How to choose a home security system without the headache

Smart home security system guide Google
Image: Google.

Choosing the right home security system can be challenging. For very high-risk areas, or places with lots of valuables, the best route is still to probably go for a wired, professionally set up and monitored system. But for most ordinary people, something like a Google Nest smart doorbell, or a Ring doorbell, will be enough to give you peace of mind, and footage to show to the authorities in case of a break-in.

After a family member recently had her home broken into, with valuables stolen (including a new smart doorbell they hadn’t gotten around to installing yet), I went down a rabbit hole to find the best system for them, and in the process learned a lot about this important category.

Choosing a smart home security system

What are the main smart home security system brands?

If you walk into any electronics retailer in Australia, you’ll see a lot of options for security cameras and video doorbells. Here are the main brands you should be considering:

Google

Google is a brand with its finger in a surprising number of pies. In addition to search engines, Chromebooks, YouTube, and a startling amount of online advertising, Google also makes the Nest range of smart products, including the Nest Doorbell.

The benefit of going with Google is that there’s a good chance you’re already using other Google smart home devices, like a Nest Hub or Google Home speaker. If you’re already using Google Assistant, then adding Google Nest products to your existing setup is really easy and seamless.

Google Nest Hub security
Image: Google.

This is the model I would recommend to people who are tech confident enough to install a doorbell, but want something familiar and easy they don’t have to think too much about. The alerts strike the right balance of being cautious without jumping at shadows, the camera is good quality, and the speaker and microphone mean you can easily accept a parcel from the other side of the world.

With Google Nest, you can get the Google Nest Doorbell (battery version) for $329, An outdoor camera with a floodlight for $549 (very popular for people with backyards in dodgy areas), a regular outdoor camera for $329, and an indoor camera for $169. The indoor camera is good if you’re particularly concerned about burglars, or if you just want to make sure your dog is staying off the couch while you’re at work.

For what it’s worth, I ended up recommending my robbed family member go for Google Nest, because I knew they would have an easy time using it, and still get the peace of mind they needed after such a traumatic incident.

Ring

Ring is the main brand you probably think of when you think of video doorbells. That’s for good reason, their cameras are ubiquitous, inexpensive, and very good. I used Ring cameras back when I lived in a house and always really liked them. I also got one for my dad a few years ago when he stopped being able to hear the regular doorbell, because his phone could alert him to people at the door. If my dad can work out how to use Ring, anyone can (sorry dad, but we both know it’s true).

Ring has a variety of indoor and outdoor cameras, and a few different doorbells. The latest release is the Ring Battery Video Doorbell Pro, which features colour night vision, and an aerial map.

Ring Battery Video Doorbell Pro review
Image: Ring.

If you google Ring, you’re likely to see a lot of American articles about how the Amazon-owned company was found to be sharing videos with the police without the permission of owners in the US. However, I haven’t seen any such stories in Australia, and Australia and the US are very different countries. Ring also offers end-to-end encryption, which is a way to ensure Amazon can’t access your videos without your permission, if that’s something you’re concerned about.

In a statement to GadgetGuy, Mark Fletcher, Managing Director, Ring APAC said “We were the first in the industry to make two-step verification mandatory and we are also the first major home security company to offer customers End-to-End Encryption for their videos, which adds additional layers of protection to video and audio recordings made by enrolled Ring devices.”

Swann

The first brand that comes to mind when you’re thinking of Australian home security brands is Swann. Fun fact: the children of the founder of Swann went on to found the accessories brand Cygnett. The brand started as a traditional wired home security company, and has now pivoted into the smart home security space.

Swann home security system video doorbell
Image: Swann.

While they’re not as big a company as the others on this list, their products are good quality and relatively good value. It’s also a security company first and foremost, whereas Amazon is primarily an online retail platform, and Google is a data collection/online ad sales company (which also dabbles in search, online video and AI).

Arlo

What I like about Arlo is how sleek the devices look. The cameras and doorbells just look nice. I haven’t used their products long enough to give a definitive judgement, but they seem to be on par with the competition, just prettier, which is pretty darn good.

Other brands include Eufy and TP-Link.

Types of smart home security system devices

From beginner-friendly to more advanced solutions, these are the most common types of home security system devices you can get.

Video doorbell

In regards to what users should start with, it’s unsurprising that a company best known for making video doorbells recommends starting with a video doorbell.

