Recently featured on Channel Five’s Gadget Show, the AlertMe is a brand new Smart Home Security system from a UK start-up. After spending a few weeks with the product we reveal its highs and lows and provide the information you need to decide if it’s right for you.
Founded in 2006, AlertMe.com is a company based in Cambridge UK and was setup by serial entrepreneurs Adrian Critchlow and Pilgrim Beart with Doug Richard, of Dragons Den fame sitting on the board as a non-exec director. AlertMe describe their product as a “revolutionary home security system”, in a nut shell it’s a broadband connected device that monitors your home and provides control and status alerts via email and SMS.
Whats in the Kit
The £400 kit comes with a decent selection of modules to give you a good start with your system. Here’s what’s in the box..
Hub x 1
The hub is the core of the system and much smaller than we had imagined. Its clear there’s been plenty of thought put into the design and AlertMe are trying to reproduce the Cupertino experience with the packaging of the kit and the installation, and that’s a good standard to aim for. The hub contains an ARM microprocessor running Linux and uses the ZigBee Mesh Network (employing 128-bit AES encryption) to communicate with the sensors buttons and keyfobs. It also houses a microphone (not currently used), speakers for voice announcements, coloured LEDs for status signaling, and a battery and GPRS module for backup in the event of a power or broadband outage. AlertMe say the hub will run for more than 4 hours on its internal battery power in the event of a mains failure. The system uses ZigBee chips from Ember and employs their EM250 system-on-chip and EM260 networking co-processor. It’s also the first security system to obtain product certification by the ZigBee Alliance.
Lamp x 1 (Additional units available at £35)
The lamp that shipped in our kit is a Mathmos Aduki unit. AlertMe will shortly be replacing this with their own design. Currently the lamp lights up in pretty colours and extends the range of the mesh network, that’s it. However, AlertMe promise “far more” from the lamp in the next software update.
Motion Sensors x 2 (Additional units available at £25)
The little PIR motion sensors are housed in a case with champhered edges so you can mount them in a corner as well as on a flat surface if you prefer. They are so small and neat we just placed them on shelves while testing the system. They have a green LED that lights when motion is detected as with a normal wired unit.
Door/Window Sensors x 3 (Additional units available at £25)
The magnetic reed switch for door or windows are a wireless version of the traditional version. One half of the sensor houses a magnet and when the two halves are seperated, one on the frame, the other on the door/window, the sensor is triggered. Several users have reported problems fitting the device to uPVC doors and a solution has been posted on the AM site.
Alarm Detectors x 2 (Additional units available at £25)
The alarm sensors allow the system to monitor a Smoke detector, CO2 detector or other warning device. These must be placed within 5 cms of the alarm to be monitored and they are tuned to listen to the specific frequencys used in these types of devices.
Keyfobs x 3 (Additional units available at £20)
You probably have a keyfob to arm the alarm on your car so why not your home. The keyfob has a keyring and presumably would be used for your house keys. It’s quite big though and may not suit everyones pocket. It also came apart when accidentally dropped on a tiled floor. The keyfob has two buttons, one for arming and one for disarming the system as well as LEDs and the ability to produce tones (which are way too quiet). Keyfobs are said to be “clone proof” and lost keyfobs can be de-activated and re-activated if found later.
Button x 1 (Additional units available at £20)
Currently the button can only be used as a door bell. Its safe to use outdoors in “sheltered positions” and you can choose from two doorbell sounds or a dog bark – a useful burglar deterrent (see the video below). There’s also the facility to upload your own sound effect and use that. More uses are promised in subsequent software versions and we can see it being used as a panic button, or perhaps a bedside switch to arm to night mode (if there was a night mode, but more on that later).
The box also includes two window stickers for your home warning any potentially unwanted visitors that your house is protected by the system. All units come with the requisite CR2 batteries supplied and AlertMe say sensors will run for a year or more on fresh batteries. Even for an average sized house you’re probably going to want to add more sensors, but at least this helps keep the initial cost down and allows you to expand the coverage of your home as you can afford it. Each device also includes a selection of sticky pads to fix them to your walls. It’s worth mentioning that the pads are removable and so ideal if you are moving home or renting – just pack-up and move the system with you without damaging the decor.
