Review: Vivint security system keeps watch with help from Alexa

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Vivint's integration with Amazon Echo makes it particularly easy to use(Credit: Vivint)

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A home security system used to have a tail, sharp teeth and a ferocious bark. But while Fido might still be a beloved part of the family, like many, his job as a guard dog is rapidly being replaced by technology in the form of home security systems. From self-install-and-monitor options to fully serviced systems, there have never been more ways to use tech to keep your home and belongings safe. The Vivint system falls into the latter camp and now boasts Amazon Echo integration, allowing parts of the system to be controlled simply by asking Amazon's virtual assistant, Alexa, for help. We've been putting the system through its paces.

Installation

In the world of home security systems, a big divide exists between systems you install yourself, such those from SimpliSafe and Iris, and company-installed systems like ADT and Vivint.

The Vivint installation was smooth and efficient. We had the following components installed: doorbell camera, stand-alone interior camera, window and door sensors, two smart locks, two outdoor cameras, two thermostats, two pairs of smoke and carbon monoxide detectors and two smart outlet adaptors.

The process took about five hours and the work was done neatly and professionally. Unlike the SimpliSafe system we previously had, Vivint installs its door sensors directly inside the frames, so unless you have some decent carpentry skills, the professional install is a welcome inclusion. It's also important to note that the main panel, the doorbell and the cameras all need to be plugged into electrical outlets, which required additional drilling through the home. This is different from SimpliSafe where the components all ran on batteries.

Other components like the thermostats and smoke alarms are battery operated though, so there's not too much hard wiring going on.

How it works

All components in the Vivint system are linked to a central panel that's installed near the front door. The panel itself is plugged into the wall, but has a battery backup that kicks in if a black-out occurs. In such an event the electric-powered cameras and doorbell would cease to operate, but the important door, window and motion sensors would continue to function. Connection to Vivint's central monitoring service is handled over a cellular network.

The cameras and doorbell connect to the central panel via Wi-Fi, while the third-party door locks and thermostats (and garage controller if you get one) operate using Z-Wave technology. The door, window and motion sensors as well as the thermostats connect using a proprietary 3.45 Mhz radio frequency.

The panel

There are three main ways to control the system: the main panel, a smartphone app, or voice command through Alexa (more on that in a bit). The panel, which measures about 9 x 6 in (23 x 15 cm) is bright and simple to use, but one of our main complaints with the system is the significant lag in the touch-screen functionality. Arming the system, which must be done with the front door closed, can take a few attempts as the "swipe right" gesture isn't always successful the first try. When disarming the system with a PIN code upon re-entering the home, it can be easy to enter duplicate numbers because you're not really sure if the first press was actually detected by the panel because of the lag time.

Beyond controlling the system and putting up notices about its functionality and events, the panel can also provide a weather forecast. Additionally, it can be used to monitor feeds from the doorbell and the other cameras and control the thermostats, which can also be operated independently using the devices themselves. It's also possible to talk to visitors through the doorbell by using the panel.

An emergency feature exists that allows you to enter a code down the center of the virtual keypad that will get Vivint silently eavesdropping on your situation if you find yourself with an intruder in the home while the system isn't armed. While such a feature could come in handy, we find ourselves missing the emergency remote control from our SimpliSafe system that could be kept bedside.

The app

Unlike the panel, the app works smoothly and efficiently. In fact, it quickly became our favorite way to control the system. It too allows monitoring of cameras and the setting and checking of system status, as well as thermostat control. An activity section also lets you see everything that's gone on with the system for the past few days.

Clicking on the "cameras" tab lets you monitor what's going on in and around your home in real time, and if you set your system to record when the cameras sense movement, you can download clips that show you just who stopped by.

The doorbell is also linked to the app, so it's possible to set it to "ding" on your phone when it is rung, which is a handy feature if you're not on the same floor as the doorbell. You can also then press and hold the microphone button to talk to whoever is at the door.

Smart functionality

One of the best parts of the app is the ability to set custom actions in the system. For example, you can tell the system to always lock your front door when it's closed or to notify you if doors or windows are left open for an extended period of time. You can also set time parameters on the actions so, for example, you can have it lock all doors automatically after 10 pm.

