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Smart outside the box: Six creative uses for connected gadgets

Want to unlock your smart home's hidden potential? Here are a few ideas to help you get started.

SmartThings Know and Control Your Home kit
Colin West McDonald/CNET

We've seen a few major smart-home categories emerge over the past year, making it increasingly easy to classify different devices by their functionality. You've got smart lights, smart locks, smart cameras, smart security systems, and more -- but you don't need to be bound by taxonomy. If you're willing to get creative (and experiment a little bit), you might just discover some sneaky ways of putting these connected gizmos to creative use. Here are a few of our favorites:

Dropcam Tabs

We've all heard plenty of news about Dropcam over the last few months, but you might not have heard about Dropcam Tabs, a new motion-sensing accessory for the popular camera that's due out later this summer. With the indoor/outdoor tabs, you'll be able to set motion-activated recordings or automatically identify the specific people in your feed, but a more subtle use might be to stick one of the weather-resistant tabs onto the inside of your mailbox for easy alerts whenever the mail arrives.

Read our preview of Dropcam Tabs.

iGrill Mini

Sure, the name makes it seem as if this Bluetooth-enabled meat thermometer is only capable of smartening up your next backyard barbecue -- but what if you bring the thing inside? At just $40, we think there's huge value in finding a permanent spot for this magnetic gadget on the side of your oven, then enjoying those connected cooking smarts meal after meal.

Read our review of iGrill Mini.


Like all of the color-changing smart LEDs we've come across, Lifx has obvious novelty appeal. Pull up the bulb's smartphone app, and you'll be able to tune your bulb to any color of the rainbow at the exact brightness you desire. Good for parties and not much else, right?

Not so fast -- Nest users will now be able to sync Lifx bulbs with their thermostat, setting the things to change colors whenever severe weather alerts hit their area. Owners of the Philips Hue LED kit can set up similar alerts through IFTTT. That's the kind of functionality that could actually save lives.

Read our review of Lifx.


Piper is the little security gadget that could, providing an all-in-one approach to do-it-yourself smart-home monitoring. Its built in environmental sensors and full-HD camera will do a great job keeping tabs on your living room -- but move Piper into the nursery, and you've just set up the mother of all baby monitors.

Read our review of Piper.


We were happy with what the PlantLink system of moisture sensors had to offer our CNET smart garden, but then a user asked us if the sensors could be used to monitor a problematic septic tank. We asked the PlantLink team at Oso Technologies if that kind of creative application made sense -- here's what they told us: "We haven't designed PlantLink for use with things other than plants, but in theory you could create a plant notification, set custom moisture values, and get alerts for when those numbers change. We'll have to leave it up to some of our more enterprising users to try those applications for now..." Sounds like a green light to us.

Read our review of PlantLink.

Colin West McDonald/CNET


An open system like SmartThings that promises wide compatibility with a growing number of third-party devices is just begging for a little creativity. There are plenty of fun ways to put this system to good use, but one of our favorites is to set its motion sensors to work watching your pets. With the right placement, you'll be able to catch your pooch jumping up on the furniture while you're away from home. Sync a Sonos music system up with with your setup, and you could even program a prerecorded "No! Get down!" to boom out from your living room speakers.

Conversely, you could record your dog next time she's barking at the mailman, then program that recording to play in the middle of the night if someone ever tries to break in.

Read our review of SmartThings.