The State of Smart Homes

You can lock your door and lower the temperature with your phone. But is your house really that smart?
You can lock your door and lower the temperature with your phone. But is your house really that smart? Getty Images

One of the hottest stories of the Consumer Electronic Show this past month was the fact that smart-home devices and systems have hit critical mass. There are smart light bulbs and door locks, light switches and dimmers, security cameras, motion detectors, thermostats, and smoke detectors, not to mention TVs and refrigerators, stoves, and water purifiers. All of them are able to chat amongst each other and make life way more interesting. The smart home isn't coming — it's here. To add to that, it's finally getting easy to set up. 

Until recently, there's simply been too much confusion, too many acronyms and wireless protocols and competing standards, for a smart-home system to be widely attractive. Most of us weren't able to go beyond individual products — a dimming bulb, door lock, or thermostat — since it was so difficult to link them all together. But there are a growing number of starter kits from Insteon, or Iris, or SmartThings that let you connect devices and more fully automate the home. Here's a glimpse of how it all can work: When you leave in the morning, for example, your thermostat or door sensor is triggered and turns off the heat or AC, your lights go off (and your TV or radio), your front door locks, and a few security cameras and window sensors are armed, all without prodding. When you come home, your house kicks everything back on again in advance, maybe starts the roast in the oven and closes the shades at sunset. Head to the den, and your TV turns on, switches to Netflix, the lights dim, and the binge watch begins. 

These starter kits are getting even smarter, and way easier to set up. But we think a real leap forward has been the embrace of tech giants like Apple and Google. While the Goog's Weave-enabled devices are still coming to market, ones that support the Apple's Homekit are everywhere. Homekit lets supported devices communicate pretty much effortlessly — they just find each other — and connects them with an iPhone or iPad via Siri. When coupled with an Apple TV, your system becomes accessible over the internet — meaning you can get notifications when someone comes home, or opens a door, or if the pipes leak, whatever. 

Samsung, too, has a new line of TVs that have a SmartThings hub built-in, and a well-designed interface for controlling it all. That means being able to set things up, get notifications, and tweak settings all from the comfort of your couch while using a remote control. Then there's Amazon's voice-controlled Echo speaker. A ton of smart-home devices announced compatibility with Echo, so that now you can pair it with your smart-home system (or individual devices) and be able to control them using just your voice.

There's still no question that things can, and will, improve, or that the more automation and functionality you want, the more elbow grease you'll have to put in to make it work. But now, the smart home cost of admission has dropped through the floor and the learning curve has been flattened to a minor speed bump. It's finally time to have a talk with your house, and know that it'll listen.