Get home security without the monthly fees

Consumer Reports tests systems from Nest, Piper, and iSmart Alarm

Published: April 17, 2015 05:00 PM
Dropcam Pro

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With their monthly monitoring fees, installing a professional security system can be a costly undertaking. But you can protect your home without the monthly hit with a number of smart do-it-yourself systems now on the market. Granted your home won't be an armed fortress but the devices may provide all the extra protection you want. Consumer Reports tested three products from Nest, Piper, and iSmart Alarm—ranging from a single device to a suite—and found they mostly deliver what they promise. Here are the details:

Dropcam Pro, $199

Nest’s camera-only product is the simplest of the three solutions, yet it has plenty to offer. You can stand it on its pedestal or mount it to a wall, and it will stream HD video to your phone, tablet, or computer with a 130-degree field of view and 8X zoom. While you have to set it to capture video during the time you want, it can also alert you of motion activity or abrupt changes in light levels. Another plus: It allows two-way conversations using its built-in microphone and speaker. You can also integrate the product with the Nest Learning Thermostat or the Nest Protect Smoke and CO Alarm so that, for instance, the camera can shoot and save video automatically if the smoke or CO alarm senses a problem. The app is available for iOS or Android. The camera requires AC power through its USB power supply; there’s no battery backup. Want to record video? Nest will let you store the past seven days’ worth to the cloud for $99 a year; to capture 30 days’ worth, it’s $299 a year. Keep in mind, though, you might prefer that the camera not always be on, recording all that it sees and hears.

Bottom line: We found this a helpful entry-level device. For smaller homes and apartments without multiple entry points, it can give you ample notification of what’s going on without a lot of fuss, including the need to set up and position multiple devices.

Piper classic

Piper classic + Z-Wave Pack, $339

The Piper classic is a combination HD camera, motion detector, and alarm that is sold by itself for $199; a newer version, the Piper nv, offers night vision and costs an additional $80. The package we tested includes the Piper classic plus a choice of three from a set of five additional accessories: a door/window sensor, smart switch, smart dimmer, range extender or, for installation in electrical boxes, a micro-smart switch.  The components connect to the camera via the Z-wave wireless signaling scheme, but the camera itself connects to your home’s Wi-Fi network.

Like the Dropcam Pro, the camera allows two-way conversation. It offers four modes—home, away, vacation, and notify—and it can perform actions based on motion, loud noises, temperature changes, or the opening of a sensor protected door or window. All devices are line-powered except for the door/window sensors, which take batteries. There’s also a panic mode. Possible alarm actions include sounding a siren, turning lights or the dimmer on, notifying you (via phone, e-mail, or text), or letting a trusted contact know what’s going on.

Bottom line: We found this perhaps the best overall home monitoring system, and opting for the night-vision version ($399 for the package with three accessories) would improve it further. Its multi-mode monitoring and several contact options make it very flexible, and the temperature-monitoring function seems ideal for homeowners who are away a lot.

iSmart Alarm

iSmart Alarm Premium Package, $349

This product suite starts with CubeOne, the system’s AC-powered controller, which you connect directly to your home network’s router using an ethernet cable; it includes an ear-splitting 110-decibel siren. Other parts of the package are the iCamera, which shoots low-res, 480-line video. Also, there’s a motion sensor, two door/window sensors, and two remote tags—essentially key fobs. (Options include arming or disarming the alarm and setting off the siren.) A separate “preferred” package without the camera costs $150 less. An optional camera that shoots 720-line HD video costs $150.

While the camera lacks a built-in microphone and speaker, it does offer night vision and can be remotely swiveled and tilted using the iOS or Android app. It operates wirelessly, like all but the CubeOne controller, but for initial setup it needs a temporary wired setup.

Bottom line: The iSmart Alarm is a little closer to how a typical home-security system operates, and the security controls are well done. The key fob is a good accessory, and you can even track children and pets through it. But we have a few caveats. The camera is lower-res than the others and lacks communication features. And in a large house, you might need a Wi-Fi repeater with multiple ethernet ports—and a change in your router’s settings to allow port forwarding. Still there’s much to like.

Interested in connected-home innovations? See our feature, “Run Your Home from Your Phone,” and watch for our continuing coverage of the so-called Internet of Things.

—Ed Perratore (@EdPerratore on Twitter)

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