Connect my house! A first look at the SmartThings hub and sensor platform

This weekend I unpacked a SmartThings hub and sensor package as part of my quest to really understand the how connected devices will evolve in the home. Six days in, I’ve already learned so much about the connected home that I could write a post a day until August. I may just do that.

But before I go into what I’ve learned about the connected home market, I want to share the impressions so far from my time with the SmartThings hub. As one of the first of these systems on the market seeking to combine devices using many different wireless protocols with an easy-to-program interface, it’s one of several options that buyers who want to rush into the connected home might consider. Others are Revolv (used to be Mobiplug), which is expected on the market this Fall; the Lowe’s Iris system available today, a custom Insteon system like what my colleague Kevin Tofel has built; or even the AT&T Digital Life service that launched in April.

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SmartThings shipped its first devices in April to people who supported its KickStarter project and it is taking pre-orders on the site. Tyler Hall, with the company, said that SmartThings will have a new crop of hubs and sensors available in the coming weeks but that because they are fulfilling backorders the wait for a hub may be as long as three months. A package containing a hub and six sensors will sell for $299, but users will also have the option to buy additional sensors.

Let’s get to the review.

The hardware

The review unit I opened contained the SmartThings hub, a ZigBee powered outlet, two presence sensors, a moisture sensor, two motion detectors and two sensors that detect motion, vibration, temperature and whether something is open or closed. The entire package would cost about $400 at retail, and for now, the app that controls the system is only on Apple’s iOS.

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I had the hub plugged into my router and the sensors paired to the hub within 10 minutes of unboxing the set. When pairing the sensors and the hub, it’s better if you get the two within 10-15 feet of each other. That also goes for pairing other devices in the home, so if you’re dealing with a connected thermostat or locks that are far away from your router, you may need a longer ethernet cable and an extension cord for that initial effort. A company representative said I could also plug the hub into a MacBook via ethernet and then use the internet sharing function on my MacBook if I couldn’t find a long enough ethernet cable.

The hub supports ZigBee and Z-Wave with access to Wi-Fi via the ethernet cable plugged into your router. SmartThings is building in support for a variety of devices and eventually will offer pairing to other device makers’ clouds. This will allow it to support cloud connected devices like the Philips Hue light bulbs, the Ecobee thermostat and Belkin’s WeMo devices. The current list of supported devices can be found here. Pairing my Z-Wave door locks to the system took about 5 additional minutes, mostly because I needed to unscrew the back plate of the lock to initiate the pairing.

The experience

I control all of my devices from an iPhone app running on my iPad (I have an Android phone, and SmartThings says that developing an app for my handset is “top priority.”) The app is a bit buggy, and required me to quit the app after pairing devices in order to see them on the system, but Hall promised an update soon.

When it came to finding things to do with my new sensors, the app showed off some “recipes” it calls SmartApps, such as one offering to alert me via text when letters arrived in my mailbox, or creating an “away” setting that shut off lights and turned down my thermostat when I left my house. I did get a bit frustrated because I can’t make my own “recipes,” and have to find existing ones that are sometimes labeled fairly generically. However, those who can code do have the option of using the SmartThing IDE to build apps to their heart’s content.

The SmartThings app showing my sensors.
The SmartThings app showing my sensors.

But I will confess that figuring out how to take advantage of the sensors will be a longer process, for a variety of reasons I’ll go into in other posts. The short version is that there is fragmentation, which means not all of my connected devices work yet with the system (like my motorized window shades) and I have a lack of connected outputs such as a thermostat that offer me an obvious (and high value) way to use the system.

That doesn’t mean I won’t come up with fun and useful ways to add intelligence to my home, but it does mean it’s going to take me a while. Personally, that’s okay, but it might frustrate a user who wants to put a system out of the box and have it perform a well-defined function. But for those users, my next post will be about the three devices I think you need to deliver the biggest bang for your buck with one of these systems.