Home Security Shootout: Which Watchdog is Leader of the Pack?

Michael Brown

Keep burglars at bay with a state-of-the-art security system that includes home control and energy management features, too

Insurance can help replace stolen, damaged, or destroyed property, but a home security system can help prevent your property from being stolen, damaged, or destroyed in the first place. And while most break-ins occur when people are away from home, a home security system can also protect you and your family from personal injury at the hands of criminals brazen enough to pull off a home-invasion robbery. And there’s a good chance your insurance company will subsidize the cost of the system by discounting the price of your policy.

The hot trend in today’s home-security market is to bundle home-control technology into the same package as the alarm system. Instead of a sensor just sending an emergency alert message to a central office, these systems can also turn on lights inside and outside your home while simultaneously triggering video cameras to record what’s happening. If fire sets off a smoke alarm, these systems can automatically shut down your HVAC system to prevent smoke from being spread throughout the house.

Home control is incredibly useful on its own, too. It can automatically turn on lights when you open a door, dim the lamp when you turn on the TV, adjust the thermostat when you leave and return, give you the power to remotely unlock a door from anywhere you have Internet access, and much more. It can even alert you when something doesn’t happen, such as when your child doesn’t come home from school within an expected timeframe.

After several months of testing hybrid home-security/home-control systems from three major service providers, we’ve concluded that the two great technologies go great together, just like peanut butter and chocolate. We’ve also found that the systems can be expensive, that elaborate systems can be difficult to configure, and that some service providers make shopping for a system much more difficult than it need be.

Allow our pain to be your gain: We’ll provide a deep dive on every component, tell you which devices we think are essential (and which are just nice to have), explain how the systems work, and provide valuable tips on how to avoid getting screwed when you go shopping for one. We’ll wrap up with hands-on reviews of dealer-installed systems from ADT and Vivint, and a DIY system from FrontPoint Security.

If you'd like more information on home-control systems, check our reviews of the Schlage LiNK , Kwikset SmartCode , 3M Filtrete , and Yale Real Living products. And if you'd like to see more of this type of coverage in Maximum PC , hit the comments section and let us know!

Security System Fundamentals


Everybody loves discounts, but most insurance companies will only grant a discount--typically 20 percent--for installing an alarm system if a central office monitors the system. When an alarm is triggered, the system sends a message to a human being working at a 24-hour service center. That person will attempt to reach you or a designated contact to verify the emergency. At your direction, or if they can’t reach you, the service will contact the appropriate emergency agency to dispatch help.

Whether a home-security service provider sells a pre-packaged system or you order all the components a la carte, every system will include a control panel and a few door and/or window sensors at a minimum. The control panel arms and disarms the system and reports issues to a central office, and the sensors monitor and report on your home’s status. You can add more sensors (smoke, heat, motion, carbon monoxide, etc.) and all sorts of other bells and whistles (lighting controls, thermostats, electronic door locks, cameras, and more). We’ll delve deeper into sensors later, but one extra we recommend is a local siren that emits a loud noise when the alarm system is triggered. This might help drive burglars out of your house before they can steal anything. If you already own compatible devices, you should be able to enroll them into any new system, but discuss this with your service provider in advance to determine what the company will permit.

Each of the three systems we evaluated for this story utilizes a host of wireless sensors for security, plus a Z-Wave wireless mesh network for home control. Two of the three piggyback on your existing Wi-Fi network, and one establishes its own independent wireless network. Two of the systems communicate with the central office using dedicated GSM connections; the other relies on a land telephone line (with GSM available as an added-cost option). All three rely on your broadband Internet connection.


The control panel can be as simple as a box with a rubber keypad, but you’ll be happier with something that provides at least some visual feedback, even if it’s only an LCD limited to displaying text. More elaborate panels feature touch-screens that provide not only information about the state of your alarm and home control system, but also display news and weather reports.

The control panel is best mounted on the wall (lest it become buried in hats, jackets, mail, laundry, and all the other stuff that tends to collect on countertops). It shouldn’t be too close to an entry door (a thief could kick the door in and instantly gain physical access to the panel), and it shouldn’t be within sight of a window (you don’t want a would-be thief to know what type of system is protecting your home).

ADT puts all the components for its Pulse Premier system in discrete cabinets, which renders the system more secure, but makes installation much more complicated.

By the same token, some home-security experts believe you should use generic—versus branded—lawn signs and window stickers to warn burglars that your home is protected by an alarm system. Not surprisingly, each of the three vendors we contacted told us that this free advertising (for them) is the best deterrent imaginable.

Don’t forget that the control panel must be plugged into an electrical outlet (it will have a battery back-up so it continues to function in the event of a power failure, but it will require steady electrical power). Most alarm-system installers are not licensed electricians, so they won’t be able to install an electrical outlet if there’s not one near where you want to mount the panel.

When Vivint’s tech installed the Vivint control panel, he ran the power cord inside the wall, up to our attic, and plugged the AC adapter into an outlet next to our furnace. We could easily have done the same with FrontPoint’s panel. ADT dispatched both a tech and a licensed electrician to install their system, because their package includes an in-wall Z-Wave switch. If you think you’ll need electrical work, discuss this with the service provider up front, hire your own electrician, or do the work yourself before the installer arrives.

