Want to connect your home? Here are 3 devices that will give you the most bang for your buck

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Since I’ve taken on the internet of things beat here at GigaOM I’m trying to test, buy and learn about as many connected projects as possible. Along the way I’m learning a lot about the problems besetting the industry, such as fragmentation, the cost of getting the right components to get a user started and something I call the creativity problem — namely when you have open-ended platforms it takes work to figure out what to do with them. It’s fun work, but it does mean that not everyone will want to do it.

I’m going to write about all of these things in the next few weeks, plus some more in-depth posts on considerations around lightbulbs and thermostats. But to get started I figured I’d start with the issue of how to get started. I’m keeping it simple, y’all. Since I have a few connected devices (Belkin WeMo, Sonos, etc.) that work via an app, I wanted to try one of the systems that try to link everything all together.

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SmartThings, a KickStarter project that just started shipping, sent me a review unit that contains a hub and a series of seven sensors. It also contained a ZigBee outlet. SmartThings is nice because the hub speaks so many different protocols, which means my Z-wave door locks would work with the system. It’s also actively trying to add new devices to the platform all the time.

Yet when faced with the pile of sensors on living room carpet, I realized I had no idea what to do. I had several inputs that could collect data from my home, but only two outputs (three if you count the alerts sent via text when sensors are triggered) that could take action based on that data. This is partly the aforementioned creativity problem, but it got me thinking about how someone could bring in some kind of SmartThings-style platform and get started using it in a useful way right off the bat.

Hi, honey, Im home. This office lamp turns on when my husbands car pulls into the garage.

Hi, honey, Im home. This office lamp turns on when my husbands car pulls into the garage.

Setting up the hub and sensors took roughly 10 minutes, but then I realized that all of my plans for connecting my home had met a roadblock — namely unless I wanted to turn off an appliance plugged into the wall outlet (hello lamp!) or unlock my door I was out of luck. So far I have used an app to lock the door to my garage when a presence tag sensor leaves the house, and set my office light to blink on and off when the presence sensor in my husband’s car gets into range.

I’m still reading, thinking and playing with the kit, but it made me realize that the lowest-hanging fruit for me requires that I own more gadgets. And I think the following three would give me the best bang for my buck; a connected thermostat, connected lights (either switches or bulbs) and connected door locks. Your mileage may vary, but in general having these devices will allow you to take a bunch of sensors and create some pretty cool home automation features that will appeal to the general public. They will also take you beyond the “if X happens, send me an alert” stage.

NestThermostat: More on choosing one in another post, but having a connected thermostat allows you to start programming scenarios from your smartphone that allow you to create settings that could lower (or raise) the temperature when you leave triggered by a sensor detecting that you left the home.

It also might come in handy for the problem of hotspots in your home. You could set a temperature sensors in an area that gets too warm or cold and use that to tell the thermostat when to cycle on. This would be awesome in my house where the thermostat is in the coolest part of the house, chilling at 77 degrees while the main living areas roasts at 80.

lightbulbConnected lights: Lights are a fun output for sensor networks and an awesome way to convey ambient information. So you can connect a light for practical purposes like turning on when you unlock your door, or turning off when you leave your house (as part of some Away setting), but you can also use them to tell you something unobtrusively like my office light flickering when my husband pulls into the garage. This way I can wrap up my work (or hide the chocolate I’m munching on) before my daughter gets to my office.

The SmartThings outlet works well for this although the Philips Hue lightbulbs that change color offer a greater array of information-conveying options and will be supported soon by the SmartThings app. The platform also supports some connected light switches, which would allow me to control built-in lights such as my porch light, which isn’t plugged into an outlet and doesn’t have a $60 Philips Hue light bulb. There are frankly, a lot of options that require discussion about the merits of connected light bulbs versus switches.

My Kwikset Z-wave lock.

My Kwikset Z-wave lock.

Connected locks: This one I have already installed and I explained how it works in my review of the SmartThings system, but it’s frankly the least exciting thing of these devices and others might get more excitement or use from a connected garage door opener (if you have a garage). It might be more beneficial to use the lock as the input setting for starting your away setting as opposed to your presence tag leaving the home. And it’s nice to be able to lock your door from the road, using the app.

If you pop a presence tag in your kid’s backpack it could ensure they can lock and unlock the door automatically without needing a key. If the tag is lost you can remove it from the network using the app. That being said, in December a new batch of connected locks using Wi-Fi and Bluetooth are coming out that might have more compelling features, so paying the premium for a Z-wave or ZigBee lock right now might not make sense.

With this in mind, I’d like to order an Ecobee thermostat to try to see how living the connected life might really feel before I need to ship the SmartThings set back, but I’m a bit uncertain. I may still be unable to test it out properly since SmartThings has committed to supporting the thermostat, but doesn’t yet. So, stay tuned for my quest for a connected thermostat and fragmentation challenges in the connected home market today.

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