“If you are considering the installation of a home security product, then I’d highly recommend starting with a smart doorbell,” Fletcher said. “It is a versatile device which not only helps you monitor your home day and night, but also with managing and speaking to delivery drivers and guests via your phone (or Amazon Echo device) no matter where you are, ultimately offering peace of mind for renters and homeowners alike.”

He is right, though, I also recommend starting with a video doorbell. It’s the easiest place to start and shows you the biggest improvement in the shortest amount of time.

Swann HomeShield responses
Many smart video doorbells let you see who’s at the door and respond in real time. Image: Swann.

It works like a regular doorbell, in that visitors press a button and it makes a sound. But that sound goes to your phone or other smart devices. From here, you can interact with people through the microphone and speaker combo built into the doorbell whether you’re home or on the other side of the world. Plus, you can send videos of potential robbers to the police (or their mother, if you’re feeling particularly vindictive).

Most companies will need you to sign up for a paid subscription service to keep the videos longer than whichever amount of time the company has deemed the minimum, so factor that into your pricing considerations.

Outdoor cameras

If you have a backyard, or other outdoor area, it might be worth putting up another camera there to see what’s going on. The robbers at my friend’s place last week managed to get in through the front door, which would have been covered by a video doorbell, but the people who robbed my family member got in through the back door.

Arlo Essential Outdoor Camera 2nd Generation
Arlo Essential Outdoor Camera (2nd Gen). Image: Arlo.

Smart outdoor cameras generally have the same microphone and speaker abilities as the doorbell, but without the doorbell part. In nice times, this means you can talk to your door while you’re at work. In less nice times you can tell would-be robbers that they’re on camera.

Floodlight cameras

These are like outdoor cameras, but they also have floodlights (hence the name). These are handy for your driveway, or front path, because they not only light your path home if you come back late, but also might scare robbers into going elsewhere.

Indoor cameras

This is a riskier move, given some of the security concerns with smart home devices (read more on that below), but can be nice to keep an eye on your pets when you’re not there.

DVR Security systems

These are more like the security systems of old, but a bit more modern. These use wired security cameras, and instead of storing the recordings on the cloud, they’re saved to a DVR. Much more secure and private, but it does take more effort and knowledge to set up properly.

Risks of using smart home security systems

In a wired system that isn’t connected to the internet, your weak points are wires that stop working, someone gaining physical access to the recording device, and power outages. You still have those risks with a smart home system, but also the added risk that your system is only as secure as the weakest password, and you could be just one hack away from all your private videos being shared.

If you have a smart home, you need to ensure that your device and Wi-Fi passwords are strong and difficult to guess. If someone gets into your Wi-Fi or your app, they can watch all the feeds without you ever knowing.

Arlo Secure app 3 million milestone
Make sure you use secure passwords to reduce the risk of unwanted access. Image: Arlo.

But you are not the only weak point in the system. There have been plenty of reports over the years of people buying cheap baby monitors, and then discovering strangers talking to their baby over the monitor’s built-in speaker. If you miss a software update, or the company you bought the device from stops giving software updates, then your device can be compromised by hackers.

Enabling end-to-end encryption is a good place to start. Good security hygiene is an important next step, and then using devices from a brand that you think can be trusted is the next step.

The other big risk is domestic violence. In the wrong hands, these devices can be used to monitor and control spouses, children, or housemates. This isn’t really something the companies can do much about, sadly. But, if you think a partner or parent is misusing smart home technology for nefarious purposes, the eSafety Commissioner and 1800 Respect have resources that might help you.

Is a smart home security system right for you?

Whether you need a smart home security system depends entirely on your personal circumstances. What I will say, though, is that I have set up video doorbells for the most vulnerable members of my family, because I want them to not only be able to hear their doorbell, but to deter intruders. I don’t have one now, because I live in an apartment, but if I lived in a house, I would absolutely be using a video doorbell and possibly some cameras.

That said, I’m having a baby soon, and I’m strongly considering getting a baby monitor that doesn’t connect to the internet, because the balance of risks and rewards is different for a device I will only use at home, versus one I would need to monitor when I’m away from home.

For example, if my baby is home and I am not, her other mother or her grandmother will be there to keep an eye on the monitor, whereas if the three of us are out, using the internet to check on my house could be beneficial.

These devices are a good starting point, but you need to balance the risks and rewards based on your own situation.

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