GE's Simon XT's control panel combines system arming/disarming, sensor monitoring, Z-Wave control, and GSM communications all in a single package.

The best home security systems have GSM modules and communicate with the service provider’s central office using a cellular network. A burglar can disable a system that relies on a land line by simply cutting your phone cable before breaking into your home. Some systems with GSM modules also support two-way voice communication, which enables you to use the panel to communicate with personnel at your service-provider’s central office. We think this is a great feature, because you won’t have to run around looking for your cordless phone or cell phone (which always seem to have dead batteries at exactly the wrong time) in the event of an emergency.


If the control panel is the brains of your security system, battery-operated wireless sensors comprise its nervous system. Door and window sensors consist of two pieces: One piece you attach to the door or window and the other to the door or window frame. Separating the two elements by opening the door or window breaks a magnetic field between them and sends a message to the control panel.

Door and window sensors come in various shapes and sizes. We prefer recessed sensors for doors, because they’re completely hidden from view when the door is closed. The drawback is that you must drill holes in your doors and doorframes to install them (this also renders recessed sensors unsuitable for sliding-glass doors and glass-paneled French doors). Surface-mount devices come in different sizes and can be attached with either small screws or two-way tape. Ask your service provider to show you which ones it plans to use—and how much they cost—before the installer shows up at your house.

A glass-break sensor detects the distinct frequency of breaking glass and will trigger your alarm system if a burglar smashes a window.

If your home has large picture windows or lots of other non-opening windows, a glass-break sensor will detect the sound of breaking glass and trigger an alarm. We recommend putting a sensor on each entry door, but if you have a lot of windows, you can save money by placing a motion sensor in a central area of your home that you’re certain a burglar will pass through. You should be aware, however, that motion sensors might generate false alarms if you have large pets in the house, or if you have pets of any size that jump up onto tables or countertops within the sensor’s coverage area.

Smoke detectors provide crucial protection in the event of a fire. A carbon monoxide detector will safeguard you from a defective furnace. Freeze sensors detect thermal conditions that can lead to broken water pipes, and water sensors detect floods and leaky pipes. A company called FortrezZ manufactures a valve with a Z-Wave module that can automatically close in response to a water alarm, preventing serious water damage.

ADT and Vivint both include a number of sensors in their package, but will happily sell you more if you need them now or down the road. If you order them later, however, you’ll have to pay to have them installed—these companies won’t allow you to add them yourself. FrontPoint will sell additional sensors, too, but the installation charges don’t apply because FrontPoint’s system is DIY anyway.


Wireless video cameras enable you to monitor what’s happening in your home at any time, and they can provide invaluable peace of mind when you’re away from home and something triggers an alarm. Many security cameras are equipped with motion sensors that will automatically record a video clip when something moves in front of them, but you can establish schedules so they do this only when you don’t expect anyone to be around, only when an alarm is triggered, or according to user-defined rules (e.g., if the front door opens between 8AM and 5PM Monday through Friday). Each of the alarm systems we reviewed was capable of automatically sending email and text messages with snippets of these videos attached.

Pan-tilt IP cameras, such as this Alarm.com model that FrontPoint and Vivint offer as an option, cover a lot more territory than fixed-position cams.

Unfortunately, your choice of video cameras will be limited to whatever your service provider happens to support. Pan/Tilt cameras allow you to cover more area than fixed models, but they’re more expensive and the pan/tilt feature on the models we reviewed is useful only while the cameras are being controlled live. None of these provided video quality that was remotely as good as Logitech’s Alert series of cameras, and only one of the three vendors—FrontPoint Security—supports outdoor cameras.


Frankly, we’re surprised it took this long for home-security companies to add home-control features to their existing services. The first thing you’re likely to do if your alarm system goes off at night is turn on a light, right? So it makes perfect sense to have the alarm system turn on the lights for you—and not just the one light that would let the perp know exactly where you are in the house. And if a prowler attempts a break-in, won’t it feel good to hand the police a video clip of the thief in action?

But that’s just scratching the surface. Install a Z-Wave switch and opening the door will also automatically turn on a nearby light (only when it's dark, of course). Install a Z-Wave thermostat and it will automatically adjust so that you’re not heating or cooling an empty house, because the HVAC system will turn off when you leave (you can program recurring heating and cooling schedules, too).

Plug-in Z-Wave modules like this will do the job, but they're ugly. An in-wall switch or dimmer will blend right in with your decor.

A simple plug-in module will convert any receptacle into a Z-Wave switch or dimmer, but these are bulky and not very attractive (they make ordinary wall warts look pretty). Our recommendation: Replace your in-wall switches, dimmers, and receptacles with Z-Wave models. You can install and add them to the security system’s control panel yourself, or you can hire a professional electrician if wiring gives you the willies. Installing a Z-Wave switch or dimmer is not appreciably different than wiring a conventional device, with one exception: You’ll need special Z-Wave companion devices in three- and four-way wiring configurations where a light or ceiling fan is controlled by a wired dimmer or switch in more than one location.

