Home tech––from smart doorbells to voice-activated thermometers–– looks good and wants to make your life easier.
By Molly Absolon
A few years back, a friend bought the best remote control available at that time. It was supposed to turn on the television, control sound and volume, play music, change channels or CDs, and stream Spotify. The marketing materials proclaimed this was everything anyone ever needed a remote control to do. There was one problem: It didn’t work. Or rather, we—two fairly intelligent (albeit middle-age) adults—could not figure out how to make it work. The result? The remote sat untouched in its charging station while we manually turned on the television and speakers and adjusted the sound, volume, and channels.
Hollywood’s image of futuristic homes has fueled our imaginations for years. Everything, according to the movies, will be automatic, streamlined, efficient, and controlled with a word, button, or programmed schedule someday soon. The Jetsons have a robot maid and walk on their ceiling in space boots. In the 2013 Spike Jonze movie Her, the lead character plays a three-dimensional video game projected throughout the room—no screen or controls in sight. His hand movements control the action, while his operating system talks to him through an ear bud.
But the reality is that for a long time smart-home technology has been glitchy and expensive. Programmable thermostats have been around for nearly 20 years, but in 2009 Energy Star temporarily stopped recommending them—not because they didn’t save energy, but because they were too hard for consumers to operate. It’s the same with voice recognition. How many times have you found yourself yelling at Siri when she gives you the totally wrong answer? And how many remotes sit, like my friend’s, unused on the shelf?
It looks like this is finally changing though: Smart-home technology has gotten, well, smart. Simultaneously, it has gotten more user-friendly. “Now you can use voice commands to dim your lights, set the temperature, or turn on the music or television,” says DelRay Hill, the president of Jackson’s Custom Electronic Consultants Inc. “Most of the growing pains are behind us. Smart-home technology is becoming more mainstream and reliable.”
To demonstrate, Hill pulls out his phone, opens an app, and in seconds the shades in the living room go down, lights come on, and music begins to play. He can operate these functions manually via the app on his phone or schedule them to happen automatically, also via the app. He says it enhances his lifestyle and saves energy and time. Rich Ashburn, the president/owner of Jackson Hole AV, elaborates: “You can start the oven or turn up the heat with your phone. That’s what people love about smart technology.”
For those of us who want to stick our toes into the water but aren’t ready to take the full plunge, there are do-it-yourself options. For roughly $250 you can get the Ecobee4, a smart thermostat that has Amazon’s personal assistant, Alexa, built in so you can control all your smart devices with it. With Alexa’s help, the Ecobee4 plays music, generates shopping lists, looks up information on the internet, turns on the television, calls a friend, or adjusts the temperature when someone enters a room. Plus, the Ecobee 4’s sleek design and size (a 4.29-by-4.29-inch black square with rounded edges) allows it to blend into your home décor without calling attention to itself.
For lighting, the Philips Hue White starter kit, which retails for less than $100, comes with two bulbs and a hub to connect them to your other smart-home technology (like Ecobee4), so you can dim lights or turn them off and on remotely. The Nest Hello video doorbell (pictured to the right) retails for roughly $230 and allows you to see who’s at your door 24/7. It even learns to recognize familiar faces—in the same way Facebook learns who your friends are—and will announce them when they arrive on your doorstep. “With a smart doorbell you get a notification if UPS has delivered a package,” says Ashburn. “You know when the kids get home.”
But the more gadgets you invest in, the more confusing it can become to manage them. You can buy a centralized smart hub that allows you to integrate all of the tech in your house on your own. Or, if you don’t want to lose your mind, you can get a professional to develop a customized smarthome system tailored to your specific wants. (Remember the days of trying to program the VCR? That’s simple compared to this!)
“Many smart devices communicate only through their own app,” says Hill, who has seen a 7 percent annual increase in the number of people incorporating some kind of smart technology into their homes over the past decade or so. Other devices do talk across brands—for example, some Google, Amazon, and Apple devices work with third-party items. “But it’s best to try to plan everything out ahead and make sure you are dealing with components that can work together,” Hill says. “Otherwise you could be looking at four or more different apps to run your home.”
Hill says the majority of today’s new homes have some form of smart-home technology designed into them at the planning stage. The most popular kinds of tech include robust network infrastructure for internet access, thermostats, motorized window shades, lighting, entertainment, cameras, and security. Still, “Many times people don’t consider adding technology to their home until they are well into the build process, and at that point they are somewhat limited as to what can be done,” he says. “This is unfortunate. It should be considered and added to the build at the onset. A good, realistic place to start is to allow 5 to 7.5 percent of the overall construction budget for electronics and smart-home features.” Adding these after the initial build will cost more.
Ashburn has come up with smart systems for 8,000-square-foot and larger homes, where coordinated control is essential just because of the scale of the systems and the complexity of the demands the homeowners put on them. “For luxury homeowners, integrated smart-home technology is a necessity,” he says. “For the mass-market consumer, it makes life simpler and more convenient.”