Home Automation

11 smart home devices you didn’t know existed

With connected appliances, the dream of controlling every single aspect of our homes with a virtual butler is fast becoming reality.

Aside from the usual suspects – smart TVs, smart bulbs, smart speakers, smart thermostats, smart door locks, etc., did you know that there’s a whole army of smart appliances out there, waiting to go “Maximum Overdrive” in your home?

Turning your house into a smart home is exciting but be careful! Listen to my Komando On Demand podcast to learn how to watch for the warning signs so technology doesn’t take over your home.

You’ll be surprised by how many appliances are getting “smartified” nowadays. They may be wacky, weird or unnecessary, but some actually do make sense.

Here are 11 smart home devices that you didn’t know existed (but you’ll be glad that they do.)

1. Smart Toilet

Do your business in style with this smart toilet! The Numi from Kohler is a whirlpool of technology and it’s flushed with comforts you didn’t even know you needed. It has a motion-activated cover and heated seat, a retractable multi-function bidet, an air dryer and deodorizer, a foot warmer, fancy lights and Bluetooth speakers!

For ultimate toilet control, you even get a dockable touch-screen remote so you can totally flush it from afar. The price tag for this ridiculously lavish lavatory? Around $6,500.

2. Smart Pet Food Dispenser

Our pets are part of the family and they need not miss out on the smart appliance revolution. The PetSafe high-tech pet feeder will make them feel right at (smart) home.

This Wi-Fi connected pet feeder can be controlled with its own iPhone and Android app so you can feed your furry companion from anywhere. You can set meal schedules and slow dispense times to prevent bloating and vomiting. It will even notify you when your pet’s food has been dispensed.

The PetSafe Smart Feed is $179 but that sounds reasonable for your peace of mind, don’t you think?

PetSafe Smart Feed Automatic Dog and Cat Feeder, Smartphone, 24-Cups, Wi-Fi Enabled App for iPhone and…

By Water & Feed

$179.95$199.99

Rated 4 out of 5 by 168 reviewers on Amazon.com

3. Smart Bed

Having a perfect night’s sleep is vital to overall health and people have been using smart wearables like Fitbit to track nightly sleeping patterns. But what if your bed does that itself?

Sleep Number’s 360 smart mattresses can track your nightly sleeping patterns, make adjustments to their firmness and can even adjust their temperatures.

It’s not going to be cheap to make your bed smarter. These smart beds start at around $3,200.

4. Smart Egg Tray

Now here’s a smart product that you don’t think you’d need but it actually makes sense, in theory.

The Quirky Egg Minder is a smart egg tray that will tell you how many eggs you have at home and when it’s time to throw them away. LED lights on the tray will tell you which one is the oldest egg and, with its smartphone app, will alert you if you’re running low.

Ever been to the grocery store wondering how many eggs you have left at home? Well, with Quirky Egg Minder, you can just check remotely with your smartphone!

This eggs-ellent (sorry) idea can be yours for as low as $14 right now. Not a bad price to shell out (sorry, again) for if you’re looking for extra kitchen smarts.

Quirky Egg Minder Wink App Enabled Smart Egg Tray, PEGGM-WH01

By Quirky

$10.99

Rated 2.5 out of 5 by 517 reviewers on Amazon.com

5. Smart Toothbrush

If you think brushing your teeth optimally is hard enough then you deserve this $180 smart toothbrush from Oral-B.

The Oral-B Genius Pro 8000 smart toothbrush connects to your smartphone via Bluetooth and uses facial recognition to track where you’ve brushed so you don’t miss a spot.

The app will also provide real-time visual coaching on brushing time and pressure. It is so smart, pressure sensors will even automatically slow down its brush speed to protect you from excessive brushing. It’s like having a dentist in your bathroom!

6. Smart Fork

Let’s face it, the smart toothbrush will go great with a smart fork because, you know, we need all the tech help we can get for life’s basic necessities.

If the smart toothbrush can alert you if you’re brushing too hard, this smart fork will warn you if you’re eating too fast.

The logic behind the HapiFork is sound – if you want to eat healthier, you need to slow down your eating pace. And this uber-utensil can help you do it how? By buzzing when you’re biting more than you can chew.

