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An IFTTT-powered CNET Smart Home? We're testing it out

The free online automation service lets you link devices that don't work together otherwise. Can it be the glue that holds the CNET Smart Home together?

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If this, then that.

That's the idea behind IFTTT, a free online automation service that lets you link devices and web services that don't normally work together. Originally conceived as a web tool, IFTTT's early focus was on automating your online experience, with recipes that automatically saved your Instagram photos to a Dropbox folder, or ones that logged the receipts for your online purchases in a Google Drive spreadsheet.

Now, with the rise of smart home technology, IFTTT has grown into something that's capable of automating things in the real world, too. You'll find dozens of connected home gadgets if you browse through IFTTT's "Channels" (the products and services it can plug into those "if this, then that" recipes) -- and the list is growing. You can craft recipes that'll turn the heat up on your smart thermostat whenever you unlock the smart deadbolt in your front door, or use existing recipes built by other users that perform equally cool automated tasks.

Of course, a lot of smart home gadgetry is designed to work together without need for a service like IFTTT. For instance, you can sync Philips Hue lights and Belkin WeMo Switches up with the Amazon Echo smart speaker for voice activated smart home control, an integration we've already put to good use in the CNET Smart Home. But when devices aren't built to work together -- like Amazon Echo and the Nest Learning Thermostat, for example -- IFTTT can come to the rescue.

With that in mind, we wanted to find out just how useful -- and reliable -- IFTTT actually is. We've already installed a lot of devices in the CNET Smart Home, everything from lights and locks to thermostats and garage door openers, and a lot of it works with IFTTT. Moving forward, we'll be testing out a bounty of IFTTT recipes, then reporting back on how well everything works in full detail. For now, here's a product-by-product look at everything IFTTT can do for us.

ifttt-recipe-creation.jpg
Screenshot by Ry Crist/CNET

IFTTT 101

First, a quick primer on how IFTTT works. There are two parts to every recipe: an Action ("if this") and a Trigger ("then that"). The Trigger is the "cause," the thing that makes an Action happen. The Action is the end result -- the effect. Each product's channel offers various Triggers and/or Actions, giving you options for how they can serve as the recipe's cause or effect.

IFTTT's website and app do a nice job of walking you through the recipe creation process. You'll need to sign up for a free account, then activate the channels that you want to work with, which gives your stuff permission to let IFTTT tell it what to do. From there, you can browse through IFTTT's catalog of user-created recipes to get started, or try your hand at crafting your own.

Most of the gadgets we've already installed in the CNET Smart Home work with IFTTT, and we've already started using the service on an as-needed basis. But now, we'll be taking a deep dive to truly put the service to the test. That means recipes -- lots, and lots of recipes. With that in mind, here's an overview of the gadgets we'll be testing out, and the ways in which we might put IFTTT to use.

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Amazon Echo

Triggers

  • Say a specific phrase
  • Ask what's on your to-do list
  • Item added to your to-do list
  • Item completed on your to-do list
  • Item edited on your to-do list
  • Item deleted on your to-do list
  • Ask what's on your shopping list
  • Item added to your shopping list
  • Item completed on your shopping list
  • Item edited on your shopping list
  • Item deleted on y our shopping list
  • Ask for a sports team's score
  • Ask for a sports team's next game
  • New song played
  • Your alarm goes off
  • Your timer goes off


No Actions available

On IFTTT, the "Alexa"-powered Amazon Echo smart speaker sits purely in the "if this" category. There are a number of ways to use Echo to trigger you IFTTT recipes, but there aren't any Actions that you can trigger Echo to perform automatically. That's a little surprising given that the thing plays music -- at very least, you might expect a way to trigger your slow jam mix to start playing. No such luck.

Most of those triggers are centered around Echo's ability to manage your to-do lists and your shopping lists, and, quite honestly, we've yet to figure out a truly useful way of putting them to work. The really interesting trigger, though, is the "Say a specific phrase" option, which lets you trigger IFTTT recipes with the spoken command of your choice. The only major caveat: that spoken command must start with "trigger," as in, "Alexa -- trigger my party lighting."

In the CNET Smart Home, we'll use these custom commands to tie Amazon Echo to gadgets it won't control otherwise. The most notable example is the Nest Learning Thermostat, which doesn't offer a direct integration with Echo, but there are plenty of others. We're bullish on voice control's role in the future of the smart home, so this is an exciting one.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Belkin WeMo Light Switch

Triggers

  • Switched on
  • Switched off
  • Long press


Actions

  • Turn on
  • Turn off
  • Turn on then off
  • Turn off then on
  • Toggle on/off

Belkin's lineup of WeMo-branded smart home gadgets were among the first to join up with IFTTT. Each type of WeMo device has its own channel, and since we've got four WeMo Light Switches hardwired into the main entryway of the CNET Smart Home, that's what we'll take a look at.

