No place like a (smart) home
If you’re looking for intelligence devices, here’s what to consider before any purchases
Technology companies have been saying for years now that it’s the era of the smart home. But there have been a few barriers that kept all but the most tech-savvy and patient among us from signing on
But this may be the year to get “smart.” The prices of smart home devices are coming down. Their usefulness is growing. And companies are focused on making everything simpler to set up.
According to the tech industry lobbying group, the Consumer Technology Association, one-third of Americans have plans to purchase a smart home device of some kind this holiday season. Breaking it down further, 15 percent plan on chatting up a digital assistant speaker such as Google Home or Amazon’s Echo line, while 13 percent are eyeing home cameras and 12 percent are warming up to smart thermostats.
(Amazon chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos is the owner of The Washington Post.)
The quality and sheer number of devices seems to be driving the interest. “The aim is to deliver homes that take care of you, instead of the opposite,” said Steve Koenig, CTA economist and researcher. “People are able to find solutions that work for them.”
Jumping into the trend can be costly and confusing — and there are a lot of things to think about first. So consider this the practical guide to making a home smart.
Choosing a hub
The first thing you should buy is a home hub. Hubs such as Google’s Home, Amazon’s Echo or the forthcoming Apple HomePod (due in 2018) are essentially the field generals for every other gadget in your home. For maximum convenience, you’ll want to be able to issue voice commands to your tech, rather than having to hunt around for apps on your phone.
When it comes to choosing a hub, there are many choices. The trend is attractive to companies. Tech giants such as Google, Amazon, Microsoft and Apple are looking for opportunities to weave their companies more closely into your lives, but they’re also vying to be your platform of choice. Each of those companies has a platform on which all other devices can sit, giving them control over the foundation of your smart home.
They’ll also set the standard, quite literally, for every other smart thing you may want to buy. Not every smart lightbulb, plug, television or other gizmo may work with every hub, after all.
Research is the key to a happy smart home here. If you have fallen in love with a specific gadget, figure out what home hub supports it and move on from there. If you’re a little more flexible, think about what devices or services you use now and let that be your guide.
Dreaming the dream
Once you’ve settled on a hub, things can get fun. “Smart” used to be mostly applied to devices in the entertainment console, but now you can kit out essentially every part of your home, from the lights in your entryway to your bed. To build the smart home of your dreams, you have to think through your priorities.
It can be helpful to go room by room to consider what would be most convenient. In the entryway, security cameras from Nest or a smart doorbell from Ring could give you 24-hour visibility into your own entryway, even when you’re not home. Locks, such as those from August or Yale, let you decide who can enter your home with the swipe of a smartphone.
Moving to the living room, you could see the advantages of being able to lower the lights for movie night — or set them to dim at bedtime — with no more than a voice command to your Hue bulb or Lutron lighting system. Or being able to pause whatever’s on your TV when the doorbell rings and you have to look at your phone to see who it is.
Or maybe the kitchen is your main focus. Smart speakers can be indispensable there for setting timers or making conversions. If you want to splurge, Samsung has smart fridges that will show you the family calendar on a display panel on the door and LG lets you knock on your fridge door to see inside without letting cold air out.
Even the bedroom can benefit from a little tech. You can still eliminate screens in bed and upgrade your room. You can slip into a bed, maybe from Sleep Number, that has been tracking your sleep and knows the best way to position your mattress. Or, in the case of the adjustable bed from Amerisleep, you might be able to trigger a massage before you drift off and start the day again.
In a fully smart home, just getting from the front stoop through to the kitchen may have you interacting with 10 smart things — locks, lights, the thermostat, the alarm system, etc. And that doesn’t even get into specific tasks such as vacuuming, an order you could issue to a Roomba.
Facing the reality
Okay. You’ve made your plan. You’ve decided on your top priorities. But there are some general concerns to think about.
First is security. After all, the more things you connect to the Internet, the more entry points you create into your home. There are practical tips you can take, namely setting up strong passwords for your devices when possible, and choosing devices that require you to use them.
Another option is to consider buying — what else? — another smart thing. Consider a smart router, which aims to run security software at the network level, meaning you don’t have to think about trying to secure each device individually. Two big names in security software, Norton and F-Secure, have both introduced their own routers, which come with a year of security services and the ability to monitor your network from your phone.
There’s also privacy to consider. Smart devices are, on the whole, designed to let you mute microphones when you don’t want them to hear, for example. But if you’re concerned, you may ultimately decide to keep tech out of certain rooms, such as the bathroom or bedroom.
It’s also worthwhile to think about costs that extend beyond the product. Nest’s security cameras, for example, have some features that only come with its $300-per-year subscription service.
Finally, it’s useful to try things out before you buy, if you possibly can. Retailers are trying to put more products out for demos. Lowe’s, for example, worked with the retailer b8ta to set up demonstration spaces inside Lowe’s stores to give shoppers a better sense of what they’re buying.
“Sometimes things look cool but are intimidating,” said Ruth Crowley, Lowe’s vice president of customer experience design. Lowe’s found that some customers, overwhelmed with a wall of boxes in front of them, abandoned a smart home purchase. So they set up these areas to give people enough time, space and hands-on time as they need. “It’s different to touch and feel it than read it on a box,” she said.
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