It connects via Bluetooth to your smartphone and with an app, you can see your eating statistics unfold in front of you in real-time. You can then upload this data to Hapi.com and have everyone judge your table manners.

HAPILABS 100 HAPIfork Bluetooth-Enabled Smart Fork (White)

By HAPILABS INC.

$62.95

Rated 2.5 out of 5 by 4 reviewers on Amazon.com

7. Smart Frying Pan

Why would anyone buy a $229 smart frying pan? Well, because they can!

The SmartyPans frying pan is an interactive frying pan that has built-in sensors that track the weight of the ingredients as you drop them on the pan.

It also has built-in temperature sensors that ensure you have the perfect level of heat each time you cook the eggs you got from your smart egg tray.

With the SmartyPans app, you can follow step-by-step cooking instructions, create and share your own step-by-step recipes and even track the nutritional value of what you’re cooking. Who wouldn’t want that for $229?

8. Smart Toaster

Do you quietly judge your old traditional bread toaster and think that it’s so dumb it can’t even make perfect toast every time?

Now, you can toss that old clunker out and get the Breville Die-Cast 2-Slice Smart Toaster instead.

With its 1-touch automation, the Breville smart toaster will lower your bread automatically with delicate care, regulate the toasting time and a fancy LED panel will inform you about the current toasting cycle.

For extra entertainment, with its Lift and Look function, you can also check your toast while it’s cooking without interrupting the toasting cycle.

Breville BTA820XL Die-Cast 2-Slice Smart Toaster, 1.2-Inch Wide x 5.2-Inch Deep

By Breville (Feb 29, 2008)

$125.95$129.95

Rated 4 out of 5 by 823 reviewers on Amazon.com

9. Smart Water Pitcher

Have you ever sat at your family dinner table thinking “Honey, our water pitcher needs to get smarter fast”?

Well, say no more, Brita’s Smart Pitcher to the rescue! Nothing incredibly fancy but this Wi-Fi enabled pitcher will track and order its own replacement filters from Amazon.

How about that? A pitcher that buys its own accessories and charges them on your credit card. The robot takeover is slowly happening people.

Brita Medium 8 Cup Infinity Smart Water Pitcher and Filter – BPA Free – Black

By Brita

$43.99

Rated 2.5 out of 5 by 82 reviewers on Amazon.com

10. Smart Floss

Cultivating healthy flossing habits is challenging. It’s just too much work, right? And getting the perfect length of floss each time is so difficult, humanity definitely needs this smart dispenser.

Flosstime is an automated floss dispenser that delivers the perfect amount of floss with a single touch. It will also frown at you if you neglect to floss your teeth (judge-y appliances seem to be a recurring theme here).

You can attach it to your bathroom mirror and have your whole family join in the flossing fun. Flosstime can be yours for $26.

11. Smart Wine Dispenser

To cap this off, why not have a glass of wine from this smart wine dispenser?

The Kuvée Connect and the Kuvée Key are Wi-Fi connected wine dispensers that will always pour the perfect glass from a FreshPour enabled wine bottle each time.

And with the Connect, you can even rate, favorite, view and buy refill wine bottles on its built-in LCD touchscreen! I bet other wine bottles can’t do that.

Everything you need to know about the Amazon Echo

BY  

The Amazon Echo is the biggest tech breakout in recent memory — a voice-activated, internet-connected “smart speaker” with a built-in virtual assistant named Alexa that can answer your questions, follow your instructions and control your smart home devices. As Amazon likes to put it, the Echo is a Star Trek computer for your home.

Now approaching its fourth year, the Echo and its multiple offshoots, including the mini-sized Echo Dot and the touchscreen-equipped Echo Show, have found their way into millions of homes around the world. If they’ve found their way into yours and you don’t know what to do with them, or if you’re just curious about whether or not you should also buy in, then you, my friend, have come to the right post.

What is the Amazon Echo, and how does it work?

