REVIEW: We tested 3 home security systems and finally got excited about the Internet of Things

There’s more to IoT devices than watching chickens. Promise. Picture: Peter Farquhar

There are several good reasons to get a home security system, but a discount on your insurance isn’t one of them.

You could find offers of up to 20% off in the US quite easily, but we gave up trying here after three calls to major providers in Australia confirmed that yes, owning an off-the-shelf home security system would make absolutely no difference to your home and contents quote.

And despite several comparison sites offering security option boxes to tick, nothing we could add would lower the final quotes.

The best offer we could find on the phone was “maybe $30” a year off a back-to-base system. That’s the full blue flashing light setup, monitored by a security company, and possibly patrolled every now and then. If you can find one of those services for less than $30 a month, you’re doing well.

There are, however, some suburbs in which you can’t even get home and contents insurance without some form of home security. And according to the Australian Institute of Crime, the average cost of a burglary in Australia was $2,400 in 2014, so that’s definitely worth a thought.

The other good reason that now is a good time to get a home security system is because you can, and they’re a bit of fun. You can thank two things for that – the rise of the Internet of Things for that, and tech companies scrambling to find devices to put in your ballyhoo-able Connected Home.

And the cloud, which means easy, storage hassle-free access to 24/7 rolling coverage of your valuables and family.

As it happens, we got offered three different home security systems for review within the space of a week, which was unusual enough that it caught our attention. Someone has clearly identified IoT home security as a growth market, so we gave Nest Cam Outdoor and IQ (indoor), D-Link’s DCS-8100LH and DCS-8000LH, and Ring’s Floodlight and Spotlight cams a solid test drive.

But what does paying Ring, D-Link or Nest anywhere between $150 and $400 for a camera, and $33 to $300 a year for a cloud service get you?

A lot of this:

And this:

And cords. So many cords:

Yes, this is important. Look at the Nest and D-Link power cord comparisons:

Picture: Peter Farquhar, Business Insider

Nest cams come with a three-metre cord, the D-Links come with one-metre cords. Both are not enough. Nest’s cord seems a bit long, and heavy. But as we’ll note with the D-Link, too long is better than too short.

A one-metre cord is too short if you want to – like most people will – place the camera up high. Even on top of fridge you’ll need an extension cord, and then you’ll have to hold the camera down with something or pile the cord up high to stop it dragging the (not cheap) camera to the ground. Here’s the ugly truth:

Picture: Peter Farquhar, Business Insider

But if you’ve bought a Nest Cam and just want it sitting on a table or desk, you’ll get the same result, just down low. Until we start putting power outlets near the ceiling, or wireless charging makes a quantum leap, IoT device designers listen up – keep your cords light, and with both 1m and 3m options in the box. Thanks.

There’s one other cord-related snafu which Google can’t be forgiven for – this plug, which every Google Home Assistant owner in Australia has sworn at:

Picture: Peter Farquhar, Business Insider

Notifications

The other “lots of” you’ll get lots of.

By far the biggest turnoff in home security devices is the amount of pinging you get through to your phone. The majority of your setup time for all of them will be in fine-tuning this sort of thing from the past 12 hours or so:

Picture: Peter Farquhar

Sure, it’s easy enough to turn notifications off. But that’s the home security quandary. Of course you want to be told if someone’s snooping around, because what’s the point of having alarms if they’re not alarming you? But you don’t want to be pinged all day every time the cat walks through the room.

Fortunately, good home security devices have far more flexible options than the “black plastic floodlight comes on all night, black plastic floodlight goes off all night” routine that so many Australian homes and sheds have endured for decades.

For instance, Ring and Nest’s cams have a drag feature which allows you to focus on a specific zone. They’ll still film the whole field of vision, but will only notify you if there’s movement, say, in front of the door.

This actually a very cool thing. Here I’m protecting the area around my garage and shed door without getting alerts every time the kids shoot some hoops:

Picture: Peter Farquhar

D-Link’s cams have a similar feature, but also come with nifty IFTTT (If This Then That) automation capabilities, so you can set events to trigger actions.

A popular use example would be if the D-Link cam hears a noise above a decibel level you set, then it sends a notification to your phone:

Picture: Peter Farquhar

A better example would be if the D-Link cam hears your alarm going off in the morning, it will turn on the lounge room telly, heating and coffee machine. Technically, if you can be bothered to work through the finer points of IFTTT, that is entirely possible. Think about it.

Nest Cam also has the capability to know when you or other familiar faces are home, and knowing about noises feel a little superfluous when it comes to notifications, so that gets turned off. Especially given I’d be getting a notification every time someone thumped the floor upstairs, which happens a lot when you’ve got three kids.

Camera

This, for most people, will be the important bit. But really, a company actually has to make an effort to create a bad camera these days, so excellence in vision is the norm.

