I purchased my first Echo device back in 2016, and I’ve always found it quite useful, although my wife wasn’t convinced at first. But over time, as we’ve discovered more Echo features – and also purchased new smart home devices – we’ve both come to appreciate smart home technology a lot more.
At the same time, I’ve seen friends and family purchase smart plugs and thermostats and use them loads of a month, and then decide they’re “a bit pointless” and stop using them (or just use them as a standard ‘dumb’ device).
This got me thinking about what aspects of smart homes I really like and appreciate, and what aspects I dislike and try to avoid.
After I bought my first Echo, there was a hiatus where I didn’t buy any other smart home tech. But after some bagging some good deals and becoming more interested in smart homes, I now have:
- 3 Echo Dots
- 1 full-size Echo
- 1 Echo Show
- 1 Google Nest Mini
- 2 FireTV sticks
- 1 Ring Doorbell Pro
- 1 Ring Indoor Cam
- 4 Philips Hue E14 (candle) white ambiance bulbs
- 2 Philips Hue B22 (bayonet style) white bulbs
- 1 Philips Hue Bridge/Hub (gen 2)
I’m not the sort of person who goes out and buys $2,000 on smart kit in a single go. I tend to see a flaw that a product could solve, and then go out looking for deals on that product.
This has worked well for me because I seen the need for smart lighting (having previously been a bit skeptical of smart lights) and so I purchased a solution to the problem (well, inconvenience!) I was having.
In no particular order, things I love about my current smart home are:
- The ability to control everything with my voice, which is particularly handy when you have a small child.
- Getting weather updates is really simple and by installing weather skills, you can also get a quick ‘second opinion’ from a different weather source. This is really useful – especially if you have an aforementioned small child in your arms, and you’re trying to work out what they should wear on an overcast morning!
- Playing music with ease. Gone are the days of fast forwarding a CD player, or pulling out an MP3 player and choosing a song (tsk, kids today don’t know how easy they have it! Back in my day…). Just say “Alexa, play I’m a Barbie girl” and my #1 favorite song in the world will start playing. Kidding.
- The ability to set timers and reminders. I’m a big fan of easy to achieve (and ‘cross off’) todo lists. So when my wife or I remember that we need to take some bread out of the garage freezer, or take the bins out (etc), we just say “Alexa, remind me to take bread out at 8pm tonight“. Then we can safely forget that bit of cranial clutter until our Echo device(s) remind us later on.
- Being able to pause and resume content on my Fire TV or Fire stick (via my Echo) is also quite useful. Yes there’s usually a 3-4 second delay between me saying “Alexa, pause my Fire TV” and it actually pausing, but overall it works quite well.
- When someone presses the Ring Doorbell, I can have this footage appear on my Fire TV. This feels like something out of the future, and it’s quite nice that whatever your watching (YouTube, Netflix) is paused whilst you watch – and can interact with – the person at your front door. Of course, you can also just open the door and speak to the person, but if you don’t know/trust them, being able to do this using smart technology is a nifty idea!
- Smart doorbells in general seem like a great invention. They act as a makeshift security camera, they allow you to speak to visitors and mail carriers when you’re out, and if you’re busy changing a nappy or bathing your little one (you may spot a theme here?!), you can ask the person at the front door to hang on one minute.
- I love the convenience of my smart bulbs. I know that smart switches are meant to be even better in general, but I’m using my four candle bulbs in table lamps which plug into a wall socket, so smart bulbs are better for this particular purpose. When it starts getting dark each night, I say “Alexa, lights on” which triggers a routine that sets all four bulbs to be on and 100% brightness. When I go to bed, I say “Alexa, goodnight” and all bulbs go off and I get a ‘night night’ type message, along with my Echo telling me the current time. Noice.
- That reminds me: smart home routines. Whether you use Alexa, HomeKit, Google Assistant, IFTTT, SmartThings (etc etc), being able to setup simple rules that can interact with multiple smart devices is really awesome.
