I have always wanted to live in a Jetson's style home of the future filled with robots, assistants, and other tech that would allow me to yell out commands and have something happen, such as unlocking my doors, controlling the lights, or even setting the termperature. I wanted this because I always thought that these hardware or software assistants would make it easier for me to complete what I need to do (e.g. work) so that I can more quickly get to those things that I really want do (e.g. leisure activities or hobbies). I started thinking about this as a child. Now that I am a parent with a busy schedule, interests, activities, and children who have access to many of the things I had as a teenager (friends and cars) and many more things that I did not have available to me (smartphones, tablets, THE INTERNET, etc.), I want the Jetson's smart home more than ever. Since the introduction of the Home app in iOS 10, my desire for that futuristic smart home has now become, or is really close to being, a reality for me and my family.
My start in home automation
I started my smart home journey by backing the SmartThings Kickstarter campaign in September 2012. At Apple's World Wide Developer's Conference (WWDC), Apple announced HomeKit™ along with iOS 8. HomeKit was created by Apple to make your smart home safer from malicious software attacks through smart home devices. In order for a device to be HomeKit™ enabled it must meet Apple's rigorous hardware and software requirement in order to maintain user and home security. The first HomeKit™ enabled devices were released in the spring of 2015. Not only did HomeKit make your internet connected devices, and thus your home, safer - it enabled a user to control his/her smart home devices with Siri®. I started to transition to HomeKit enabled devices in 2015 for Siri® functionality and the extra peace of mind knowing that the devices are as secure as possible. My 4th generation Apple TV® is the hub of my HomeKit™ devices. It enables me to control those HomeKit devices by Siri or the Home app from anywhere in the world. I LOVE being able to control my front door lock from anywhere, and it happens more often than you might think where this is a useful feature.
It's all about data and automation
The Home app
I think a smart home is all about data and automation of devices and access to data from devices. Apple's Home app brings almost all (all of the HomeKit) devices into one app for easy control and management of my smart home devices. I am able to see and control everything from my lights to my front door lock all in one place. The Home app has made a huge difference in making a smart home much easier to set up and manage. HomeKit enabled devices automatically add themselves to the Home app once they are configured. No extra set is required in the Home app. Devices just appear. But what the Home app does best is give you quick access to home, devices, and information, and it makes it easy to automate your smart home devices. I control and have automated all of my smart outlets, which I use for lamps for most of the year and Christmas lights during the Holiday season. I set up for the lights to come on at sunset and turn off later in the evening. Since the Home app is connected to the internet, it knows my location and the time of sunset; I do not have to change the time that all of the lights come on as the seasons change. This is my favorite feature of automation in the Home app and saves me the mental burden of having to adjust the light schedules, which varies greatly in Ohio based upon the time of year, every 3 months.
Smart deadbolt locks
I added the Schlage Sense Smart Deadbolt (about $190) to my front door in December 2015. I chose the Schlage Sense because it was one of the only HomeKit™ enabled deadbolt locks on the market at the time. Now there are other choices such as the August Smart Lock (2nd generation approximately $215). I wanted a smart lock for my home so that my children could unlock the door by simply telling Siri® to "unlock the front door" from their iPhones (I also love to do this as well, and I do if far more frequently than one might think I would). Most importantly, the Schlage Sense also gives me basic, but highly useful information in the form of a push notification any time the deadbolt is unlocked or locked.
Consequently, I am able to know precisely when my daughter's boyfriend or any of my son's friends leave my home or any time we have a visitor. There is no way to avoid the notification as since the deadbolt is mechanized to open on its own by Siri® command; the deadbolt automatically locks itself after 4 minutes of being unlocked. This means that no one can enter or exit my home without me be alerted and knowing about it - no matter where I am as long as I have an iOS device. I have found this data to be quite useful as a parent.
