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SmartThings Hub: Connecting your home, phone and you

At Macworld/iWorld 2014, I delivered a talk about Siri and connected devices titled "Siri's Arms and Legs: Giving Apple's Intelligent Assistant the Power to Control Your World." My original idea for the presentation was based on some work I'd done last year for YouTube's Geek Week, in which I used a combination of Siri, IFTTT, and Belkin WeMo switches to make some videos that I called "Stupid WeMo Tricks". But as I got into my research for the presentation it occurred to me that the world of app-centered home automation has gone well beyond just the WeMo products and into the realm of making most items in your home either controllable or able to be monitored.

One company that kept coming up on my radar during my research was SmartThings, a Washington, DC-based company that is building a solid foundation for an app-controlled smart home with the US$99 SmartThings Hub. The Hub works with a free iPhone app and a growing number of connected switches and sensors that operate with either the Z-Wave or ZigBee home automation protocols.

Many people that I talked to before and after my Macworld presentation said almost the same thing, variations on a theme of "I'd love to control my home but it's too hard to do, too expensive, and I don't want to have to search through a pile of apps to do one thing or another." Well, that's the reason SmartThings and some other companies are coming up with intelligent hubs. The idea is that a single hub can control a number of devices through one app.

Setting up the SmartThings Hub and a variety of the switches and sensors is a piece of cake. The hub simply needs to be plugged into a power source and then have an Ethernet cable run over to your Internet router. Once you've done a first-time setup with the SmartThings app, adding devices to your home automation network is easy.

Some of the devices, such as a motion sensor, door and windows switches, and a moisture sensor, are battery powered. These devices usually just required that a plastic tab be pulled out to allow the device to start up -- in some cases, however, I had to open the device up and press a reset button to get the app to recognize it. Still, setup took no time at all. Other devices such as light and appliance modules plug into a wall socket and start up immediately. It should be noted that many of the plugged-in Z-Wave modules, like the Jasco Fluorescent Light and Appliance Module (at left, below, seen with a motion detector), work to extend your home automation network by creating a mesh network.

SmartThings does a good job of adding new devices to their online shop, and also provides a good blog that gets into details on how to do certain things. As an example, I really thought it would be great to automate my garage door opener so that I could tell via the SmartThings app if it was open or closed, then control it remotely. But my garage door opener is at least 20 years old, so I figured I was out of luck. Sure enough, the SmartThings blog had an article on using a Z-Wave Relay Switch in parallel with an existing "dumb" garage door opener to add it to the Internet of Things. My credit card was out of my wallet to buy the Z-Wave Relay Switch... and now I have a fun weekend project to do.

One of my other favorite "pieces" of SmartThings gear is the SmartSense Presence key fob (below). When registered with your app, this little proximity sensor knows when you've left the house -- and if everyone in the house has one, it knows when the house is empty. That means that you can set one of the SmartThings SmartApps to react appropriately to that "state".

The SmartApps might best be described as presets that do something for you without needing an intermediary like IFTTT. As an example, let's say that I want to be alerted if my washing machine starts flooding the laundry room. I have a moisture sensor set on the floor right next to the washer (image below) that will tell me when things are getting a bit wet. I can be informed of an impending flood one of two ways -- either I can connect my SmartThings hub and the moisture sensor to IFTTT using the SmartThings channel, and then create a quick recipe to have IFTTT call my phone and say "I have detected water underneath the washing machine", or use the pre-defined Flood Alert! SmartApp to send me a text. Since I'm a geeky guy and like getting robotic phone calls warning me of impending catastrophes, I chose to use IFTTT -- but for many people the SmartApp would make the job even easier.

SmartThings has created tons of SmartApps that can be discovered by device (outlet, moisture sensor, door sensor), by convenience (turn off all of the lights in the house when everybody is gone), by family (monitor motion sensors in an elderly person's home and then contact someone if they don't return from the bathroom after a specified amount of time), by "fun" (send a text when motion is detected), by "green living" (send a text notification to a carpooling buddy when they are not with you and you arrive to pick them up), by safety and security (lock a door automatically when I leave), and more.

The great thing about the SmartThings world is that they've created an easy-to-use ecosystem that is growing everyday, and they've built plenty of flexibility into both the hub and the app. The company's online store sells both devices and full-fledged solutions, the latter being helpful for people who want a particular solution but have no clue as to how to implement it.

At this point in time, the world of connected devices and home automation is still a bit on the pricy side, which is why I have to commend SmartThings for at least making the Hub affordable. As more and more connected devices become available, prices should eventually drop. Right now, you can expect to spend prices similar to these -- $49 for a door/window multi-sensor, $54 for a moisture sensor, $55 for a motion sensor, $31 for one of those key fob proximity sensors, $49 for a ZigBee-based lamp switch, $58 for that relay switch I'm going to use for my garage door opener, $60 for a multi-sensor that can monitor motion, temperature, brightness and humidity, and so on. Things like connected deadbolt locks cost in the range of $200 each.

So what do you get out of connecting all of these devices to your house and your body (the key fob or your phone)? The ability to do some pretty magical things. I love how the SmartThings app lets me see all of my connected devices on one screen, although you'll want to take a picture of each device's location to be able to tell them apart. Having one app to control many things in my house must be how Frodo Baggins felt having the "one ring to rule them all"!

I've already posted a few articles on TUAW about the Internet of Things and these connected devices, and I'll be writing about some of the solutions I've implemented as I build my home automation network. I have to say that in all of my testing, I have been impressed with the stability of the SmartThings Hub -- it hasn't failed me despite having been challenged by power and Internet outages. It's comforting to know that the home automation network quickly comes back online by itself in those cases.

In the near future I'll also be providing a review of a similar hub from Revolv, as well as a Z-Wave compatible sensor and security camera from BlackSumac called Piper.

Conclusion

SmartThings has brought an affordable intelligent home automation hub to market with a smart iOS app to control it, then provided even more flexibility by providing an IFTTT channel for creating custom solutions. If you're thinking about dabbling with home automation, SmartThings has a complete ecosystem built around solutions or individual devices.

Rating: 4 stars out of 4 stars possible

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