Other types of Z-Wave devices can be more complicated. Scene controllers, for instance, can control multiple lights, ceiling fans, or other devices with the push of a single button (provided that each of those devices is controlled by a Z-Wave dimmer or switch). Scene controllers can set mood lighting or get the house ready for a party. Other types of controllers allow you to remotely control specific lights or devices. Install one in the bedroom, for instance, and you can turn on the porch light if you hear a suspicious noise, or light your way to the kitchen when you get that urge to raid the refrigerator at midnight.

All three of the service providers we reviewed allow you to provision and install your own Z-Wave devices, but ADT limits your choices to products the company has tested and approved. FrontPoint and Vivint aren’t so restrictive, but that doesn’t mean their control panels support every Z-Wave device.


Once your system is set up, most of your day-to-day interaction with it will be via the control panel as you arm and disarm the system. Assign a PIN to each person to whom you want to grant access to your home, so that you can monitor who’s there at any given time.
An “away” setting typically turns on all the door, window, and motion sensors, but sets an entry delay period of 30 to 180 seconds. This allows you to open a door without triggering an alarm until you can reach the control panel to turn the system off. The panel should allow you to restrict entry delays to particular doors, but entry delays carry risk. If burglars break into your home, an entry delay will give them time to locate your control panel—which will be beeping to remind you to turn it off—and physically disable it by tearing it off the wall and stomping on it or hitting it with a rock or a hammer.

We like touch-screens, but the one that FrontPoint Security provides with its system is just too small for our tired eyes and blunt fingertips.

This is commonly referred to as a “crash-and-smash” break-in. Even if you don’t use an entry delay, any security system will wait 30 seconds after going into an alarm state before it sends an alert to the central office. This is an industry-standard practice intended to reduce the number of police dispatches in response to false alarms.

Some—but not all—of ADT’s systems make a crash-and-smash break-in more difficult by housing the brains of the system in a wall-mounted steel cabinet. The assumption is that a thief will not be able to locate the cabinet, compromise it, and smash the electronics inside before the panel signals the central office. But ADT charges extra for a GSM radio (installed in a second wall-mounted steel box) that will eliminate the risk of a burglar cutting your system off from ADT’s network by snipping your land-line cable (see our review of ADT’s Pulse system).

With a Z-Wave thermostat, you can program your HVAC system so that it shuts down when you leave home for the day and turns back on when you expect to return home.

The Vivint and FrontPoint Security systems we reviewed rely on a third-party central-office monitoring service, Alarm.com, which has a patented solution to guard against crash-and-smash break-ins. When these systems are armed, they send a message to Alarm.com’s central office every time a sensor is tripped. Alarm.com then waits for a second message: Either a disarm signal or an alarm-state signal. If it doesn’t receive either signal, Alarm.com’s central office initiates the dispatch process as if the panel did go into an alarm state.

A “stay” setting usually activates all intrusion sensors, but it leaves the dedicated motion sensors turned off. This enables you to move about the house without triggering an alarm. In this situation, opening a monitored door or window immediately triggers an alarm under the assumption that an intruder has gained access to your home.

ADT provides this much-larger touch-screen with its Pulse Premier system. When you're reading a news update or a weather report, or are manipulating icons and controls with the tip of your finger, size matters.

Many control panels also have one-touch buttons for summoning emergency medical, police, or fire personnel. And if you’re taken hostage inside your home and are forced to disarm the system under threat of violence, all the control panels we reviewed support a special duress code that disarms the system while also sending a silent alert to the central office.

More sophisticated systems, including all three of the ones reviewed here, support other means of arming and disarming the system, too. Smartphone apps and Internet access are typically included with your service plan, but options such as wireless key fobs, panic buttons, electronic door locks, and secondary control panels with keypads or touch-screens might cost extra. Medical-emergency pendants are useful for the elderly and people who live alone. As much as we might laugh at the “I’ve fallen, and I can’t get up!” commercials on TV, at-home slip-and-fall accidents are a grim reality for too many.


Home-security systems have been around for years, but they’ve never been so affordable or so unobtrusive. Home-control products, meanwhile, have never been more affordable or more reliable. The latter technology still has room for improvement—we encountered a few irritating interoperability issues in our tests, and some home-control elements have yet to be incorporated into the systems we tested—but those wrinkles should be fairly easy for the industry to iron out.

Buying a System

Shopping for a home-security system can be as difficult as shopping for a new car, because many of the players horde information so they can connect you to a salesperson to close the deal. Use of third-party dealers, independent door-to-door sales people, and telemarketers render the shopping experience even murkier.

Much like mobile-phone service providers, most home-security vendors subsidize the retail cost of their hardware and make up for it on their monthly fees. When you purchase the system, you’ll be expected to sign a contract committing yourself to the company’s services for one to three or more years. Read this contract carefully before you commit to purchasing the system: Understand exactly what equipment you’re about to purchase, the length of the service agreement, what happens at the end of the contract (some will automatically renew on a month-to-month basis, but some commit you to a full year if you don't cancel in time), and what the penalty is for early termination. These contracts vary from state to state, so we can’t cover them all here.

If you buy an ADT system, add an optional GSM module to the package; otherwise, burglars can disable the system by cutting your land line.

