If you’ve been shopping for a major appliance lately, you may have noticed that everything from ovens to refrigerators, TVs, dishwashers and microwaves are equipped with Wi-Fi connectivity. buy home appliances without onboard smart features.
Smart devices are everywhere, built into pretty much everything – but actually making a smart home that works together in harmony is a nightmare that the average person is unlikely to be able to navigate on their own.
I’ve been browsing this lately as someone who’s just bought their first home, eager to make the most of this smart technology now that I can rip out light switches and punch holes in my walls when I want. If you are intentional about what you buy, the smart home I can be magical, and I was ready to invest in it.
My plan was to open the eyes of the smart home and spend my time buying only devices that complement each other. I knew from my rental time that putting together a bunch of random smart devices without much thought got more and more irritating over time. Over the past few months, I’ve spent hours researching things like smart light switches, sensors, and blinds before spending any money.
But even as someone who works in technology, it surprises me how complicated the smart home still is: it’s full of jargon and incompatible standards. Before buying anything, people who want to get into the ‘smart home’ need to choose their ecosystems and technologies wisely from the start or they will be messing around for years, but no device manufacturer is ahead with this.
The basic goal for anyone building a smart home should be: which device do I primarily want to manage these things? For most people, the best route is probably via a smart speaker like Google Home, Amazon Alexa, or Apple’s HomePod, which will let you control these devices with your voice, as well as a single app on your phone.
The problem, however, is that the need for a single app or device to control all the smart stuff isn’t obvious at first until you end up with a few different devices that it’s annoying to switch between different apps to control each of your light bulbs.
That means the average smart home hobbyist needs to somehow understand whether what they’re buying will work with Google Home and Amazon Alexa, if they have smart speakers. So if they own an iPhone, they need to understand what Apple HomeKit default is, which lets them use Siri and the Home app on iOS as well (and it’s worth the effort, providing a single app that controls your entire home).
After that, maybe they realize they want to get sensors to automate those devices to do things like turn on lights when they enter a room, they’ll probably need to consider the Z-Wave or Zigbee standards, which unlock automation for any device, regardless of manufacturer, but often require an additional hub to function.
Also important, but not immediately obvious, is whether or not a device connects directly to your WiFi or through a hub of some sort, which needs to be connected to your router. I’ve found over the years that the latter is better, although it can be counter-intuitive because it means you’re not dealing with WiFi dead zones, devices disappearing from your network without explanation, or needing to reconnect all light switches if you change the default. network name in the future. But having six different hubs for each manufacturer’s devices is Furthermore a little ridiculous.
Smart home geeks will be quick to point you in the direction of open source projects like homebridge or house assistant, which runs on a Raspberry Pi, to connect these ecosystems to many devices, regardless of whether their creators actually support it. These designs are impressive and allow for many amazing smart home configurations, but the mere suggestion of this is absurd for the average person, given the difficulty involved, and it should be a demonstration of why the smart home failed.
I researched devices for weeks to avoid as much pain as possible when setting up our new home, settling on a set of brands that I would use throughout the house because I knew they worked with Google Home, Amazon Alexa and Apple’s HomeKit Platform. For smart lights I replaced all my light switches with Lutron Caseta, which are widely regarded as ‘rock solid’, and I declined to present any other brand of smart switch. As we were moving into a new house without blinds, we also invested in Lutron’s Serene Shadows smart blinds, which allow automation of your blinds and connect to the same system. In any lamp or for accent lighting, Philips Hue is my destiny, and so on.
I’m not immune to the pitfalls I’ve described, ironically: I already owned some Kasa smart plugs before moving into our new home, which aren’t HomeKit compatible, and that would mean I wouldn’t be able to automate them in the Apple Home App to work with my other devices, and our house came with a Samsung smart fridge and oven that are also not compatible.
So, despite my planning, I ended up putting together Homebridge to make them work in harmony anyway, which worked out pretty well after I played around for a while, eventually tricking everything into working as if it was officially supported. But, I’d hazard a guess that the mere mention of running a terminal command on a Raspberry Pi isn’t a good start for most casual smart home buyers.
There It’s hope on the horizon, with major smart home companies embarking on a new standard called Care which promises to provide a “foundation for connected things”, ensuring that everyone can talk to each other, no matter what ecosystem you are in. Matter, which is an open source standard, promises to make your devices work in all apps regardless of who made them. More importantly, it has a strong following from the biggest companies in the industry, including Amazon, Apple, Google, Samsung, Wyze, Philips Hue, and many others.
Matter can actually be added to existing products via a software update because it works on top of your existing connectivity including WiFi, Bluetooth or the thread pattern, and allows devices to talk to each other both locally, without Internet connectivity, and remotely for when you’re out and about. It promises to make automation work across all your devices no matter what you buy, but it also means it’s easier to move between ecosystems, like from Amazon’s Alexa to Google Home.
Though Matter is promising, it hasn’t solved things still and most companies are still working on adding support to the standard which will take time and there is no guarantee that manufacturers will bother updating existing devices as they only make money when you buy something new.
This means that for the foreseeable future, the smart home remains fragmented and confusing for most people beyond the most basic configurations. Until it improves and a standard like Matter resolves the integration hole so no one has to utter the words ‘Raspberry Pi’ to make things harmonious, I’m not going to recommend my parents invest in smart lights just yet.