Some Things to Help Your Home to be Smarter
DIY and Old School – Some history too,
I think mostly home automation – the quest for the Smart Home, gets a pass. True, that’s with a lot of mixed grades. It can be a mess out there, but Jared, I believe is only in part correct. Much of the “smart home” industry is alive and well. And besides, many of the products he’s mentioned, like the SmartThings hub – which I also use, have been around a very long time. Try finding a line of smart TVs for example that go back as far as the SmartThings Z-Wave hub (2013). Now you only need a SmartThings hub if you have Z-Wave devices (including many door locks).
SmartThings Fun Fact: Started in 2011, SmartThings raised over $1.2M. It was the 2nd largest smart home based Kickstarter campaign. SmartThings, was acquired by Samsung in 2014. Now Samsung has focused SmartThings primarily on software.
That Z-Wave protocol is very secure, something, by comparison, that WiFi really wasn’t as good at. Not familiar with Z-Wave? Z-Wave is one of the early protocols, one adapted first and foremost by the security industry, thus, almost all the early smart door locks were Z-wave – we’re talking pre Amazon Alexa and Siri. He also mentioned issues with Wink, and major competitor for the SmartThings hub, except that Wink (we reviewed both) also supports Zigbee – a similar secure standard (to Z-wave, but best known for supporting smart lighting. ( Philip Hue uses Zigbee, and helped confirm Zigbee as a major solution.) These technologies are still supported in many new products, and may be for a long time. Why?
A Look at Mesh, vs single point
Quicktip: MESH. Major reasons why standards such as Zigbee and Z-wave exist is because, quite honestly, early wifi, and to a large degree today, just didn’t cut it for security, or for range. Hey, even today we still have problems trying to bathe a largish home (say 3000 sq fft+) in Wifi everywhere. And it’s just about 15 years since Wifi became popular.. Both Z-Wave and Zigbee have one major technology in common, that Wi-Fi lacks: They are both Mesh systems. Each device relays the data from others, so that range can be great, as long as you have at least one such device every 20 feet or so.
Unfortunately Wifi isn’t a mesh system, YET. Still, (but hopefully not much longer), A typical wifi router (or one with boosters/extenders for larger houses) is responsible for reaching every single wifi device. Good luck. Didn’t work for my outside lights, and it didn’t even work for lighting and other features in one downstairs bedroom in our last house, due to range.
With mesh systems, every device, be it a door lock, a smart bulb, or a wall switch is both a receiver and a transmitter. My WiFi router was 100+ feet, and a floor away, from my back patio lights, so it had zero chance of controlling my outdoor lighting. I used Zwave controllers on my outside color strip lighting, and that used Z-wave. I had my , door locks, and added a number of smart outlets, that use Z-wave. My outdoor wiring was 20 feet from the house, but I installed (in the house) Z-Wave outlets one of which was less than 25 feet from the outdoor controlers. No problem, the mesh design saves the day. . All my other outdoor Z-wave devices are near enough to each other so, everything works.
Once we have mesh Wifi, as well as mesh Bluetooth, then today’s popular wifi systems will have caught up with the DIY of roughly 10+ years ago, at least in terms of range/security!
There are Big Limits to Future Tech Compatibility – as always.
“There is a wide range of integrated “smart home” solutions available in terms of both cost and capability, perfect for those without a DIY bone in their bodies!
Nothing lasts forever (10 years) in Tech anymore – well almost. When the PS3 hit the market (2006 – a year before the first iPhone), we were still waiting for Blu-ray players to ship (also 2006). The PS3 was perhaps the first cool device designed t allow generational upgrades. And it did great – forget games, it learned to play Blu-ray, and do 3D Blu-ray too, capabilities far beyond the original units, but with plenty of high power processing, the PS3 could emulate newer (and higher res) standards. That said, it didn’t have enough capability to handle 4K 15 years later.
Here’s the thing: Expecting full compatibility 6-10 years later in tech today, is, at best, being optimistic.
How’s that iPhone 4 treating you these days, or early Amazon Kindles, or first generation Apple iPads… (not to mention those great PS3 game players – I mention as the PS5 is shipping now. That’s right, we are at a cusp. The major phone companies are about to stop supporting 3G, so if you have an old 3G phone, it’s going to become a nice paperweight. A quick search says that the first iPhone to support 4G LTE was the iPhone 5.