ADT and Vivint both sell tiered packages with bundles of products. Installation is included, but neither company discloses how much it charges on a per-item basis or how much they’re discounting the products in the package. In many cases, they don’t even tell you the make and model of the products you’re buying. Vivint is more transparent than ADT, because they do list prices for individual components on their website (although some are absurdly inflated). FrontPoint is even better: It sells everything a la carte at reasonable prices, and discounts are based on the length of the contract you commit to. Vivint and FrontPoint both require you to speak with a salesperson before you can make a purchase.

ADT doesn’t reveal any pricing information on its website, and when we called the company’s 800 number posing as interested consumers, we were told we’d have to schedule an in-person appointment with a salesperson to discuss pricing. If you’ve never purchased a home-security system, you’ll probably have a few questions that won’t be covered on these companies’ websites. But we hate speaking to any salesperson while armed with nothing but questions.

ADT Pulse Premier


In terms of mind share, ADT is the security industry’s market leader—and the company takes full advantage of it: ADT won’t reveal even ballpark pricing info to consumers over the phone. It charges extra for features we consider essential. Its representatives provided cagey answers to several of our fact-checking questions. And this is the only company we dealt with that restricts the make and model of Z-Wave devices you can add to the system it installs in your home.

We reviewed ADT’s Pulse Premier system, which consists of a primary alarm panel mounted inside a steel wall-mount cabinet, a plastic control panel with a text-only LCD and a rubber keypad, a second control panel with a seven-inch LCD touch-screen, and a Z-Wave control module with an integrated Wi-Fi access point. This was the only system of the three we reviewed that did not include a GSM module by default. This is a major drawback since, as we’ve already reported, a burglar can prevent the system from reporting an alarm even without gaining access to the interior of your home by simply cutting your land line. The package ADT sent for review included an added-cost GSM module.

By housing its primary panel and GSM module in discrete enclosures, ADT makes it more difficult for burglars to disable the system before it can alert ADT's monitoring station (note: included Z-Wave thermostat and in-wall Z-Wave switch not shown).

You’ll want to hide the steel cabinet in a closet or perhaps in the garage. The Z-Wave/Wi-Fi access point should be located in a more central area of your home, but it must be hard-wired to your router using CAT-5/6 cable to provide the wireless cameras and the GE touch-screen with Internet access (ADT’s system establishes its own dedicated wireless network, and the customer is not allowed to connect anything else to it). All other system data—sensor activity, alerts, etc.—is sent to ADT’s monitoring station over the GSM connection.

We put the GSM module, which is also housed inside a steel cabinet, in a bedroom closet. You’ll need electrical outlets for each of these four devices, and the plastic control panel, the GSM module, and the Z-Wave/Wi-Fi access point must all be hard-wired to the primary panel. ADT does send a qualified electrician out with their installer, but a permanent installation will likely involve drilling holes in your walls, rendering this a less-than-ideal solution for apartment and condo dwellers or frequent movers.


The rest of the security features in the Pulse Premier package include one motion detector, one wireless smoke detector, two fixed-position wireless IP cameras, and two rather unsightly surface-mount door/window sensors (ADT offers low-profile and recessed sensors at additional cost, but ADT declined to inform us how much). When we asked if ADT’s system offered protection from crash-and-smash break-ins, ADT’s representative evaded the question with this response: “To answer this question would require us to give information as to where and how we install panels. For our customers’ security we cannot provide an answer.” We interpret that answer as “No.”

ADT installed these plus-sized sensors (middle) without asking if we'd prefer something less obtrusive (available only at extra cost). FrontPoint Security and Vivint provide slim-line door/window sensors (right), and Vivint installs recessed door sensors at no additional cost (left).

Unlike FrontPoint and Vivint, ADT’s Pulse system does not support Z-Wave door locks or deadbolts, although our ADT contact did tell us the company was “currently evaluating locks, and our intention is to support them in the near future.” ADT offers only fixed-position cameras that do not have motion detectors. Cameras that are equipped with motion sensors can act autonomously, capturing photos or video in response to movement even if no other sensor has been tripped. You can, however, link the system’s other sensors to trigger each camera to record based on four parameters: Trigger Device (door/window sensor, motion detector, smoke detector, etc.), Event (tripped, opened, closed, etc.), Active (during selected days and times, only when the alarm system is armed, and so on), and Action (record a video clip or take a snapshot). ADT’s control panel can also serve as a camera trigger, so any alarm event (arm/disarm, duress signal) can trigger any or all of the system’s cameras to capture video.

You can configure the Pulse system to send an email and/or a text message (with or without a video clip or snapshot attached) whenever trigger events occur (e.g., when a door opens), when a system event occurs (an alarm goes off, for instance, or a device is tampered with), and when an expected action does not occur (your alarm system is not disarmed by a given time to indicate that your child has arrived home from school). In the event of any alarm in which the panel sends an alert to ADT’s monitoring station, an operator will call the contact numbers you’ve provided until they reach someone for further direction. If they can’t reach anyone, they’ll call police or fire authorities, as appropriate, to dispatch a response.