Let’s start at the beginning. Amazon introduced the Echo smart speaker at the end of 2014. It’s a standalone Bluetooth speaker with an array of “far-field” microphones that can hear you at a moderate distance plus a Wi-Fi connection to the Amazon cloud.

You wake the Echo up by saying “Alexa,” the name of Amazon’s virtual assistant (you can change this wake word to “Amazon,” “Echo” or “Computer,” if you like). Once the speaker hears the wake word, the ring around the top will light up blue to indicate that Alexa is actively listening for your question and command. Say something like, “what’s the weather today,” and Alexa will answer your question — in this case, with a quick summary of the day’s forecast.

Here’s how that works: Whenever you ask Alexa a question or give her a command, the Echo records the audio and uploads the snippet to Amazon’s cloud servers. Those servers translate the audio into text, then figure out the best way for Alexa to answer. That info gets sent back to your Echo speaker, where Alexa translates the text back into a spoken response. All of this happens in about a second.

amazon-echo-plus-08
Press the mute button on the top of the Echo and Alexa will stop listening for the wake word.Ian Knighton/CNET

So, Alexa is always listening to me?

Sort of. The Echo is always listening for the wake word, but it only starts recording and transmitting audio once it thinks it hears it. Echo devices indicate this with that blue ring of light — when it lights up, that means Alexa is recording and uploading what it hears in order to figure out how to respond.

Amazon uses encryption to protect those audio snippets whenever Alexa uploads them, and it stores them in the Amazon servers so that you can play them back in the Alexa app to hear what Alexa heard and see what she thinks you asked. You can erase that backlog of audio snippets any time you like (here’s how), and you can also press a button to “mute” the microphone and keep the Echo from listening for the wake word at all. In that case, the Echo’s ring will turn red to indicate that Alexa is covering her ears.

OK. So what all can Alexa do?

There are countless ways to put Alexa to use, but here are the main ones:

 

Click here for a complete rundown on everything you can ask Alexa.

 

amazon-echo-2ndgen-19
The Echo is great for streaming music, audiobooks, and podcasts. If you want, you can connect the Echo with your existing speakers via auxiliary cable or Bluetooth.Ian Knighton/CNET

Click here for our top Alexa tips for music lovers.

 

Click here for CNET’s top-rated smart home gadgets that work with Alexa. 

 

Click here to learn how to set a recurring alarm on your Echo device.

echo-dot-alexa-calls-messages-green.jpg

Click here to learn more about calling landlines and mobile numbers using Alexa.

 

Click here for our regularly-updated list of the 50 most useful Alexa skills.

 

Oh, and if you need to buy something on Amazon, Alexa can help with that, too. Imagine that!

amazon-echo-lineup-05
Alexa comes in a variety of different packages.Ian Knighton/CNET

How many different kinds of Echo devices are there?

After the Echo became a clear hit with the mainstream, Amazon doubled down and began releasing a number of offshoot devices designed to broaden the appeal of Alexa’s voice interface. All of them offer the same Alexa features in different packages and with different features that might interest different kinds of people. Here’s a quick list:

amazon-echo-spot-product-photos-10

Beyond those, you’ll also find Alexa in Amazon’s Fire tablets and Fire TV voice remotes — as well as a rapidly growing number of devices not made by Amazon. Amazon sees outside developers as a huge part of the Alexa strategy, and it’s making considerable efforts to make it as easy as possible for manufacturers to build Alexa into their devices.

Bottom line: Amazon doesn’t care which voice-activated device you buy — just so long as you’re talking to Alexa.

echo-2-product-photos-17
The Echo had a head start, but Google Home is nipping at its heels.Tyler Lizenby/CNET

What are the alternatives?

The Echo had the market to itself for about a year before any real competition showed up. But these days, the smart speaker category is about as crowded as it gets.

The closest competitor would be the Google Home smart speaker ($130 in the US, £130 in the UK and AU$200 in Australia). Powered by the voice-activated Google Assistant — it comes the closest to matching Alexa’s wide variety of features and integrations. Like Amazon, Google offers a smaller-sized version for $50 (£40 in the UK, AU$60 in Australia) called the Google Home Mini. It also offers a king-sized version called the Google Home Max for $400 (£400 in the UK, AU$580 in Australia) that offers superior sound quality. Amazon doesn’t have anything that matches the Max speaker, at least not yet.