But there are still tricks to be employed if you want to make your IoT security cam stand out a little more from the rest. The 1080p cam on Nest’s IQ, for example, can automatically zoom in on anything it sees moving, like a home invader’s face. Hopefully this will never be a handy feature for me, or anyone.

You can also zoom in on anything manually, then ask Nest Cam to enhance it, which it does moderately well. Room view:

Picture: Peter Farquhar, Business Insider

And focus on the prized arcade machine:

Picture: Peter Farquhar, Business Insider

It’s not exactly hi-res, but it could be handy if you need a better look at a thief’s face. Better yet, if Nest Cam does see an unfamiliar face, or suspicious action, it has the capability to zoom in on it for a few seconds automatically.

The D-Link’s 720p quality isn’t great for close-ups. Here’s the closest I could get to the arcade machine from the same position as the Nest Cam IQ:

Picture: Peter Farquhar, Business Insider

But the 180-degree field of view on D-Link’s 8100LH is leaps ahead of the Nest Cam IQ, and has to be one of the best in class. In fact, it’s spooky good – here it is spotting me standing almost behind it:

Picture: Peter Farquhar, Business Insider

This is the actual picture of the Nest Cam IQ and D-Links from where I was standing – you can just see tiny bulge of the D-Link lens behind the Nest Cam IQ:

Picture: Peter Farquhar, Business Insider

And here’s where I had to stand to get in a shot from the Nest Cam IQ:

Picture: Peter Farquhar, Business Insider

Night Vision

Such a thing didn’t even exist not that long ago, so really, any night vision result is pretty amazing. But perhaps the most impressive is the clarity of the D-Link Mini, which stands up perfectly well against the Nest Cam IQ and D-Link. Here are some comparison shots, all taken in pitch dark in the shed, watching over my precious home brew:

D-Link:

Picture: Peter Farquhar

Apart from the tighter field of vision, there was virtually no difference in the D-Link Mini’s night performance. You’ll understand more about why that’s so impressive when we get to the pricing options, which is next.

Nest CAM IQ:

Picture: Peter Farquhar

Price

Let’s start the discussion about prices with a warning that should almost be mandatory on all IoT devices, streaming services and software sales.

One of the most under-the-radar new economies is the Subscription Economy. How many subscriptions do you have right now? I have 11.

They might only be around $10 a month each, but a couple of years ago, I had none. And a couple of years from now, when all my household appliances are pinging things between themselves and the cloud and my family, I might have 30.

If you’re going to subscribe to something, make sure you’re going to use it. And when it comes to plans, flexibility is king.

For example, the Ring Doorbell starts at $149, and the Spotlight cam starts at $329. That’s good value for what I have found to be an excellent, easy to set up and use product. If you don’t believe me, the Wall Street Journal was happy for it to be in its Best of CES gadgets for 2017.

It looks… like a floodlight:

Picture: Peter Farquhar

And Ring’s plan is reasonable – $40 a year for a single camera or $150 for unlimited cameras, on a contract you can cancel any time. Your videos will be stored for 60 days.

Nest Cam Outdoor also has the same great features as Indoor IQ. It’s very solid, and what I really, really like is the mounting magnet:

Picture: Peter Farquhar

You absolutely should screw it into the wall, but it holds to metal well enough, and is a wonderful piece of minimalist DIY design. The cam just pops into it.

Which is why it’s so frustrating that Nest then do something that means I was only allowed to enjoy it for three hours before my wife saw it. This:

Picture: Peter Farquhar

I have no idea what the people at Nest are thinking here. Even if I went to the trouble of installing an outdoor power point, I’d still be on Team Wife – there is no way I’d want loops of cord piled up at my front door.

Nest suggests maybe “drilling through your home’s exterior wall” to reach an indoor point.

Nope.

A hardwired option makes a whole lot more sense, and when the product looks this good, as opposed to a boxy camera, I’d take it every time if it were offered. Even a solar option such as that offered by Ring with its smaller cameras would be preferable.

At $279, Nest Cam Outdoor is quite a bit more expensive than the Ring Doorbell. The Indoor IQ is even more so – a serious $399 to consider. A Nest Aware subscription is more expensive as well, starting at $70 a year for a five-day history, up to $300 a year for a 30-day history.

The Nest Aware subscription gets you two things, one of which is very important, so pay attention.

First of all, it means your data is being constantly uploaded to the cloud. That allows it to do the familiar face recognition trick (you won’t get offered that feature if you don’t get the Nest Aware subscription). Cool.

But, especially here in Australia, it’s already been noted by several other outlets that maximum resolution settings and maximum usage can chew through 400GB a month.

However, Nest does give you plenty of options to manage that subscription very, very carefully. Just make sure you do, for once, read the instructions.

Somewhere neatly in the middle of these are D-Link’s indoor cams. The better looking version, and the one which more closely competes with Nest’s IQ, is the HD 180-degree DCS-8100LH.

