TECH TRENDS — Smart Homes… Dive In or Avoid Like the Plague? — Part 2 of 2

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The last column covered how smart homes work, the most common protocols and an overview of a good number of smart device types. In this article we’ll touch on the remaining device types and wrap up with advice and recommendations and a glimpse into the future of smart homes. Hello Smart by Nest is considered one of the best out there.

Doorbells

One of my favorite smart devices is my Ring doorbell with built-in live webcam. It’s easy to install into existing doorbell wiring and connects to several hubs such as my Wink hub. I get motion alert notifications, so I know when someone’s coming or going. It did stop a package thief several years ago. Good to have if you’re out of town and your teenager decides to pull off the party of the century. I also pay a small subscription fee to record all video clips of the alerts so I can view them later, like the clip of the police shutting down all the fun.

Thermostats

Surprisingly, this is one of the easiest in-wall devices to install. I chose the Nest thermostat, but there are plenty of choices depending on the hub you choose such as the Ecobee4, which works with both SmartThings and Wink. One irritating thing about Nest is its learning algorithm, which detects our usage patterns and then automatically sets one. With two teenagers, our house was a chaos of activity, which makes for an interesting temp schedule. Nevertheless, it’s good and saves us money.

Cameras and Security Devices

Webcam prices have dropped to as low as $20-$30 with features commonly found in higher-end devices. They’re easy to install and the monitoring software is simple to use. My favorite is the Wyze Cam Pan, which has all the features I want for just $30. This cam has a long list of features including 1080p HD resolution, Alexa and Google Assistant voice support, motion alerts, sound detection with smoke and carbon monoxide alarm detection, person alerts, motion detection zone, 14-day free cloud storage, microSD card slot, 110-degree field of view, night vision, two-way audio via a built-in speaker and microphone and time-lapse. That’s incredible for the price. Some higher-end models have facial recognition, which can work with your smart door locks to automatically unlock as you approach the door, but that’s not enough to justify much higher price tags.

Smart security devices abound with or without monitoring service, which integrate with several common smart hubs. SimpliSafe is the best do-it-yourself smart security system with monthly monitoring for only $15 to $25 per month. For $25 a month you also get mobile app controls and voice-enablement with either Alexa or Google Assistant.

Smart security systems will be covered by its own dedicated article in the coming months. The breadth and depth of available systems and services is just too broad to cover in a couple of paragraphs.

Audio/Video

According to a report from NPR and Edison Research, more than 60 million people in the U.S. own a smart speaker. The average household had an average of 2.6 devices. Some are smarter than others, such as Alexa-enabled Echo, and Google Home speakers such as the Google Nest Mini. These are very good speakers for the price, and satisfy most users. Higher-end speakers such as the $200 Sonos One have the best-rated sound quality and let you pair units for multi-room and stereo sound. 

My recommendation for voice-enabled devices are Amazon Alexa-enabled smart devices such as Echo Dot. They are by far the most advanced in voice recognition, and currently integrate with most audio/video (AV) equipment. 

The frustrating downside: the sheer number of combinations of TVs, receivers, cable boxes and other devices to control prevents using voice-enabled devices, hubs or remotes for a seamless AV experience. If this is important, then choose a tightly integrated set of components, such as Apple TV and HomeKit, Sonos-enabled devices or Alexa-enabled. 

The goal of one-device-to-rule-them-all is still elusive and requires a lot of patience and MacGyver skills to setup a Rube Goldberg way to seamlessly control a mishmash of AV components. If you have a complex setup, call up a reputable AV company to set it up for you. It’ll save you from pulling your hair out. 

Another downside: I’m apparently the only one in the house who can do the AV magic, which leads to answering calls from a frustrated family member asking for help. Set up a couple of training sessions with the family to share the knowledge… and the pain.

Your Car

Most current auto/truck models offer mobile apps with many remote features. Most have created Alexa skills, accessible in the Alexa app that works with your car app, to allow you to start your car remotely. 

Automakers like Audi, BMW, Lexus and Toyota have recently added Alexa-enabled vehicles to their line-ups and GM announced both Alexa and Google Voice will be coming to millions of new and existing GM vehicles in 2020/2021. After-market brands like Garmin, iOttie and Nextbase are releasing new products with Alexa built in. Check out what options your hub or voice-enabled devices offer with compatible auto mobile apps. 

Yard

Home automation extends to your landscaping as well. There are robotic lawnmowers that range from $500 to $4,000. The Husqvarna Automower 450X, on the pricier side, can handle a three-quarter acre and the mobile app allows you to accurately map the yard and to set up zones to avoid. The Worx WR140 is on the low-end of the price range, which is great for small yards but has a less robust mobile app and requires mag-strips to mark the off-limits lawn areas.

There are several smart watering systems on the market. One such smart device is Rachio, which grabs weather data for my area from the internet to adjust the watering amount and schedule. It also considers the yard zones’ details: sun exposure, grass, flower beds or shrubs. Setup is relatively simple and doesn’t require deep-tech skills.

Appliances 

I’m not a fan of “smart” refrigerators, microwaves or washer/dryers. They aren’t smart enough, and their huge price tags are for the novelty of it and don’t offer a corresponding increase in convenience or features. Connection security is minimal, and your usage may be captured and sold to the highest bidder. My recommendation is to skip on the internet-enabled appliances for now.

