphone, including wireless cameras, smart locks and motion sensors. But are they actually worth the high price tag?
Here, we take a look at security home systems in detail, including what they claim to do, how much they can cost and whether it's worth getting one over other conventional security measures. You'll find information about:
Smart home security systems
A smart home security system is effectively a burglar alarm (with motion sensors) and wireless camera in one, both with the ability to connect to your smartphone or tablet. This means that you can watch footage from your connected wireless security cameras and be alerted if a motion sensor detects an intruder, even when you're miles away.
You can get a range of different sensors - room, door, window and outdoor - and both indoor and outdoor cameras, depending on which hub you choose. Many systems offer 'starter kits' that include a wireless camera and a couple of sensors - we've listed some of the big smart security systems below. You can then add on multiple cameras and sensors to suit your home.
This will obviously cost you more, but in some cases you might be able to save by buying multiple items at once. You can also get multiple sirens, as well as remote controls and access keypads as another option if you're concerned about just relying on your phone.We've tried out some of the most well-known smart security systems, including ones from Samsung, Panasonic and Yale. Visit our smart security system reviews to find out how easy they are to use and set up, and whether they will actually help to keep your home safe.
What else can smart home systems do?
Some systems can connect with smart plugs, which allow you to switch different devices around your home on and off, like a lamp. Others allow you to monitor your energy use or connect to a smart thermostat so you can adjust the heating in your home.
There are also smart systems where their primary purpose isn't security. For example, alongside the Hive Active Heating thermostat, you can buy Hive sensors, to monitor motion, as well as doors and windows being opened.
Some systems also come with, or connect to, smoke and carbon monoxide detectors and air purifiers (see more details below) and we've also seen gas leak detectors and water leak sensors.
Smart home hubs vs burglar alarms
In many ways, smart home security systems do the same as a conventional burglar alarm - they alert you if you have an intruder and let you monitor your home. But the added benefit of a smart home hub is the ability to be receive alerts, even if you're miles away from home.
If you have a standard alarm system, you'll have to rely on the kindness of a neighbour to check your house or call the police if your alarm goes off. Either that or you'll need to subscribe to a monitoring package (see below), which would mean a monthly financial commitment.
Also, with a conventional wired camera, you'd only be able to look at the footage when at home using the computer. Because of that, cameras that don't connect to your phone are only really useful if something has happened and you want to look back to investigate the issue or get proof. Whereas a smart security camera allows you to see instantly what is going on if there is a disturbance.
You may find the burden/temptation of having constant access to your home's security camera isn't worth it though. Have a think about whether being able to see your home at any time of day, wherever you are - even on holiday - will really give you peace of mind. It could be a blessing or a curse.
Burglar alarm monitoring contracts
A monitoring package could offer the same reassurance as a smart security system, but these come at a high cost. With standard burglar alarms you can get three different types of monitoring contract: a speech dialler, a keyholder contact or a police contact. With a speech dialler, the burglar alarm will itself call or text designated numbers to inform them of an issue, similar to how a smart alarm would.
Keyholder or police contracts mean a receiving centre will be notified if your alarm goes off and your appointed keyholder or the police, depending on which type you go for, will be informed.
Although most smart security systems offer alerts for free, so would therefore often be cheaper, we've seen ones with contracts. For example, the SwannOne alarm costs from £7.49 per month for unlimited notifications. However, these notifications are limited with the free version. Some security cameras also charge you to access video footage, particularly older footage (see more below).
Use our guide to burglar alarms and installation costs to help work out whether you'd be better off financially, and have more peace of mind, with a smart or standard burglar alarm.
Below we talk you through some of the main systems and cameras, alongside their benefits and costs.
Samsung SmartThings hub
The Samsung smart home system, on its own, is fairly simple. The starter kit (pictured above) comes with a central hub, motion sensor, door/window contact, smart plug and monitoring tag (to attach to a bag or keys to keep an eye on when someone arrives home).
Although these are the only SmartThings-branded gadgets that connect to it, it is compatible with a wide variety of smart products from other manufacturers, including Philips Hue light bulbs and smart locks from Yale.