Even with an Echo Dot, you could setup a routine that plays really loud music and turns your light bulbs on and off loads when someone presses the front doorbell. I don’t know why you’d want to do that, but you can do it, at least!
- Color changing smart bulbs are awesome. Whilst I’ve only tinkered with color Hue bulbs so far, I love my white ambiance bulbs because being able to switch between yellow/orange and blue (oh yeah, and white!) is a really nice development. This can allow you to track the natural daytime/nighttime light color, along with being able to set other colors to set the desired mood.
Nothing’s perfect, right? Well sometimes my smart tech winds me up, again in no particular order:
- When Alexa mishears me… or doesn’t hear me at all! I once wanted to chill out whilst reading so I put on some spa music. I then asked “Alexa, volume down” and she heard this as “Alexa, volume ten” and started blasting the music out! Equally, sometimes you’re standing right next to an Echo and it doesn’t seem to hear me – or an Echo in the next room hears me instead!
- Alexa’s AI still has a long way to go. Sometimes Alexa will just completely misunderstanding the intent behind a question or command, and either say “Sorry, I don’t know that one” – or just mishandle the question/command completely. Whilst this is annoying, I kind of have to remember that simple have a hockey puck-shaped device which can do so much is a positive (overall), not a negative. And getting computers to understand humans is never easy, so I think that Alexa (plus Google Assistant and Siri) does a great job overall… even if they do annoy me a lot at times!
- Controlling your Fire TV (or Fire stick) with Alexa needs some improvement. You can search and sometimes get the results you want (e.g. “Alexa, search for Baby Shark on YouTube“), but other times it messes up. Equally when you have a page of search results, trying to choose the third item on the second row isn’t easy (or possible?!) via Alexa!
- Playing music on a Google Home is tricky (without Spotify). The first YouTube video I did covers how to play music on your Google Home, without a Spotify subscription. And there certainly are options, especially since Google Home now supports YouTube music. Plus you can always pay for Google Play Music… but it looks like they’re starting to encourage people to move to YouTube Music instead?!
It’s all a bit confusing, compared to playing music on an Echo which has access to over 2 million songs as part of your Prime membership. Yes I now that you can have an Echo but not Prime, but most people with Echos seem to have Prime.
- The wiring instructions for the Ring Doorbell Pro aren’t the most straightforward. The instructions talk of bypassing your internal doorbell, but not why (or when) you may need to do this. They generally talk about input and output cables (for the transformer), but they don’t go into specifics. It’s all a bit vague. That’s why I did a blog post and video covering exactly how to convert from my style of old Deta doorbell to a Ring Doorbell Pro… after doing lots of research and speaking to other people first.
- Alexa doesn’t always turn on/off all my Hue lights. In about 5-10% of cases, at least one of my Hue lights doesn’t respond to the voice command and I have to re-issue it. I guess this is just a temporary glitch between the internet based Alexa and the Zigbee based Hue lights, but I’d usually expect devices to ‘play up’ in less than 1% of cases – not in 5-10% of cases! Turning the bulbs on and off does fix this, but it shouldn’t really be necessary.
Now that the moaning portion of this article is over, I get to dream a bit! What am I planning on buying… or what would I like to buy? I’d say the following:
- A Raspberry Pi to install Home Assistant onto. I’ve loved the idea of Home Assistant since I first seen it, and it’d be nicer to start driving smart home control through HA than (sometimes) having to pull out my phone and launch various phone apps. Of course, I wouldn’t want to switch to HA if it meant I then rely solely on a HA phone app instead… I need to plan this move out a bit. I like the idea of having a tablet mounted on a wall somewhere which has the HA dashboard on it. That could be really nice and give a house a futuristic feel.
