Latest in Gear

Image credit:

The best home security system

Ring Alarm is the most comprehensive system, though Simplisafe has a more attractive design.
Wirecutter, @wirecutter
September 20, 2019
Michael Hession/Wirecutter

Sponsored Links

By Rachel Cericola

This post was done in partnership with Wirecutter. When readers choose to buy Wirecutter's independently chosen editorial picks, Wirecutter and Engadget may earn affiliate commission. Read the full guide to home security systems.

Peace of mind doesn't have to be pricey. Home security systems often require long contracts and pro installation, but there are smart systems you can install yourself that include a monitoring plan to keep tabs on it—and only when you want that. We found Ring Alarm to be the most affordable, comprehensive, and easy-to-use DIY home security system that has both self-monitoring and professional-monitoring options and doesn't lock you into a contract.

Ring Alarm is the most comprehensive system we tested, with the most affordable monitoring plan we found. You can expand it with a variety of Ring security cameras, including indoor, outdoor, and video doorbell cameras. It also integrates with several third-party devices via the Works With Ring program, which includes brands such as First Alert, GE, Kwikset, Leviton, Schlage, Yale, and others, giving you more customization choices than other systems offer. It's also one of the few systems to provide both arming and disarming via Alexa voice commands with a four-digit PIN. Plus, you get 24/7 live customer service.

SimpliSafe has a better-looking system than Ring, with voice prompts and support for Google Assistant as well as Amazon Alexa (but not Apple HomeKit). It also has add-ons such as a video camera, a doorbell camera, smoke alarms, and additional sensors. Unlike the Ring Alarm system, however, it doesn't offer outdoor cameras or self-monitoring options; you also can't add any non-SimpliSafe devices, and live customer service is available only from 9:00 a.m. to 12:00 a.m. Eastern.

Why you should trust us

In the process of writing this guide, we interviewed peers, home security consultants, police departments, and insurance agents. We also sent security companies detailed questionnaires about their products and services.

I've covered consumer electronics for more than 15 years and have tested scores of smart-home devices, from remotes and security cameras to AV receivers and speakers. As a former editor for Electronic House and Big Picture Big Sound, I've written buying guides for multiple consumer-electronics products, and I've written articles covering technology for The New York Times (which is now Wirecutter's parent company), Wired, Woman's Day, Men's Health, and other publications.

Who should get this

You've probably worried about the safety of your home at some point, but it's important to know that most homes and apartments will never be burglarized. According to the FBI, the number of property crimes dropped in 2017, continuing a trend of over 25 years. Still, if you want more peace of mind about the safety of your family and the security of your belongings, and if you want to know that someone will call emergency services should the need arise, a security system can play a valuable role. And although a home security system can't stop a determined burglar from breaking into your house, it can discourage someone from breaking in if they know you have it (PDF), frighten someone away if they do get in, summon cops or firefighters in case of an emergency, and save you anywhere from 8 to 15 percent on your home-insurance premium. "An alarm system might sit there for 10 years and do absolutely nothing," said Bob Dolph, a home security consultant who has spent decades in the business. "You only need it to work that one time."

Note too that security systems aren't just about crime prevention: Most have add-on sensors that can protect your home from fire, flood, and even temperature changes (to prevent pipes from bursting, for one thing). Also, many of these systems can integrate with other smart-home devices, such as thermostats, locks, and light bulbs. That means you can add, for example, a smart speaker to arm, disarm, and check system status with the sound of your voice, as well as trigger cameras or lights to go on based on alerts or your location.

You can find two types of security systems: professionally monitored and unmonitored. In the former, when an alarm goes off, a professional monitoring company receives a notification and then attempts to contact you and, if need be, your local emergency services. An unmonitored system leaves all the work up to you. That means you need to be on call, day and night, during work and vacation time, and ready to determine whether police, fire departments, or other emergency services need to be dispatched. Then, you need to make that call yourself. It's a big difference, and a professionally monitored system is fundamentally more secure than an unmonitored or self-monitored one.

But monitored systems also tend to have a service contract, which locks you into paying an often-pricey monthly fee for a set amount of time, typically one to five years. No-contract systems, which allow you to pay for monitoring services on a month-to-month basis rather than committing to a long-term arrangement, are becoming more common. These systems sometimes cost more up front for the hardware than pro systems that offer a discount in exchange for that lengthy service agreement. Paying for the equipment up front provides you with a lot of control over what you get, where you can put it, and how you use the service. And you can start and stop the monitoring service as many times as you want.

Once you decide what type of system you want, you need to pick what that system will include. Most security companies, whether they're DIY, professionally installed, professionally monitored, or self-monitored, will offer guidance if you're confused about what to choose. DIY systems are also modular, so you can easily add sensors and devices as you need them—perhaps a camera by the garage, say, or sensors on the sliding glass door upstairs.