But, mostly, getting back to the original article in Fast Company, what Jared Newman seems to be focused on, or rather, that much of what he discusses, are not integrated systems, but a whole lot of individual DIY products. As previously discussed, there is a wide range of integrated “smart home” solutions in terms of both cost and capability, perfect for those without a DIY bone in their bodies!”
And there’s more “cross-over” of high end companies expanding their offerings into lower price ranges going on now, than say 5 years ago.
Those high end home control solutions companies like Crestron, Savant, Control4, have recognized that they need to also support the lower end of the market. They can mine the lower end for future high end customers, but not if they ignore all the Ring, and Alexa, and Nest type products. They no longer do, they support these devices, although sometimes one of those companies will offer a proprietary version of some products, to maintain uniqueness, and better pricing results.
Alexa and Siri support for voice control, and the ability to integrate most 3rd party hardware (like 3rd party thermostats, is probably now available from almost all the integration/installation solutions! While I also have Siri and Google Assistant, I control almost all of my own smart devices with Alexa. That includes all those Lutron Caseta dimmers and fan controllers, as well as my color and white smart lighting, my thermostat (Ecobee) doorbell (Ring) and door lock (Kwikset).
When I started “playing” with home automation – long before I launched Smarter Home Automation a decade ago, I was fully aware that I was buying DIY type products. For, you see, high end home automation predates any significant DIY home automation by many years.
Twenty years ago, your home could be wired from head to toe with Crestron, or AMX, running most things in your house, from basic lighting to projectors and TVs, to security, to comfort controls — smart (thermostats, and sophisticated lighting schemes. Those two high end control companies as well as others – such as Control4, (a bit more affordable), or Savant (very high end and typically more expensive) are not DIY products. They are configured and installed by professional Audio Visual companies, quite typically the entire home is tied in. I recall at a CEDIA trade show in Denver – long ago, probably around 2010? I attended a Savant event in a recently renovated condo penthouse. All the smarts were really impressive, but even more impressive, is that I recall that the entire installation was approaching $500K (including all the wiring and controlling but the devices controlled be they the thermostats or a home theater room with projector and motorized screens and shades… It was one hell of an impressive demo.
Folks those systems work! And have been working for those who can afford them, for two decades and change. Hey, those companies were doing homes well before HDTV was out, or the first smart thermostats.
Still, should you decide you want to do your home yourself – you are a DIY type. Having someone help you, or bringing in someone just for certain things (electrician), doesn’t change the fact. If you are the person setting up all the apps, etc. that is Doing It Yourself.
Quicktip: Personal Assistants may make it easy to turn things on and off, lock and unlock, etc., however, most devices – be it a smart TV or a thermostat, have a number of choices you need to make, when setting up, that require the device’s App.
Where things really started getting more confusing, can probably be most be attributed to the appearance of Amazon’s Echo/Alexa, Apple’s Siri, Google’s Assistant… These have made their entrances in the last decade or so. Voice assistants are, by nature, easy to use.
Sure, you have to word questions properly – or commands, and, most certainly Siri and Alexa, etc. can be really “stupid” at times – usually confused by complicated questions. But, because talking to them is so easy, they give us the false hope that everything will work together pretty much seamlessly. Of course, the more devices and capabilities you stuff into your home, the more challenges. I’m on a quest to have Alexa voice commands for as much as I possibly can. Still, I do have to go into individual apps, to make more serious setting changes, etc.
That could be anything from configuring your TV to your Wifi, or which is the default HDMI your source is coming in on, or telling your thermostat to change from heat mode, to Automatic (heat or AC as needed). You need to use their respective apps for that. Well, technically you can build a program (say using IFTTT), to create a “skill” for Alexa, to address individual changes that are not basic: Basic Is things like: Turn on the TV, Go to HGTV, or Raise the temperature to 72 degrees.
I believe the problem we have to come to terms with, is that speaking commands to voice assistants, makes everything seem easy, but configuring everything to work together, is still very DIY, at this level, as Jared pointed out, can at times be daunting. And, no question, as the smart home market matures, and products evolve, incompatibilities will continue to arise, especially with older gear and protocols.
Jared is still trying to use all his old gear. Good for him, but, as I’m sure he knows, he could replace a few pieces and drastically simplify. For one thing, todays new thermostats and video door bells mostly do not need Z-wave anymore – theya re happy to work with Alexa, etc., through Wifi, which everyone’s got.