While being home more often may seem to nullify the need for a security system, there are still several benefits to having one. Besides making you eligible for a break on insurance rates, there’s the peace of mind that comes with being able to easily monitor activity in your home, from the opening of windows and doors to water freezing or leaking.
Unlike days of yore, you’re no longer tied to professionally installed systems. Companies like Ring and ADT now offer a bevy of DIY security system options, so you can both lower your costs and add customization to your security setup without sacrificing quality monitoring.
A DIY system is great for renters, those who want to get a full make-it-your-own experience or anyone looking to incorporate smart home gadgets into their overall system, as DIY systems generally play better with the popular smart home ecosystems. Professional systems on the other hand, provide a more traditional experience and take care of everything for you — including having technicians take care of any troubleshooting down the line — though that all comes with a heftier price attached.
Focusing on DIY options, CNN Underscored spent several months testing five of the most well-known and -reviewed options, comparing them against a professionally installed system from Vivint as a control in terms of monitoring and overall setup. Taking into account ease of installation, feature sets and, of course, value, we found one clear standout DIY security system.
Best security system overall: Ring Alarm 2nd Gen (Starting at $159.99, originally $199.99; amazon.com)
Combining a painless, customizable installation with a wide-ranging feature set, the Ring Alarm is unbeatable at a starting price of just $200, with the option to add 24/7 monitoring (which can alert authorities when needed).
Setup for the Ring Alarm, which takes place primarily within the Ring app, was the quickest of all the systems we tested, clocking in at under an hour to complete the install. After plugging in the brain of the system, the Base Station, and following a few prompts from the app (like adding your address, a phone number and creating codes), you’re off to the races. The system itself was able to connect easily to our Wi-Fi network and we quickly got into a rhythm with pairing and mounting sensors. Other systems proved to be more frustrating as it took a few tries with each to get the system connected.
The Base Station’s various connections — Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, Z-Wave, Zigbee and cellular — provide a seamless way to get sensors and smart home gadgets online. You won’t need to worry about a complex pairing with anything, with contact sensors and motion detectors (more on these below) able to connect in just a few seconds. Paired with the Base Station is the keypad, with dedicated buttons for the system modes (away, home or off) and three dedicated emergency buttons, in addition to the number pad for entering your arm/disarm codes. It’s not as fancy as the touchscreen panel ADT Pulse offers, but the analog nature makes it simpler to use. (If you do want a digital interface, the Ring app for Android or iOS can also control the system.)
While the Base Station acts as the brain, the eyes and ears of the operation are the contact sensors (which detect when doors or windows are open or closed) and motion detectors (which, through infrared sensors, can alert you if there is movement in a certain space).
We appreciated the customizability of the sensors, such as the ability to choose whether they’re factored in during an alarm mode or should be bypassed. When we had a window AC installed, for instance, we could easily choose to bypass that specific sensor for that window. While many systems support this level of customization, Ring Alarm’s options are easier to find and enact — it’s not only front and center when you open a sensor in the app, but there are also guides to walk you through setup. Additionally, there’s the ability to have the sensor create an audible chirp as well as for the onboard LED to flash when it is activated. During our testing, we didn’t run into any issues or sensor errors. Ring’s contact sensors quickly updated us when a door was opened, shut or left open; we were on the hunt for false reads, such as a sensor believing the door was open when it wasn’t, but found none.
The motion detectors work well, though some of the system’s customizations aren’t so flawless. While Ring goes a step further than competitors by giving specific dog settings within the app — in which you can choose how high or wide the sensors will seek out motion — we did have some trouble perfecting these. With it set to small dogs, we had no issues with a miniature poodle wandering about. Larger dogs, though, set the sensors off from time to time. So you may have to play around with the settings to get it to work to your needs, or only set up the sensor in spots not frequented by your pooch.
Ring makes it easy to fit the system to your space — and needs. You can either opt for the $200 five-piece setup (which includes a single motion detector and a contact sensor) or an eight-piece setup (featuring four contact sensors) for $249.99. If you need to cover more windows or doors, Ring sells contact sensors for $19.99 each, while additional motion detectors cost $29.99. Further add-ons provide even more home monitoring: Ring also sells a combination flood or freeze sensor for $34.95, which alerts when temperature drops or if liquid is detected. Those with run-of-the-mill smoke detectors or carbon monoxide alarms can pair them to a listening device ($34.95) that can connect with your security system to get alerts through Ring Alarm.
Other systems we tested offer similar base kits and add-on options but either start out at a higher price (Simplisafe starts at $299) or offer a seemingly endless amount of optional add-ons, making it a bit more overwhelming, which can lead to over-purchasing.
