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Control panel in home
26 February 2019

Are smart homes a dumb idea?

Home tech doesn’t lead to a life of luxury.

Isn’t tech supposed to make your life easier? I’m in a unique position as Consumer’s tech writer, I’ve trialled and owned dozens of “smart” home devices – from light bulbs to TVs to virtual assistants.

How much they’ve helped me on a day-to-day basis is debateable.

These days it’s hard to buy a device or appliance that isn’t part of the “internet of things” (IOT). With built-in WiFi and the ability to connect to the internet, manufacturers are more than happy to claim these devices deliver futuristic automation and ease of use. The reality is somewhat different.

The $9000 smart fridge was just a normal fridge with a tablet on the front. My smart TV apps are clunky. Of all the IOT things I’ve used, my light bulbs – a few lamps and a WiFi-connected switch that controls my normal lights – are probably the most useful. Using an app, I can easily set timers and routines (for example, pressing and holding the switch can turn off all the lights). I can even turn my lights on and off when I’m not home.

But then I got a new router and half of my lights stopped working. This did not make life easier.

I’ve got two different WiFi security cameras and they have a different issue. Through their respective apps, I can drop in any time and see what’s happening in my house. One of them has a motion sensor and can send me alerts if it picks up anything. The problem is it’s too sensitive and picks up everything, so I turned that off.

Moreover, if I wanted to record anything using the cameras I’d have to subscribe monthly to an online service. With basic packages starting at $40 a year, it’s a pricey addition to something that isn’t cheap to start with.

Generally, smart also means expensive. My security cameras cost about $150 and those smart light bulbs run $90 each! That’s a lot for gear that’s only slightly improved my life.

These devices all run on pixie dust. So when something goes wrong there’s little you can do to fix the problem beyond turning them off and on again. I’ve had numerous problems with my devices, from non-responding lights to frozen screens.

Now imagine if it wasn’t your light bulb, but your door lock.

WiFi-connected door locks are widely available, and I can’t think of a worse idea. It’s hard enough getting my basic Bluetooth headphones working perfectly, let alone something you rely on to secure your home!

Right now, dumb is better than smart.

Personal assistance

IOT devices come into their own when you use a virtual assistant, which use voice commands. I use Amazon’s Alexa and Apple’s Siri.

The ability to just say “lights off” as you walk out of the room is the science fiction future I always wanted. But it’s far from a utopia.

Sometimes, verbal commands that should work result in “I don’t know that”, I often have to repeat myself, and it often thinks I’m speaking to it when I’m not. Sometimes my devices won’t talk to each other for no apparent reason. For example, Alexa speakers can be grouped to play music simultaneously, but one of the three devices I’ve got simply refuses to join the party.

But despite all of this, I’m hooked. I recently said: “Alexa, what’s the weather like this afternoon?” Thing is, I was in a hotel room in Sydney, not at home. Virtual assistants are so integrated into my life, I forgot they aren’t there to help me 24/7.

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