ADT Pulse Premier’s home-control features include a Z-Wave thermostat and one in-wall Z-Wave switch, which is a much better alternative to the plug-in modules that FrontPoint and Vivint provide (ADT provides one plug-in module, too). You can acquire additional Z-Wave devices from ADT, or you can purchase and install them on your own, but ADT’s system restricts your choices to specific models of switches, dimmers, and plug-in modules from GE Lighting and Leviton; two Z-Wave thermostats, both from Radio Thermostat Company of America (ADT’s system was the only one not capable of supporting multi-zone HVAC systems); and GE Lighting’s Z-Wave remote control model 45601. ADT prohibits you from installing any Z-Wave device not on its list, including multi-button scene and zone controllers from GE and Leviton.

Log into ADT's online portal and you can view the status of your Pulse system, arm and disarm the alarm system, monitor cameras, turn lights on and off, and much more.

You can establish schedules in which events occur automatically, such as turning Z-Wave-controlled lights on and off, snapping pictures with the cameras, and even automatically arming and disarming. Events can be randomized, too, so that the lights don’t go on and off at exactly the same time every day (useful when you’re on vacation and want the house to look lived in).

You can also program sensors to control Z-Wave devices, so that opening your front door automatically turns on the chandelier in your foyer, for example. These automations, as ADT refers to them, can follow the same rules as the triggers we’ve described previously. But unlike the FrontPoint and Vivint systems, you can’t assign multiple devices to a single automation. Programming the system so that an alarm event turns on six Z-Wave-controlled lights in the house and Z-Wave-controlled lights on the front and back porch requires establishing eight separate automations. What’s more, programming those lights to automatically turn off (within 10 minutes, say, or after the sensor closes) would require another eight automations.


We added the GSM module, one key fob, and one additional door/window sensor to our evaluation system, which bumped its installed price from $1,299 to $1,599, plus a monthly monitoring fee of $57.99. ADT does allow customers to make certain device substitutions: You can swap the Z-Wave thermostat for two in-wall Z-Wave light switches or dimmers, for instance. ADT does not require a credit check to sell you a Premier system, but you must put your John Hancock on a 36-month contract.

As a home-security system, our single biggest criticism of ADT’s Pulse Premier system is that it offers the least protection against crash-and-smash break-ins of any of the three systems we evaluated. We also don’t like the fact that ADT’s IP cameras don’t have motion sensors. From a home-control perspective, ADT is way behind the curve when it comes to supporting Z-Wave locks, and programming ADT’s home-control software is too time consuming. We also don’t appreciate ADT dictating which Z-Wave lighting controls we can deploy. FrontPoint and Vivint don’t fully support every Z-Wave device, either, but these companies don’t prohibit you from using them. In sum, the ADT Pulse Premier system is too expensive and has too many shortcomings to earn our recommendation.

ADT Pulse Premier

Primary panel and GSM module enclosed in steel boxes. System reports status of Z-Wave devices. Licensed electrician at installation.


No crash-and-smash protection. GSM module costs extra. Limited Z-Wave device support.

$1,599 installed, plus $57.99 per month

FrontPoint Security


FrontPoint primarily targets the do-it-yourself crowd, but will connect you with a professional installer if you’d prefer to pay someone else to hook everything up. Our review is based on self-installation using similar components to what ADT and Vivint include in their package deals. Thanks to FrontPoint’s excellent documentation and telephone support (needed only for system activation), we had the entire system installed in less than 30 minutes.

We find the company’s straightforward and consumer-friendly approach to the home-security business refreshing. You don’t have to jump through hoops to find out how much anything costs, both the hardware and the monitoring are reasonably priced, and you’re free to buy only the components you want, versus getting stuck with a prefab package that might not fit your needs (although the company offers those, too). FrontPoint won’t force you to sign a long-term contract, either, but it will entice you with progressively higher equipment discounts if you do, topping out at $300 for a 36-month commitment. The monthly monitoring fee is $49.99 either way.

You can hide the industrial-strength-ugly GE Simon XT control panel (right) in a closet, but the 3.5-inch screen on the Two-Way Talking Touch Screen companion (left) is annoyingly small. (FrontPoint does not sell Z-Wave locks or thermostats, but they do support them and we included them in the cost of FrontPoint's system.)

With the discount included, a FrontPoint home-control/home-security system costs about 30 percent less than an ADT system with similar capabilities (we included a door lock in FrontPoint’s package, a feature ADT does not support), and FrontPoint’s monthly monitoring fee is eight dollars per month less than ADT’s. A discounted FrontPoint system will cost three times more than a Vivint system with similar capabilities, but its monitoring will cost $19 less per month. If you don’t sign a contract with either company, FrontPoint’s system will cost $285 less than Vivint’s, and the monitoring prices will be the same.

You might want a different mix of components than we’ve specified, however, which could have a significant impact on price comparisons. ADT makes apples-to-apples comparisons difficult, because they don’t publish per-unit prices. Vivint does, and most are considerably higher than FrontPoint’s: Vivint charges $60 for each surface-mount door/window sensor, for instance, while FrontPoint prices them at $32.99 each. And a smoke detector costs $120 through Vivint versus $64.99 at FrontPoint.

FrontPoint system uses GE’s Simon XT (Ver. 2) control panel, which can be mounted to either a wall or a table-top stand. It’s outfitted with a two-line, backlit, text-only LCD and an illuminated rubber keypad with dedicated buttons for arming the system when you leave home, arming the system when you intend to stay, and a third button for disarming the system. There are also three dedicated buttons for signaling police, fire, or medical emergencies.