AlertMe pride themselves on their DIY installation (you won’t need as much as a screw driver) and the process uses their website to walk you through each task. It’s estimated to take around 90 minutes and after creating your account, providing your address, mobile phone and credit card details you are directed to open each numbered box and install the components.
You’ll need to have a broadband connection (256k minimum), a mobile phone and a spare Ethernet port for the hub. We’re assuming most people won’t have structured data cabling in their homes so if you don’t want to site your AM hub next to your router you’re going to need something like the Homeplug Ethernet over mains adaptors . We asked AlertMe what their views were on using 802.11 wireless games adaptors too. They say they have not tested the system with a games adaptor but there’s probably no reason why this wouldn’t work. All internet comms are carried out over SSL so are considered secure.
Unfortunately our review kit was using a firmware version that had several issues. Only half the status lights lit on our hub, no lights showed at all on the lamp and we had issues with attaching the various sensors wirelessly to the hub. We had several sensors stop flashing – a sign they have connected successfully to the hub, but they failed to appear on the web interface. Resetting a sensor is an awkward procedure requiring you to quickly insert and remove the battery half a dozen times for less than a second each time. Thankfully the next firmware update will change this and uses a series of presses of the tamper micro-switch to reset the sensor instead.
Several calls to a helpful customer services, a full reset of the hub, an upgrade to the latest firmware and some time later we had the system up and running. AlertMe say that these are all known issues and are resolved in the latest version of the software. These are the sort of problems we’ve encountered in other complex new technologies. Users of V1.0 products are sometimes going to be participating in an extension of the beta program and this seems to be the case here.
Placing the sensors around the home is a joy. Due to the wireless nature of the system you aren’t limited by the usual factors or faced with chasing walls or having unsightly wires clipped around doors and skirting boards as is usual in a retro fit.
One of our sensors placed at the opposite end of the house to the hub wasn’t able to communicate, but adding an extra lamp/repeater would cure this. The range of the sensors should be adequate for most homes.
We placed the button in the porch at our front door and it was interesting to see the differential in temperature in this location to the rest of the house. In a more complex system it would be great to be able to incorporate this data in a “weather compensator” routine that would for example notice a particularly cold snap and start the boiler earlier in the morning so the house reaches the required temperature by the time the occupants are getting up.
The backup GPRS service takes several days to come online and is currently limited to Orange with no provision for using your own PAYG sim or one from any other provider.
Using the System
There’s no need for a PC here as the system runs completely stand-alone. When arming the alarm you press the away from home button on your keyfob. If all is OK it flashes green and plays an ascending series of beeps. If there is a problem, say a window or door is open then the Keyfob will flash orange and play a descending series of beeps. These are far too quiet to hear in all but the most quiet of surroundings and the difference between the two sound states is not easily distinguishable.
We’d want to site the hub near our point of exit as it does produce excellent clear voice announcements (human female) of the status as you arm and disarm the system along with any problems encountered. It also produces the door bell sounds so it needs to be in a position that you can hear it, not burried under the stairs. If you forget to set the alarm when you leave home, you can set it by text message or from the AM website. You should also be able to do this by email, but, you guessed it, that feature won’t be available until the next software release.
The hub itself doesn’t even know if its armed or not. So even if someone came in and took a sledge hammer to the unit it wouldn’t matter. The very fact that its connection to the AlertMe servers over the Internet suddenly disappeared would trigger response and a text and or email to you.
The web interface allows you to log on from anywhere and view your homes status. Its nice to see that AlertMe recommend FireFox and customer services say that their system is optimised for the open source browser. You can check who’s home (for each user that has their own keyfob) and you can set and unset the alarm, as you can with SMS.