Apple does, though. Its Siri-activated HomePod, which costs $350 (£320 in the UK, AU$500 in Australia), also offers better sound than any Echo device, though the features and integrations feel narrower and less developed than what you’ll get with Amazon or Google.

Other notable competitors include the Cortana-powered Invoke smart speakerfrom Harman Kardon, and also the abundance of third-party speakers that make use of Alexa or the Google Assistant to offer a fully developed voice interface. Most noteworthy among these: the $200 Sonos One smart speaker (£200 in the UK, AU$300 in Australia), which offers excellent sound quality and your choice of Alexa or the Google Assistant for voice controls.

What other features should I know about?

We’ve covered the basics, so let’s take a look at some of Alexa’s more advanced features and how they stack up against the competition:

Voice recognition: You can train Alexa to recognize different voices, which lets her offer responses tailored to the individual user. You can also use this to keep your kids from making voice purchases — just know that the feature isn’t foolproof. The Google Home lineup can distinguish between different voices, too, but the Apple HomePod cannot.

Routines: Arguably one of Alexa’s most useful features, Routines let you trigger multiple things all at once using a single, customizable voice command. For instance, saying “Alexa, good morning” could simultaneously turn several smart lights on while Alexa reads the day’s weather forecast. You can also create custom Alexa commands using the free online automation service IFTTT, but they’ll each need to start with the word “trigger,” as in, “Alexa, trigger party mode.” The Google Home speakers have routine-like functionality, too — and like the Echo, they also let you craft custom voice controls using IFTTT. Plus, with Google home, no “trigger” word is necessary.

Drop in: If you like, you can authorize specific contacts to “drop in” on your Echo device to check in on you, or just use the feature like an intercom system from room to room. That’ll let your contacts listen and talk through your speaker (or view the camera feed if you’re using an Echo Show or an Echo Spot) without any input from you. Sounds creepy, yes, but it might make sense if you want to use an Echo device to keep an eye on a mischievous kid or an aging parent. Alexa will also let you “announce” things to the other Echo devices under your roof — a useful way to tell the family that dinner’s ready.

Memory: Always forgetting birthdays or other little pieces of info? You can ask Alexa to remember them for you. For instance, just say, “Alexa, remember that Kevin’s shoe size is 8” and when it’s time to buy your kid new shoes, you can just ask, “Alexa, what is Kevin’s shoe size?” and she’ll remind you.

External speaker support: The entire lineup of Echo devices can connect to external speakers using Bluetooth or a 3.5mm auxiliary cable. That’s especially nice with the Echo Dot, which is a pretty puny speaker on its own. The Google Home and Google Home Mini don’t have an aux jack for corded connections with external speakers, but they can connect over Bluetooth.

Smart entertainment controls: Entertainment is an ever-increasing point of focus for Alexa. Echo devices can already act as voice remotes for Fire TV streamers and for compatible smart TVs from names like Vizio, and we’re also seeing more and more content providers taking advantage of Amazon’s software development kit for video playback controls. That’s led to integrations with services like Dish and Logitech Harmony that let you channel surf using your voice. More services like them are certain to follow suit.

Google isn’t far behind here. Its Home smart speakers can already sync up with Chromecast streamers to launch content on Netflix or YouTube, and Google recently added new integrations of its own with Dish and Logitech. Watch this space — the battle to win the couch potatoes over is just getting started.

Where can I buy one?

The easiest place to get one of Amazon’s Echo devices is from Amazon itself, but you’ll also find them at major retailers like Best Buy, Bed Bath & Beyond, Staples, Sears and Home Depot. Amazon is also selling them in-store at Whole Foods grocery stores after it bought the chain for $13.7 billion last year.

Should I buy one?

If you’ve read this far, then you should certainly consider it. In-home voice control is evolving quickly, with new features and capabilities arriving week in and week out. That makes speakers like these a lot of fun to own — and with Echo Dot speakers available for just $50, £50 and AU$80 or less, Alexa’s barrier to entry is nice and low.

