How to buy the best smart home security system
By Yvette Fletcher
Are smart home security systems the future of burglar alarms? We reveal our verdict and explain how to choose the right system for you.
The humble burglar alarm now has a new cutting-edge competitor. A new wave of smart home security systems have hit the market, which combine many of the features of a traditional burglar alarm with the ability to monitor, control and interact with your home from an app on your smartphone or tablet.
The appeal is clear - you get to keep an eye out on what's going on at home, while also hopefully benefiting from some extra functionality that can make life a little bit easier, such as the ability to turn lights or appliances on and off remotely.
So is this relatively new technology worth investing in? We've taken five of the latest systems for a test drive to find out. You can read our first look verdict on each system in our smart home security reviews section - or read on to find out more about the technology and how to work out if a smart home security system is for you.
What is a smart home security system?
A smart home security system is a set of an internet-connected security gadgets, which typically include a combination of wireless security cameras, sirens, motion detectors, door locks, and sensors that detect when a door or window has been opened.
The specific gadgets bundled together to make a security system vary between the different kits and brands, but most manufacturers offer a range of different kits, plus the option to buy additional compatible gadgets separately.
All smart home security systems are driven by a central internet-connected ‘hub’, which wirelessly connects to and communicates with a smartphone app and the other components of the system. Using the app on your smartphone or tablet, you can monitor your home by receiving alerts, viewing photos or video taken by a security camera and, in some cases, control bits of your home such as lighting, heating or appliances.
If you're new to smart technology and the 'Internet of Things', find out more about smart home automation.
More than just security
Many systems offer more than security. Panasonic's KX-HN6012EW Home Monitoring & Control Kit, for example, has a camera which can also function as a baby monitor, thanks to its night vision, two-way speaker and preloaded lullabies. Samsung's SmartThings kit, meanwhile, is compatible with a moisture sensor that can alert you to floods or leaks - useful if you're prone to forgetting a running bath.
Depending on the kit you buy, you may also be able to program how you'd like your smart gadgets to respond when triggered. For example, when a door is opened, a smart plug could automatically switch on a light. You could also set a camera to record video when a door is opened, so you can identify unexpected visitors later.
Monitoring the comings and goings of loved ones and pets is also possible, if they carry small personal tags that attach to a key ring, wallet or collar. Using these you can be alerted when a person or pet arrives home, or if a vulnerable relative leaves the house unexpectedly. Likewise, movement sensors in the home can be set to alert you if a vulnerable person doesn't move for a certain period.
If you're looking for a monitoring system that's geared more towards looking after people rather than home security, it's also worth considering telecare and GPS tracking devices.
How much do smart home security systems cost?
Basic smart home security system kits can be bought for as little as £190, but it's worth bearing in mind that a basic kit is unlikely to be enough to cover your entire home (unless you live in a small flat). The true cost will vary depending on the size of your home, so before you invest it's worth thinking about which extra components you'll need in your property and how much they cost.
A smart home system that relies on motion detectors would cost £500-600 for a two bedroom house, but the cost will be much greater if you wish to install multiple wireless security cameras or sensors on all of your doors and windows.
What makes a good smart home security system?
We asked a security expert to assess a selection of the latest smart home security systems and recommend what to look for when choosing one.
Look for a system that can deter burglars from the outside
Prevention is better than cure, so look out for a smart home security system that will help you prevent a burglary in the first place. Reformed criminals have told us that burglars will actively avoid properties with alarm systems, but they've got to know one is present. The best warning to burglars is either an outdoor siren or a dummy siren, so look for kits that include one, as not all do.
Check the range of your wi-fi
Smart home hubs communicate with the other components of the security system using a wireless connection. If you struggle to get wi-fi to work on your phone or tablet in some parts of your home, some systems may have the same issue. Each system has an indoor range varying from 20 metres to 50 metres, so if you have a large home, it's worth considering a system with a wider range.
Don't get caught short in a power cut
Some smart systems also have a battery back-up - this can be as simple as it taking AA batteries, or it could come supplied with a special battery. The advantage of a battery back-up is peace of mind if there's a disruption to your power supply or the smart home hub is unplugged as it will still have some degree of functionality. How much functionality depends on whether the connected gadgets also have battery back-ups. If they all do, full functionality should continue as long as there's battery power.
What else should you consider?
You’ll want to check that your smartphone is compatible with the smart home security system before investing. Most systems are compatible with Apple and Android phones, but fewer systems support Windows phones.
Think about which components you need when you're picking which system is best for you. Find out more about what's available on our smart home security system components page.
Compatibility with third-party gadgets is another consideration. Although they'll all work with your home internet connection, the smart home security devices that make up a system can use different wireless connections to communicate with one other. In many cases, this connection will be a proprietary one, meaning that only components made by the brand in question will work together. Manufacturers of smart home hubs that use proprietary systems such as Yale and Honeywell, claim that this increases the security of their systems.
Other brands, such as Samsung, use open systems such as Z-Wave. The advantage of this is that a range of other companies also use Z-Wave, so a SmartThings home hub can work with products made by certain other companies, such as Philips Hue light bulbs or Amazon's Echo voice-controlled speaker, for example. If you'd like to be able to connect devices from different brands, check the smart home security system is capable of this before parting with your cash.
Will a smart home security system make your home safer?
Smart home security systems can certainly play a part in home security, but when our security expert looked at five different models in action, he felt that the basic packages offered (by Honeywell, Panasonic, Response, Samsung and Yale) can be too simple to provide decent security for most properties.
If you do invest in a smart home security kit, you’ll need to consider the following.
- Buying extra door/window and motion sensors to cover each potential access point to your home. This will push up the price for any property larger than a small flat, so check the price of extras before you buy.
- Prevention is key to improving security, and only those systems that can provide a clear deterrent from the outside of your property are likely to genuinely help you avoid being a victim of crime. However, it seems to be relatively rare for obvious external sirens to be supplied with smart home security kits.
If you’d like to take other practical steps to improve the security of your home, follow the tips in our guide on home security.
How are smart home security systems installed?
Self-installation is a big selling point of smart home security systems, but unless you're a security expert, it's easy to make a mistake and install an element such as a camera or motion sensor in the wrong place.
When our security expert checked systems installed by Which? researchers, most had installed components were they wouldn’t be most useful. We think manufacturers should supply better guidance with the products to ensure the systems are installed effectively and don’t end up a waste of space. Ensure you read instructions thoroughly, and also bear the following in mind.
- Wireless security cameras facing windows could mean that intruders end up silhouetted - making identification almost impossible.
- Sirens should be kept out of arm's reach, so they can't be broken and silenced by an intruder.
- Sensors that aren’t carefully placed can be easily evaded. Motion detectors should cover access points and no device should be placed low enough to be stepped or jumped over.
Should you get a smart home security system or a traditional burglar alarm?
Both can help keep your home protected. Smart home security systems can be self-installed which can be a blessing and a curse - the good thing is you don't have to worry about calling in a tradesperson to install it, the downside is that it's possible to install components where they aren't most useful. Traditional burglar alarms are not only manufactured to exacting security standards, but professional installation also eliminates the risk that your high-tech gear will miss an intruder altogether.
Traditional systems aren't without their own downsides though - you'll probably need to pay for them to be monitored, otherwise you may have to rely on your neighbour while a smart system would send an alert to your phone and let you check what's happening. If you feel a traditional burglar alarm is best for you, find out which are the best burglar alarm brands.