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A lesson in simplicity: securing a 'no landline' home with LifeShield and Dropcam

Think of this as an IRL, but longer. Recently, I bumped my head so severely that I would up buying a new abode, and for whatever reason, the insurance company mandated that I have a "monitored fire and burglary system" installed (that's UL-certified monitoring, by the way). Not too surprising when you consider their viewpoint in the deal, and honestly, I needed someone to push me into getting one, anyway. Being a grown-up, resting easier, protecting one's investment -- you know, those types of things. So, here I was, an inexperienced homeowner in dire need of a security system, with nary a place to turn. Well, except the internet. After days upon days of sifting through options and garnering advice from every corner of every related message board this side of http, I decided to phone up a couple of companies an in effort to try a hybrid (or perhaps hodgepodge) approach to keeping an eye on things. Click on through if you're interested in hearing how my time with LifeShield and the Dropcam HD turned out.

The search

As with pretty much anything outside of cruises to the North Pole, consumers have a plethora of options when it comes to securing their fort. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I found the ones that spend bookoodles of money on advertising to be the least appealing, and the ones who seem to hide in rarely-explored corners of the internet to be to most attractive. My first requirement nixed the major players: I wanted a complete DIY solution. I didn't want an installer rummaging around in my home, and I certainly didn't want a multi-year contract that's nearly always linked to the likes of ADT and CPI Security.

The pricing on those outfits is just insane, too. They advertise a $99 deal for the initial hardware and install, but it's never that cheap. For one, that includes the bare minimum in terms of equipment, and both ADT and CPI rely on some really, really old stuff. Just to give you an idea of the monthly rate (on a two to three year contract, mind you) on ADT: you're looking at just over $50 per month for UL-certified monitoring of alarms and fire, remote access / control, medical monitoring and flood / freeze monitoring. Toss in a standard three-year agreement (horrible for apartment dwellers), and you're locked into spending at least $1,800 with ADT. Getting out of security contracts is even worse than mobile contracts -- it doesn't take too much searching to realize that this route didn't appeal to me.

So, I was left to sort through the handful of companies that sell you unsubsidized equipment that even the greenest of handymen can install, all without a contract and a bloated monthly monitoring rate. It's also shockingly easy to procure a high-end, automation-capable security system, but then it's on you to find a monitoring company. And in those cases, your ability to reach out for technical support during installation is questionable at best. I gave a bit of consideration to home security systems that included a 2gig panel for home automation integration, but I kept running into complaint after complaint; most folks just found the high maintenance of an automation system to be not worth the cost, and while the idea of remotely unlocking my door certainly sounded good, the sheer price of a single doorknob with that kind of functionality was enough to steer me in a different direction.

The final major requirement? Dealing with the fact that my place lacks what's typically a major requirement. I haven't had a landline in over five years, and I can assure you that's not changing anytime soon. I've seen a few systems that rely on VoIP lines, but I don't subscribe to one of those services, either. Plus, you're a bit out of luck should your modem or router decide to flake out while you're halfway across the world. I'm fortunate enough to live in an area with outstanding AT&T coverage, so at least cellular options were viable. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there aren't too many full-on, UL-monitored security systems that rely solely on a wireless connection, but given the rate at which society's going, I'm guessing those tides will turn in the years ahead.

After all of that, I narrowed the search down to two players who fit the criteria that I'm assuming a lot of Engadget's readers would deem fit: SimpliSafe and LifeShield. Both companies look to be perfectly ideal for my needs, and perhaps the needs of many consumers looking for a cell-enabled solution with no contracts and no bolted-down equipment. The only problem? As of last month, SimpliSafe had no option for monitoring fire. That's a huge oversight, and while the outfit has been promising prospective users for months now that a fire monitor add-in is coming, we're still seeing a blank slate on the available-to-purchase front. Furthermore, there's no official mobile app to speak of, which is also a major blow in terms of usability for the more modern crowd. On the upside, monitoring is just $14.99 per month, but youdon't get quite a few of the bells and whistles found on more expensive services.

So, I arrived at LifeShield. So far as I can tell, it's the best of both worlds when it comes to price and utility, offering an exhaustive list of monitored services for one flat rate, as well as one of the better web portals and mobile app selections that I've seen. Better still, the company actually offers a subsidized option for those who'd prefer it. You can sign up for three years of monitoring and get the equipment for $4.99 per month (called a "lease fee"); the landline model (Home Essential Kit) will run you $29.99 per month for monitoring, while the cellular version costs $37.99 per month -- understandable given that you're taking on a SIM card that's capable of sucking down data. LifeShield relies on Kore Networks for its SIM services, enabling your cellular wall wart to connect with a variety of GSM providers; we had no issues at all connecting to an AT&T tower, and we're told that T-Mobile as well as regional GSM carriers are also supported. It's important to note that all of this is invisible to the end user -- it just connects once it's activated. If you'd prefer to just own the equipment outright (like myself), the broadband product costs $877 and the cellular costs $1,007. Not surprisingly, monthly monitoring is the same as with the subsidized alternatives.

Those figures may shock you, and indeed, LifeShield only recently introduced new hardware with those lofty price tags. To its credit, LifeShield's support, mobile apps and web portal is world-class, and I'd actually encourage you to call around to rival companies and get a real bottom line tally on what they'll be charging you for hardware. Securing a home just isn't cheap -- there's really no two ways about it.