Of course, the same can be said of the equally cheap and comparably smart Google Home Mini. And if you’re an Apple loyalist, then the HomePod’s Siri controls might have you tempted to splurge. If you need guidance on which voice assistant is right for you, our quick five-question quiz can help you zero in on an answer. And as always, our smart speaker reviews are here to help, too.

 

What are Z-Wave, Zigbee and other smart home protocols?

One of the most frustrating things about building a smart home is that devices from different manufacturers are mostly incapable of talking to each other.

This largely comes down to the fact that different devices use different protocols, with Z-Wave and Zigbee the most popular, followed by Wi-Fi and then proprietary protocols. So, what are these protocols, what do they do, and how can you get your various products talking to one another?

What does a smart home protocol do?

A smart home protocol is a defined way for devices to communicate – a language, if you will. Devices that speak the same language can talk to each other, and be controlled via a single app. Devices that use different protocols are controlled via separate apps and can’t communicate.

For this reason, there’s been a push by some companies to use standardised protocols – such as Z-Wave, Zigbee or Wi-Fi – to let devices work together and be controlled via one app.

Both Zigbee and Z-Wave are wireless smart home protocols that work over a reliable mesh network. They use very little power, so you can even have battery-powered products.

Communication with Zigbee and Z-Wave products can be achieved in two ways. First, a wireless remote or switch can be used to give basic direct control over a device. Buy the entry-level Ikea Tradfri light bulbs, for example, and you can control your lights using a paired battery-powered remote control.

 

Ikea Smart Lighting 27

 

Advanced control necessitates the need for a hub. A hub plugs into your home network, providing app-based control and the ability to set up more complicated routines. The Samsung SmartThings Hub is the best example, giving you a box that can talk to both Z-Wave and Zigbee devices, with control via a single, well-designed app.

Having a hub that can talk to both Zigbee and Z-Wave devices dramatically expands the range of products available to you, letting you pick from the best of both worlds.

Wi-Fi is more power intensive, but since all our homes have wireless networks, these devices require no additional hardware and can communicate in a standard way. Wi-Fi devices are best suited to items using continuous power, such as some smart light bulbs or smart plugs

Before we look at the range of products available, let’s find out more about each protocol and the advantages and disadvantages it offers.

Z-Wave

Z-Wave is a proprietary standard owned by Sigma Systems. The Z-Wave Alliance is a consortium of companies that make Z-Wave products, with the aim of promoting the technology and ensuring compatibility with certification schemes.

As such, Z-Wave devices are built to reliably communicate with products from other manufacturers. For example, a light bulb from one company should work with a light switch from another.

Z-Wave uses a mesh network, whereby the signal is rebroadcast by devices added to your home network. Typically, this ability is limited to powered devices only, such as smart plugs, while battery-powered devices are opted-out to increase battery power.

Z-Wave transmits data at up to 100Kbps. That doesn’t sound very fast, but given that the data transmitted is largely for simple commands such as turning on a light, you don’t need more.

Running on the 900MHz spectrum, range is up to 40m with the newest Z-Wave chips, with signals able to hop between up to four nodes. This means that a Z-Wave network can easily cover most homes. The protocol supports up to 232 devices.

Z-Wave devices transmit state, so you can see whether a device is turned on or off.

Zigbee

Zigbee is a wireless protocol controlled and developed by the Zigbee Alliance. The Alliance publishes application profiles that allow for manufacturers to create products that are compatible with the standard.

The same rigorous testing isn’t applied to products, and there’s no guarantee that products using the same standard will work together. For example, Philips Hue bulbs use Zigbee, but for the full range of features, the bulbs have to be paired with the Philips Hue Bridge.

Most Zigbee devices run in the 2.4GHz band (the same as 802.11n Wi-Fi), although some use 784MHz (China), 866MHz (Europe) or 915MHz (US). Running at 2.4GHz for the most part, Zigbee’s range tops out at about 20 metres indoors.

However, just as with Z-Wave, Zigbee uses a mesh network, with devices acting as repeaters. Only constantly powered devices, such as light bulbs, act as repeaters; battery-powered devices are excluded to preserve battery life.

