SmartThings

By Daniel Rubino
December 18, 2014

As we continue with our 12 Days of Hidden Gems, IoT and connected devices are our first items we are looking at and SmartThings (SmartThings.com) is today's featured item.

When it comes to home automation, consumers today have many choices available to them. The problem is which brand to you invest with to ensure product longevity? Luckily there are wireless protocols like Z-Wave and ZigBee, and SmartThings with both technologies, as well as Wi-Fi-connected devices.

SmartThings may be the most forward-thinking, detailed home-automation system available today. Since it is works with multiple protocols, you are not limited to just SmartThings accessories, but can incorporate ones from third-party companies. Even better? There is a solid Windows Phone app to control it all.

I have spent the last 10 days setting up and using SmartThings and here is what I think.

Z-Wave, ZigBee, SmartThings and home automation

The current problem with home automation is three things. For one, there are varying competing technologies, like Insteon. Number two is cost. Finally, the third issue for some is complexity.

In my earlier review of Insteon, I left mostly impressed with the home automation kit and accessories. My one gripe is the limited options for configuration and 'rule' setting. SmartThings goes in the complete opposite direction. Sure, you can do some simple, ground rules, but you can also do some wild configurations – lots of 'if this, then that' (IFTT) type stuff. Although fun, this level of detail can also be complicated, time-consuming, and even frustrating. Still, the ability to automate anything to your liking is enticing, especially if you are technically inclined.

SmartThings Hub

Before I get into how SmartThings works, let me share with you some of my setup to get an idea of this can work in real life:

  • When I approach my front door, it automatically unlocks. If left unlocked for five minutes, the door automatically re-locks
  • When I am away from home, my Dropcam HD turns on; it also turns off when I come home
  • I get a text message alert any time a door is opened, and I am not home
  • Living room accent lighting turns on every day at sunset; it turns off automatically at 2 AM
  • My Christmas tree's lights turn on when motion is detected, but only between the hours of 3:45 PM and 1:45 AM (otherwise it is off). If no motion is detected for 5 minutes, the lights turn off
  • My air purifier in my office turns on at 2 AM but turns off at 9 AM

These are just some of the routines that SmartThings is capable of today. What's more, people are creating their own setups, like this 'hack' where someone set up a water detector to alert them when their Christmas tree's water was running low. Another usage I heard is using a water sensor to detect when your shower is on, but only in the morning and have it turn on your coffee maker. Ridiculous? Perhaps, but it also hilariously awesome and demonstrates the power of SmartThings.

Equipment

Like many home automation systems, SmartThings all starts with a $99 hub. This little device connects up to your home network via Cat-5 to your internet router. The SmartThings hub is powered through a micro USB connector to AC. You can buy the hub as a standalone product, but you can also grab a starter kit:

Schlage smart lock SmartThings motion sensor Belkin connected outlet

Obviously, the kits are the best as you get the hub plus the basics, like a motion detector, presence sensor (keychain) and open/closed door sensor. You can then buy individual accessories, like AC outlets, water sensors, more presence sensors, or add other Z-Wave or ZigBee compatible devices.

Setting everything up is relatively straightforward. Plug in the hub to your home network and download the Windows Phone app. From there, you can create an account and begin to add your hub and accessories. By just tapping the '+' sign, the app and hub begin to look for new items. Once found, you can name the device and configure them accordingly.

Perhaps the one thing to be cautious about is that although the Starter Kits are respectable, you quickly realize that you need more sensors, locks, outlets, and other items in order to take advantage of SmartThings. That issue is no one's fault it is just the nature of home automation. For instance, although the included presence sensor is great, it is even better if you buy a Z-Wave compatible deadbolt for your front door to automatically lock/unlock based on your presence (I bought one from Schlage and it's fantastic).

Most of the Z-Wave and ZigBee accessories use a battery of some sort. This battery thing is good and bad. The good news is it means you can place these items anywhere in your house without needing to plug them in (AC outlets obviously being the exception). The bad news is you need to change the batteries, likely every few months. Luckily, the app shows you the battery level, so you are at least aware.

