Simplisafe Tested

By: Brian Rhodes, Published on Jun 18, 2014

$57 million. That's the big bet by one of Silicon Valley's top VCs that a Massachussets based startup, Simplisafe, can knock off behemoths like ADT.

And in typical Valley style, they are not shy about what they think of incumbents, declaring:

"Most home security companies are stuck in the eighties with aggressive salespeople, obsolete technology and expensive alarm monitoring contracts that lock you in for years and thousands of dollars. We love the way SimpliSafe is disrupting an antiquated industry."

Is this product for real?

We bought a Simplisafe kit, shown below:

 

We tested its installation, operation and advanced feature sets compared to traditional alarm systems like ADT.

Key Findings

Here are the key issues compared to traditional, channel installed panel-based intrusion alarm systems.

Negatives

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First, the negatives:

  • No Zoning: A SimpliSafe system, regardless of total number of sensors, comprises one zone. Unlike an incumbent system, where individual zones can correspond to groups of sensors, knowing where in a system a sensor is alarming is not possible. If the front door is opened, the keypad only messages a generic statement than an entry sensor is alarming, but does not clarify which/where that sensor is located.
  • General Sensor Designs: Unlike an incumbent system that can use hundreds of different sensor types, SimpliSafe's choices are limited to one model of entry and motion contacts. 
  • Basic Alerts Only: The types of notifications the system offers are generally limited to 'alarm' notifications. Advanced signals like 'loss of power' or 'communication loss' that are common to incumbent systems are not available with SimpliSafe.
  • Limited Monitoring Choice: With SimpliSafe, there is only one approved central station that can monitor the system and must be used regardless of performance or future rate increases. While incumbent systems may limit central stations, if the system is unlocked it can be picked up hundreds of providers. 

Positives

While those 'cons' are marked against incumbent offerings, SimpliSafe's system offered some clear 'pros', or positives, as well:

  • Easy Install: Once plugged in, the base station uses audio instructions and a printed pictorial guide to describe installation steps for the factory-configured system. 
  • Ample Capacity: For even large houses, the system's 41 device expansion capacity will be more than adequate
  • App Driven (for a Price): Using the system is simply and possible remotely when connected to a smartphone app. This feature is possible when purchased with the 'Interactive' package that costs $25 per month. The app is not available in the less costly other monthly service packages.
  • Simple Operation: The user has the choice of using the keypad, webpage, app, or keyfob to arm/disarm the system. The same basic controls and terminology is used in all interfaces, and learning the process once applies to everything. 

Operation Overview

Below is a quick video showing the basic function and alerts displayed by the system on the wireless keypad and remote app:

Key Distinctions

General Sensor Designs

In terms of system design, SimpliSafe offers only a few basic sensor types designed to be generally useful in houses but not always ideal for specific areas. Consider the single option PIR motion sensor:

 

The installation instructions clearly list the mounting height for this sensor between 4' and 5' above the floor. The range of this sensor is about 30', has a 90 degree range, and is 'pet-immune' up to 30 pounds, but it clearly sacrifices optimal focus for general use. In the image above, notice the 'typical sensor' mounted at about 8' that also sees in a 90 degree range.  However, this sensor is mounted in a corridor, and only needs to see about 15'.

This specific application allows the sensor to be mounted higher and is more aesthetically pleasing and less intrusive. Not only this, but the traditional sensor is a dual tech type, and is less prone to false alarms in a tighter sensing area and will likely be better performing as a result.

Also take a look at SimpliSafe's standard 'entry sensor' magnetic contact:

The unit itself is quite large and obtrusive compared to the standard 'recessed type' door contact. The flushmount application is also a disadvantage when mounting onto trim framework that may be contoured and result in a less-ideal contact bond than another sensor style. 

This same sensor is specified for use with both doors and windows, and is the only option available. If the design of the door or window cannot provide a solid surface where both sensor sides can be mounted within 2" of each other, then it cannot be monitored.

Wireless and Adhesive Mounted 

One of the biggest differences compared to incumbent systems is that all alarm devices are battery powered and wirelessly connected. This makes installation very quick, with the process involving pulling a tab to connect the battery, and peeling off an adhesive mounting strip. The image below details these features typical of all system devices: 

Indeed, while battery powered, adhesive mounted strips are easy to install, they may not be adequate for some applications. Incumbent systems usually mount sensors with screws or are mechanically fastened to surfaces, while SimpliSafe sensors can be knocked loose or tampered with easily.

SimpliSafe includes a set of self-tapping screws with each sensor for more secure mounting, and if locating the device in vulnerable locations they should be used, which adds complexity and time and may not be suitable for wood or drywall surfaces.

App Driven

Another distinctive, albeit not unique, aspect of SimpliSafe's platform is control via smart devices. All facets of the system can be accessed by the app, keeping the same format between physical keypads, mobile interface, or app: 

 

While this option is only available with the 'top end' monitoring subscription at ~$25/month, that cost is still typically 20% - 100% less than the equivalent 'app based' package from an incumbent provider. 

SimpliSafe is Basic

When it comes to power features like video surveillance or home automation, SimpliSafe flat out does not support it. Even dated incumbent panels can be combined with 'add-on' modules that integrate with cameras or Z-Wave/Zigbee hubs.

While SimpliSafe has hinted (since 2011) that video support is being developed, there are no firm deadlines for release.

A Real Threat

Given the extreme ease of installation, no mandatory monitoring, system transportability, and limited sensor choices, SimpliSafe is best suited for apartment dwellers and those looking for a basic residential alarm system.

Indeed, SimpliSafe stops short of promoting the system for commercial applications. For that segment, there is still too much variability in sensor performance and system configuration for the current platform to be much use.

However, given the recent large investment, if SimpliSafe sets its sight on adding video surveillance, zoning, and beefs up sensor options, they could open a new campaign against complacent enemies.

From our overview update, we analyse the cash injection and how it may help the company become a prime player in the space:

Compared to traditional alarm systems, Simplisafe is not revolutionary but it does offer some savings and some conveniencies. Indeed, Simplisafe is just one of many DIY intrusion offerings.

While Simplisafe was founded in 2006 and reports 100,000 customers, until now, the company appears to have grown with only modest external funding.

The $57 million in funding will let them embark on a Dropcam style massive marketing campaign. And that is the key potential / differentiator here.

Even if Simplisafe does not 'beat' ADT, there clearly is an opportunity for a DIY alarm alternative to become a major player. And with $57 million to spend over the next few years and a powerhouse VC behind them, they have a shot at it. 

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