Data transfer rates are 250Kbps – fast enough for control signals, but not a lot more. You can add up to 65,000 devices into a Zigbee network.

Zigbee devices also transmit state, so you can see if they’re turned on or off.

Echo Hue

Wi-Fi

Wi-Fi is the wireless network standard that we all use in our homes, from our phones, TVs, laptops and beyond. As a result of its popularity, some smart home manufacturers have used Wi-Fi for the control protocol, such as with the excellent LIFX Mini Smart Bulbs.

Typical Wi-Fi range extends up to around 40 metres indoors, although the construction of your home and interference from other devices will play a part. As a result, dead spots aren’t uncommon in homes.

Therefore, using Wi-Fi for smart home devices requires a strong wireless signal throughout your home

The downside of using Wi-Fi is that you can’t get battery-powered remotes or switches for it. Control of devices – such as smart light bulbs – is therefore limited to either app or voice control, through the likes of the Amazon Echo.

Proprietary protocols

Proprietary protocols are still commonly used by some devices, and require a separate hub. For example, the Honeywell Evohome multi-room smart thermostat uses its own protocol. The advantage of proprietary protocols is that the manufacturer can control how every aspect of the product works. The downside is a lack of interoperability.

Can different protocols talk to each other?

The simple answer is, no. Buy a Z-Wave remote control and it can’t directly control a Zigbee light. The operative word here is “direct”. Indirectly, it’s possible to hook up different devices and let them work together.

The fastest and best method of control is direct. This is usually through a hub that can speak multiple protocols, such as SmartThings. Using SmartThings, you can put all of your compatible smart home devices into one app and have them control each other. SmartThings can talk to Z-Wave and Zigbee devices directly, and it can also communicate with Wi-Fi devices and other hubs. For example, you can have a Z-Wave switch turn on a Philips Hue light and a LIFX Wi-Fi light bulb.

Amazon Alexa is also capable of talking to multiple devices through its hubs directly. Thanks to the latest update, one command can trigger a routine that turns on or off devices using many different protocols. Amazon is also boosting in-app control of devices, so it isn’t hard to imagine a future where Alexa will give you central voice and app control for your entire home.

Then there are external systems such as IFTTT. Using the cloud, IFTTT can spot triggers from one device (say, a button push), and create an action on another device (turn on a light, for example). IFTTT has huge options, letting you connect your smart home together the way you want it.

The downside of the system is that rules can take a while to run and aren’t as quick as direct-control systems. As such, you wouldn’t use IFTTT where speed is of the essence, such as turning on a light switch with the touch of a button.

Everything You Need to Know about HomePod as a HomeKit Hub

Jeff Gamet

 

Apple’s HomePod is more than an intelligent speaker, it’s also a HomeKit hub, just like Apple TV. That means you can use your HomePod as the bridge when you control your HomeKit smart home gear when you aren’t at home.

HomePod with smart home devices

HomePod is a HomeKit hub, just like Apple TV

Your HomePod automatically becomes a HomeKit hub if you’ve already added devices like smart lights and smart thermostats to your smart home setup, no need for you to do anything else. In fact, the setup process is completely transparent; the initial setup adds your HomePod to your HomeKit device list without requiring any action on your part.

HomePod and HomeKit Primer

Apple has been talking about its smart home platform for some time now, although it hasn’t gained traction in the same way that some others have. That means there are still plenty of people using Apple products who don’t know what HomeKit is, or how they would use it.

HomeKit

Apple introduced HomeKit in 2014 with iOS 8 as a platform to unify smart home device control. The idea is that you can control your lights, thermostat, window shades, garage door, locks, and more from a single interface—and all those devices can work together.

Device makers need to build HomeKit support into their products, which until recently has been a fairly arduous task. Apple relaxed the licensing requirements for hobbyists and tinkerers with iOS 11, and in iOS 11.3 is letting device makers enable HomeKit support through software so they don’t have to use custom chips any more. That should help HomeKit’s growth.

