DIY, Old School Higher End Systems, and What’s In Between – Some history too:
think mostly home automation – the quest for the Smart Home, gets a pass, not a fail grade, although that assessment comes with a lot of mixed grades. It can be a mess out there, but Jared (at Fast Company), I believe, is only partly correct. Much of the “smart home” industry is alive and extremely 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, and some controllers, other security devices, and a few lights).
A point to consider: If you are starting today, in many ways, things are very different than a decade ago. Note that the first of todays’ major voice assistants (or “AI’s” should you choose that misleading term), was Siri, introduced in 2010 (Alexa, it should be noted, is much newer: Not launched until November 2014 – which is just over 7 years ago!
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.
The Z-Wave protocol is very secure, something, by comparison, that WiFi really hasn’t been near 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. Consider: Many if not most, smart locks still are Z-Wave. Another popular Wifi hub is the Wink2, a 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 lighting relies on Zigbee, The Hue lights helped confirm Zigbee as a major protocol solution.) These technologies are still supported in many new products, and may be for a long time. Why?
Talking Tech: A Look at Mesh, Defining it, vs single point Wi-Fi
uicktip: MESH. Is Important! Major reasons why standards such as Zigbee and Z-wave exist is because, quite honestly, early Wi-fi, and to a large degree today, just didn’t cut it for security, or for range.
What is mesh? Generally it’s term for multi-point devices, instead of single point. For example, my old routers broadcast to and respond to each Wi-Fi device. Any too far away, don’t respond. But if each device, every light, wall switch, etc, could relay any commands, then range (and potentially security) are expanded. Today, we’re starting to see mesh Wi-Fi routers – that is multiple units that pass everything along. But individual Wi-Fi devices like smart bulbs, thermostats don’t act as relays. I discuss the Eero units I use, below.
Hey, even today we still have problems trying to bathe a largish two story home (say 3000 sq ft+) in Wifi everywhere.
Another fun fact: It’s only about 15 years since Wi-Fi became popular. Not long before that, the construction of new homes often featured ethernet cabling running throughout, for a hard connection to the internet instead of wireless. Hard wiring like that is obviously more reliable, but such a pain to add, which was why it became popular, and usually an option, before Wi-Fi proved way easier and less expensive, compared to retrofitting older homes that weren’
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 the others, so that range can be great, as long as you have at least one such device every 25 feet give or take. By comparison, every Wi-Fi device in your home needs to be in range of your Wi-Fi router! And, of course, Wi-Fi looses a lot of range when it has to pass through walls, just to further complicate things.
Unfortunately Wi-Fi still isn’t a mesh system, YET. Still, (but hopefully not much longer), A typical Wi-Fi router (or one with boosters/extenders for larger houses) is responsible for reaching every single Wi-Fi 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. I was using a very new, very top of the line router, with lots of antennas. Still, no joy!
With mesh systems, every device, be it a door lock, a smart bulb, or a wall switch, or outlet is both a receiver and a transmitter. My Wi-Fi router was 80+ feet, and a floor away, from my back patio lights, so had zero chance of controlling my outdoor lighting. I used Z-Wave controllers on my outside color strip lighting. I had, at the time, my door locks, and I also 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 controllers. No problem, the mesh design saves the day, Whereas my router was far away and would have to pass the signals through 4-5 walls including an exterior wall. All my other outdoor Z-wave devices are near enough to each other, and at least one close enough to the nearest indoor Z-Wave device, so, everything worked no problem.
Once we have secure mesh Wifi, as well as secure mesh Bluetooth, then today’s popular 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.
My current solution for WiFi iis that I am using the Eero 6 WiFi routers – three of them. They “mesh” with each other, seeming to work better than traditional extenders. They are doing a great job of covering 100% of my 2400 sq ft condo, and the outside balcony as well. (Finally – something that works really well). I am most pleased, but life would be better if all, or most of the Wi-Fi devices in my home also “meshed”.