I now own a fleet of Hue bulbs to light my home so that I can control them with Siri® or one of my Amazon Echo's. I really enjoy being able to tell Siri® or Alexa to turn on (or off) "Kitchen" and all of the lights in my kitchen turn on while I am in another room or walking into the kitchen. However, I especially love being able to tell Siri or Alexa to turn off "Evening" and all of the lights in my house turn off so that I can just go straight to bed. If you have ever fallen asleep while watching TV and then woken up later to only have to go and turn everything off, then you will love having smart lights in your home for this feature alone.
Being able to turn your lights on and/or off remotely or by voice command is something that I love and of great benefit to me. However, having the additional feature of being able to change the color of every Hue bulb is fantastic. I have bulb color settings for holidays, watching movies, and even when my World Champion Cleveland Cavaliers game is about to start. I also like to occasionally change the color of the lights when my daughter and her boyfriend are watching a movie in our living room or basement. I like to do this to quietly remind them that I might be around and keeping an eye on them. Can you really ever have too much supervision of your teenage daughter and her boyfriend? I think not. I was once a teenage boy myself.
Smart plugs make almost any device smart
Not all lights can or should be Hue Smart bulbs. Floor lamps, desk lamps, and Christmas lights cannot be Hue bulbs, so I needed a different solution for them in order to make these lights smart. I decided upon the iHome smart plug (about $40) to make these lights and some other appliances smart so that I could automate them and forget about managing them. [iHome smart plugs] take any device and turn them into a smart device through HomeKit™ and Alexa integrations. Any device connected to an iHome smart plug can easily be managed and automated with the Home app, Siri, or an Amazon Echo, or Echo Dot. This is a simple thing that makes life easier for no other reason than it relieves the little extra mental burden of remembering to turn all of items on or off.
Internet connected thermostats will change your life
I recently switched from the 1st generation Nest thermostat to the Ecobee3 thermostat (about $200) because of Ecobee's HomeKit integration. This means that I am much more easily and more reliably able to automate the thermostat's behavior using the Home app, rather than relying on IFTTT like I did with my Nest thermostat. One of the features that I like most about this thermostat is the HomeKit integration that allows me to control it in the Home app. It is great to have yet another device for which I do not need to have (and learn) an extra app and interface to control it. Additionally, Ecobee has remote sensors (about $75) available that enable you to monitor and set heating and cooling points for multiple rooms in your home. This is the feature that set's the Ecobee apart from all of it's competitors currently available. I love that I can set the nighttime heating and cooling temperature in my home to be based solely upon the bedroom temperatures and ignore the main thermostat's temperature on the first floor. Setting the temperature based upon the room you are in will change how you live.
Voice control is the new frontier
I purchased an Amazon Echo (about $180) to test it and found that I absolutely love being able to yell things at a stationary speaker while cooking, walking through the kitchen, or while eating a meal with my family. The Echo is responsive, and I have found that I am to also control most of my smart home devices with the Echo in addition to Siri. The fixed location aspect of the Echo also provides a more consistent voice experience since the Echo is always in the same location. What makes the Echo so indispensable now for me is that it has hundreds of integrations into other software and hardware technologies that Amazon calls "Skills." The only smart home device that I own that does not have an Echo skill is the Schlage Sense deadbolt lock. The Echo gives me the ability to manage, control, and add data points for many of the home devices and apps that I use for my home and work lives. I like the Echo so much that I added an Echo Dot ($40) to my bedroom so that I could have another point of voice entry and control in the other room in my house in which I spend the majority of my time. I will be adding an Echo Show ($230) to my kitchen in late June so that we will have an Echo with a screen which will help with multiple cooking timers. I then plan on moving our current Echo to my basement office so that I will have access to an Echo on every floor and place in my home and so that I can fully control most things (other than my wife and kids - dare to dream) in my home by voice commands. Echo Skills also make it possible for me to access data about and monitor smart devices outside of my home, which I will also now be able to do anywhere in home with the fleet of Echo's I have strategically deployed.