HomeKit also includes Siri support so you can control your smart home devices with your voice. That voice control, at least for now, is limited to iPhone, iPad, and 5th or 6th generation iPod touch models. HomeKit control isn’t available on the Mac even though Siri is part of macOS.

HomeKit Hub

HomeKit and Siri are great when you’re at home, but what about when you leave for work and forget to turn off the lights? HomeKit control from your iOS device is limited to when everything is on the same network. To control your smart home gear remotely, you need a HomeKit hub.

Apple includes HomeKit hub support in the fourth generation and newer Apple TV, and limited support in iPads running iOS 10 or newer. You can control an unlimited number of devices with an Apple TV as your hub, but only three with an iPad. The iPad also needs to be plugged into a power source while it serves as a hub.

Apple added another option to its HomeKit hub options with the introduction of the HomePod. That gives you two choices for streaming entertainment devices that let you remotely control your smart home tech.

HomePod Primer

HomePod is Apple’s wireless smart speaker with an A8 processor, seven tweeters, six far-field microphones, a high excursion woofer, and limited Siri support. The speaker dynamically adjusts its audio based on where it’s placed in a room to improve audio output and to create a stereo-like sound from a single unit.

You can control your HomeKit devices with your voice through HomePod, and like Apple TV, it serves as the remote connection to your smart home devices when you leave your local network. It also lets you use your voice to control smart home devices, no need to raise your iPhone or Apple Watch to talk. That’s a big plus for anyone who wants a completely hands-free voice system for Siri, like we already see with Amazon Echo and Google Home.

As a speaker, HomePod is getting good reviews. Even Dave Hamilton, who knows his audio and is already heavily invested in Sonos, thinks it sounds pretty good.

HomePod vs Apple TV: What if I Have Both?

Let’s say you already have an Apple TV and you add a HomePod. Which acts as your HomeKit hub when you’re out and about? The short answer is: either. The longer answer is your HomeKit hub devices decide on their own which will serve as the hub, and that can change any time based on device status.

HomePod and Apple TV as HomeKit hubs in the Home app on iPhone

My Apple TV and HomePod co-exist as Home hubs nicely

On my network, for example, my Apple TV has served dutifully as my HomeKit hub ever since that was an option. It continued to fill that roll for a couple days, and then my HomePod took over. At some point my Apple TV went into standby mode and when I power cycled my HomePod it took over as the hub. So far it’s been just as reliable as my Apple TV.

You can see which device is serving as your hub by launching the Home app on your iPhone or iPad, then tap the location icon in the upper left corner. Now tap Home Settings and select your network. While you can see all of your hub devices, you can’t select them, or change their status.

At first that annoyed me because I wanted to set which device served as my hub. Later I started wondering why it matters because what I really need to know is that at least one device is doing the job. Also, if I set a specific device as the hub, and it goes offline when I’m away from home, I couldn’t switch to the other because I’ve lost remote HomeKit access.

What does that mean for your HomeKit hub choice? I’d recommend avoiding using an iPad since you pretty much can’t use it for anything else, and you’re limited in how many devices it can control. As far as choosing between Apple TV and HomePod, either is fine—or both. Get what fills your other entertainment needs and let HomeKit choose which it wants to use as a hub. If you want to speak to the air and have your HomeKIt devices do your bidding, HomePod is the way to go.

Samsung’s Wi-Fi oven and touchscreen fridge join the CNET Smart Home

We’ve been dancing around it for months.

There’s the coffeemaker we keep plugged into an iDevices Switch for automated, app-enabled java. There’s the smart frying pan we’ve grown strangely fond of (its knack for dishing out perfectly cooked lunches helps its cause). And don’t even get us started on connected sous vide machines.

Yep, we want a smart kitchen in the CNET Smart Home.

We’ve reviewed many connected countertop devices (along with an actual connected countertop), but that’s not enough for the fully equipped smart kitchen we want to test. What about the appliances that anchor a kitchen — the fridge and the range? Can you really have a smart kitchen without smartening those up, too? And are any of them even worth the high cost of buying in?

The only way to find out is to spend some time living with the things — and wouldn’t you know it, that’s sort of the whole point of the CNET Smart Home.