“There are 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 Blu-ray capable PS3 hit the market (2006 – a year before the first iPhone), it was one of the first Blu-ray playing devices to ship. The PS3 was perhaps the first cool device designed to allow generational upgrades. The PS3’s ability to software upgrade did great – forget games, consider that it learned to play Blu-ray, and then it later learned to play 3D Blu-ray too, capabilities far beyond the original units, thanks to 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, and HDR 15 years later.
Tech keeps changing faster and faster! Expecting full compatibility 6-10 years later in tech today, is, at best, being pretty 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.
3G cellular goes “bye-bye”!
That’s right, now we are at a cusp. The major phone companies are turning off 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. You old DIY home automation types, and those of you who paid professionals for security – You might just have an alarm system that calls out to police or fire – using 3G tech. In which case – you’ll need an upgrade real soon.
It’s time to double back to the original article in Fast Company, Jared it seems, for purposes of his article, to be focused on or at least primarily discusses, are not so much as fully integrated systems, but as a whole lot of individual DIY products, with some centralized system to perform, much like mine, it would seem.
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!”
Today there is more “cross-over” of high end companies expanding their offerings into lower price ranges going on now, than say 5 years ago. And those same high end companies now find themselves where they need to support solutions like Alexa, or Nest thermostats.
Those high end home control solutions companies like Crestron, Savant, Control4, have recognized that. At the same time, they can mine the lower end customers looking for future high end customers, but not if they ignore all the Ring video doorbells, and Ecobee thermostats, and Siri type products.
Alexa, Siri, and Google 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 like Savant, Crestron and Control4 to name just a few.
The High End of the Home Automation/Smart Home Market
With the higher end companies, you are typically dealing with higher/high end AV (or security) type integrators/resellers/dealers – they come in all sizes and shapes. They will normally treat automating your home about the same way you designer and contractor would do a major home remodel. They will to a degree educate you. And customize the capabilities to your requirements, make suggestions and provide a detailed proposal.
These high end companies usually use one of several several brands to automate your house. Some of those biggest names, are Crestron, Control4, Savant, AMX and ?????? but there are a number of others as well.
The great thing is that if you decide to proceed using a high end company, mostly you just have to tell them what you want to accomplish. They’ll help you be aware of all the things you can do. Once you decide, time to get out of the way. When they are done, they will train you on what, these days, should be an extremely intuitive system to operate. And you’ll probably end up with both touch panels, and voice capabilities.
By comparison, I’m more the DIY type. That said, I mostly hire other folks to do most of my installing, but I do most of my customizing – that is naming, setting schedules where appropriate, making voice work. Sadly I’m getting a little old for crawling around with wiring, etc. Where I am – “smart home” wise, is very different from having a high end home automation dealer fully integrate your home and its smarts. The point is, either way, you can automate most things you wish to, but you’ll have to decide what is overkill!
For example, I don’t use those pricey ($55 each) Lutron wall dimmers for lights in closets, nor for circuits that have all smart bulbs, (because I have more control of the bulb options using their app), than I can with just a smart wall switch. (ie changing colors). As a result, only about 2/3 of my wall light switches are smart. But I also currently have 3 sets of smart color strip lighting, a string of smart outdoor lighting bulbs, and 20 inside smart bulbs (8 of them are color ones).
As I said earlier, there’s a lot you can do. The trick is to figure out what you really need/want, rather than trying to automate everything. (Good luck – it is a learn as you go experience, but a good one. Still, if I had a big bucks budget, I too would live to have a Crestron or Savant system running my home…
In Part 3, we’ll look at using personal assistants like Alexa, Siri, and Google assistant, to control your home’s smart features. Personally, I love being able to control almost all of my smart devices, with voice commands. My wife, on the other hand, says I should get up to change the lighting… She thinks it’s over the top. You too will need to figure out what it is you really want…