The backbone of a home security system is the base station. This unit is what communicates with all of the security sensors and smart-home components in your house. Many connect to a home router, but if yours has Wi-Fi or cellular support, placement is more flexible. Contact sensors are the first thing you should buy alongside the base station; these attach to doors and windows and will alert you when they open. Other home security components include motion sensors, keypads, key fobs, cameras, glass-break sensors, and panic buttons.

How we picked

Home security system

Photo: Michael Hession

We looked for DIY systems that offered professional monitoring, both with and without a contract. Although some companies provide free or heavily discounted hardware in exchange for a service commitment that can last anywhere from one to five years, we found no-contract systems to be the most flexible. Some people may want to sign up for service only for when they or their partner is out of town, for instance. No-contract systems also cost less in the long run and allow you to be in total control of the equipment you use, as well as how and when you use and pay for monitoring services.

We didn't consider alarm systems that required professional installation. Pro-installed systems usually cost more, use equipment similar to that of DIY systems, come with long and typically onerous contracts, and often rely on the same monitoring companies that self-installed systems use, so they offer little advantage. A good example is the Vivint system, which we've reviewed separately and don't recommend for most people.

Next, we prioritized systems with consistently good ratings and looked at customer reviews on sites such as Yelp, Angie's List, and Amazon, when available. The basic packages varied, but we looked for home security systems that included the following:

  • Live 24/7 monitoring: Getting a text when danger arises is great, but unless you plan to be on call—all day, every day, including during vacation—you should choose a service that will contact emergency services when you can't.
  • A useful package of sensors and accessories: A home security starter package should come with door/window contact sensors and motion sensors. The size of your home will dictate what devices you need and how many of them. We also looked at what add-ons each system offered, including cameras, glass-break sensors, smoke alarms, panic buttons, and more.
  • An audible alarm: Signs and stickers could make a burglar think twice, but a piercing alarm will send them scurrying.
  • Battery backup: You shouldn't have to let your guard down when the power goes out. Most systems have some type of battery backup.
  • Cellular connection: A landline or Wi-Fi connection to the monitoring service can be cut or disrupted, so this provides a fail-safe option.
  • Keypad: A smartphone app is a must for use when you're away from home, but you shouldn't have to fumble with your phone when you're coming and going. A keypad can sit by the front door, making it easy to arm and disarm the system.
  • Fire prevention: Preventing break-ins is only one part of a security setup; most systems also offer protection against fire and carbon monoxide, although those devices cost extra.
  • UL approval: We asked manufacturers if each system met industry standards such as UL Standard 198 or (for systems with control panels) UL CP-01, though we didn't rule out systems on this basis because there's no federal requirement to meet those standards. (The UL CP-01 listing means that a control panel has features to reduce false alarms—that's a good thing, because false alarms can cost you money.)

How we tested

Home security system

Window stickers and yard signs warn potential burglars not to mess with your house. My house is very safe. Photo: Grant Clauser

For several weeks, we walked in front of motion sensors, opened and closed contact sensors, and fired off sirens. We also tested cameras, keypads, and iOS/Android apps, when available. We armed, disarmed, and spied on each system from inside and outside the home, and we tested systems' battery backup when we cut their power.

To gauge reaction times for the monitoring company, we triggered each system a minimum of five times, using contact and motion sensors. However, keep in mind that the monitoring company's reaction time has absolutely nothing to do with the speed at which your local authorities will respond to the alarm—if they respond at all. In Los Angeles, for instance, all alarm calls must be verified, either by an eyewitness or through video or audio from a surveillance camera or microphone. Salt Lake City requires confirmation from a private security guard. Several cities also require a permit to even own and operate a home security system. Rules such as these are designed to limit the time and resources that police and fire departments waste on false alarms. Many municipalities will fine you for too many false alarms.

Our pick: Ring Alarm

Ring Alarm is the most comprehensive home security system for people who want no-contract 24/7 monitoring. With kits starting at $200, it's also among the cheapest. App control and self-monitoring are free, or you can opt for Ring's Protect Plus plan, which at $10 per month (or $100 per year) offers the most affordable live-monitoring option of any we tested. That monthly fee also includes cellular backup, fire protection, 60 days of video storage for an unlimited number of cameras, and a lifetime warranty for equipment damage. Ring Alarm offers as many (or more) security accessories as other packages we reviewed, allowing you to design the best system for your home. In fact, it's the only system that integrates indoor, outdoor, and video doorbell cameras without charging additional monitoring fees for online video storage. It also works with Alexa (which shouldn't be surprising, since Amazon is Ring's parent company), but not with Google Assistant or Apple HomeKit. Ring's handling of customer videos has generated controversy in the past, though the company states that it has since instituted better security measures (see Flaws but not dealbreakers).