Sure enough, we’ve got our sights set on a number of smart large appliances from names like GE,Whirlpool, and LG. But first up is Samsung, with the Family Hub Refrigerator and the NE58K9850WG Wi-Fi Range. They’re two of the most recent smart appliances to hit the market, and we were eager to see what they could bring to our connected kitchen.

 

Smart and smart-looking

Samsung’s smart appliances make a good first impression. Both are available in a classy-looking black stainless steel finish, and both take advantage of Samsung’s most popular high-end builds — Four-Door Flex for the refrigerator and the split-cavity, hinged door Flex Duo design for the range. They’re striking and sufficiently futuristic in a way we haven’t seen from many other smart appliances.

Still, our focus is on each appliance’s smart features. With the fridge and its 21.5-inch touchscreen, they’re literally staring you in the face. Play around with it, and you’ll find apps for syncing your family’s calendars, streaming music and Internet radio, or mirroring the feed from Samsung smart TVs. There are even cameras inside the fridge that’ll let you peek inside without opening the door, or check on inventory remotely while you’re out at the store.

The range is more subtle — no oven cams, no interactive control panel. Nothing about it screams “high tech” until you get to the small “Smart Control” button on the touchscreen control panel. Once you enable the Smart Control, the Samsung Smart Home app lets you check to see if your cooktop is on, and you can use it to program oven settings, cook times and temperatures, too. But you’re powerless over the oven if you don’t press the Smart Control button before you leave the house, a safety feature that’s more hassle than helpful.

A tough sell, to say the least

Strong first impressions aside, neither of these appliances is perfect, and neither one delivers the sort of seamless smart kitchen experience that tech-minded foodies have been clamoring for. Though it’s a vast improvement over past Samsung models, the Family Hub Refrigerator’s touchscreen still feels too sluggish. And even though you can monitor the range’s cooktop from the app (a big step in the app-connected range game), you still can’t control it outright, and the app itself tended to get a little wonky if you were inactive for too long. Plus, the fridge and the range don’t interact with each other nearly as much as you might hope for.

There’s also the question of longevity: Will the hardware and software that make these appliances smart last as long as the appliances themselves? It’s one thing to replace an outdated smartphone after a couple of years; you shouldn’t have to upgrade a large appliance that costs thousands of dollars on the same schedule. With the fridge, at least, Samsung has suggested that you’ll be able to update to the smarts of tomorrow by swapping out the touchscreen door for a new one, but that still hardly counts as a simple fix.

All of which brings us to the elephant in the room: the price. Together, the Samsung fridge and range cost more than $9,000. That’s more than competing smart large appliances from Whirlpool and GE, but still, there isn’t anything from any brand that you could count as a bargain. With smart appliances, it’s essentially luxury or nothing — and most of us can’t afford luxury appliances.

 

Less is more

Kitchen appliances play a central role in almost every home, so it feels like it’s only a matter of time before smart versions make their way into the mainstream. Like cities developing along waterways, smart home tech tends to pop up most prominently in places that have a dedicated power supply. That bodes well for the future of connected appliances.

But we aren’t there yet. Full-size smart appliances are prohibitively expensive, and with manufacturers experimenting with different feature sets to win consumers over, there isn’t a clear sense of direction for the category. Just look at the variety of smart fridges on the market right now. Aside from Samsung’s touchscreen-equipped model, you’ve got coffee-making smarts from GE, Nest-integration from Whirlpool, and an automatic door from LG. All of them are essentially concept appliances. And the smart range market includes products that experiment with various means of wireless connectivity such as Bluetooth or NFC (near-field communication), but we haven’t seen a smart range that nails the concept. None of these appliances have made a big enough impact to change the way people outfit their kitchens.

For now, the better smart kitchen approach is to invest in those devices and small appliances we mentioned at the top of this piece. Whether it’s an app-enabled meat thermometer or a smart barcode-scanning grocery manager, there are gadgets that’ll get the job done with your existing dumb appliances at a fraction of the cost of smart ones like the Samsung suite. If nothing else, devices like those are proving the appeal of an affordable connected kitchen — time will tell if large appliances learn to follow suit.

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