The naming convention is awful, but the price is nice at $199.95, for which you get an extra 60 degrees of vision. The outdoor version is the DCS-2330L, at $269.95, which also requires a power point.

And the Mini D-Link, which, 120-degree vision aside, really is close enough to the close enough in the technicals to the DCS-8100LH, is just $149.95. Only it looks like a little trashcan and feels a bit dinky:

Picture: Peter Farquhar

Best of all, a mydlink plan is the cheapest storage option of all the above, at just $33.50 a year for a 7-day plan, up to $133 per year for 30 days storage. And if you plump for the DCS-8100LH, you can waive plans altogether if you’re happy enough to manage MicroSD storage.

The Verdict

As with just about every tech gadget you can think of, none of the options we’ve covered are perfect. If you want full home coverage, you’ll probably want a rugged, hardwired option for outside, and something a bit funky inside.

That most likely means you’ll be on two separate storage plans. But at least one of the indoor camera storage plans are free, so there’s that to consider.

Nest Cam

If we were buying from a pure design point of view, the Nest Cam IQ wins hands down. But to own it, you have to embrace it. There’s no hiding it – and you probably wouldn’t want to anyway, because it’s showy enough to hide in plain sight. You’re also trusting Google with your videos knowing there’s a good chance you’ll be naked in front of that camera at some stage.

You’ll take on a security camera inside and outside your home in the same way you mix with your smart home assistant. Yes, it will tell you when you’re getting robbed, but Nest is also there to see if the kids got home from school okay, what would they like for dinner, a baby monitor and a very capable recorder of memories.

It is light years ahead of Skype if you’re a thousand miles way and just want to join your family in the living room for 10 minutes or a footy game. The audio is excellent, both ways. And it has the most flexible options for managing notifications, with Home/Away assist, Activity Zones and specific alerts for sound, motion and people.

It’s Familiar Faces feature also learns who’s supposed to be in your home, and when. And being able to turn your footage into a timelapse video is a GREAT feature.

Nest Cam IQ is expensive, but it’s also nice:

Picture: Peter Farquhar

D-Link DCS-8100LH and DCS-8000LH

D-Link has the most flexible indoor solutions in terms of budget. For $50 more than the Nest Cam IQ, you could buy three of their mini-trashcan shaped DCS-8000LH cams and opt for the 24-hour free storage.

If you can hide the cord, it’s the camera that disappears into the background easiest, and it’s perfectly excellent, even in total darkness. A minor gripe is the shutter sound it sometimes makes switching between day and night modes. If the house is quiet at the time, it sounds like someone just took a sneaky snap of you. (Which, while exactly what you’ve signed up for, still kind of makes you pause for half a second.)

For sexiness, the 180-degree DCS-8100LH definitely won’t embarrass you as a prominent home device, and you’ll get two for the price of a single Nest Cam IQ. It has decent two-way audio.

It’s also has pop-up and lay-flat options, so you can sit it on a bench or stick it on the wall:

Picture: Peter Farquhar

And the IFTTT option shouldn’t be taken lightly. If you’re really into home automation, it could well make the D-Link a very important cog in your connected home machine.

Ring Floodlight and Spotlight

Ring is the outdoor specialist here. The $329 spotlight cam and app are packed with features that are easy to set and manage, and the subscription price is great for a 60-day plan.

The audio isn’t the best, but it’s serviceable. And if it’s dark and you want the kids to put down the basketball and come inside, the tiny joy of turning the spotlight off with your phone from upstairs never gets old. Nor does the 100 decibel siren which can be activated from anywhere.

Personally, I’d go for a couple of solar powered cams though. They’re a breeze to set up and the wifi range is excellent, which is ideal if you’ve got sheds and outbuildings to keep an eye on.

Because you never know when:

Oh, chickens. Again.

Overall, my time with these devices made it obvious that of all the many, many corners of the home IoT gadget specialists are failing to infiltrate usefully, home security now isn’t one of them.

Most people want security at home. Most people don’t want – or can’t afford – a patrolled and monitored system. This is one at-home tech that’s just been begging for the cloud for decades.

At entry level, $150 will get you a very capable D-Link Mini with a storage plan that costs $1.50 a week. It won’t get you a discount on your insurance, but it will definitely give you something to show the cops.

Pay an extra $120-$250 and the more flashy D-Link and Nest Cams of the world offer you something that’s also fun, showy and potentially very useful if you want to get more than a bit nerdy with your connected home. And Ring more than adequately keeps an eye on things outside.

Yes, there is still an avalanche of unnecessary and ropey devices coming down the IoT mountain towards our homes, eating up all our data, monthly subscription budgets and smartphone battery lives.

But connected cameras can now count themselves among the too-few Connected Home solutions finally starting to earn their keep.

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