How we test home security systems and services

Home security is one thing you want to make sure it works before you buy it. After all, if an emergency does occur, you want to be sure your system will be up to snuff to catch potential burglars, scare them away, and notify you and the authorities quickly.

Buying into one of these systems can be expensive – both upfront and after monthly fees are factored in – and paying that price requires a lot of confidence. We have tested all major DIY home security system and a professionally installed and monitored home security service in a home environment to provide our recommendations on the best ones to buy.

Here’s how we test home security systems at CNET.

Checking security basics

Most home security systems, DIY or professional, basically do what they’re supposed to do. If you trigger an armed entry sensor, an alarm will go off and you will be notified by phone. Ditto motion detectors, glass break detectors, leak detectors and all the other simple devices that make up a given home security setup.

The first part of home security testing is simply confirming that each of these devices responds correctly to its stimulus – and the vast majority of the time, they all do. (It’s a big red flag if they don’t, since reliability is a key selling point of any security-related technology.) I usually run this first round of testing when I’m setting up the system for the first time.

The second phase of testing introduces a little more complication. I verify that all the most complex devices (such as security cameras, video doorbells, keypads and base stations) are working properly. This means listing the features included (such as smart alerts and motion detection zones) and then testing each of them one by one.

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Cameras are a bit more difficult to assess than simple entrance sensors or leak detectors.

Chris Monroe/CNET

Again, I do these tests as I install each device, and the results are usually a bit less clear than single device tests: a leak sensor detects or does not detect water, after all. A video doorbell can detect motion reliably and identify deliveries semi-effectively, but be less consistent in tagging animals (assuming it’s a feature).

I take note of all the features included on these more complex devices, as well as how they performed in an initial battery of tests. Then I move on to the next phase.

Tests in real conditions

I always test home security systems in a home environment, setting them up and using them for at least a full week. This ensures that I don’t just get “lab results” that are extracted from the real use case of a security system. In short, I want to see them in action, getting practical use, over the course of a week.

In doing so, testing becomes less formal and more experiential. Are hub beeps every time you open a door getting annoying? If so, are they easy to deactivate? Is the base station easy to use or do I use the default app in most cases? Am I experiencing false alarms or connectivity issues? If an alarm goes off, how fast are notifications and what type of alerts occur with professional monitoring? Can I check through the camera feed to determine which neighborhood creature has entered our garden? If I view the live feed from the back door camera, can I clearly hear my children playing in the yard or is the wind interfering with the sound quality?

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We test every home security system in real homes to make sure they’re really useful.

Josh Goldman/CNET

The questions are endless and I try to put myself in the shoes of as many potential users as possible. How do kids or pets change the equation? How would the system work in an apartment? What types of chimes are video doorbells compatible with and can they be used wirelessly?

This section of the exam is often the most important for two reasons. First of all, it is the most representative of how you will experience the home security system. Unexpected things that you would only discover if you lived with the system for a few days often emerge. It was during this phase that I discovered that some cameras lacked adequate ambient noise damping, and their sound was essentially useless on a windy back porch. Or I’ve found that a video doorbell with lots of cool features takes a few seconds too long to display its feed through the app, making it impractical to intervene in a package theft.

The second reason the section is often large is that there are so many elements in home security systems. Unlike stand-alone devices, these systems depend on integration, that is, their ability to work as a team. You can only get an idea of ​​the quality of this coordination if you test them over time in the environment in which they are intended to be used.

Value, value, value

As I test all individual devices and note their additional features, I also record their prices. This gets a bit tricky, as home security systems are known to offer huge discounts all the time. This means that the MSRP may not reflect what you’ll pay for the hardware, but it does provide a useful starting point.

Then, while I run real-world testing in the background, I spend a day or two painstakingly comparing each device to the equivalent in every other system on the market. How do the prices match? What about extras? Ultimately, I’m trying to figure out how the value compares.

For simple devices, this process is often straightforward. A system that charges half the price of entry sensors – as long as they work well – offers better value than its competitors. For complex devices, this can quickly become its own thumbnail review. Autonomous security cameras and video doorbells can range from $20 to $300, and their features also vary widely. The same goes for cameras that integrate with home security systems.

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Some home security devices, such as video doorbells, have become much more affordable in recent years. Amazon Blink and Wyze both offer wireless video doorbells for less than $100.

Chris Monroe/CNET

However, it is not just hardware prices that factor into the overall assessment of value. Most home security systems require – or at least work better – a monthly service fee. These fees often scale to include everything from continuous cloud video storage to full-fledged 24/7 professional monitoring.

Many of these services rely on the same underlying approach, but slight differences in price and feature offerings can make a big difference over time. Generally, I look for systems that offer a lot of possible configurations. Your home security needs are unique, so your home security coverage should be customizable for your household.

I also look at industry standards. App support and self-monitoring are almost always free; cloud storage is almost always available for a small monthly fee; professional monitoring is almost always available for $25, more or less. If a system deviates significantly from these standards, I make a note of it. Sometimes, like when Wyze Home Monitoring initially launched $5 per month professional monitoring, this departure could be a remarkable feature. Other times, like when companies like Cove charge a monthly fee for any access to an application, this can be a big criticism.

Some additional considerations

While I prioritize value and performance when it comes to home security systems, there are a few other aspects of a service worth considering. Professionally installed systems come with, as you might have guessed, installation. While I often write about the installation processthis usually doesn’t have much of an impact on the overall rating, as installation may vary depending on the region and the particular installer.

Likewise, I always use the vendor’s customer service channels rather than troubleshoot with media representatives. This way I have a basic idea of ​​customer service. I will often note significant differences in these offerings but again, due to such a small sample size, I avoid generalizing my experience in terms of final rating or evaluation.

Some publications turn to consumer surveys or online reviews to weigh up customer service. Although I test it and talk about it often in reviews, I avoid relying on third-party customer service reports for my reviews. Ideally, a system shouldn’t require customer support except in unusual circumstances anyway. If so, it probably indicates another problem.

Assemble score and recommendation

Different people need different home security systems. That’s why I don’t just make a recommendation and call it a day. Instead, my goal is to offer the best systems for everyone’s needs — whether you own or rentwhether you’re looking to spend hundreds or thousands, whether you want a professionally installed and monitored system or something more DIY and self-monitored.

No matter what you’re looking for, I always aim to find the best home security systems with reliable hardware, flexible services, and unbeatable value.

If you are looking for information, see our recommendations for the best home security systemsthe best home security systems for rentersthe best security cameras and the best video doorbells.

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