SmartThings surges toward connected-home supremacy

With a newly revamped app and a fresh batch of partnerships, there's little doubt that the increasingly popular home-automation system is the smart-home foundation front-runner.

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Colin West McDonald/CNET

The appeal -- and potential -- of the SmartThings connected-home platform was obvious when I reviewed one of the SmartThings starter kits in December 2013. Now, in 2014, that potential is starting to get realized in a big way, as the increasingly popular open platform is surging forward with a revamped app, a slew of new product integrations, and an eye toward more accessible home automation.

That accessibility starts right with the SmartThings app, currently available for Android and iOS devices. Despite offering a wealth of options for how to automate your home (and a slick-looking interface, too), the app's current form suffers a bit from a confusing layout and disorganized, seemingly redundant settings. The new version, available to iOS users the night of May 21 and Android users by early June, is intended to clear that confusion up with subtle design tweaks, and adds more features.

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The SmartThings Dashboard before and after the latest app update. Screenshots by Ry Crist/CNET

Chief among these new features is a "SmartSetup" menu, which you can access by pressing a conveniently located plus-sign button at the bottom of the dashboard. Within the new SmartSetup menu is a comprehensive and well-organized breakdown of SmartThings-compatible smart devices across all categories. Simply select the device you want to add, and the app will walk you through the process.

Another new option: tell the app to connect a new device, and the system's hub will do the work for you by scanning for whatever it is you're trying to add. That's handy if you're unsure of the specific make of your smart device, as many smart-home products come in multiple variations.

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The new SmartSetup feature is designed to make adding new devices to your system even easier. Screenshots by Ry Crist/CNET

The SmartSetup menu also works as a sort of catalog for SmartThings-compatible devices (SmartThings claims that its ecosystem now supports over 100 of them). In addition to offering instructions for adding a given device, the app will also offer the option to buy it. This might render the still-clunky "Shop" section of the app redundant, but it's still a nice feature for those who want a convenient place from which to window-shop for SmartThings-compatible devices.

This includes third-party devices integrated via SmartThings Labs, like the Quirky+GE Pivot Power Genius, the Dropcam Pro, and the Connected by TCP LED Lighting Kit. Along with those recent additions, the launch of the app plans to showcase the new integration of the Up24 wristband fitness tracker by Jawbone, as well as new partnerships with Centralite, Leviton, Cross Country Home Services, and Life360, the family-tracking app that recently partnered with security giant ADT.

Whatever device you're looking for, you'll find it within the SmartSetup menu, whereas before third-party devices were housed in a separate SmartLabs section that the app needed to link out to. As more and more people start using the SmartThings platform -- and shopping for SmartThings-compatible devices -- I'm guessing that this is a change that the makers of those third-party devices will appreciate.

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Third-party integrations from SmartThings Labs, like Connected by TCP LEDs, are now worked directly into the SmartThings app, along with full functionality. Screenshots by Ry Crist/CNET

Beneath all of these device integrations is the SmartThings Platform, where an open network of over 5,000 developers and others can formally submit system hacks and innovations for SmartThings' approval. SmartThings touts it as a singular space where customers can go to create, discover, or connect just about any smart-home setup they can think of, and goes as far as to call it "analogous to the first App Store." Though currently only available in the US and Canada, SmartThings expects to ship internationally in the coming months, which should expand its developer base even further.

With such an expansive, open ecosystem, SmartThings is wise not to ignore security concerns, telling us that all developer-created system innovations, or "SmartApps," are thoroughly vetted for compliance with system security best practices. Developer applications have access only to the devices specifically authorized by the consumer, and no application ever gets access to a consumer's personal information.

SmartThings does caution that warranty issues and security concerns with third-party devices ultimately rest with the makers of those devices, and not with SmartThings (though the company adds that its support team will engage with consumers for all issues that might come up). If a security issue comes to light with a third-party device, the way one did with Belkin WeMo Switches in February, SmartThings will notify all customers using that device. In a more extreme case, SmartThings could remove the item in question from the SmartThings catalog, or even force-disconnect the device from its platform.

Furthermore, SmartThings tells us that the company will soon be implementing a "multitiered certification program" for Labs integrations that should help clarify the company's specific level of involvement (or lack thereof) in any given SmartApp. These yet-unnamed certifications don't show up in the app or on the SmartThings website just yet, but we'll be keeping an eye out for them.

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Colin West McDonald/CNET

With such a rapidly growing number of partnerships and product integrations, along with an increasingly energized developer base and a revamped app that moves the needle toward greater accessibility, the pieces all look to be falling into place for SmartThings to make a big move closer to the mainstream in the second half of 2014. Time will tell whether or not it's the "one system to rule them all" that we've been waiting for, but as of now, it looks to be the clear front-runner.

About the author

Originally hailing from Troy, Ohio, Ry Crist is a text-based adventure connoisseur, a lover of terrible movies, and an enthusiastic yet mediocre cook. He has a strong appreciation for nifty, well-designed tech that saves time, looks stylish, and/or helps him avoid burning his dinner quite so often. Ry lives in Louisville, KY.

 

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