How to Determine if a Smart Home is Right for You?

 

Introduction

 

I’ve been reading a lot in the tech news lately about the state of the smart home, specifically the seemingly never-ending controversy surrounding the ubiquitous Internet of Things (IoT). It’s generally a widespread belief that technology can be used to make our homes more efficient, our cities safer, and our industries more productive. Yet I’ve read dozens of articles about the pitfalls of inviting IoT into your home. Some people are concerned about the lack of interoperability, others are scared that not enough is being done to secure IoT devices. Still, others are saying that hubs are dying a slow death and that voice assistants are the way forward. Some people are advocating a “wait-and-see” strategy, others say just go for it. With all the chatter out there, how do you know what to believe?

First of all, each of these are valid concerns that should be thoroughly investigated by the consumer prior to purchasing a smart home device or system. Each have a certain element of truth to them, but they are not nearly as bad as some articles lead you to believe. Sometimes the headlines are overblown, especially regarding security flaws, to bait people into reading the article.

What’s important to know is what’s out there, how it works, and what works with it. Currently, there is no dominant player in the smart home space. Samsung’s SmartThings platform comes close, and can meet most needs, but it probably won’t do everything you want. There is no dominant communications protocol. WiFi, ZigBee, and Z-wave are popular, but competing protocols. A WiFi device cannot talk directly to a ZigBee device. Hubs are a nice solution for solving the incompatible protocol problem, but then you’re relying on one manufacturer to support another manufacturer’s hub or device. Sometimes this happens, sometimes it doesn’t.

Some people have different ideas about what a smart home should be. Some think of a smart home as a residence where everything is connected, perhaps “my alarm clock is going off, start making me a pot of coffee.” Others believe that a smart home includes automation that augments our daily lives to perform specific tasks under certain conditions, i.e., “it’s dark outside, so turn on my lights.”

While the ideal smart home system would use a standardized communications protocol with hardware that’s impossible to compromise, this isn’t a very practical expectation at the moment. The smart home is still in its infancy, and manufacturers as well as consumers are still trying to figure out what works and what doesn’t.

If you’re interested in adding some smarts to your home and you’re not sure what to make of what you’ve read online, keep reading to hopefully shed some light on these arguments.




Will all of my devices work together?

 

The short answer is no. The long answer is, it depends.

If you are interested in piecing together a system and plan to stay in the SmartThings ecosystem, then as long as a product is labeled as “Works with SmartThings”, you can rest easy knowing that it has been tested and verified to work. The same is true with Google’s Nest products and Apple’s HomeKit. It’s when you start getting outside of that ecosystem that things can get iffy.

For instance, I’m a huge fan of Lutron Casèta dimmers . My wife and I were extremely pleased with our new lighting after we installed them. They work great all the time. As time passed, there was one thing that began to bother me- I couldn’t set up my lights using automation routines in SmartThings.

However, a year after I installed my Lutron system, SmartThings finally added support. The only thing I own that still cannot communicate with SmartThings is my Nest Thermostat (3rd generation). There’s an unofficial smart app available that I could use to make it work, but nothing officially supported by SmartThings. SmartThings can operate my lights, garage door, TV equipment, and door lock, as well as monitor various contact sensors. But I cannot have SmartThings change the temperature.

Maybe one day they will add support for my Nest, but it’s generally not a good idea to buy an IoT device expecting future support. In my case, the Nest is a learning thermostat and I don’t really need it to connect to SmartThings (other than reducing the number of apps I need to keep on my phone). I also don’t expect it to ever work with SmartThings, but if they added support, that would be great too.

Here’s an idea of how my smart home devices interact with each other:

Notice that all devices use one-way communication and not all hubs/devices work with each other.


Here are some links to each manufacturer’s website to help determine which devices will work with a system or device:

The past year has shown tremendous growth with regards to device interoperability. I still maintain all my individual apps in a folder on my phone (including Alarm.com, Nest, Lutron, Harmony, Blue Iris, SmartThings, and SmartCam), but now I can get by using only two of them for most things (SmartThings daily, Nest occasionally).

What about the security of IoT devices?

 

We buy phones and computers expecting a high level of malware protection, but we also understand that modern operating systems are composed of thousands of lines of code and rely heavily on software patches to fill the void once a security vulnerability has been exposed. IoT device firmware/software, while not as complex, is no different. Major manufacturers of smart home devices such as Samsung and Google regularly update their products to add new features and fix security issues.

Of course, any device that is connected to the internet is potentially a vulnerable target, and security should not be taken lightly. Simple things like changing the default password for your network security camera will go a long way towards keeping your equipment safe from malicious intentions. As with websites, you should choose the longest, most complex passwords you can remember and not reuse them between devices. A password manager such as Lastpass can be extremely helpful. Unused device features can be turned off.

