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Review: Some Smart-Home Products Are Smarter Than Others

Dan Tynan
Yahoo Tech

“You are the laziest person I’ve ever met,” my daughter said to me the other day. She said this while lying on the couch with her feet up, watching her 12th consecutive episode of Parks and Recreation.

“How do you figure?” I asked, handing her a cup of tea.

“You use a friggin’ remote for everything,” she said. Then she picked up the Roku remote to unpause the show.

It occurred to me then that nicknaming her “Princess” had not been a very good idea. Still, I could see her point. At that moment I was using a handheld remote to dim and undim the lightbulbs in the dining room. I had two different home automation systems attached to doors, windows, lamps, and various other devices, which I controlled via my iPad. Virtually the only thing I couldn’t control at that moment was my daughter.

She took a sip and made a face.

“Needs more sugar,” she said, holding up the mug.

“Sorry,” I said. “I’m way too lazy for that. You’ll have to get it yourself.”

Automation through the ages
Since the day humans began living in homes with electricity flowing through them, there have been people working hard to automate things. Home appliances, which used to be called “labor-saving devices,” were the first attempts.

In the mid-1970s, we got the X10 system. It was made up of modules that sat between our labor-saving devices and their power outlets. You could turn the power on and off by remote control. The modules communicated over electrical wiring, and you controlled them using a box containing a bunch of on/off switches. Back then, the target market for these things was cranky engineers who read Popular Mechanics and smelled like boiled cabbage. 

Today’s home automation systems are not that different, only they communicate wirelessly and you use your phone or tablet to control them. Instead of calling them “home automation” tools, we call them “smart-home” products, and the target market is everyone.

Smart-home systems fall into two distinct categories: those that still require cranky engineers, and those built for the rest of us. I recently looked at one of each.

Dis-Connect
The first system I tried was Staples Connect, a line of smart-home products sold exclusively in Staples stores. I wired the Connect Hub ($100) to my WiFi router and used an app on my iPad to connect a wireless GE appliance module ($55), which I had plugged into an AC outlet in my kitchen. I then plugged the coffee maker into that and used the app to set up an “activity” where the thing automatically turned on each morning at 7 a.m.

Maybe, I thought, I could even persuade one of my habitually horizontal teenagers to bring me coffee in bed. A man can dream.

Three days and three calls to tech support later, I finally got the thing working. The problem? Every time I tried to turn on the coffee machine, I got an error message that looked like this:

The solution turned out to be brain-dead simple. While there are two outlets on the GE module, only one of them is able to receive wireless signals. (It’s marked, but not very well.) I had plugged the coffee machine into the wrong one. For some reason, however, that fact eluded both the app and the first two support techs I reached.

That was far from the only problem with Staples Connect. I spent a solid 90 minutes trying to hook up a D-Link wireless camera. I also attached a lamp module, window sensors, and a smart lock on an exterior door. I did ultimately get them all to work and even to talk to one another, but not without multiple calls to tech support (which, by the way, was not available after 5 p.m. or on weekends—otherwise known as prime tinkering time).

Staples may call these “smart” products, but they’re not smart enough. I spent most of my time wishing I had an engineer nearby, cabbage or not.

Get smart
My second attempt at home automation went a bit more smoothly. This time I used a starter kit from SmartThings ($300), which included a motion sensor, two window/door sensors, a moisture sensor for detecting leaks, and two presence sensors that can be used to make things happen when someone arrives or leaves.

As with Staples Connect, you start by plugging a wireless hub into your router and downloading an app. Beyond that, though, the experience couldn’t be more different. The cleverly designed SmartThings app uses video to walk you through the process of connecting each device and assigning tasks to it.

You do the latter by adding SmartApps that tell each device what to do and when to do it. So, for example, I placed a motion sensor near my back door; whenever anyone walks by, a SmartApp plays the sound of dogs barking on my Sonos music system, utterly befuddling my actual dogs. A sensor on the pantry door sends me a text message whenever one of my hungry teens goes for a midnight snack. I put a presence sensor on my keychain; when I arrive home, the lights come on and Sonos plays Chuck Berry’s “Brown Eyed Handsome Man.”

What’s most cool about SmartThings is that it has a network of 5,000 independent developers churning out apps and support for new devices every day. Hence the existence of apps with names like “Ridiculously Automated Garage Door” and “Undead Early Warning” (which turns on the lights when zombies—or others—approach).

As a result of that, though, not everything goes smoothly. Many devices (like the Sonos) are not officially approved to work with SmartThings, so connecting to that device took more tinkering than others. And the presence sensor I put inside my son’s backpack goes off randomly for reasons unknown.

On the other hand, every time I look at SmartThings, there’s a new app available to remind me to take my vitamins, to turn off the curling iron when my wife forgets, or to tell me when my laundry is done.

SmartThings is definitely smart and getting smarter, even if it doesn’t quite qualify for a Ph.D.

Ambient joys
Every day we’re getting closer to what SmartThings CEO Alex Hawkinson calls “ambient intelligence” in our homes.

Before the year is up, for example, SmartThings will probably be able to connect to fitness trackers such as Jawbone UP. It will be able to detect when you’ve fallen asleep, then automatically turn off all the lights, lock the doors, and lower the thermostat. Nice, right?

Aside from saving us labor, smarter houses can save us money. One of the reasons the Nest thermostat has been so wildly successful (and so attractive to Google) is that it cuts home heating bills. Imagine what might happen when your whole home is that smart.

Sadly, just because a device is labeled “smart” doesn’t make it so. If you hope to raise your home’s IQ, you should shop very carefully, unless you really enjoy deciphering inscrutable error messages and waiting on hold for tech support.

As my daughter has noted, I have no problem being lazy. I just want it to be a lot less work.

Questions, complaints, kudos? Email Dan Tynan at ModFamily1@yahoo.com.