Being that everything is wireless, you can mount a motion detector in your living room, or add a door open/close sensor with no tools. Just use the included 3M double-sided tape and stick it on. Combined with the Windows Phone setup this ease-of-installation means you can be ready to go in about 15 minutes. Optionally you can screw everything down as they all come with permanent mounts, but the choice is completely up to you (for apartments, obviously the 3M tape is the better of the two).

Finally, there are also replacement AC wall receptacles, like this one from GE, which save space as you do not have to plug in a wireless adapter.

Windows Phone SmartThings app

When it comes to setup and controlling SmartThings, you need the SmartThings app for Windows Phone (also available on iOS and Android, for other family members). The app is virtually identical across platforms.

However, I did notice a few things seemingly missing from the Windows Phone app that are on iOS. For instance, SmartApps is missing under each sensor and the ability to add/remove images from individual sensors (I am talking to the developer about these issues). Another was the alert windows, which turns pink on iOS with an alert count, while the Windows Phone version is static. Although these do not hinder using SmartThings, it does make the iOS slightly more refined. Performance between the two platforms was identical that is both would occasionally stutter but were otherwise okay.

SmartThings app for Windows Phone SmartThings app for Windows Phone SmartThings app for Windows Phone

Conceivably the bigger issue with SmartThings is not the Windows Phone app per se, but the app design in general, including iOS and Android. I won't lie when I say it took me a few hours of tinkering to figure things out e.g. adding rules is not too hard, but finding them to modify them later was a challenge. Most of this has to do with overall app design, language choice, and layout.

In addition, the app on both platforms on rare occasions would crash during a rule setup, which could be frustrating. From my experience with numerous home automation apps, these issues are common and reflect the nascent stages of this technology. C'est la vie.

Once I learned the app and its quirks though, things went smoothly. The other good news is I rarely need to use the app now that I have everything setup. Sure, I can turn on or off lights through the app if needed, but this is not something I am commonly doing. It is more 'set it and forget it'.

Final Thoughts

Home automation is the future. The Internet of Things (IoT) is the next big wave of consumer trends, and I expect this year's CES in Las Vegas to focus heavily on the 'connected home'. Although we are still in the early stages (think smartphones in 2007), it is not premature to jump in on this trend, and any automation system that is Z-Wave or ZigBee compatible is probably the way to go.

SmartThings does an admirable job of making all of this technology accessible. It still can be quite 'techy', which is where something like a more basic Insteon system comes into play. However, for those who enjoy tinkering and smile at the idea of creating a bunch of IFTTT scenarios in their home, then SmartThings is the way to go. The coolness of hearing my front door automatically unlock, or my Christmas lights turning on (but only when someone is in the room) makes me believe I am living in a Jetsons future and I love it.

Win a SmartThings starter kit in the 4th Day of Hidden Gems!

We are continuing on with our 12 Days of Hidden Gems series this week, focusing on the emerging world of IoT (the Internet of Things). We spent the first few days looking at fitness accessories that work well with Windows Phone and Windows 8.1, but today we're shifting gears and delving into the connected home. You can catch up on the articles to date on our Hidden Gems page.

Enter to Win 1 of 5 SmartThings Home Starter Kits

There are two ways to enter the sweepstakes, and both need to be completed using the widget to the right/above. Full terms and conditions can be found here.

First chance to win: Log in to Windows Central and leave a quality comment on this very article.

Second chance to win: Use the widget to tweet out the phrase of the day. Today's tweet should look like this: Unwrap the 4th @WindowsCentral #HiddenGemsApp for a chance to win a SmartThings Starter Kit #sponsored #sweeps http://is.gd/nJlTS6 . Remember to use the widget to send the tweet, otherwise you haven't entered.

Once you've entered by leaving a comment or tweeting (or both!), you can refer your friends and earn up to ten additional entries when they enter. That's a total of 12 entries into the sweepstakes! The sweepstakes runs through the end of the year, and the winners will be announced in January. Good luck everyone!

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