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Summary:

It’s hot outside, so I’ve been spending my time inside testing connected devices. It’s been about a year since I turned my home into a living lab, so here are the devices I’ve liked enough to buy.

Staceyhouse

Recently I asked my colleagues for a list of the connected devices in their homes to get a sense of what people have and like, and was surprised by how little my tech-savvy colleagues have in the way of connected gadgets. Almost half of them live in apartments which explains why they aren’t swapping out switches, but other than a Nest, several fitness trackers (one designed for dogs thanks to Kevin Fitchard) and a set of TCP connected lights, most were offering game consoles, Chromecasts or some set-top boxes as examples of their connected gadgets.

My first conclusion is that clearly the internet of things isn’t even close to becoming mainstream, but after a year of testing connected devices out I thought I’d share the few items I have in my house that I don’t think I could live without.

Lutron Caseta lighting: I installed a Caseta in-wall dimmer that cost about $45 mostly because I wanted the dimmer function for a chandelier over my dining room table. Even if it’s not “connected”, it’s relatively inexpensive to add a dimmer to a light and if I choose to I can buy a remote for $17 more or connect it to one of the Lutron-supporting hubs on the market to tie that chandelier into other automated lighting controls. If you want to really indulge, plug your bedside table lamp into a Lutron lamp module and attach the remote to the side of your bed. Now you don’t have to stretch to turn out your lights. I have not actually spent the $65 or so to do this, but did enjoy that during a review.

LutronCaseta

Ecobee connected thermostat: I actually just purchased a Nest thermostat for my upstairs, mainly because it looks like that will be the entry point for Google’s home efforts and because it’s well supported. But I love my connected Ecobee thermostat that I bought for around $165 (I also had an $85 rebate from my utility) because it’s easy to program and it shows me the weather on the display screen — a feature I now don’t want to live without.

Ecobee smart thermostat

Ecobee smart thermostat

The Z-wave converter for my motorized shades: Because my house has two sets of floor-to-ceiling windows that are 14-feet wide and face west, we elected to get some very expensive heat-blocking motorized shades. Unfortunately, those shades only work with a proprietary radio technology and remotes made by Somfy. No hubs support it, so I spent an eye-popping $600 for a converter that takes the Somfy radio and turns it in Z-wave. The device is ugly, old-fashioned (the channels are set via a click wheel) but it allows me to program my shades to open and close on a schedule or based on the setting sun. Eventually I want to have my shades tied into a temperature sensor in my living room and my thermostats so I can optimize the comfort of my house and my electric bills.

Yes, Virginia, that is a clickwheel.

Yes, Virginia, that is a clickwheel.

Sonos: Yes, the speakers are expensive, but I get all of my music via streaming services or from my music server (yes, those use FLAC files) and the software is the easiest to use and the speakers sound great. If you are just putting music in one room, then I suppose Bluetooth speakers are fine, but with anything more than two, or if you are really into music, I’d choose Sonos. And I did!

My Sonos bridge collection.

My Sonos bridge collection.

MyQ garage door opener: At $99 this felt like a splurge, when the system was just offering you open/closed status and the ability to remotely control your garage door. But now that Chamberlain will work with Apple’s HomeKit, Google’s Nest and even the upcoming Wink platform, I’ve ordered my own because the product worked and will now also act as a trigger for other things happening in my home.

MyQdooropener

A hub: This is going to break my heart, since I have been using SmartThings for a year, but I’d recommend buying either the Staples Connect Hub or the Wink hub at Home Depot because of the radio support and because you can return it if you don’t like the experience. Depending on what else you buy, you could pay between $1 and $80 for the device.

On the Staples version, I’d go with the newer, higher end version that supports Zigbee and Z-wave as well as Lutron, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. I haven’t tried the Wink software out yet, so until I do I’m not sure if that’s the way to go, but I do like the Staples Connect software from Zonoff a lot for setting schedules and programming the smart home. Stay tuned for a more thorough review in a week or so.

The Wink hub will be in Home Depot stores on July 7.

The Wink hub will be in Home Depot stores on July 7.

Now for the caveats. Everyone’s home is unique so my love of these products may not work for you. I’d actually love to include a connected lock (and I have one) but my front doors are wonky and don’t work with any current connected locks. I have a Kwikset Z-wave lock on my garage door, but other than tying that to my garage door so it unlocks when the garage door opens and then locks 10 minutes after the garage door closes — I used to have it linked to a presence detector in my husband’s car so it unlocked when he drove up — it doesn’t add a huge amount of value. And the lock was $180, which is a hefty price for limited convenience.

