San Francisco Chronicle

Skep­tic’s guide to smart home gad­gets

- By Ge­of­frey A. Fowler Ge­of­frey A. Fowler is a Wash­ing­ton Post writer.

Be­fore you buy any “smart” gad­gets, make sure they’re not dumb.

This hol­i­day sea­son, a third of Amer­i­cans plan to buy a smart home de­vice, ac­cord­ing to the Con­sumer Tech­nol­ogy As­so­ci­a­tion.

And nearly half of Amer­i­cans use dig­i­tal voice as­sis­tants, ac­cord­ing to the Pew Re­search Cen­ter.

But just hook­ing up the In­ter­net to a door lock, ket­tle or dog bowl (yes, that’s a thing) doesn’t make it smart. The trick is fig­ur­ing out which ones are worth the cost, trou­ble and in­evitable se­cu­rity risks.

I’ve been in those weeds. Af­ter re­view­ing dozens of smart home prod­ucts, I’ve learned to be skep­ti­cal of any gad­get that feels like a “Star Trek” prop, and a lit­tle para­noid about things that are lis­ten­ing, watch­ing or col­lect­ing data.

Any gad­get you in­stall in your house should work with soft­ware from the ma­jor tech firms. And it should be made by a com­pany with years of ex­pe­ri­ence in homes, or at least with top-notch cus­tomer sup­port.

The good news is that some of these con­nected gad­gets are ac­tu­ally awe­some. I picked five smart home de­vices that are gen­uinely use­ful enough that I’ve given them as a gift — in­clud­ing to my­self.

Ring Video Door­bell 2 Price: $200 Why it’s use­ful:

Who’s at your door? The Ring is a door­bell that dou­bles as a Wi-Fi se­cu­rity cam­era, so you can watch, hear and talk to the per­son at the door through an app — even if you’re not at home. It alerts your phone with a live feed when some­body presses the bell, or any time some­body comes near. No rewiring re­quired. The Ring at my house caught pack­age thieves and van­dals, and pro­duced video ev­i­dence I gave to the cops.

The down­sides:

To re­view, share and store video clips for 60 days re­quires a $30 per year sub­scrip­tion. If your ex­ist­ing door­bell isn’t pow­ered, you’ll have to charge the Ring’s bat­tery ev­ery six to 12 months.

Why it’s the best:

There are lots of video door­bells, but Ring has solid cus­tomer ser­vice, de­liv­ers on its prom­ises and works with other home de­vices in­clud­ing Amazon’s Echo Show. (“Alexa, show me who’s at the front door.”) The Ring app also lets you share clips and alerts about crim­i­nal ac­tiv­ity with neigh­bors who also own a Ring.

How it han­dles se­cu­rity:

Ring en­crypts your video. In 2016, re­searchers dis­cov­ered a flaw in the first-gen­er­a­tion Ring door­bell that could have let hack­ers ac­cess a home’s Wi-fi net­work. Ring is­sued a patch and says it up­dates door­bell soft­ware au­to­mat­i­cally.

Lutron Caseta light switches

Price: $80 for starter kit

Why it’s use­ful:

OK, switches aren’t ex­actly an ex­cit­ing present. But these Lutron Caseta ones only look like reg­u­lar dim­mers — they’ve ac­tu­ally got su­per­pow­ers to turn on and off with an app, re­mote or voice com­mand. That’s use­ful for safety: You can pro­gram your porch light to come on af­ter sun­set, or set lights to ran­dom when you’re on va­ca­tion. They’re also a con­ve­nience — like when your bed is just too warm and comfy to leave, so you just say “good night” to Siri and watch the whole house turn off at once. I’ve pro­grammed mine to wake me by slowly mak­ing the room brighter.

The down­sides:

I needed to hire an elec­tri­cian to in­stall my Caseta switches, though it’s cer­tainly pos­si­ble to do it your­self. Caseta also re­quires a hub (in­cluded in its starter kit) at­tached to your home router.

Why it’s the best:

The Lutron switches re­quire more ef­fort than stand-alone con­nected bulbs like Philips Hue. But Lutron’s tech is rock-solid re­li­able, and al­lows you to still turn off lights the old-fash­ioned way, with a light switch. It also works with Ap­ple HomeKit, Alexa, Nest and more.

How it han­dles se­cu­rity:

If your home’s In­ter­net goes out, Caseta switches still work. Lutron does pen­e­tra­tion test­ing for hack­ers and au­to­mat­i­cally pushes up­dates to your hub, but it wouldn’t say whether its systems have ever been breached.

Eero mesh Wi-Fi router

Price: $300 for a two-hub pack

Why it’s use­ful:

Eero solves the No. 1 home tech prob­lem: Bad Wi-Fi. The rea­son your Net­flix stut­ters is there are cor­ners in your house that one poor, over­worked router just can’t reach. Eero uses hubs to cre­ate a “mesh” that spreads In­ter­net all over. That’s a life­saver in big houses or ones (like mine) with walls filled with metal, plas­ter and and other ma­te­ri­als that act like Kryp­tonite for ra­dio waves.

