The ubiquitous smartphone aside, last year, according to Forrester Research, just 6 percent of American households had a smart device—electronics like speakers or lights that can connect wirelessly to other objects and perform some aspect of daily home life. That’s fewer than one might expect from listening to industry analysts, many of whom see a perpetually bright future for the Internet of Things. The consulting firm Bain & Company forecasts that annual revenues for IoT vendors could top $470 billion by 2020. What accounts for this discrepancy between low participation and huge potential? Why aren’t people racing out right now to buy refrigerators that reorder their own groceries or front-door locks that fasten themselves when the last light goes out?
For starters, it’s because owning a high-tech home isn’t simple. The security and privacy headaches of being surrounded by Internet-connected objects are unsettling enough. Add in the fact that the present smart-tech landscape can be frustrating, full of complicated devices aligned with rival factions that don’t want to work together (ecosystems like those run by Google, Amazon, and Apple), and you have a compelling argument to unplug your router posthaste.
Yet despite consumers’ tepid response, connectivity continues to permeate almost every part of domestic life. Here, we explore the smart home’s present imperfections and its seemingly limitless future, gathering Silicon Valley insiders, early adopters, architects, and experts to dig into the current state of home automation. We also shine a light on a multitude of gadgets and appliances that can connect, sense, learn, listen, talk, or—one hopes—just make life a little easier.
Welcome to the unofficial nerve center of the smart home.
A hub is a universal remote for the home. It connects different devices to the cloud so you can control them using one app. Widely considered the leader, Samsung SmartThings supports 200-plus gadgets.
Speakers that stream music over WiFi are preferable to those that use Bluetooth, because they can’t be interrupted by texts or calls. Sonos says its multiroom WiFi speakers will support Alexa later this year.
New this year, the Amazon Fire TV Edition is a line of 4K screens, each Alexa-enabled so they can control broad swaths of the smart home. They’re also outfitted with Fire TV, Amazon’s media streaming player.
Any device that’s connected to WiFi can be hacked. To guard against attacks, new security-oriented routers like Norton Core act as gatekeepers, alerting users to suspicious activity on their network.
Energy- and money-saving smart thermostats like Ecobee4, Honeywell Lyric, and Nest Learning Thermostat let users fine-tune their home’s temperature using a mobile app or voice control.
Vacuums went robotic early. The first Roomba was introduced in 2002. Now the company’s top models can auto-clean at regularly scheduled times and be programmed to avoid certain areas of the house.
New gadgets promise fewer chores in the hardest-working room.
Even the simplest appliances are being rewired. Normal toasters have a mechanism for letting you know when your bread is ready ("pop!"), but the Griffin Connected Toaster can notify your phone.
The day of robot chefs is coming. The Tovala combination oven (available for pre-order), uses a barcode scanner to cook a selection of meals that the company sends subscribers via a delivery service.
For true oenophiles, the Plum wine cooler identifies, chills, and preserves any standard 750 milliliter bottle, then serves it at the ideal temperature. The only drawback? The tabletop unit holds just two bottles at a time.
Finding the sweet spot between scalding and freezing on a faucet can be annoyingly tricky. Faucets with digital displays, like those made by Juno Showers, let users see the exact temperature, so no guess work.
Waving a dish towel is an analog way to quiet a smoke alarm. Using an app to control the beeping is much more efficient. Plus, smart alarms are safer. Nest Protect tests its batteries and sensors more than 400 times each day.
Both Samsung and LG have top-of-the-line smart refrigerators equipped with voice-recognition technology, touchscreens that can display and read recipes, and internal cameras for checking your grocery stock.
Sleep is the latest frontier for wellness-enhancing tech.
Better illumination begins with better control. Philips Hue makes LED lights that produce more than 16 million colors—or just regular white—and, like other LEDs, they can screw into most standard fixtures.
- Alarm Clock
Look out, phone alarms. The Bonjour AI-enabled alarm clock (now in pre-order) can do things like read the traffic report and start the coffee maker, and it has tons of integrations with companies like Fitbit and Spotify.
Even beds are getting smarter. The Eight mattress cover utilizes hundreds of sensors to measure sleep quality. There’s also an accompanying app that lets users heat the bed before tucking in for the night.
Designed for those who require music to fall asleep, but whose partners prefer quiet, the recently Kickstarted ZEEQ Smart Pillow will play tunes that are audible only when one’s face is buried in its cushion.
- Window Shades
Technically, any window shade can be automated by adding an electric pulley setup, but only the Lutron Serena system, equipped with a Caséta hub, can be voice-controlled using Siri or Amazon Alexa.
Connectivity is infiltrating the most private part of the house.
Practically standard in places like Japan, smart toilets have been slow to catch on in the U.S. New this year, the TOTO self-cleaning, auto-opening, wall-hung Neorest AC Washlet aims to alter Americans’ habits.
- Leak Detector
Water sensors can’t stop a leak, but they can warn homeowners about them early by sending phone alerts. Honeywell and D-Link make versions that work directly through WiFi, meaning no hub is needed.
Who knows how much H20 is wasted each year by people waiting for their showers to warm up? U by Moen, shown this year at CES in Las Vegas, lets users preheat their water from their phone or a digital controller.
Although they’re pricier than the drugstore variety, smart brushes that record your cleaning habits and send you performance reports, like the kind made by Ara, might save you a few bucks at the dentist someday.
Panasonic made waves when it unveiled its Smart Mirror, a vanity intended mainly for commercial use that takes photos of users’ faces, pinpoints their blemishes, and then recommends products to alleviate them.
Weight is just one metric that a scale can measure. The Withings Body scale, for instance, captures body fat percentage, muscle mass, and more, and then uploads that information automatically to an app.
Backyards have never been more wired.
- Garage Door Opener
Many garage doors can be operated using dedicated controllers. Ryobi makes an opener that has a built-in WiFi antenna so it can be controlled remotely with an iOS or Android app.
Alone, the Edyn Garden Sensor is capable of monitoring your plants’ health and sending insights to your smartphone. Paired with the Water Valve, it can actually water the garden for you.
- Security Camera
Wire-free, infrared outdoor cameras like Arlo by Netgear and Canary Flex can provide peace of mind by enabling residents to check on their property from almost anywhere.
- Door Lock
Perhaps the greatest advantage digital locks offer over traditional deadbolts is the ability to use a phone as a key. August, Yale, Kwikset, and others have models that let users send virtual keys to houseguests.
- Solar Panels and Batteries
Mercedes-Benz Energy and Vivint Solar now sell storage batteries and panels as a package, giving users a backup power source in case the grid goes down, similar to the Tesla Powerwall.
Wireless speakers are convenient, but often not very waterproof. Wired, all-weather systems that have their own apps for music-streaming, like those made by Control4, may be a safer bet for the outdoors.
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