- A Ring Cam Elite. I have a DVR based security camera on my garage, overlooking my driveway (which runs alongside my house). I can view the footage over the internet, but it’s all a bit clunky. It was an Amazon deal (2 cameras and the DVR box for £80, or something) and it works well enough, but it’s inconvenient to have to trawl through loads of footage – and haul a monitor down to the DVR box – just to view the footage.
A smart camera would solve this, but I don’t like battery powered cams/doorbells (more on this later). Plus I’m always a little conscious that a proper security system will have backups, so that if one communication method (e.g. WiFi) failed, you’d have another communication source (e.g. Power over Ethernet) – hence me wanting to buy the Ring Cam Elite.
- Moar lights!1!1!11!! Since converting to smart lighting in a few places around my house, I can see the benefit more and more. For example, I have a small utility room with 3 spotlights in there. We often open the door, turn the lights on, quickly do something in there (putting washing in, or pouring a drink) and then close the door whilst putting the lights off. Whilst I wouldn’t want to pay $50 per bulb for a Hue GU10 color bulb, if I can get a deal on some Hue GU10 bulbs and a motion sensor, it could really improve the convenience of using our utility room.
- Hue Play Light Bars. Whilst my wife and I aren’t massive home movie watchers (preferring to go to a movie theater), I do love the video clips of people’s living room lighting up in response to the movie they’re watching, and I could see myself getting this – or a Philips Ambilight TV – in the future:
I’ve learnt a lot about smart homes in the last couple of years, and whilst everyone is different, I’ll always steer clear of the following smart tech:
- Battery powered smart doorbells and cameras (for security purposes). Battery powered doorbells/cams are very convenient because you don’t need to worry about potentially complex installations, however they are also inherently limited. They need to save battery power where possible, so their motion detection – and eventual recordings – is never too great.
For example, the Ring Doorbell 3 Plus comes with a few seconds of black-and-white ‘pre roll’ video footage which has been heralded as an amazing feature, but the Ring Doorbell Pro already comes with around 6 seconds of full HD, color ‘pre roll’ video footage (due to it being hardwired and hence it can be more flexible).
Some people have also complained that they just miss motion-based recordings completely… or they only see the person walking away and not approaching their house. This can also depend on your WiFi connection, but a hardwired doorbell/camera will naturally be better than a battery based one.
- Smart thermostats without extra smart sensors/valves. I’ve previously outlined why I dislike smart thermostats, one of the big reasons being that they tend to be single zone so they can only control your house’s temperature as a single, cohesive unit.
If one of the main smart thermostat makers bought out radiator-by-radiator smart valves, however, then their thermostats would be able to tailor your heating system on a room-by-room basis. This would then be truly useful, and would save money by only heating occupied rooms.
To wrap up this article, if the following smart technology was released, I would buy them very quickly! I wanted to keep this grounded in reality though – I wish that I could buy a smart robot butler that did all the menial household chores for me, but that’s probably a little while off!
- Hue wired switches. One thing I dislike about Hue’s ecosystem is that their selection of switches and sensors aren’t hardwired. This means that in a particular room, you may have a Hue bulb in the ceiling outlet, and then a wall switch which you must always leave on. You’ll then have a separate Hue sensor or switch to control this bulb (and maybe other bulbs).
Whilst it’s good that the Hue switches can control groups of bulbs, I dislike the idea of still having my wall switch lying around – even though you shouldn’t use this. It’d be much better if Hue followed other smart switch makers and produced actual, hardwired smart switches.
- More interconnected smart devices. Right now, smart devices don’t have to ‘speak to each other’ in a common way, meaning that a Nest Thermostat doesn’t have to integrate with HomeKit, or a SmartThings water sensors doesn’t have to support Alexa or Google Assistant.
This means that to have a full fledged smart home, you have to pick an ecosystem – and hope that it’s still around in the future!
The solution to this might be Connected Home over IP, but right now that project has gone quiet. I’m hopeful for it, however, so I’ll be keeping a close eye on it.