You can monitor the temperature of each area that has a device in it with a temperature sensor and you can view it’s battery level and wireless signal strength. We’d have liked to have seen a temperature sensor in the Hub and the ability to monitor its battery level in the event of a powercut.
We noticed in the wireless signal graphs that the sensors seem to drop off the radar from time to time. We imagine the developers are trying to find a balance between battery life and wireless performance and so this is something that will probably be able to be tweaked in the system firmware.
You can query the system at any time using the STATUS command along with your PIN code. So for example texting “status 1234” will result in AM sending back an SMS message showing the status of your system (see the video above for a demonstration of this).
The feature that the entire ethos of this system is built on – Alerting you in the event of an intruder in your home – is for us, the most disappointing aspect of the entire product. For example, if you are broken into and you have the system setup to text you, it will send out just one single solitary message. If you are outside mobile coverage, have a flat battery or heck are even just in a noisy pub, then it could be hours before you stumble on the message that says your home has been broken into. Even if you have several people being notified it isn’t too much of a stretch to imagine a scenario where a single message to each party would be missed. A post on AM’s own forums from existing owners shows they are as surprised as we are at this lack of a robust method of Alerting the user.
Many existing home alarms that dial out on tripping will continue to ring round until a human acknowledges receipt of the message (this is normally done by entering a code on their phone keypad – a requirement that means the system can distinguish between an answering machine picking up and a human responding to the alarm. Again it appears this is a feature that’s coming in the future, but we couldn’t rely on the system until it’s implemented, tested and working.
When you arm the system to away mode currently, and there’s a window or door open, there is no way of knowing which one it is so you are faced with checking all of them until you find the culprit. Again a promised software update is coming that is said to cure this. There are other issues too. Some Forum posts don’t exactly inspire confidence.
Are There Any Other Problems?
Currently the home alarm market employs a series of accreditation’s that certify the hardware and the installation meet a minimum requirement. AlertMe currently has no security accreditations and we feel because of its design it’s unlikely to gain any without a major change in the industry. This almost certainly means your insurance company will not recognise the system and therefore will not offer a discount on your home cover.
Most domestic security system have a “Night Mode”. This allows the alarm to be set to trigger if say someone opens a downstairs door or passes a downstairs motion sensor, whilst still allowing movement in the bedrooms and hallways upstairs. Currently there’s no night mode available with AM, although again, this is promised in a future update.
AlertMe say their servers are dual-redundant and live in a “retired MOD nuclear bunker” but in the small print AlertMe have no guarantee of service or up-time. There are already examples of server outages acknowledged by AlertMe on their forums and while no one can say there will absolutely never ever be a service outage, we think AlertMe should be quoting a guaranteed level of up-time for what is a “mission critical” service. This is common practice when paying for other on-line server products (web hosting for example) where it’s common to have a 99% up-time guarantee (although that still allows over 3.5 days downtime per year).
Unlike a traditional security system, there is no traditional external bell box for AM. Depending on your views, an external bell box may just produce a noise that everyone finds irritating and ignores. However in our experience (in a rural setting) neighbours do take notice of this and contact one another. AM say they haven’t ruled out a compatible external siren in the future though, if enough customers request it.
The design of the web interface is just a little quirky for our taste. The odd layout and cartoonish graphics are at odds with the clean white design of the hardware. We understand AM is aimed at a non-technical user but perhaps a second more minimal skin/theme would be the answer. We’d also like to have access to other information like software versions for the hub and sensors as well as seeing the GPRS signal strength to help site it for best reception. Perhaps a choice of “Basic” or “Advanced” mode would solve this problem best.
Browsing the forums show other bugs currently being identified with the system (smoke detectors can only trigger once per cycle of the alarm).
Telephone support is available 9am to 9pm 7 days a week and we found the customer services team courteous and knowledgeable with a human answering immediately each time we called. That’s worth a lot in these days of automated handling systems and foreign call centres. Great support is an advantage that a smaller company can provide, and whilst we’re sure AM are dreaming of world domination, we hope they take their existing commendable customer care philosophy with them as they expand.