The Simon XT is an all-in-one unit with integrated GSM and Z-Wave control modules. It connects to the Internet via your Wi-Fi router, so the only hard-wiring needed is for power (there’s a 24-hour backup battery, too). Other than video-camera streams, all system data are relayed to the central monitoring office over the GSM connection, so a burglar cannot cut your land line to disable the alarm system.

The control panel has a built-in piezo siren and speaker, and speech capabilities in the form of a female voice with a distinct British accent that reminded us of James Bond’s Miss Moneypenny. The voice has a 212-word vocabulary and can inform you of sensor activity (doors opening and closing, for instance), Z-Wave commands sent from the keypad (such as when you turn on a light in a remote part of the house), arming and disarming confirmations, and more.

The Simon XT is not very attractive or user friendly, but you can add GE’s Two-Way Talking Touch Screen to the system for just $140. This 3.5-inch color LCD performs many of the same functions as the larger panel, including reporting system status, lighting control, arming and disarming the alarm, and more. Linked to a Z-Wave thermostat, it will display the outside temperature along with local weather forecasts, and you can use it to control your HVAC system.


The FrontPoint Security system we assembled included both the control panels described above, one motion sensor, one wireless smoke detector, two low-profile surface-mount door/window sensors, a fixed-position wireless IP camera with a motion sensor of its own, a GE Z-Wave on/off plug-in module, and a key fob for remote arming and disarming.

FrontPoint contracts with Alarm.com for monitoring, and the Simon XT control panel takes advantage of Alarm.com’s protection against crash-and-smash break-ins. FrontPoint supports Schlage ’s line of Z-Wave entry and deadbolt locks, although they don’t sell locks (or Z-Wave thermostats) directly. We also found FrontPoint’s system compatible with Kwikset ’s Z-Wave locks. FrontPoint offers two types of indoor cameras, fixed position and pan/tilt, both of which are equipped with motion sensors. The company also offers an outdoor camera that we did not evaluate.

FrontPoint Security's provided the least obtrusive surface-mount door and window sensors of the three service providers we examined. They're very reasonably priced too: Just $32.99 each. (Recessed sensors cost $10 more.)

The cameras deliver mediocre image quality that’s on par with the cameras ADT provided, but having motion sensors is an important benefit that ADT does not provide: FrontPoint’s cameras can be set up to capture video clips or snapshots even if no other sensor in the system is tripped.

The cameras can also record in response to activity in the rest of the system: Every time the system is armed or disarmed, if a sensor opens, or if any sensor triggers an alarm state. The pan/tilt cameras cost $100 more than the fixed models, but they’re capable of covering much more area because you can move the camera’s lens left and right and up and down using a web browser or Alarm.com’s smartphone app. You can also define and label several preset camera positions.

When it comes to alarm states, FrontPoint’s system behaves very much like ADT’s. The panel will send an alarm signal to Alarm.com, and an agent will attempt to contact you using the contact numbers you’ve provided. If they’re unable to reach you, they'll call police or fire authorities, as appropriate, to dispatch a response.


FrontPoint’s system can accommodate Z-Wave lighting controls, thermostats, and door locks, but the only Z-Wave device FrontPoint sells directly is a GE 45603 Z-Wave plug-in on/off module. Unlike ADT, however, FrontPoint does not prohibit you from adding other Z-Wave products. We successfully tested the system with a mixture of in-wall Z-Wave switches and dimmers from Leviton and GE, Z-Wave locks from both Kwikset and Schlage , and were even able to set up a Leviton 4-Button Controller with Switch that representatives from both FrontPoint and Alarm.com didn’t think would work.

You can field as many as eight IP cameras in FrontPoint Security's system, mixing fixed-position, pan/tilt, and outdoor models.

As with ADT’s system, sensors can be programmed to trigger Z-Wave devices, so that opening a door will automatically turn on a light (with qualifying rules, so this happens only when you expect it to be dark). But the Alarm.com software that FrontPoint uses is much more sophisticated than ADT’s solution. Read our review of Vivint’s system for additional details (both companies rely on Alarm.com’s software).

The Simon XT control panel is the weakest link in FrontPoint’s system, especially if you have a large deployment of sensors and Z-Wave devices. You can’t rename devices on the panel beyond “Door 1,” “Light 3,” and so on (you can do that through the Web interface, but that’s not what will appear on the primary control panel). And the touch-screen companion is much too small for frequent use. But FrontPoint’s equipment and monitoring prices are very attractive, and if you find that you use your smartphone and/or the web interface to manage the system, you’ll soon forget about the control panels anyway. Thanks to Alarm.com’s technology, we find this solution to be far more secure than ADT’s, and the home-control features are far better than that system. FrontPoint Security is definitely worthy of consideration, but Vivint offers more sophisticated technology.

FrontPoint Security

Crash-and-smash protection. No-BS pricing. Comprehensive Z-Wave device support. Cameras with motion sensors.


Simplistic primary control panel, too-small touch-screen. System does not report status of Z-Wave devices.