What the manufacturers should focus on is quality, not smart features. Built-in obsolescence and minimal product life are not production failures, they’re part of manufacturers’ business plans to get you to buy more often to replace the piece of crud they sold you. The only reasonable appliance I’ve seen is the Amazon Basics Microwave, which sells for under $60 and has Alexa built-in, but I don’t’ think the voice features are that useful.

Just Plug In and It Works… Yeah, Not So Much

As an early adopter, it was ugly. Since I chose to install smart switches and outlets, wiring was an issue. A single switch setup was easy, but two-way and three-way were not. The terrible documentation that are common from companies like Lutron, GE and Leviton, are still written for electricians, not consumers. When I called the manufacturer to get help, I found out there was small print in the docs that said the device I had was the controller switch and the other switches required a different model number. Since my home’s wiring wasn’t color-coded correctly, they couldn’t provide any wiring assistance due to legal liabilities.

Hubs worked with certain versions of devices and not for others. Updating the hub’s software often caused some devices to stop working.

Customer service hasn’t improved much since then, but the reliability of devices and their required software has. Most basic installations of hubs and the devices they support mostly work the first time now. My recommendation is to choose a popular hub, such as SmartThings or Wink, and use the most common brands of compatible devices. In other words, avoid products or services offered from Kickstarter campaigns or new startups. Let them prove themselves first with the early adopters (i.e. crazies) like me for a couple of years.

Unless you’re adept at wiring, stay away from smart power outlets and stick to smart power plugs. No need to go through the hassle. I like smart light switches, but smart bulbs may be a better choice for the not-so-handy folks.

One last thing, the list of commands you need to remember can be daunting. For example, Alexa has over 40,000 skills, which sounds awesome. However, most require you to memorize a succinct, precise request.

Take Alexa and the MyChevrolet app as they work today, for example I easily added the Alexa skill, but Alexa won’t start it unless I specifically say, “Ask Chevrolet to start my car,” after which it prompts for the PIN I created in MyChevrolet. I’ve done it enough times to remember, but we practically need a cheat sheet to remember the exact phrases each skill requires. I wish Alexa’s underlying AI could handle it if I simply asked, “Alexa, start my car.” I’d hope she could tell it’s my voice, so no pin required, asks which car if more than one brand/model are Alexa-enabled and prompts me for when to start it. AI will smooth this experience over time, but all my fellow Alexa users out there are familiar with the limitations of using skills.

Who Can Help?

I suggest using a bonded Home Automation company to assist in the setup. Make sure they are rated by the Better Business Bureau, and check out their reviews on AngiesList.com and HomeAdvisor.com. The best ones will sit down with you to create a custom smart home plan and will assist on the many options and tradeoffs.

What Does the Future Look Like for Smart Homes?

We have enough connected devices and appliances. What we’ll see over the next few years are better user experiences in the apps that control them all. AI will get smarter, the number of things to remember will decrease and standards will narrow down to the most used (remember Betamax?), which will reduce the complexity and make the smart home easier to interact with.

Imagine Alexa listening and prompting, “John, I don’t hear any cooking activity. Do you want to order some food?” That’s totally doable with today’s devices — creepy, but doable. For now, Amazon has chosen to make voice-enabled devices passive, but, since they are always listening, I expect the next big wave of use could be proactive prompts. I’d like to have Alexa respond to our dogs while we’re away and keep them entertained or tell them to stop barking.

One notable exception that shows the promise of active voice-enabled devices is Amazon’s release of a new setting in your Alexa app called Guard. It will notify you if it detects the sound of smoke alarms, carbon monoxide alarms or glass breaking. Guard can also arm/disarm compatible security systems such as Ring or ADT and turn connected smart lights on and off to make your home look occupied.

Bottom Line — Dive In or Avoid Like the Plague?

I say go for it with a caveat: Be prepared for the learning curve. Start off with a smart voice-enabled speaker from Amazon or Google that are easy to setup and use. For a deeper dive, I highly recommend hiring a smart-home professional installer and focus on the most commonly used devices such as Amazon Echo Dot, Ring doorbell, Schlage Sense door locks, Nest thermostats and smoke/carbon-monoxide detectors, Wyze cams and Phillips Hue lighting. 

Be prepared to be the smart home technician for your family and, most importantly, make sure your significant other or roommate is onboard. I may have forgotten that last one…

Next Month’s Column: 5G Tech — How Will It Improve Our Lives and is it Hazardous?

5G represents a massive technology leap in cellular communication and data rates, but many are worried about potential health risks for humans. We’ll dive into the muck surrounding this controversial topic and get to the facts. No tin foil hats required.

Find Out More 

bit.ly/Consumer-Reports-Robot-Lawnmowers; cnet.com/news/smart-thermostat-roundup; rachio.com; bit.ly/Safety_com-Smart-Doorbells; cnet.co/CNet-Wyze-Cam-Review; bit.ly/PCMag-Door-Locks

Preston Callicott is CEO of Five Talent Software, Inc. based in Bend. His hope is writing articles such as this one will allow his mind to stop waking him up at 4am with “aha’s” and “oh-my’s” about the massive impact tech has on our collective future.

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Preston Callicott, CEO of Five Talent Software

Preston Callicott is CEO of Five Talent Software, Inc. based in Bend, Oregon. His hope is that writing articles will allow his mind to stop waking him up at 4am with “aha’s” and “oh-my’s” about the massive impact tech has on our collective future.

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