Smart things

I’ve had my suspicions about home automation and IoT (“Internet of Things”), where your lights become internet connected (requiring firmware updates), your house becomes even more connected with the inevitable security risks that this brings. Where your family and home have to become accustomed to whatever system you have in place, possibly modifying their routines to fit the technology. My DIY skills are limited, my time even more so. I have what is becoming a niche smartphone and no appetite for fiddling to get things to work. It had to be cheap and – most importantly – it had to have SAS. SAS (“Spouse Acceptance Factor“) was fundamental. Automation invites suspicion from your family, who will be subject to its sensors which suggests a creepiness I didn’t want to have to defend.

SmartThings logoSamsung’s SmartThings has emerged as the best system for my family. It is relatively cheap, is an open system permitting integrations outside the SmartThings immediate ecosystem and has integrated itself into our home seamlessly. SmartThings isn’t restricted to the USA, as other tech. companies tend to. Whilst UK availability is limited, it is there via Currys/PC World and direct from Samsung. As a user, you add Smart Apps to your SmartThings ecosystem which join your “things” together to add useful functionality. Typical examples are turning lights off when there is no motion, raising an alarm when there is unexpected movements, etc.

I’ve set up a few neat automations, such as detecting when the freezer has been left open for a suspiciously long period (hopefully avoiding replacing another freezer-full of food) and turning outside lights on. As with anything IoT, one has to be careful about security so I’m not going to identify my specific configuration so patterns can’t be identified which may actually add risk.

Whilst SmartThings has a distinct ecosystem of branded sensors which include presence sensors, motion sensors, door opening/closing, moisture and power consumption/switching, a purchase win for me was the open nature of its interactions with similar IoT products such as Philips Hue (an otherwise expensive and rather pointless lighting toy) and ZigBee or Z-Wave IoT components such as light switches, thermostats, panic buttons, … the list goes on. This is not just an investment in what is an interesting idea from a single company, it can be extended should Samsung’s support of the system waiver. IoT is too new to go “all-in” on a company on the off-chance, I need reassurance that the product will remain supported and if there is interaction/integration with other components, even better.

Cost-wise, SmartThings is bearable. £200 for a starter system and an average of £30 per extra sensor is fairly reasonable, I’ve bought a few extra bits to extend the reach of my automations. It requires no rewiring, no fixings, no expertise. The consumer is able to pick a pack off the shelf and get started. But will it save money in the long run? It is possible to set up orchestrations that turn lights off when no-one is around (a bug-bear of mine), alert when power consumption is too high or when the freezer door is left open. Integrating with lighting requires expensive bulbs at least, or integration with the expensive Philips Hue system. As with purchasing LED lights throughout the house, are you really going to make the money back through savings? When do you stop buying sensors? The starter pack is almost the gateway drug, offering you the basic tools needed to introduce new ideas of automations – and cost.

Despite being one of the promoted benefits of SmartThings and the possibilities of IoT, I don’t think it’s reliable as a security system – certainly where security is a fundamental aspect of the purchase. I love that you can set it to silently and intelligently arm to differing levels of security based on whether you’re likely to have gone out, or retired for the evening. Even better that it automatically disarms itself if “things start to happen” in the morning, or you return home. We have never had to manually set this and mostly haven’t bumped against this intelligent arming/disarming. Unfortunately, the automatic disarming when you return is based on whether it detects your presence sensor or mobile phones before you “break” the security sensors. If you’re too quick and open the door before your phone logs in or it detects your key-fob, it sets off an intrusion condition.

As a Windows Phone user, and a happy one, (well, until Windows 10 Mobile) any smart-home system needed to support my ecosystem. All too often, devices and developers based themselves around so-called apps on either iOS or Android. The presence of SmartThings on Windows Phone was the clincher. Yes, it was expected that the app wouldn’t be as well rounded as its iOS or Android equivalent and it has mixed reviews, but it is fully functional. I do worry about a system that is fundamentally oriented around mobile phone apps and not offering an alternative interface from the hub itself, but the app has mostly performed brilliantly. Where the gap between big-screen accessibility and lack of app accessibility opens up, a labs tool called SmartTiles adequately fills this gap.

I say “mostly performed” because there was a short period where the app on Windows Phone stopped displaying my “things”. The system itself continued to work, executing my routines and reacting to conditions, but I couldn’t have a look at my “things”, I just got a blank screen. So not terminal, but annoying. I did contact the UK support team and I was very impressed with their response. It was both prompt, helpful and supportive. I was dreading the “we’re working on it” stock response, but received a personal response that was reassuring that despite the smaller app-market, I (along with the others affected) as a Windows Phone user was important. The app was fixed – and actually improved – soon after.

Another attraction to the SmartThings platform was its accessibility for developers to play around with their “things”. As a developer, you use a web-based IDE, editing a small script written in Groovy, atop the JVM. Very little knowledge is required, other than the usual coding techniques such as events, asynchronous patterns and reminding yourself that you might not be in the state you expect to be in. The “things” expose an abstracted API that is a breeze to work against. The SmartThings hub and cloud effectively marshal the messaging and hosting of your app, transparently executing code in the cloud or the hub as it sees fit. I have my first app in private testing already.

IoT and home automation, in my eyes, remains a gimmick. It is still immature, with limited integration across vendors’ products. We’ve still to learn how an increasingly connected home remains secure, both digitally and physically. It’s expensive in financial terms and is fundamentally dependent on Spouse-Acceptance-Factor. If your spouse doesn’t agree to having a key fob or the “app” on her phone (which has to be “Smart” and not a BlackBerry), then the system breaks down quickly. Within these negatives, SmartThings has pitched itself well. It is relatively cheap, has low-impact on the family and widely supported across smartphones and the ecosystem of IoT devices. I’ve had automations running for over a month and they were extremely easy to install, configure and have required no interaction. Disappointingly so, if you like playing and tweaking!  Like Windows Phone did, “it just works”. This is a system I would recommend a non-IT pro user to install.




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