Home automation gadgets: Functional, fun, but frustrating and expensive

Nest Cam security camera

Photo by: Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Home automation gadgets are everywhere, and include devices such as smart lightbulbs, electrical switches, thermostats, surveillance cameras, smart locks, garage door openers, smoke alarms, kitchen devices and much more.

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They’re taking over our homes.

Regular readers may have noticed that I’ve not written much about home automation devices. This is not for not being exposed to them. I’m surrounded by them. I can see several from where I’m sitting right now.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s not that home automation devices aren’t functional. They are. You just need your smartphone and an internet connection, and you have the power to interact with your devices whether you’re sitting next to them or the other side of the planet.

They’re also fun. Yes, it’s fun being able to control your lights or test a smoke alarm from a smartphone. Maybe I have a longer attention span than some, but I still find the idea of interacting with an app and that changing something in the real world fun.

Is this a case of simple things pleasing simple minds? I’ll let you be the judge.

So why have I been reluctant to cover home automation devices?

I’ll be straight with you. When home automation devices work, they’re great. But when they stop working, it can send you on a journey where you’ll be tearing your hair out and filling that swear jar. The problem is that these devices are black boxes that don’t give you a lot of options to diagnose the problems. You can turn the device off and on, smash the reset button, reconnect it to the router or hub, poke around in the app, and if worse comes to the worst, delete and reinstall the app.

If that doesn’t work, well, it’s back to turning the device off and on again, perhaps adding a prayer or a curse this time around.

Coming from a diagnostic background and having a strong grounding in networking, I find it frustrating how little information I get from home automation devices when they stop working.

Another issue is that the more bits of home automation kit you have, the more complex everything gets. Most devices want their own hubs and cables and power supplies and network connections. While the box might claim that installation is easy (and it might be the case on the bench in the nice, air conditioned lab where these products were tested), in the real world there are many factors that you’ll have to deal with, ranging from availability of mains power, Wi-Fi signal strength, routing cables and much more.

The more devices you’ve got, the more complicated your setup gets. And if you make any significant changes to your network — such as changing the Wi-Fi password — then you’re going to go through all your devices and reconnect them. And in my experience some of these devices can be an absolute pig to connect to a new network.

Putting servers in the cloud? Think of them as cows and chickens.

Then there’s the issue of cost.

Home automation devices are cool, but you’re paying a high admission fee into that cool kids’ club. Lightbulbs and thermostats are cheap; adding the word “smart” also adds a lot of dollars .

Going down the home automation route means swapping out low-cost, widely available, interchangeable commodity items for expensive, proprietary hardware that’s tied into your network and requires smartphones. They work great where everyone is comfortable with apps and such, but luddites may feel left out.

Another factor to consider is lifespan. If you take a regular lightbulb or door lock or garage door or whatever, the lifespan is pretty clear-cut — it works until it releases the magic smoke, and then it’s done. But with smart devices you not only might have multiple devices to go wrong — such as hubs and such — but if the manufacturer stops supporting the device, the app is no longer compatible with your smartphone, or goes out of business, your device is done.

So you’re paying big bucks for something and hoping that the company that made it supports it for as long as possible.

I’d like to see three things happen in the home automation space:

  • Open standards: Interoperability and a healthy ecosystem of hardware and apps is the way forward. It would also help offer some guarantees against hardware makers going out of business or losing interest in the market space.
  • Price drops: This will naturally happen.
  • Better diagnostic tools: An LED that switches from green to red and a single reset button aren’t enough.
  • [“source-zdnet”]