You get a mix of Triggers and Actions to choose from in the WeMo Light Switch channel. Turning the light off or on can trigger something else to happen, too -- or, you can program something else to toggle the switch automatically, a useful way to sync your lights up with things like motion detectors or open/closed sensors.

The channel also offers an interesting "Long press" trigger. Basically, it turns your light switch into an IFTTT button -- press and hold for two seconds to trigger anything you like. With four switches, that's four instant triggers we can build and test out.

Megan Wollerton/CNET

Nest Learning Thermostat

Triggers

  • Nest set to Home
  • Nest set to Away
  • Temperature rises above
  • Temperature drops below


Actions

  • Set temperature
  • Set temperature range
  • Turn on fan for 15 minutes

If you're like me, and you regularly forget to turn your cheap, non-programmable thermostat down before leaving for work, then you understand the appeal of a smart thermostat (or, at very least, a programmable one). Nest's IFTTT channel doubles down on that appeal, letting you connect your thermostat with anything else on IFTTT. That lets you use those devices to automatically trigger your thermostat to a specific temperature or temperature range. We've already talked about using Amazon Echo as the trigger in that scenario, but there are plenty of other options, too.

Another interesting Action offered by Nest's channel is the option to have your HVAC system's fans triggered on for fifteen minutes. That could come in handy the next time you burn your dinner and need to clear smoke out of your home. If you've got a WeMo Light Switch in your kitchen, that aforementioned long press trigger might be a good way to do it.

You can also use Nest to trigger other automations throughout your home, too. The useful thing about this is that Nest tracks your home's temperature, meaning that you can craft temperature-specific automations. For instance, maybe your air conditioning kicks on at 76, but you want a fan to turn on first, at 74. IFTTT can make it happen.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Nest Protect Smoke Detector

Triggers

  • Smoke alarm emergency
  • Smoke alarm warning
  • Carbon monoxide emergency
  • Carbon monoxide warning
  • Battery is low


No Actions available

Nest's thermostat isn't its only IFTTT-compatible gadget -- the Nest Protect Smoke Detector has a channel, too. It's a pick that makes sense if you're looking to add some automated safety features to your home. Automating your lights to turn on and your doors to unlock when the smoke detector goes off could help you escape your home faster during a fire, for instance.

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Philips Hue

No Triggers available

Actions

  • Turn on lights
  • Turn off lights
  • Toggle lights on/off
  • Blink lights
  • Dim lights
  • Change color
  • Change to random color
  • Turn on color loop

Philips Hue's line of smart bulbs are another option that have been on IFTTT almost since the beginning. You can't use them to trigger recipes, but they can be triggered in a number of ways, including color changes if you're using the RGB versions of the bulbs.

Those color changes can serve as ambient in-home notifications for things like emails, phone calls, and calendar events. They can also help you liven up a party by triggering color changes and color loops with things like motion detectors. You could also trigger lighting changes any time a new song starts playing on Amazon Echo.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Chamberlain MyQ Garage

No IFTTT channel

We smartened up the CNET Smart Home garage with Chamberlain's MyQ connected garage door opener -- which does not have a channel on IFTTT. I only mention it because another smart garage option, Garageio, does. The triggers and actions are very simple, letting you trigger recipes whenever you open or close the door, or letting you program something else to trigger the door to open or close automatically. If you're planning on using IFTTT a lot in your smart home setup, it's something you'll want to think about when you're picking between the two.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

SmartThings

Triggers

  • Switched on
  • Switched off
  • Opened
  • Closed
  • Locked
  • Unlocked
  • Any new motion
  • Presence detected
  • Presence no longer detected
  • Temperature rises above
  • Temperature drops below
  • Humidity rises above
  • Humidity drops below
  • Moisture detected
  • Brightness rises above
  • Brightness drops below


Actions

  • Switch on
  • Switch off
  • Lock
  • Unlock
  • Activate siren/strobe
  • Deactivate siren/strobe

The final piece of IFTTT-compatible gear in the CNET Smart Home is our SmartThings Hub. It's one of the more well-developed channels on IFTTT, with a number of useful Triggers and Actions that allow you to automate things within your SmartThings system using devices that work outside of that setup.

It's one of the reasons why I think SmartThings is a smart pick for home automation: you can use it to automate gadgets on IFTTT that don't have channels of their own. This includes generic smart bulbs like the GE Link and Cree Connected LEDs as well as things like smart locks. If it works with SmartThings, it works with IFTTT. We'll plan on putting all of it to the test.

Stay tuned...

We'll have a complete rundown of how reliably everything works next month, so stay tuned for that. In the meantime, let us know how you use IFTTT, and if there are any other recipes or IFTTT-compatible products you'd like us to include in our tests.

Click here to read part two, detailing our experiences testing IFTTT in the CNET Smart Home.