How the Vivint Sky security system performed under pressure

Home monitoring doesn't have to require so much tech babysitting after all.

I hate the feeling of testing some new piece of technology only for a few days.

As a journalist now for almost 15 years, I tend to be over-analytical. I always want to go beyond the normal “power it on and see if it work” testing process. With smartphones, I’ll usually live with the phone for a while and use it as my primary form of communication. With laptops, I won’t just write one article for an afternoon at Caribou; I’ll use the notebook for a week or two and see how it performs playing games, posting to social media, editing photos, and many other tasks.

That’s why, for the past few weeks, I’ve been testing the Vivint Sky security system, one that promises to make home security a bit smarter and easier. This version distinguishes itself with some extra automation. For example, you can set it to lock all of the doors and turn off all of the lights at 11PM each night, or to warn you if a door is unlocked during a set period. A new Doorbell Cam introduced a few months ago can detect when someone comes to the door and record a video clip or snap a photo, which then pops up on your phone or tablet. You can also have a two-way conversation using the app just by pressing a button. (Yes, it is easy to scare people.)

My goal was to see whether the entire Sky system didn’t just work functionally (e.g., the app sends a command to the front door to unlock it) but if it works in many situations over a few weeks. I used an iPhone 6s, an iPad Pro, a Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge, and my laptop to monitor things. I adjusted settings from home and also when I was away at a conference. I included everyone in my family in the test, who installed the app on their own devices. And, I used the control panel installed in a hallway.

This kind of testing takes time because you never know what’s going to happen. One week, I asked my nephew to do some testing for me while I was out of town, and just gave him the security code to the front door. My kids used the Vivint app to trigger the overhead garage doors. The apps work when they connect to my home Wi-Fi network or over 4G, so you can see if the garage door is open using the app or using a video camera in the garage.

I set up quite a few custom actions, as they’re called. You can create a “rule” that automatically locks the doors at set times, opens then when you unlock a door, record a clip when motion is detected, and many other options. What I noticed right away is that these automations saved me a ton of time. Instead of having to fish out my phone each night and click an option to lock the doors, I just had the system lock them automatically. After a few days, I found I didn’t like getting a notification that the FedEx had dropped off a package (and triggered the motion detector) so I just disabled it. Because of these triggers, I rarely even used the panel located near my garage, which is where you’d normally control security options.

Technology tends to reveal imperfections over time. So, I kept adjusting the custom actions and settings. I used the garage door opener options in the app on my iPhone 6s several times over a couple of weeks, and used a custom action that notified me if the garage doors were opened. It’s handy because, it’s one thing to be able to open and close your garage doors with an app, it’s another to actually remember to check on them each night. The Vivint Sky system worked flawlessly for me in making sure all of the entry-points were well-protected.

I also used an action that notified me if there was motion in the hallway at night. One morning, I saw a notification and wondered what had triggered it (turns out my wife went looking for the cat at midnight). The system helps increase your awareness a bit. You can easily investigate why a motion detector was triggered or why someone unlocked a door at 3AM.

There were only a couple of minor issues. My back-door lock would sometimes not engage. At first, I thought it was the cold temps. A rep helped me determine that the door has to be closed all of the way. During my tests, I also noticed what looked like Wi-Fi interference from all of the video cameras because my bandwidth was not as high as it should be. Vivint actually uses a Z-wave wireless network for the sensors, and even the control panel connects on its own 3G signal. The irony is that I determined that the interference was due to a neighbor using an extender. (I’m still working on what to do about that problem.)

The Vivint Sky system also uses smoke alarms that are connected to the control panel. In a few cases, I had a false alarm (burnt bacon) and someone called me through the control panel to make sure everything was OK. Another time, it was my own smoke alarm. The Vivint system has detector that can “listen” for those alarms. However, if you manage to fan out the smoke quickly, the Vivint team labels that as a false alarm, which is what happened.

I was impressed at how everything worked without too many glitches. In a handful of cases, I punched an option in the app (to lock a door or open an overhead garage door, for example) and noticed the icon would spin for a bit and not work. I had to close the app and restart and it would work fine. (Vivint said this is likely a glitch on the phone itself, not the app.)

The pricing seems reasonable. You have to pay a $99 activation fee, and then you pick which products you want to install and pay a rate of about $40-$70 per month. For example, you could emphasize video detection and pick two or three cameras, emphasize connected locks and pick those, or mix and match. (In my house, I avoided the connected thermostat option because of some complications with how my heating works in different zones.)

Overall, the Vivint Sky system worked extremely well. It makes it easier to protect my home without having to constantly babysit the sensors, locks, and cameras by using custom actions. Now I just need to figure out why that midnight cat incident occurred.

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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