Burglars, Be Alarmed: Smart House Alarm From Vivint

Tech on Deck: A secure step toward home automation

October 7, 2011, 5:37 PM

Oct. 10, 2011 — -- For years the smart home has seemed like one of the ultimate dreams of how technology could enhance our lives -- responding to, and even anticipating, every whim for entertainment, comfort, and safety. The road to the automated home, however, has been difficult -- fraught with exorbitant prices, difficult installations, and incompatible and unreliable products.

Even so, more companies are now looking to get into the business. Among them are Verizon Wireless, which has begun to offer home automation installations; security giant ADT via its Pulse offering; and Vivint (formerly APX Alarm) an up-and-coming ADT competitor, which installed its security and automation offering in my home and provided up to a year of service for me to test it.

Vivint's system is controlled in two main ways. The first is a touch panel installed near the front door that provides weather at-a-glance and is useful for arming and disarming the system upon entry. Arming can be done in either "home" or "away" mode, with the former turning off motion sensors. The second way is via a well-designed website and group of smartphone apps (no iPad app yet) from a company called Alarm.com that makes it easy to configure users and passwords, as well as operate nearly every aspect of the system remotely, which is one of the best features of the system.

Vivint offers an impressive array of sensors based on the Z-Wave wireless home automation standard. These include motion detection, glass breakage detection, water detection, carbon monoxide and fire detection, and opening and closing of doors. If you've heard about alarms being set off by pets activating motion alarms, that problem seems to have been addressed by updates that only detect movement by much heavier beings. The system is even theoretically open to other Z-Wave components that can perform more high-tech wizardry, such as opening drapes; however, casual attempts at controlling components via home automation software yielded only partial success.

While most of these sensors are barely noticeable, other parts of the Vivint system make your walls and ceilings look like they've sprung plastic goiters. The Vivint system logs everything, and allows you to have a complete record of every time someone opens a window a door.

Speaking of doors, another key component is the door lock, which allows you to open the door with either a traditional key or a keypad. It was really liberating to leave the house without taking those jangling keys, and to be able to unlock a door from across the country remotely to let in the house sitter.

Next up are the thermostats, which have simple monochrome touch screens for switching between heating and cooling. Vivint claims that between the discount on homeowners' insurance, and the better energy savings achieved via programmable thermostats, the Vivint system can pay for itself. While I didn't make that calculation, it was pretty cool -- so to speak -- to be able to turn on air conditioning remotely on the way home via the Alarm.com app. On occasion, though, the app did not receive feedback on the status of the thermostat, even when it successfully sent a command to turn the air on.

This raises another point about home automation via Vivint, which is that everything is done through a cellular connection, even if you are at home. It would be nice to have a way to control the system via Wi-Fi, too.

Along with temperature control, another key aspect of home control is lighting --particularly the ability to control dimming at various times. Vivint supports various lamp and appliance modules today for timed control of lamps, but the real win comes with control of in-wall switches that the company is planning to support. Alas, these proved to be Vivint's Waterloo: Despite multiple visits, Vivint could not get the lights hooked up to the system, although it is likely to improve as the company gains experience with more installations.

Vivint also offers two different kinds of cameras that can help keep tabs on things while you're away, or record video in case you want to turn back the clock a bit and check for any home disruptions. One of its models offers remote panning and tilting capabilities to survey a large room, but it does not yet offer outdoor cameras for nighttime surveillance.

Living in a home with any security system involves a bit of learning and lifestyle adjustment -- and there was the inevitable false alarm that Vivint's operators took in stride. The key thing about adding control of things like door locks, cameras, and thermostats is that they take what is normally a passive benefit -- like security -- and makes it something that can be actively used in daily life. It's certainly not a need that everyone has, but it's a much more affordable option than having a custom installer outfit one's home.

The dream of complete, seamless control of a home remains down the road, but those looking for a modern security system can at least unlock their front door remotely before they get home.

Ross Rubin (@rossrubin on Twitter) is executive director of industry analysis at The NPD Group (@npdtech on Twitter). He blogs at The NPD Group Blog as well as his own blog, Out of the Box.

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