Ring Alarm can also connect to a host of other Ring and third-party devices, including door locks, garage door openers, household sensors and thermostats, all of which can in turn be controlled through the Ring app and pair quickly and seamlessly through the Base Station. Though other systems —- namely Simplisafe and Abode — have a much longer list of compatible devices, they trade out Ring’s easy integration and setup.
For $10 a month (or $100 a year), Ring offers 24/7 monitoring, which includes instant check-in when alarms are activated and emergency dispatch should you require it. That’s at the cheaper end of the spectrum. Other options range from $20 to $30 a month, and often require the service to use other features. Simplisafe, for instance, charges $24.99 a month for professional monitoring in its “interactive” plan, which is required to use the app.
Ring’s monitoring is on point: In our testing, the average call response time was within 26 to 30 seconds of the Alarm being activated without entering the disarm code. We tested that by letting the alarm go off without entering the code and seeing how quickly Ring would call us. We never let it reach the point where the authorities were dispatched (and we do not recommend attempting this test). Ring’s response time was in line with the upper-end of monitoring experiences of our test group.
Overall, Ring Alarm shines as a budget-conscious system that doesn’t sacrifice the necessary feature set, all while giving you the ability to customize to your specific needs.
How we tested
We calculated points and recorded results throughout the installation process. Were the instructions clear and did they include all parts needed? How easy was it to get the main hub and all the sensors online?
Functionality and security capabilities were rated the highest. We paid close attention to the different monitoring modes and the adjustments a user could make around them. With monitoring, we put claims of response time to the test by triggering calls from the monitoring centers (but never dispatching local or state authorities). When it came to individual sensors, we attempted to trip contact and motion sensors to see how quickly status updates would register.
In terms of functionality, we looked at what could be connected within other smart home ecosystems and how easy it was to enable that functionality.
Throughout testing, we paid attention to the design of the hardware —- if it stuck out in a space or blended into the background, for instance —- and the usability and simplicity of any connected apps.
How we rated
Systems were scored using the categories and subcategories below:
- Functionality and security had a maximum of 60 points: modes (20 points), monitoring (20 points), applications and smart home (20 points).
- Installation had a maximum of 25 points: overall (25 points).
- Design had a maximum of 15 points: build quality (10 points) and look or feel (5 points).
- Warranty had a maximum of 10 points: overall (10 points).
Others security systems we tested
Abode ($209; amazon.com)
The Abode Smart Security Kit delivers a lot of capability in a pretty minimal package. For $229, you get the equivalent of a base station, a single motion sensor, a key fob and a contact sensor. It’s not a lot to get started with, but for a single apartment it could be a solid foundation. In our testing, this kit performed well but was a little more complicated to set up than the Ring Alarm, and it really puts a focus on the smart home rather than just security.
If that’s the core focus for you, know that Abode works with all the big ecosystems — Amazon, Google and Apple included — while also providing support for a number of accessories. Like Ring, Abode features ZWave, Zigbee, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth inside to make those connections.
And since you’ll likely need more than what the main kit offers, Abode sells a number of sensors directly, making it easy to build out the system for what you need. You get a lot of customization and can see the cost upfront for all of the sensors, versus a professional system that might have you lease the hardware.
Blue by ADT ($219.99; amazon.com)
One of the biggest appeals to Blue by ADT is the giant name brand associated with it. Blue by ADT is the brand’s no-contract DIY offering.
The most unique element of this system is more function in the main hub. It’s a gray rectangular box with a keypad built into the top. It also contains a siren and all the connectivity you could need. But with the $179.99 base plan, that’s all you get. ADT offers the standard sensors: contact sensors, motion detectors, flood sensor, cameras, doorbells, range extenders and the classic ADT shield for your windows. For $219.99, you’ll get the hub and two contact sensors.
ADT’s 24/7 Monitoring comes at the comparatively higher cost of $19.99 a month. The connected app leaves a bit to be desired, and there aren’t many options for smart home connections.
Simplisafe (starting at $172, originally starting at $229; simplisafe.com)
Simplisafe gives you a ton of choice —- with several pre-made kits and a ton of accessories to add to make your system. Our biggest qualm with Simplisafe was that you had to pay for the app within a plan. At a minimum, you’re looking at the cost of hardware and pairing it with the interactive plan, which is $24.99 a month.
If you look past the hefty price, Simplisafe is a great DIY product. Setup was simple and getting sensors online didn’t take all that long. We found the app to be a little clunky in comparison to Ring’s as you need to dig around for some settings. Simplisafe also plays nice with both the Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa.
And if you’re willing to spend more, you can really get every sensor your home deserves. We also like that they make smoke and Co2 detectors that integrate directly with the system, so if you ever run into an issue and have 24/7 monitoring, those agents can act on it to keep you safe.