Taking Smart Home devices on the road - literally
The Automatic Pro ($129) is a device that plugs into your car's OBD II port that turns your car into a smart car. I purchased the original Bluetooth version of the Automatic car dongle in late 2014. While this technology was great for the time, it was limited by the fact that it had to be paired via a bluetooth to a single phone in order for it work. However, the new Automatic Pro has a constant 3G cellular connection which is a huge advancement and improvement. I am able to get and see real-time data for my car or my daughter's car as she is driving. I get push notifications when she starts driving and when she parks her car. Those push notifications give me the time when she starts to drive and the time and location of where she parks. Having access to this information gives my wife and I peace of mind in that we know when she makes it safely to her destination.
Moreover, the Automatic app scores her driving (and mine) on a weekly basis. I really like this feature because it gives me a reference point so that I can talk to my daughter about her driving when the need arises, before there might be a problem. I get statistics that rate my driving and my daughter's driving every Monday. I have found this data very useful as it has allowed me to analyze my driving style so that I could adjust it for greater fuel efficiency. I also use the data to keep an eye on my daughter's driving style and will definitely be using it when my son starts to drive in a few months.
I have added a great deal of extra functionality to our Automatic Pro devices with IFTTT ($0 - free). I use IFFFT Applets to track and record the details of each trip mine and my daughter's cars take. the IFTTT Applets I use record the exact path the car is driven (which is a great location and story verification method), the MPG for the trip, and other lesser details. I also use another IFTTT Applet to put all of my trips in my car into a Google sheet so that I can use that data for tax purposes when necessary.
One Automatic feature that I fortunately have not had to use is reading automobile error codes. Automatic talks to the car's computer. If there is an error, such as leaving the gas cap open, and one of the dummy lights appears on the car's dash, Automatic will read the error code from the computer. After the error code is read by the Automatic car dongle, the Automatic iPhone app would tell me what the error is, and then I would be able to clear the error code with the Automatic app (for minor issues) or call to get my car serviced if necessary. This works on my iPhone for both my car and my daughter's car. It would work for any car that has an Automatic Pro car dongle and is connected to my Automatic Pro account. Although I have fortunately never had to use this feature, I love knowing that I can and know if something goes wrong with my daughter's car so that I can help her as quickly as possible.
The Automatic provides me with great data and insight into my driving; however, it is the integration of the Automatic Amazon Echo skill that makes Automatic practically indispensable for me. Automatic's Echo skill enables me to ask where my car is parked, how far I drove last week, or how much gas is in my car (yes you read that correctly)! Honestly, I typically ask for the data on my daughter's car so that I can quickly find out where she is and how much gas is in her car. I have found that I use this Amazon Echo skill more often than any other feature of the Echo other than setting timers.
SmartThings started it all for me
I backed the SmartThings (Hub: $80, Smart Senor: $40, Outlet: $45) Kickstarter in 2012 because it was the first smart home product that I found that looked like it would deliver what I wanted: controlling devices in my home with my iPhone. The Kickstarter successfully funded and I received smart plugs and sensors. I currently have 4 smart plugs and 5 smart sensors. SmartThings was purchased by Samsung in 2014. Since being purchased by Samsung, SmartThings has focused more on integrations with other smart home products rather than producing its own smart home devices. They continue to make most of the same products as it did at launch in 2012. I find the the SmartThings app to be confusing and difficult to set up, thus making SmartThing devices more difficult to manage. There are multiple apps and user interfaces to set them up. Once they are set up and integrated with the SmartThings Amazon Echo skill, device management is simple. However, I find that the voice commands I invoke frequently yield no response from the SmartThings devices. This is an epic failure. Therefore, I would not recommend investing in SmartThings devices for your home because it has been my experience that HomeKit devices respond much more reliably to voice commands through Siri and Alexa than SmartThings do via Alexa.
Smart home devices hardware and software have come a long way since I started in 2012. Everything is much more reliable now and user interfaces are much improved. If you interested in transforming your home into a "Smart Home", I would start small with something like smart plugs and see how you like them and add from there. However, I am confident that once you start down the smart home path, you will not go back to a regular home.