Setup and usage

Installation and setup couldn't have been easier. From unboxing to having the system in test mode, it took me right around an hour, and a lot of that was me walking around and deciding where I wanted to stick things. Each piece of hardware could be stuck onto walls and surfaces -- no need for drills, screws or holes. Keep in mind, however, that sticking something on a painted wall could mean ripped paint if you attempt to relocate it. Think long and hard about where you want the components prior to doing the deed. A great look at what's involved can be found here, but suffice it to say, anyone with a couple of free hours and a ladder could handle it. Syncing up the base station and the cellular station was a cinch, too. I'll confess to being somewhat intimidated by the whole idea, but the whole process was over in 15 minutes. It's also important to note that LifeShield's system remains in a 'test mode' for the first seven days of ownership, so you can test sensors, mash the panic button and goof off as much as you please without any authorities being called in. The company also does a good job of reminding simpletons of the required steps to get everything sorted; for example, I received an email reminding me to contact my county sheriff's department in order to get a (free) security system permit. A nice touch, indeed.

As for usage, the door, smoke, siren and motion detectors all worked as advertised, and there's a useful "beep" that occurs on the base station each time a sensor is tripped, even if you're home and don't have the system armed. There's a great deal of flexibility that comes with being able to affix the sensors in locales that you deem fit, and you can install up to 50 sensors on a single base station. If you need more than that, you're probably bringing home enough bacon to afford a dozen armed gentlemen surrounding the perimeter of your home.

I appreciated the ability to arm, disarm and check in with things via just about any mobile device. Apps are available for Android and iOS, and both of 'em worked as you'd expect. The only quirk I noticed had to do with the cellular system in particular. A couple of times, the login on the Android app was rejected as the SIM initialized and connected on the other end. Once that connection was made, however, logging in while hundreds of miles away was a breeze. Moreover, the actual web portal was astoundingly robust. You can keep track of every single sensor trip (yes, every last one!), whether the system is armed or not. If you have guests over and you're remotely watching the trips, you can get an idea of whether or not a specific door you instructed your guests not to use is being used, for example. You can also create up to nine guest codes for disarming, which is a fantastic function to have for renters who need a large cycle of codes.

No, there's no home automation functionality, but the simplicity of the setup is what really drew me in. Combine that with top-tier apps and a really beautiful web portal, and I always felt completely in control of the system. In over a month of use, trying just about everything, I never once had a glitch. I even lost power a few times, and I immediately received a text messaging notifying me of the power loss and restoration. Speaking of alerts, you can customize 'em to the hilt, using SMS and email to get notified of sensors being tripped between certain time slots, an unexpected trip overnight -- you name it. If you can dream up a combination that you'd like to be alerted about, you can make it happen.

Dropcam HD

As for the Dropcam HD? If you're using a LifeSheild system, you're better off snapping up a couple of its own security cameras, as those can also be monitored with any additional monthly fees. But as standalone devices, there's a lot to love about these guys. As the successor to a prior model, the HD still lacks any motorized functions, but in our discussions with the outfit, it's found those motors to be prone to failure in use. And given that these are typically monitored from afar, it's not exactly easy to "fix" a faulty motor from halfway around the world. To combat that, the HD touts a seriously wide-angle view, and for the price / simplicity of it all, we found the scope to be satisfactory given the price point.

Put simply, these are USB-powered 720p WiFi cameras, and they're shockingly easy to setup. It's actually comical how easy it is. I kept wondering what the mythical fourth step was, only to realize that you're totally done after plugging it into your Mac or PC, selecting a WiFi network and placing it wherever you want within range of your router. Once there, you can login to the account you'll create during setup in order to view however many Dropcam HD units that you've purchased. There's notification LED on each unit that'll glow in use, but the (beautifully appointed) web portal enables you to disable it in order to reduce the chances of someone noticing that you're recording a room. You can also set each unit up to email you when noise or motion is detected, and while there's no option yet, the company assures us that it's tweaked its software in order to have these alerts sent only during predetermined times (read: when you're away from home).

We also asked if there were any plans to ship a battery-powered unit (you know, in case of power failures), but the company seems to think that those overly concerned about outages could simply hook their Dropcams up to a UPS of some sort. After all, even a small USB battery pack could run one of these things for hours on end. You'll also notice that there's no way to set up text alerts; we're told that the outfit's relying heavily on email and push notifications in order to keep costs down, so make of that what you will. Other features en route? The ability to flip the view of the camera (enabling users to mount the camera sideways or upside-down), as well as an updated mobile app that'll support the capture of still frames.

Moreover, the cameras support night vision, digital zoom, encrypted video streams and DVR'ing of captures. Of course, only real-time viewing and email alerts are given out for free. $9.95 per month gets you cloud storage and seven days of DVR recording, while $29.95 per month adds the ability to record up to 30 days of full-motion HD video. At $149 a pop (shipping at the month's end), it's not as if these are cheap enough to be an impulse buy, but given just how simple they are to setup (and how easy they are to monitor), it's a highly recommended solution for those in the market.

I'd also like to point out that I could never justify that monthly monitoring fee as a general consumer, but I had a seven-day trial just to see how it worked. I knew I'd have a repairman in while I was hundreds of miles away, and the motion detection + capture allowed me to see when he entered and ensure that he only touched the pipes he was supposed to. Call me crazy, but it's really nice to be able to visually confirm that invited guests don't leave with more than they came with. Combine that with LifeShield's line-by-line confirmation of which doors were opened and at what time, and I felt like I was actually at the repair from the other side of the state. It really boils down to how much value you place on peace of mind.