My Z-wave Kwikset locks. We use the keypad more than the connectivity.

My Z-wave Kwikset locks. We use the keypad more than the connectivity.

However, a connected front door lock would be nice for remotely letting people into the house, knowing when my daughter goes in or out, and even as a trigger for a daily to-do list or reminders about what I need to pack for the day. So if I could add one, I would. I also like my Hue lights, but think they are expensive, so would recommend waiting to see what else the market offers in the coming months.

If I were making a wish list I’d add some kind of voice recognition that works well, which perhaps Apple’s HomeKit or the Nest developer program will provide will provide thanks to Siri and Google Voice integrations respectively. I’d also add a retrofit for my alarm system so I could use the existing sensors and keypad installed in my home.

The cool thing about connected devices is that as you add more stuff and start playing around, you tend to want to bring more gadgets into your system. The catch is those devices have to be easy to add and manage once they are in your home. Most of my devices provide value even without connecting to other gear, and other than my very-specific window shades control, they don’t need a hub. But if you have a few connected devices adding the hub just adds to the fun.

  1. It seems that the smarter the item the more complicated to use. We have a programable thermostat and just use the on/off and set our temp. It is just too complicated.
    Leslie

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  2. I have been a ‘SmartHome’ person for a couple of decades going back to when X-10 was state of the art and I kept smiling as you enumerated your list. With each item, you then gave a caveat…expensive, proprietary, complicated, ugly and that has been my experience as well and the current crop of products are no better.

    But, I will say we are making progress, erratic progress, but progress. For example, it is good that we focusing more on IP as a protocol, but it is bad that many services either stop working or only work in a limited fashion without a cloud service.

    I’ve been waiting 2 decades…I guess I can wait a while longer.

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    1. paul martin Friday, July 4, 2014

      I remember being a UK engineer visiting Thomson director of Domotique in Paris with a top level manager in about 1986. On the whiteboard for our edification was the sales profle of their system and it was clearly past its peak; the message being to us don’t bother.

      Just to check 3 decades on I looked up Thombox, their latest offering. Unfortunately http://www.journaldugeek.com/2014/04/15/thomson-et-sa-thombox/ would not translate …

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  3. Hub? If the rumors are right my existing AppleTV or next-gen will be one. With home connection/control features added to the existing features.

    I had an easy to use programmable thermostat when I used to be on the road 4-5 days a week. If that was still my life, I’d want to be able to contact it via iOS to reprogram or change if my schedule changed.

    Heating/cooling? Our household is too green for that. Wood-burning stove in cold weather. Swamp cooler in the summer. Wood-burning takes a little fiddling and the swamper is pretty much on or off. I adjust windows depending on wind direction. No shades except for East windows. House was built 30 years ago designed for passive solar uptake in the winter – overhangs shade in the summer.

    Used to have a small cast-iron bell hanging our by the garage for a doorbell – go out and unlock the gate for someone to come on in. Nowadays, they can call me on my cellphone when they hit the driveway. Anyone who doesn’t know me well enough – or doesn’t have an appointment – to have the number can go away.

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  4. Thanks for the writeup. I don’t know if you know this, and it doesn’t really matter how, but Somfy CAN be controlled by the Insteon system. You would have to dive into a new and admittedly closed system, but it would have cost a lot less than $600, and it would have opened up the world of insteon controlable devices for you.

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  5. Barbara Clarke Thursday, July 10, 2014

    Agree on Sonos and Nest. Nest is great. Especially because I travel a lot and the programmable versions were good, but I’d forget to override them for long trips. Nest showed me that my heater malfunctioned over the winter while I was out of the country, and I sent someone to fix it before pipes froze. It gives me a ton of peace of mind. As to your remote locks, I have a number pad key lock which is great for my kids (no more calls about forgetting their keys!) which has a different code for each kid, family member, cleaners, plumbers, whatever. The lock isn’t connected, but my (wireless) security system can ping me (if I want to) to let me know when doors are opened and closed (or I can just look at the readings on my phone). Again, peace of mind. Now, I just need to get someone to come in and uninstall the old hardwired security system.

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  6. Good writeup. I’m interested in hearing why you decided to switch off SmartThings? I’ve been using it since the beginning of the year and can’t get enough of it. Their potential for more integrations keeps me hooked as well.

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