By using the outlet adaptors, you can also set custom actions for anything plugged into them. For example, you can have a light turn on whenever you open the front door or make the TV turn on and off throughout the day to make it appear that someone is home.

Response time

As with most security systems, when an intrusion alarm is triggered in the Vivint system, you are first contacted by the monitoring company in case you tripped the system accidentally. If they can't get a hold of you or your password is incorrect, they will send the authorities. In the case of smoke or fire alarms tripping, Vivint dispatches the authorities immediately.

In a few test runs, we found the response time to be adequate, but not impressive. Each time we tripped the alarm, it took about two minutes for Vivint to call us. If it was a real intrusion such a delay could seem like an eternity.

Fortunately, a loud siren does issue forth from the panel if it's not disarmed in 60 seconds, so that could just be enough to scare an intruder away on its own.

Echo integration

The Vivint system integrates with Amazon's Echo device, the speaker cum smart assistant (nicknamed "Alexa") that is activated via voice control. As with other smart devices with Echo intergation, to add in the Vivint functionality you simply need to install the "skill" via the Echo app. Once that's done, you can control your system via your voice.

For example, you can say "Alexa, ask Vivint to lock my front door," or "Alexa, ask Vivint to turn the heat up," or "Alexa, ask Vivint to turn on my bedroom light" (providing you have the light on an outlet adaptor). The "ask" part of the command is common to all third-party integrations with Echo, but a company spokesperson said that they are working with Amazon to eliminate that slightly awkward bit of phrasing.

The integration worked seamlessly and it is indeed pretty cool to be able to control so many aspects of the home by simply speaking into thin air. In addition to Vivint, the Scout and Abode home alarms also offer Echo integration.

Cost

The Vivint pricing model is a bit like that of a mobile phone provider. In other words, there is no up-front cost for the equipment you choose, but rather, the total price is spread out over monthly payments. However, if you cancel your service, you'll need to pay for the equipment in full. On top of that, there is a US$99 activation fee and monthly service packages starting at $49.99, so the monthly bill can quickly add up. That being said, the equipment is under warranty through the life of the service agreement, so replacements aren't an issue.

One of the recessed door sensors in the Vivint home security system(Credit: Michael Franco/New Atlas)

Pros

While the monthly fees can climb quite high depending on the equipment and service packages selected, it is nice that you don't have to shell out a fortune at the start of a Vivint contract. Also, the professional installation is a nice benefit.

Additionally, the customization options for all components in the system is a big plus here. Unlike other simple camera-based systems, with Vivint you really can make your home smart and safe in one fell swoop.

Cons

The lagging panel and somewhat lengthy response times of the monitoring service were definite disappointments. We also had issues with the doorbell and door locks. Unfortunately, Vivint doesn't offer any kind of doorbell repeater, so the only place the ring sounds is at the panel. We live in a three-story house, so there were many times that we didn't hear the doorbell ring. Having the ring come through on the app helps a bit, but if you don't have your phone with you at all times, the chance to miss a visitor or delivery can be high.

Also, the door locks only come in models featuring a latch on both sides. While that works for a solid door, it's not so great if you have an outer door with glass panels, as we do. That means an intruder can simply smash the window, turn the latch from the inside and walk right in. Naturally the alarm would go off, but in the time it takes for the calls to be made and the authorities to arrive, a thief could make off with quite a bit. We patched the situation by placing a glass break sensor by the door that would trigger the alarm a little bit faster, but still, the situation isn't ideal and we hope Vivint can work with their suppliers to provide a more secure solution.

Conclusion

Overall we're pretty pleased with the Vivint system. Installation was professional, the number of components the system was capable of handling is mighty indeed, and the Alexa integration is downright fun. If you're looking to jump on the smart home bandwagon while also protecting your home from fire and theft, then Vivint is an attractive package – especially considering that someone will come to your home and set it all up for you. If, however, you just need a simple security system and would like to save a little cash, a DIY system might be a better choice.

Either way, a report (PDF) by the University of North Carolina at Charlotte's Department of Criminal Justice and Criminology says that about 60 percent of burglars would consider moving on to another house once they find that their intended target has a home security system, so installing some kind of deterrent is likely worth your while – even if Fido is doing a good job.

Product Page: Vivint

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