The basic kit costs £200, but you would no doubt need to add more motion sensors and contacts to get the most out of it, which is true of many smart security systems. You can also connect a wireless camera, but you'll have to buy this separately for around £130.
Discover how this Samsung SmartThings hub measures up against other smart security systems when it comes to actually protecting your home.
Panasonic Smart Home Monitoring & Control hub
You can get window/door and room-motion sensors, wireless indoor and outdoor cameras, additional indoor sirens, smart home telephones, smart plugs, leak-detection sensors, a remote control and access keypad.
The cheapest kit is the Home Safety Starter kit (£129), which comes with one indoor motion sensor, a window/door sensor and the main hub.
Find out what we thought of the Panasonic Smart Home Monitoring & Control hub when we took it home for a road test.
Piper home security system
This system has a 180-degree-view camera (the more expensive version of which has night-vision capabilities), motion sensor and siren, all built into one device. It also has audio capabilities so that you can have two-way conversions with family or scare off an intruder.
You can also buy additional window sensors and smart plugs, plus it can monitor the environment in your home, such as temperature and noise. One unit costs £120 and you can have up to five placed around your home.
Our researcher has tried the Piper home security home system - see their verdict on whether it's worth buying.
Yale Smart Living Smart Home Alarm & View hub
Yale's smart alarm system is the one most like a traditional burglar alarm. Along with the central hub, it includes an access keypad, a motion sensor, a stills camera, a door/window sensor, a siren and a dummy siren. It costs £400, and doesn't include a video camera.
The included camera doesn't record video, but instead takes still images of any disturbances. Yale also has a few smart locks you can connect to the hub - we look at these in more detail below.
Get our verdict on the Yale Smart Living Smart Home Alarm & View system.
Swann Home Alarm & Security System starter kit
It includes two motion sensors, a window/door sensor, smart plug and a keyfob to set the alarm. You can buy all of the items separately as well, and add other elements, such as a siren, wireless cameras and smart doorbells.
We've asked alarm owners to tell us what they think of the one they bought - find out how Swann alarms fared by visiting our dedicated page.
Smanos has a range of different smart products (see above) including a Bluetooth alarm clock with speaker, a smart video doorbell (like a video-entry phone) and water sensor. It offers one of the widest ranges we've seen and could get confusing.
It's alarm system and camera package comes with the main hub, one camera, two door contacts and a remote control. It costs £170.
Smart cameras allow you to watch what's going on at home from an app, or your computer. Some come as just cameras, while others can be used with a suite of other smart gadgets, such as an alarm system, as mentioned above.
Extra features include night vision, built-in motion detection, facial recognition and location tracking, so it knows when certain people are home. Some also have two-way audio so you can talk to your family at home or make a burglar nervous.
Smart cameras can have uses beyond security. For example, they could be used as a baby monitor to keep an eye on your little one.
Some adapt to your lifestyle, such as the Nest Cam, which knows not to send you an alert in situations it's learned are normal, such as when a robot vacuum cleaner is cleaning or your pet is about. But to use this function, you will need to sign up to Nest Aware, a subscription-based service.
This is one of the downsides with some smart cameras - many charge a fee to access some of your data. Our full guide to buying the best wireless camera will help you pick the best for you. But here's a quick look at some of the more well-known wireless cameras first.
Samsung SmartCam SNH-P-6410 camera
The Samsung SmartCam (£125) can be bought on its own or can work alongside motion, window and door sensors, door locks and even light bulbs. However, you would have to use a separate app for the camera.
Samsung doesn't charge an ongoing subscription fee to access the footage from this camera, which is a big plus. Find out whether these features and benefits make this camera worth buying in our review of the Samsung SmartCam SNH-P-6410 camera.
Canary All-in-One Security camera
As well as filming, this camera can detect motion and can sound a siren alarm, as well as monitor air quality, temperature and humidity. Data is stored in the cloud - you can store up to 12 hours of footage for free, along with three video downloads. If you want more you will to sign up to a subscription service.
