For the past few days, every time our front door has opened, or somebody walked through our foyer, a nearby lamp has turned on for a couple of minutes and my iPhone has notified me, wherever I was.
The phone has also recorded when my wife and I, or our cars, left and arrived back at the house. It also let me know, even when I was miles away, that the clothes dryer was done with a batch of laundry.
All of this was done in the course of testing a wireless hardware and software system called SmartThings, which is part of a fast-growing new trend called the Internet of Things, and specifically a segment of that trend called the Smart Home.
The broad idea behind these buzzwords is that a whole constellation of inanimate objects is being designed with built-in wireless connectivity, so that they can be monitored, controlled and linked over the Internet via a mobile app. And many of these sensors and connected objects can be installed in the home without changing wiring or hiring a professional.
SmartThings, made by a Washington, D.C., startup called Physical Graph Corp., mostly worked as advertised in my simple tests, though I hardly taxed its limits. The company sells two starter kits full of sensors and gadgets, and a hub — something like a wireless router — that links them all. It also sells a variety of sensors and gadgets individually, ranging from moisture sensors to electronic door locks to alarms.
Most of my tests were performed using sensors and gadgets included in the company’s $299 starter kit (there’s also a less-abundant $199 kit). I did no wiring, and didn’t have to use screws or nails. And there’s no service fee to pay.
Overall, I could see how SmartThings could help manage a home. But there were some downsides. I found that the free SmartThings iPhone app that ties it all together, while handsome, was sometimes confusing. Help and documentation were weak. And I ran into two issues.
The idea of automating simple home functions isn’t new. There have been remote controls for lights and ceiling fans for years. And costly wall-panel home-control systems have been around forever.
But the new systems make use of the cloud and smart devices and apps to allow much greater control, notifications and linked actions, even remotely. And they can handle sensors and devices made by a variety of manufacturers.
SmartThings is hardly the only player in the game. Another startup, called Revolv, also offers a hub and an app to tie multiple sensors together. Lowe’s, the home-improvement store, offers a hub and app system called Iris, with starter kits.
And, AT&T and Comcast* offer paid monthly services to monitor and automate certain home functions.
For my tests, I first downloaded the free app onto my iPhone and my wife’s, and then installed the Hub by plugging it into my wireless router and an electrical outlet. I tested on the iPhone because the current Android version of the app is more limited. A full Android app is promised by the end of February.
I followed some simple setup steps in the app, and configured both iPhones to act as surrogates for our own presence or absence from the house, which the app allowed me to surround with an invisible “geo-fence.” That’s the area in which the SmartThings system will consider you or your objects “home.”
I then started connecting some sensors and switches.
Using the included sticky tape, I put a SmartSense Multi sensor on the inside of my front door, with one half of the plastic, battery-powered device on the frame and the other on the door itself. This sensor, which also measures vibration, motion and temperature, alerted me whenever the door opened or closed, based on breaking or restoring a magnetic connection between its two halves.
I also put a Multi sensor on the side of the clothes dryer, so it could detect when the machine started and stopped.
I placed two motion detectors in the foyer and family room, and in the living room I plugged a wireless switch into the wall outlet used by a lamp, so it could be turned on and off in various scenarios.
I tossed two small fobs, called presence detectors, into the glove boxes of our two cars, to detect when they left or entered the invisible zone around the house.
For each action or notification you want a sensor or switch to perform, you configure it using simple steps in the app, which has three main sections — Dashboard, Things and Apps. There’s also a fourth section, called Hello Home.
The first three are for configuring your smart home and checking its status. For instance, using the main module, the Dashboard, I was able to tell SmartThings that I wanted it to turn on the lamp, and to send me a notification on the phone when the front door was opened, even if the app was running in the background.
I set up one of the motion detectors to turn on a lamp and notify me if it was triggered, and the other to play a loud sound of dogs barking through my Sonos speaker — an experimental feature still in testing.
The Hello Home part of the app is like a text-messaging screen, in which the system collects messages like “Front Door is open” or “Gray Car has arrived” or “Hey, there’s motion in the foyer.”
I ran into two problems: One of our cars was parked just on the edge of the hub’s range, so the presence detector in its glove box was constantly reporting it departing and arriving, even when it was just standing still. At the company’s suggestion, I used an indoor motion detector I had placed near the driveway as an amplifier for the presence detector. Problem solved.
The other issue was that my wife’s old iPhone 4 took quite a while to register her presence or absence from the house, while my newer iPhone 5s did so almost instantly. The company had no solution for this.
Finally, I found that the app layout was somewhat confusing. Almost everything, including setting up new devices, can be done through the Dashboard, but the sections called Things and Apps are overlapping, and users may not know which to use. Also, while there are scattered videos and drawings to help set up the sensors, they are too brief and hard to find. I had to get help from the company to learn that the two pieces of the Multi sensor on my door didn’t have to be flush.
The company says it’s working on simplifying the app and improving the video documentation. It’s also working on creating a network of installers.
Despite these issues, I found that the SmartThings system worked well, and could probably do much more to automate and control a home.
* Comcast owns NBCUniversal, which has invested in the company that owns this website.