Monday, April 18, 2016

How Smart Are Things?

Oof, My Backend Hurts

Two items came to my attention this week regarding SmartThings:

I use SmartThings.  I've been a fan of their product since just before Samsung took them on and have visited with them at CES2015.  I think that, as a whole, the company's direction is the right way to go.  This stems from two things:

  1. They are committed (still, maybe despite Samsung) to including as many other smarthome products into their ecosystem as will agree to work with them.
  2. They have fostered a rich developer community that was (and, despite some vocal few, still is) working to expand their products' capabilities well beyond anything originally intended.

Some history

I started into the smarthome space because of NewEgg.  They had a deal on some WeMo wall switches and I bought a bunch.  I have enough electrical knowledge to install these without too much trouble.  And they worked great... for turning my lights on and off from my phone.  And that's where I ran into issues.  Like most smarthome enthusiasts, as soon as I started connecting things, I wanted them to do things on their own, to respond to changes in my home and not wait for me to tell them what to do.  Belkin's WeMo app has some of this: scheduling lights on and off, responding to motion sensors, etc.  

But there are limits to the official Belkin app's capabilities: no geofencing, no ability to respond to multiple conditions (if this AND this, then that), no ability to use one switch to control multiple lights in through the virtual realm.  Finally, despite the switches being full 802.11g devices, connected to the same router that my phone is connected to, the system still required that all commands go out to and then back from the Belkin cloud.  Security issues aside, this also significantly decreased their response time. (And no 3-way switch solution.  I'm slowly replacing the Wemo switches with Z-Wave as my paychecks allow).

One work around for all of this is the Android app WemoManager by MPP that sets up a local server on your phone or tablet that replaces the Belkin cloud.  It also adds all of the capabilities that I was looking for.  So, problem solved... until I started looking beyond the light.

I added a Nest thermostat.  Great.  Then some web cams.  Easy, peasy.  Then the garage door with a cobbled together Raspberry Pi relay system.  More complex, but fun to get into the guts a bit.

Installing all of this was great.  Using it was not.  I had separate apps, web pages and widgets to control it all.  I knew how to control it all, but it was a bit of a mess.  This point was brought home when I tried to install it all on the Middle School Daughter's phone (received at age 11 and then taken away anytime she pays more attention to it than to me or her homework).  She looked at all of the bits and pieces and gave me a "What-evs, Dad."

Enter SmartThings

Then, as if some God of User Interface heard my daughter's cry (maybe the spilled seed of Hephaestus?), SmartThings appears with their talk of inclusion for both manufacturers and hobbyists but geared towards the more casual user.  It sounded perfect.  I bought hub v1.  Then hub v2 a year later.

And it does work.  Mostly.  The Belkin Wemo switches don't adhere to the SmartThings "Smart Lighting" SmartApp consistently, but I am willing to believe that more of that rested on Belkin's shoulders than on SmartThings because the Z-Wave switches I've since installed are flawless.  The whole system will go down at odd hours, usually late at night, and then come back up ten minutes later, buzzing my phone both times.  Finally, there is still a cloud component that concerns me, especially as I've removed the Raspberry Pi garage door system and replaced it with a Z-Wave relay that works through SmartThings.

What's an Early-ish Adopter to do?

SmartThings remains the best all around, all "things", family friendly solution available on the market.  I just wish that was saying more.  The bar has not been set very high by any other single hub ecosystem currently available.  Many of the less inclusive products like the Philips Hue work more consistently, but they are also more limited in their applications.

So, for now, I'm sticking with SmartThings.  But I'm also keeping my eye out for something with better support, a better community and a better interface.  It may not be far off.

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