How to plan to give your home smarts

North Bay Nugget - - HOMES - By Anick Jes­da­nun

NEW YORK — You might have heard of lights that turn off with an app or voice com­mand. Or win­dow shades that mag­i­cally rise every morn­ing.

Tech­nol­ogy com­pa­nies are push­ing the “smart home” hard, sell­ing ap­pli­ances and gad­gets that of­fer in­ter­net-con­nected con­ve­niences you didn’t know you needed. But be­fore you suc­cumb to the temp­ta­tion, con­sider that these de­vices might also give com­pa­nies and hack­ers a key to your home.

Here’s how to get started on your smart home and what to worry about along the way.

A smart home can en­com­pass fea­tures as sim­ple as re­mote-con­trolled lamps and as so­phis­ti­cated as ther­mostats that know when you’re home and turn up the heat au­to­mat­i­cally. Down the line, you may want to mix and match these tasks into rou­tines, such as a wake-up rit­ual that au­to­mat­i­cally starts the cof­fee maker, lifts the win­dow shades and plays the news.

With the right tools, you can check re­motely whether you re­mem­bered to lock the doors — and lock them if you for­got. Some sys­tems can also cre­ate tem­po­rary dig­i­tal keys for guests and con­trac­tors.

Many peo­ple start think­ing about a smart home when they get a voice­ac­ti­vated speaker such as Ama­zon’s Echo or Google Home, although such gad­gets aren’t strictly nec­es­sary. Nor do you even need ac­tual smart lights and ap­pli­ances, as you can buy smart plugs, adapters that con­trol ex­ist­ing lights or what­ever you plug into them.

If you catch the smart-home bug, you can add ap­pli­ances with the smarts al­ready built in as you re­place your ex­ist­ing ones. Ma­jor re­mod­els also of­fer an op­por­tu­nity to make big­ger smart-home plans. You prob­a­bly wouldn’t want to get new win­dow shades now only to re­place them with smart ones a year later.

There are some con­cerns to keep in mind. Many de­vices are con­stantly lis­ten­ing for com­mands and con­nect to cor­po­rate servers to carry them out. Not ev­ery­one is go­ing to be com­fort­able with live mi­cro­phones in their homes (though your phone may al­ready be do­ing the same thing, if you had en­abled as­sis­tive fea­tures such as “Hey Siri” and “OK Google”).

For the most part, record­ings will leave home only when you trig­ger the de­vice, such as by speak­ing a com­mand phrase like “OK Google” or press­ing a but­ton to get the de­vice’s at­ten­tion. But an Ama­zon de­vice mis­tak­enly recorded and sent a fam­ily’s pri­vate con­ver­sa­tion to an ac­quain­tance after the de­vice mis­tak­enly thought it heard the trig­ger word fol­lowed by a “send mes­sage” re­quest.

Check what safe­guards a de­vice of­fers be­fore buy­ing. Smart speak­ers, for in­stance, typ­i­cally have a mute but­ton to dis­able the mi­cro­phone com­pletely. Mozilla’s Pri­vacy Not In­cluded project seeks to warn con­sumers about prod­ucts with se­cu­rity or pri­vacy prob­lems. A gen­eral web search also might turn up com­plaints.

In gen­eral, it helps to stick with ma­jor brands, as their cor­po­rate rep­u­ta­tions are at stake if they’re caught tak­ing short­cuts. Big­ger com­pa­nies can also quickly fix se­cu­rity holes that crop up. Gad­gets from star­tups and no-name brands may of­fer lit­tle or no pro­tec­tion; those com­pa­nies may be more con­cerned with rush­ing a prod­uct to mar­ket.

Big­ger com­pa­nies, how­ever, are also more likely to use your data for mar­ket­ing. So con­sider the trade­offs.

Even if a prod­uct works as in­tended, it may be leav­ing a record that can resur­face after hacks, law­suits or in­ves­ti­ga­tions .

Man­u­fac­tur­ers, for in­stance, typ­i­cally store the voice com­mands their gad­get send over the in­ter­net and use that data to help them per­son­al­ize their ser­vices — and, po­ten­tially, ad­ver­tise­ments. These voice snip­pets may in­clude mu­sic or con­ver­sa­tions in the back­ground. Rep­utable brands let you re­view and delete your voice his­tory; be sure to do so reg­u­larly.

And think twice about smart locks and their dig­i­tal keys. In a child-cus­tody dis­pute, for in­stance, your ex might sub­poena the records to learn that you’ve been stay­ing out late on school nights. If you rent, a land­lord might sus­pect an unau­tho­rized oc­cu­pant if you cre­ate a guest key that’s used daily.

As cable and in­ter­net ser­vices be­come com­modi­ties, the com­pa­nies be­hind them are turn­ing to smart homes for new sources of rev­enue. AT&T’S Dig­i­tal Life and Com­cast’s Xfinity Home of­fer cam­eras, door con­trols and other smarthome de­vices. The pack­ages are good for those who pre­fer one-stop shop­ping, though you might save money and get more choices by shop­ping around.

For the do-it-your­self ap­proach, con­sider which com­pany’s ser­vices you’re al­ready us­ing heav­ily.

If it’s Ama­zon, then de­vices pow­ered by its Alexa dig­i­tal as­sis­tant might work best. There’s a range of Alexa prod­ucts, in­clud­ing re­frig­er­a­tors and wash­ing ma­chines. You can com­mand an Alexa mi­crowave oven to “re­heat one potato” in­stead of hav­ing to look up how many sec­onds. It’ll also re­order pop­corn with a com­mand — from Ama­zon, of course.

Like­wise, if you’re a heavy Google user, choose de­vices that sup­port Google’s As­sis­tant. Ap­ple has prod­ucts un­der the um­brella of Homekit, while Sam­sung has Smart­things. Some prod­ucts will work with more than one dig­i­tal as­sis­tant.

Some de­vices, es­pe­cially cam­eras, come with ex­tra fees for ex­tended stor­age and other fea­tures. But in most cases, you have to pay only for the prod­uct.


A Google Home Hub is dis­played in New York.

AP Photo/mike STE­WART

A child holds his Ama­zon Echo Dot in Ken­ne­saw, Ga.

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