The main difference to other cams is that it can also call emergency services whenever a problem is detected, like with a monitored burglar alarm. But it will send a notification to your phone first so you can decide who to call: the police, ambulance, or fire department.
Read our review of the Canary All-in-One Security camera (£160) to see whether it stood up to scrutiny in our test lab.
Nest Cam camera
Nest claims this camera uses sophisticated algorithms to help determine what it should alert you about, and ignore the things it doesn't need to. It can also detect motion, allows you to communicate with people at home and can be set up anywhere. The live video streaming and alerts are free, but to access any past footage you will need to sign up for Nest Aware, which starts at £8 a month.
If you have a Nest Learning thermostat, it will automatically connect to that, too. Find out whether the Nest Cam is really worth the outlay of £159, and ongoing subscription, with our review.
Netatmo Welcome and Presence cameras
Netatmo's Welcome camera has face recognition, so will alert you if a stranger has entered your home. It will also notify you if it hears an alarm in your home, such as a smoke alarm of security alarm. Video storage with this camera is totally free, the £199 price is the only one you'll need to pay.
The Presence camera is effectively an outdoor version of the Netatmo Welcome. It doesn't have face recognition, but can detect people, cars and animals coming close to your house. It also works as a security light, coming on when it detects something, or when you tell it to via the app. Again, video storage is free, but the camera costs £249.99.
Find out whether the Netatmo Welcome camera is worth the £199 in our review.
Smart locks allow you to unlock your door without the need of a key - instead using your phone, a PIN number or key card. They also let you control who has access to your home by generating a PIN number that works for a limited time. This could be useful for, say, letting a tradesperson in without you being there.
Well-known locks company Yale has introduced the Keyless Connected and Keyfree Connected smart locks that let you do exactly that, provided it is connected to a smart home system, such as Samsung SmartThings. It also connects to the Yale Smartphone Alarm and wireless cameras.
The Keyfree Connected smart lock, suitable for uPVC and composite doors, costs £444 (including installation), and the Keyless Connected smart lock for timber doors costs £132. High prices, especially as you would need to buy a compatible hub, too, so you'd need to consider how much you'd actually use it.
Another smart lock is the Danalock BT 125 Circle Smartlock, a wi-fi-connected lock that can be controlled from anywhere using your device, and gives you the option of logging activity so you can keep track of who is accessing the property. You can also set schedules for time-controlled access.
Smart doorbells allow you to monitor who is at your front door from your phone. This could be really useful if, for example, you have a parcel being delivered and want to let the delivery person know they can leave it with the neighbour. Or it could be a good way to see who is snooping around your home when you're on holiday, and give them the impression that you're in.
Two examples of this are the Ring Video doorbell and Doorbird. The Ring Video doorbell (£159) has a wide-angled camera that records footage from your front door, which can be stored for up to six months in an online cloud at the cost of £2.99 a month, or £24.99 for a year.
It has motion detection and so will alert you if someone comes close to the front of the house, as well as if someone rings the bell. It also enables you to speak to the person, which could be useful if you want to give instructions to a delivery man or talk to a friend dropping by.
The Doorbird has similar capabilities, but costs between £350 and £600. There is an additional BirdGuard camera you can buy in conjunction to add inside your house, which can emit a loud siren to scare intruders away.
Smart smoke alarms send live notifications to your phone or tablet whenever an alarm goes off - potentially very handy. One such smart smoke alarm is the Nest Protect, which is a smoke detector and CO alarm.
It connects with the Nest Learning Thermostat so that the heating is turned off if high levels of CO are detected. It can also connect to the Nest Cam to show you the recorded footage when the alarm goes off, although this is only really useful if you have positioned the camera where the issue starts.
Nest isn't the only manufacturer to have gone into this area - Nenatmo's Weather Station monitors temperature, humidity, air quality, CO2 and noise with both an indoor and outdoor module.
You can find out more about the different smart products available for around your home with our pages on smart health and fitness, smart thermostat and lighting systems and smart appliances.