$1,114 DIY, plus $49.99 per month,

Vivint Home Automation


APX Alarm Security Solutions, armed with a hefty new investment from Goldman Sachs, relaunched itself as Vivint in early 2011 and embarked on a major push into the home-control market. Thanks to leading-edge technology and extremely aggressive prices—the company heavily subsidizes its customers’ equipment purchases in exchange for longer-than-typical 42-month service contracts—we think Vivint has become the company to beat.

Vivint’s home-security/home-control system includes everything we like about FrontPoint Security’s system, including Alarm.com monitoring services, but the 2Gig Go! touch-screen control panel that Vivint installs is considerably more advanced than the Simon XT products that FrontPoint offers. Vivint’s monthly monitoring fee, however, is considerably higher than FrontPoint’s: $68.99 per month versus $49.99. If you pay for a complete system up front, on the other hand, Vivint will reduce its monitoring fee to $49.99. In that case, the system we built out would cost $1,699, versus a subsidized cost of $348 (a $199 activation fee plus $149 for one additional camera). Refer to the spec chart for details.

Vivint and FrontPoint both deliver comprehensive home-security/home-control systems, but the 2Gig Go! touch-screen control panel helps set Vivint's offering apart.

We do wish Vivint’s prices were as transparent as FrontPoint’s, and you will have to deal with a salesperson to purchase a system. You can arm yourself for that experience with this information: A stock Home Automation package consists of the control panel, one IP camera, one motion sensor, one key fob, and three door/window sensors. It also includes the following Z-Wave devices: one thermostat, one door lock, and one plug-in lamp module. Vivint uses a point system to value some of these components, and the company gives you a bank with nine points (although the stock package we just described will leave you with just two points left over).

Wireless door/window sensors are worth one point each, while motion and smoke detectors are worth two points each. Since the stock Home Automation package does not include a smoke detector—a component we feel is essential to any home-security system—you can “spend” your two remaining points to add one without kicking in more cash. If you want two additional door/window sensors, you can trade something else—say, a motion detector—or you can buy two more points for $30 each. Sales representatives also have some flexibility to negotiate, and they can sacrifice part of their commission in order to close a deal. That’s fine if you enjoy haggling, but we prefer straightforward dollars-and-cents transactions.


Vivint uses Alarm.com for alarm monitoring, and the 2Gig Go! control panel, which boasts a large color touch-screen, delivers full crash-and-smash protection. That means the police will be dispatched even if a burglar disables the panel before it goes into a full alarm state. The panel displays the system’s status, the day’s weather forecasts, and severe weather alerts (including tornado warnings for customers living in regions of the country subject to that phenomenon). This is an all-in-one device with an integrated GSM module and a 24-hour back-up battery. It connects to your Wi-Fi router wirelessly.

This was the only panel we reviewed that supported two-way voice over GSM. This enables a Vivint representative to speak with you right at the panel in the event of an emergency to ask whether you need police, fire, or medical assistance. If they can’t reach you at the panel, of course, they’ll call your other contact numbers before automatically dispatching emergency services. The panel also has a one-touch button for summoning help in an emergency.

This optional wireless keypad enables you to arm or disarm Vivint's security system and signal emergency events from other rooms within your home.

Vivint was the only company out of the three to include a Z-Wave door lock (a Kwikset model) in its standard package (FrontPoint supports Schlage locks, but does not sell them, and ADT does not support Z-Wave door locks at all). Vivint, meanwhile, does not support Schlage locks. Kwikset locks feature a motorized bolt that retracts when the correct code is entered on its keypad or when a command is sent over the Z-Wave network. The bolt can be put into the locked position in the same fashion. Schlage locks can be unlocked using the keypad or a remote command, but you must physically turn a knob to retract the bolt.

Vivint provides the same indoor fixed-position and pan/tilt IP cameras as FrontPoint, but Vivint does not offer outdoor cameras. Vivint also limits you to four cameras (deploying between five and eight cameras will add another $10 to your monthly bill). The motion sensors on the cameras won’t trigger an alarm directly, but they can be configured to send you an email or text message when they detect movement, and they’ll automatically upload a video clip to Alarm.com’s servers. This means the recording will be protected even if a burglar destroys the camera. None of Alarm.com’s cameras are outfitted with night vision, however, so one feature that we’d like to see added is the ability to turn on a Z-Wave-controlled light while viewing the camera remotely. As it stands, you must turn on the light in one step and then navigate to the camera window.


Vivint’s Home Automation package includes one Z-Wave thermostat and one Z-Wave plug-in module, but the system will support most other Z-Wave devices. If you want in-wall devices, you’ll need to hire an electrician or install them yourself. We tested Vivint’s system with a mixture of in-wall Z-Wave lighting controls from GE and Leviton and at one point had 54 Z-Wave devices in the network (including two locks and a thermostat).

As much as we like 2Gig’s panel and Alarm.com’s software, we do have some criticisms. First and foremost, the panel allows you to assign a unique name to each Z-Wave device (the panel also informs you of each Z-Wave device’s network node number, which is very useful when you have a large network), but this information is not passed on to Alarm.com. That means you must enter those unique names twice: First into the panel and then into Alarm.com’s web site.

