The smart home is gaining ground, but it's still a muddle of confusing standards, competing platforms, and gadgets that don't do what you might expect. But the promise of products that can make your life a little easier is hard to resist, so I'm here to answer the inevitable questions that arise.
Whether it's figuring out the best connected door lock to assembling the right recipe to wake you up with a faux sunrise at the optimal moment based on your fitness tracker's data, I've got you covered. As the host of The Internet of Things Podcast, I install a lot of gear and spend hours testing hardware and software to see what works. Smart homes are still pretty dumb, but I want to help you feel smart.
If you have smart home questions you'd like me to answer, send an email to [email protected]
Q: If you were going to buy a digital lock today, which one would you buy? What I most want to be able to do is to remotely manage codes and access. I have two kids who are older, one who simply loses too many keys. I hate leaving keys outside. I am never 100 percent sure when either of them is in town, and if I will be in town when they are. I also have a place that requires people to have access at times.
A: Hi Elliot, Given your parameters, there are a couple of considerations. Granting easy access to people can be done using a connected lock, but it can also be done with a keypad. In that case, everyone gets a code that opens the door. Depending on how connected the lock is, you'll be able to see what code (and which person) enters your home. Slightly more advanced connected locks use Bluetooth, ZigBee, or Z-wave to connect to the rest of the home and your phone.
The biggest selling point of the Bluetooth locks is that they let you auto-unlock your door when your phone gets in range. This is tremendously handy if you have your hands full when you approach the door.
If that's a selling point, the three locks that are most interesting on the market are the Kevo by Kwikset, the $99 Lockitron Bolt, and the $199 August Smart Lock. Of the three, I'd recommend the Kevo because it looks most like a lock, and after a rocky launch, it seems to be the most reliable. It also has the longevity of the Kwikset name behind it, although the technology inside is from Unikey.
The August is popular, but large, and the BLE auto-open functionality seems less reliable. However, if you are an iPhone user, this is tied into the HomeKit ecosystem. That means you tell Siri to open your lock even if the auto-unlock feature doesn't work. August also has the August Access program where you link your doorbell to your lock, so you can remotely see who is at your door and let them in. If you travel a lot and think you'll be able to answer the door in time after the doorbell rings, this could enable you to answer the door at any time even while traveling. Otherwise, people who need access to your home for both the August and the Kevo need to download an app for access. (They can also use a key).
If you just want a connected lock that doesn't need to open in response to your phone, there are a huge array of Yale, Schlage, and Kwikset locks that use Z-wave or ZigBee to tie into a home-automation system. We have one of those on our garage door, and at times I've linked it to the garage door opening to unlock it, so when my husband comes home the door is already unlocked for him to walk through. I also have linked it to our porch lights, so when you unlock the door after a certain time of day the porch lights come on. The benefit to these locks is that you have a wider array of styles that might fit with your home decor. The downside is you need a hub to link them to the rest of your house, and you have to be comfortable programming the automations you're after. So far, you also can't auto unlock these using proximity to your phone, but you can open the app and unlock them remotely if they are connected to a hub.
A final note, Yale locks is building a lock based on Nest's Thread protocol that isn't on the market yet. It will come out later this summer, and if you have and enjoy a Nest thermostat, and want to integrate your lock into home automation settings you may want to wait and see how that one fares.
Q: I wanted to see if you had any input on lights. I've had an old Z-wave controller for a while and got the Wink hub a couple of years ago, but never really did much with it. Recently, I've added about 20 GE Link bulbs and a couple of Cree bulbs. I'm interested in the Hue for the color-changing function, but a bit leery due to cost and adding another hub. Would you say it's worth it on both counts, and do you know of other similar products that might not be quite so expensive?
A: Hi Jeff, lights are my favorite thing to play with in my connected home because they are both practical (I need to see!) and a way to show off what the Internet of things is capable of (my lights used to flash red when my editor sent a text). Most lights run on ZigBee and Wi-Fi, and a few are coming out with Bluetooth radios. So your Z-wave controller isn't going to help much here.
But if you aren't using the Wink hub for anything else, you can unplug it if you decide on Hue. For the $200 starter pack, which gets you the hub and two bulbs, you can actually control your Cree and GE Link lights from the Hue app. The catch is that Hue doesn't necessarily support those, so if you have trouble, you are on your own. But those lights use the ZigBee Light Link profile, which means they should work. I have run Cree over my Hue bridge and am currently running six GE Light Link bulbs over the Hue.
If you want to keep the Wink and use a cheaper color bulb, the Osram Lightify RGBW LEDs are $40 for a typical A19 bulb and $45 for a BR30 downlamp. They work with the Wink but don't need a hub. Osram also has a hub if you want to get a slightly cheaper, colorful light and control it from your phone. Happy disco dancing!