Smart TVs are another area of concern. Those smart TVs that run on Android are the most vulnerable (these are the LG ransomware attacks). Loading modified firmware or installing apps from unknown sources should always be avoided. For the most part, non-Android smart TVs are safe from remote access. Even exposed CIA hacks, which only affected specific Samsung models (the “Fake Off Mode” hack), required physical access to the TV’s USB port.

Router firmware should be kept up-to-date, its firewall should never be turned off, and the default admin password should be changed before you even connect it to the internet. Your router’s built-in firewall is your network’s primary defense against the outside world. If an attacker can’t make it past your firewall, they shouldn’t be able to remotely access your devices. Are there other ways an attacker could hijack your devices? Probably. I’m not a computer security expert, but I imagine it wouldn’t be worth the effort.

Most IoT exploits I’ve read about either require a series of security missteps by the consumer, or require physical access to an IoT device. Most major IoT device manufacturers have a financial incentive to plug security holes when they become publicized.





Can Alexa replace a SmartThings hub?

 

For WiFi- controlled devices, possibly; for everything else, no. Alexa is perfectly capable of operating your Nest thermostat with the “Alexa, set the temperature to 70 degrees” command. But for devices that require Z-wave, ZigBee, Clear Connect, or some other type of radio signal, Alexa-enabled devices lack the means of directly controlling these devices. Simply put, Amazon Echo doesn’t have the right radios installed. Neither does Google Home. In these cases, voice assistants must tell the hubs what you’re trying to do. The hubs contain the proper radios to interact with the devices you want to operate.

Is it possible that one day hubs will be phased out? Maybe, but it definitely should not be a consideration in purchasing smart home devices today.

Should I buy today or wait?

 

This really depends on what you need or want. Current smart home technology isn’t something that’s necessary for most people. For those that have a hard time getting up and moving around, it could very well offer an improvement to their current lifestyle. For younger, healthier people, it’s more about streamlining their daily lives through the conveniences that smart devices offer.

There’s nothing on the market today that can provide a whole-home solution without mish-mashing together a bunch of devices that communicate using different protocols. Hubs help bridge this gap, but not all hubs can speak to each other. Unfortunately, there’s no telling when the  breakthrough will occur that will finally unify the fragmented smart home, if ever. For now, we have to rely on manufacturers making their devices as compatible as possible to reach as many consumers as possible.

Of course, you could always pick a platform like SmartThings and just go with it. You would have plenty of options, but may not be capable of getting everything you want to work with it. Another problem with this idea is that early adopters run the risk of today’s cutting-edge technology becoming tomorrow’s obsolescence. This is reminiscent of the situation many found themselves in 10 years ago when we were determining the high-definition successor to the then-reigning king of digital media consumption- the DVD. In that case, we had two viable technologies- HD DVD and Blu-Ray. I thought HD DVD was the superior format, so I became an early adopter with a small library of movies to watch. Blu-Ray won out, and I was stuck with a technology that was soon left behind.

To help ease these burdens, services such as IFTTT (If This, Then That) exist and have become popular solutions for making incompatible systems work together. I’ve never used it, but some people swear by it. It’s basically a cloud service that communicates with other web-based devices.





If you decide that you’re ok with the risk that comes with using a budding technology, and you don’t mind having extra devices connected to your network in the form of hubs, then there is no reason to sit on the sidelines. Our household uses 3 hubs- a Lutron hub for lighting, a Logitech hub for controlling entertainment devices , and a SmartThings hub for everything else. Does this result in a poor experience? Not really, everything has played nicely so far. Obviously, as you add more hubs you are increasing the potential for incompatibility. As you add more complexity to a setup, it could also make it harder to track down problems when they do occur.

With so many variables to consider, it’s impossible to definitively tell a person “Yes! Now is the time to jump in!”, or “No, wait a few years and see what happens.” You need to determine that for yourself.

Conclusion

 

There’s a lot of commotion surrounding the smart home right now. There’s a ton of device-makers that want to lead the way, yet no single company has been able to drown out the background noise by delivering a simple whole-home automation solution. For now, we’re left with individual systems that use individual apps, and may or may not integrate into your ecosystem of choice.

This is not necessarily a bad thing at this point. Consumers have more choice than say, a computer or smartphone operating system. Many manufacturers are working to rapidly expand their products to interact with other smart home devices. As the popularity of smart devices continues to rise, we may eventually see industry leaders begin to put together more concrete guidelines for how these devices should interact.

After reading the latest horrifying news about IoT devices, make sure you do your own research. Read the articles that concern you, try to learn as much as possible about the article’s content from as many sources as possible, then try to figure out for yourself if the risk is worth it for your application.

Research the products you’re thinking about buying. Think about how you want devices to interact with your daily life, considering product compatibility specifically. Most importantly, don’t be turned off by the internet’s flashy headlines without judging the content for yourself!

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About Adam Bollmeyer

I'm a home technology enthusiast with a penchant for home automation, networking, and computers. My goal is to help others improve their knowledge of how available technology can be used at home.

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  1. Janeth Drylie September 24, 2017
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