The down­sides:

Eero is pricier than stand-alone routers and mesh systems like Google WiFi and Net­gear Orbi. If you want Eero’s hubs to work well, you can’t hide them un­der a stack of old Peo­ple mag­a­zines — they need to be out in the open. (For­tu­nately, they’re pretty.)

Why it’s the best:

Eero is the sim­plest home gad­get I’ve ever tested. Other routers may be a lit­tle faster or have more fea­tures, but Eero is re­li­able and of­fers solid cus­tomer ser­vice. It also now of­fers a se­cu­rity ser­vice, called Eero Plus (for $100 per year), to de­tect and stop hack­ers, and help you man­age pass­words, com­bat mal­ware and ac­cess a VPN when you’re on the go.

How it han­dles se­cu­rity:

Eero uses the cloud to give you re­mote con­trol over your net­work and to en­sure per­for­mance, but it doesn’t log or store where peo­ple go on the In­ter­net. And the cloud lets Eero quickly up­date your hard­ware when se­cu­rity prob­lems come to light.

Ecobee 4 ther­mo­stat Price: $250 Why it’s use­ful:

Baby, it’s cold out­side — and in that room at the back of your house. Ther­mostats mea­sure the tem­per­a­ture one place (usu­ally the hall­way), but who hangs out there? The Ecobee 4 ther­mo­stat uses sen­sors to keep track of which room you’re in and what the tem­per­a­ture is, and makes ad­just­ments ac­cord­ingly. It’s smart enough to com­pen­sate for a cold snap, and it should also be more en­ergy ef­fi­cient than an old-fash­ioned ther­mo­stat, though your sav­ings may vary.

The down­sides:

You get one room sen­sor in the box, but ex­tras cost $80 each. Your in­stal­la­tion ex­pe­ri­ence may vary: to make the Ecobee 4 work with my ex­tremely an­cient heat­ing sys­tem, I had to buy a $15 ex­ter­nal AC trans­former.

Why it’s the best:

Nest makes the most well-known learn­ing ther­mo­stat, but the Ecobee 4 beats it with the room-sens­ing tech and a few other fea­tures. It’s got Alexa built into a speaker and mi­cro­phone on the ther­mo­stat, so you have one more spot in the house to chat with your fa­vorite vir­tual la­dyfriend. And Ecobee works with lots of smart home soft­ware, in­clud­ing Ap­ple HomeKit, Google Home and (of course) Amazon Alexa.

How it han­dles se­cu­rity:

The Ecobee 4 works even with­out an In­ter­net con­nec­tion. The com­pany does se­cu­rity au­dits and says its prod­ucts haven’t suf­fered from any breaches it knows about.

Sonos One speaker Price: $200 Why it’s use­ful:

Talk­ing speak­ers are all the rage, but most lower-priced ones don’t sound fan­tas­tic. The Sonos One does, and it has the abil­ity to switch its voice be­tween ei­ther Amazon Alexa or Google’s As­sis­tant. The Sonos One can also join other Sonos wire­less speak­ers that come in many sizes and shapes to fill ev­ery room with mu­sic. I keep my house on per­pet­ual “party mode.”

The down­sides:

The Sonos One costs twice as much the new Amazon Echo and Google Home. Sup­port for Google’s As­sis­tant, along with Ap­ple’s Air­Play 2, won’t come un­til 2018. And some of its Alexa voice com­mands are un­in­tu­itive, but that should im­prove over time.

Why it’s the best:

The One is the con­nected speaker to beat be­cause of its neu­tral sta­tus in the talk­ing ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence wars, and Sonos’ years of ex­pe­ri­ence mak­ing great-sound­ing wire­less speak­ers. But I won’t blame you for wait­ing un­til pro­fes­sional re­view­ers get our hands on Ap­ple’s much-hyped (and much-de­layed) $350 HomePod next year.

How it han­dles se­cu­rity:

Sonos of­fers fre­quent free soft­ware up­dates. Like the Amazon Echo, there’s a but­ton on top that stops its mi­cro­phone from lis­ten­ing.

The trick is fig­ur­ing out which ones are worth the cost, trou­ble and in­evitable se­cu­rity risks.

 ?? Ecobee Bot Home Au­to­ma­tion ?? The Ring is a Wi-Fi con­nected smart door­bell that dou­bles as a Wi-Fi se­cu­rity cam­era. It alerts your phone with a live feed when some­body presses the bell or just ap­proaches the door. The Ecobee 4 ther­mo­stat keeps track of what rooms peo­ple are in and...
Ecobee Bot Home Au­to­ma­tion The Ring is a Wi-Fi con­nected smart door­bell that dou­bles as a Wi-Fi se­cu­rity cam­era. It alerts your phone with a live feed when some­body presses the bell or just ap­proaches the door. The Ecobee 4 ther­mo­stat keeps track of what rooms peo­ple are in and...

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