Sample Email Notifications from AlertMe
All hardware ships with a 12 month warranty and new features / software updates are installed automatic and are included in the ongoing charges.
The initial cost of the hardware is £399.00 . On top of that there’s an on-going monthly service charge of £11.75. Your monthly payment includes a £1 worth top up for your text messages (at 5p a time that buys you 20 and unused texts can be carried forward for up to a year).
AM tell us that if you decide that you only want to receive texts when intruder or fire alarms are triggered, very few texts will be required and no top-ups will be needed. However if, for example, you choose to receive one text per day to notify you that someone has returned home, you would need about one £10 top-up per year. You can add additional £10 top-ups available through your AM web account and the kit includes £5 worth of credit when shipped.
Battery replacement costs need to be factored in too. With a battery costing around £2.50 and an average sized home using say 12+ sensors/keyfobs, that’s another £30+ a year.
Having a temperature sensor inside each PIR is a nice touch and allows you to view a history in graph form of the temperature in each area around your home. In the last few months AlertMe have been asking users and potential customers what new functionality they’d like to see added to the system in the future and unsurprisingly home heating control has been one of the most popular requests. Adding an inexpensive heating control module would certainly add a strong sales point to the system, as home owners become more interested in reducing their carbon footprint, whether to save the planet or their money. If the rumored GPRS only version of AM emerges this would allow owners of holiday homes (often without broadband, but with cellular coverage) to control their heating from afar, turning it on before setting out to visit for example. A system with similar features is already available with this one function and costs £700.
Of course we’d like to see other home automation products take advantage of the AlertMe web/sms gateway. It seems such and obvious route to go down for the company. We asked for their views on this and in particular interfacing to X10 / HomeEasy or Z-Wave in the future. Here’s their answer – “At present we have no plans to provide gateway access to other home automation protocols, although our architecture would allow this if we wanted to. We do anticipate adding more ZigBee devices (made by AlertMe or technology partners) and protocol support for off-the-shelf ZigBee devices, but have no fixed timescale for this.”
Dissapointing. So, for now the only way to integrate AM with an existing home automation setup would be to trigger a response to an email or text sent by the system. If AM published an open API then some more technical users could interface to the unit, or allow protocols like xAP and xPL to talk to it which would instantly open up a huge range of smart home hardware to the system. Obviously any open API would raise security concerns though and these would need to be adaquately addressed. As well as general lighting / appliance control, we’d like to see the system integrate with IP CCTV systems, it’s an obvious next step.
What Else Should I Consider
So, what else should you consider. Here are some competing Smart Home security systems you may also like to check out
In our time with AlertMe it became clear that the system still has quite a few teething problems. It does look like many of the issues we’ve encountered and some of the new features we’d like to see are due to be resolved in subsequent software releases over the coming weeks and months and of course a system like this is going to be in constant development. While we understand the pressure is always going to be on a young startup company to get its product into the market we feel AM would perhaps have been better to wait just a few more months before releasing their system into the wild.
AlertMe is certainly an interesting and inovative new-comer in the online home monitoring market. It already provides excellent ease of installation and in the future we hope it will give an equally high standard of operation. If you like to be at the bleeding edge then go ahead and take the leap into the future. However, if you are more cautious, and especially if you really need to rely on the AM as your primary security system then it may be wise to wait just a little while longer until a few more bugs are ironed out.
+ Clever Concept & Design
+ On-Line Monitoring & Control
+ Reasonable Initial Cost
+ Guided DIY Installation
+ Excellent Support
+ Easily Movies House with You
+ GPRS & Battery Backup
+ Expandable as you grow
+ Promise of extra Future functionality (Heating Controller?)
– Products still has “beta” feel
– Lack of Confirmed acknowledgment of an alarm condition
– On-going running costs
– Lack of service level guarantee
– GPRS limited to Orange currently
– No security accreditation’s = no insurance discount