Get Smart With Stacey: Which Connected Devices Are Best for Renters?


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]

What are a few good connected devices for renters?

—Everyone who lives in an apartment and knows me

I get variations of this question all the time. People worried about their landlords can't readily install new thermostats, connected locks, or even light switches. So what's an early adopting renter to do? A few property companies are testing connected apartments, but for everyone else, I like to start with a simple set of connected light bulbs and an Amazon Echo.

This gives you the ability to turn on your lights using your voice, which is convenient and cool. If you choose colored light bulbs, then you also get the benefit of being able to make If This Then That recipes, which allow you to let your lights turn into an information delivery system for Web data. For example, I have recipes that blinks my lights when a specific person texts or calls me, or turns a light red when I am waiting for a specific email or the weather changes.

Hue lights from Philips and LIFX lights work with the Echo directly. However, once you have a Hue bridge in your house, you can generally run a variety of other connected bulbs on that same bridge. I am currently running GE Link bulbs, Cree Connected, and Osram Lightify bulbs over the Hue bridge. That's not something Philips directly supports, however.

If you are an Apple fan, you can start with the Hue lights (add an Apple TV if you want to control the lights when you're out of the home) and turn to Siri instead of the Amazon Echo.

Belkin WeMo Insight SwitchMaybe you don't want to unscrew your light bulbs when you leave. A smart plug is a good way to connect a lamp or other product to the Internet. I like the WeMo Insight switches because they work with the Echo, which gives you voice control. But WeMo has software that is hard to love; sometimes it's downright glitchy. If the thought of occasional software trouble gives you hives, the iDevices connected outlet works well and can double as a nightlight. It's HomeKit compatible, so Android lovers should just pass.

I want to recommend a Bluetooth wall switch and light combo for those who want to add a wall switch to a connected bulb in a lamp, for example. But I don't love any of the ones that are out there. Philips Hue and Osram make a wall-based switch that uses ZigBee. The Osram one works with the Osram Lightify lights (and hub) and is screwed onto your existing switch. The Philips one can be mounted next to your existing switch using double-sided tape.

That's a lot about lights, which I always think is a good first step. When done well, it can make life a bit easier (telling the Echo to turn on your kitchen lights while your hands are dirty is awesome), and you can use them as an ambient information delivery device. Connected outlets can be fun for making sure things turn off when you leave and for connecting to IFTTT to turn on a box fan or window AC unit when temps get too high.

Another product I think is great for renters is a security camera or an easy security system that can let you know if someone breaks in. At the budget end, Korner has a nice system that gets you three easily removable door and window sensors plus a dongle that plugs into your Wi-Fi for about $100. The first year of monitoring is free; after that it's $40 a year. This may not be great for those who don't want a service fee, but it's not terribly expensive. One other thing to note on Korner is that large apartments may need to invest in a $40 extender device.

On the higher end, Canary offers an all-in-one security camera as well as sensors for temperature, noise, humidity and air quality. For $200, buyers get a lot of peace of mind. Canary integrates with IFTTT and Wink, but it's mostly limited to arming and disarming the system. A new HomeKit version of the Canary is expected early next year.

Piper is another all-in-one security product that has an added bonus of acting as a Z-wave hub, which means you can link a variety of accessories to it. However, recently purchased Piper from iControl, so it's not clear how robust its support for that platform will be.

I have a deaf brother. Is there a way maybe to have Hue lights in his condo flash when someone rings the bell at his door? Or another solution to help the deaf know when people are at the door? Thanks in advance.

This is an awesome use case, but it will require some money or ingenuity. If you have money, then I would recommend getting a video doorbell. Then, if your brother carries his phone with him, he may not need the lights to flicker or turn a certain color, because the phone will send a notification when someone presses the bell.

Skybell Video DoorbellIf he's not carrying the phone, then he should buy a Ring or Skybell doorbell because they offer both the doorbell and If This Then That integrations that will let your brother link them to the Hue lights. LIFX lights would also work here. The Skybell HD is my favorite connected doorbell (be sure you get the HD one) and is $200. Ring offers a battery-powered doorbell for $199 and a skinnier version for $249.

It's unclear if your brother owns or rents his condo. If he rents, the $200 battery-powered Ring may be his best bet because he can keep it stuck on the wall with double-sided tape instead of messing with an installation.

If a bulky install is a problem, he doesn't have to use a doorbell. He could stick a connected button to his door that flicks the lights on when pressed. For $80, he can buy a relatively big Wi-Fi button from Bttn that will integrate with IFTTT to control the lights. A smaller Bttn mini, which costs the same, will be out by the end of October. After two years, Bttn users will have to pay a $2-per-month cloud service fee. I'm also not sure about Bttn's battery life.

I don't recommend a Bluetooth button for this, as his phone will have to be in range of his front door for those to work. If he wants to get into hubs, he could have some fun with vibration sensors on the door so when people knock his lights blink. But that's more gear to buy.

Also, a note on creating the recipe for his lights. When using the Hue or LIFX lights and IFTTT, my suggestion is to use the "blink lights" trigger because it should return the lights back to their default setting. Otherwise if you turn them a color, they will stay that way until you manually reset them. LIFX recipes have a lot more granularity when it comes to number of times to blink the lights.

I hope this helps. There are a lot of great things you can do with connected devices for the hearing impaired. A connected smoke detector attached to the lights is another good one. Nest Protect combined with Philips Hue can do that.

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