Third, neither the control panel nor the website informs you of the current status of Z-Wave lighting controls. All three systems (ADT, FrontPoint, and Vivint) report the status of a Z-Wave thermostat (current temp, target temp, and heating or cooling mode), and the FrontPoint and Vivint systems report the status of Z-Wave locks (locked or unlocked). But only ADT’s can tell you if a Z-Wave-controlled light is on or off, the Vivint and FrontPoint systems merely report each light’s status as “OK.”

The 2Gig Go! control panel that Vivint provisions with its alarm systems is packed with features and delivers great Z-Wave support.

The balance of Vivint’s home-control system (and FrontPoint’s, too, since they both use Alarm.com’s back-end) is vastly superior to ADT’s. With ADT, you must establish two rules for every device for every event (one rule to automatically turn a light when a monitored door opens, for instance, and a second rule to turn it off). With just one rule in Alarm.com’s system, you can turn on every single Z-Wave-controlled unit if the system goes into an alarm state. Or you can establish one rule that will turn on a pathway of interior lights from the front of the house to the back when you open the front door, and have them all automatically turn off five minutes later.

If you want a state-of-the-art security system that integrates all the most important home-control features, but don’t have a lot of cash, Vivint offers a compelling package. In the long run, however, it would be wiser to pay for the hardware up front and qualify for the lower monthly monitoring fee.

Vivint Home Automation

Best-in-class control panel. Crash-and-smash protection. Comprehensive Z-Wave device support.


Confusing pricing model. System does not report status of Z-Wave devices.

$348 installed, plus $68.99/month; or
$1,699 installed plus $49.99/month

What These Systems Don't Do

Home control can cover a lot of territory, pulling lighting, access management, video monitoring, security, audio and video entertainment, event logging, heating and cooling, irrigation, and even your swimming-pool cleaner and window coverings under the umbrella of a single unified management system.

Home control can also be hideously expensive, with upscale, custom-installed systems from vendors such as AMX, Crestron, and Control4 ranging in cost from tens of thousands of dollars to north of $100,000.

The systems reviewed here are nowhere near as expensive as that, nor are they as sophisticated. We’ve reviewed one Z-Wave controller— SquareConnect’s SQ Blaster —that has some home-entertainment features, but it’s not interoperable with any of these security systems. None of them are capable of managing your irrigation system, either; in fact, we don’t know of any irrigation systems based on Z-Wave technology. All three systems are capable of monitoring weather forecasts, so it would be great to tie in an irrigation system that watered the landscaping only when it was needed. While all three can manage heating and air-conditioning systems, none are capable of automatically turning on your pool sweeper or heating your hot tub so it’s just the right temp when you're ready to get poached after a long day's work.

We don’t believe there’s anything fundamentally lacking in the Z-Wave protocol to prevent manufacturers from developing these types of products; in fact, a Z-Wave-to-Control4 bridge is already on the market. Leak sensors and devices capable of opening and closing water valves are also available. And the aforementioned SQ Blaster is already integrated with Mi Casa Verde’s Vera 2 Z-Wave controller, so adapting it to other Z-Wave controllers shouldn’t be difficult. But if you must have those features today, you’ll need a celebrity’s budget to afford them.


ADT Pulse Premier
FrontPoint Security
Control Panel
Safewatch Pro 3000
GE Simon XT
2Gig Go!
GSM Module
Integrated in GE Simon XT
Integrated in 2Gig Go!
Safetwatch Pro 3000EN
Integrated in GE Simon XT
Integrated in 2Gig Go!
Wi-Fi Module
iHub 3001B ADT
Uses consumer's router
Uses consumer's router
Z-Wave Module
Integrated in the iHub
Integrated in GE Simon XT
Integrated in 2Gig Go!
Touch-screen GE IS-TS-1000
GE Two-way Talking Touch Screen
Integrated in 2Gig Go!
Door/Window Sensors
Three surface mount (recessed door sensors available at additional cost)
Three surface mount (recessed door sensors available at additional cost) Three surface mount (recessed door sensors available at additional cost)
IP Cameras
Two fixed-position wireless without motion sensors
Two fixed-position wireless with motion sensors Two fixed-position wireless with motion sensors
Smoke Detector
Wireless smoke/heat
Wireless smoke/heat
Wireless smoke/heat
Z-Wave Z-Wave Z-Wave
In-wall Z-Wave Lighting Control
One GE 45609 on/off switch
Supported, but not included
Supported, but not included
Plug-in Z-Wave Module
One GE 45603
One GE 45603
One GE 45603
Z-Wave Entry Lock
Not supported and not included
Schlage model FE599 entry lock (also compatible with Kwikset locks)
Kwikset entry locks (not compatible with Schlage locks)
Available Smartphone Apps
BlackBerry and iPhone
Android, BlackBerry, and iPhone
Android, BlackBerry, and iPhone
Central Office Monitoring
Minimum Contract
36 months [1]
36 months [2]
42 months [3]
System Price
$1,599 [4]
$1,114 $348
Monthly Monitoring Fee
$49.99 $68.99

[1] ADT does not sell any systems without a monitoring contract.
[2] Without a monitoring contract, FrontPoint's equipment price increases to $1,414, but its monitoring fee remains the same.
[3] Without a monitoring contract, Vivint's equipment price increases to $1,699 and its monitoring fee drops to $49.99
[4] A stock ADT Pulse Premier system sells for $1,299

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