Touchscreen refrigerators and talking everything at CES 2016

Large appliances and the smart home grabbed plenty of headlines at CES 2016. Here's everything that mattered this year.

Rich Brown Former Senior Editorial Director - Home and Wellness
Rich was the editorial lead for CNET's Home and Wellness sections, based in Louisville, Kentucky. Before moving to Louisville in 2013, Rich ran CNET's desktop computer review section for 10 years in New York City. He has worked as a tech journalist since 1994, covering everything from 3D printing to Z-Wave smart locks.
Expertise Smart home, Windows PCs, cooking (sometimes), woodworking tools (getting there...)
Rich Brown
4 min read

"Samsung swings for the fences with its new smart refrigerator," blares the headline to our story covering the most attention-getting connected home product to emerge from CES 2016. The Samsung Family Hub fridge has a giant touchscreen built into one of its doors, complete with an app you can use to order groceries online. A line of cameras on the inside will send a picture to your phone when you're out shopping. An app on the fridge for Samsung's SmartThings smart home service will let you control your lights, your thermostat, and other connected products right from your refrigerator door.

It will also cost $5,000. You won't be the first to roll your eyes at either the price or the feature set.

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The Samsung Family Hub Refrigerator includes a 21.5-inch, Internet-connected touchscreen.

Sarah Tew/CNET

One trend in smart home products and large appliances at this year's show will sound familiar to anyone who follows this space. Manufacturers still don't know what features consumers really value in connected home products. A great way to get that information is to bring new products out to see what sticks.

I don't think even Samsung believes its new Family Hub Refrigerator will become a mainstream hit, but what they learn from the tech-curious consumers willing to splurge on the Family Hub will give the company a better chance for success with the next generation fridge.

It's a risk for all parties. Just one for consumers is the ownership cycle. Refrigerators can last for 10 years or more, but the smart home market is moving so quickly now, with so many new players coming in, what feels like an innovative fridge now could become obsolete in just a few years. Samsung acknowledged that concern in an interview with my colleague Shara Tibken. They have some ideas (a door replacement program?), but no solution yet.

The smart-home products of CES 2016 (pictures)

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The payoff to Samsung though could extend across multiple product groups, from large appliances to displays. That only comes to fruition if mainstream consumers, not just those early adopters, see some real benefits from these smart appliances.

Whirlpool's new French Door Smart refrigerator seems to offer some more obvious appeal. The price is still in the upper reaches, $3,200, and you won't find a touchscreen on it. Instead it has a standard phone app that connects to the fridge via WiFi that can alert you to a power outage or let you know when the water filter needs changing.

It has some other smart home hooks thanks to Whirlpool's now two-year old partnership with Nest. The new fridge will tie into Nest's Rush Hour rewards program that can regulate energy-sucking defrost cycles to run during off-peak energy consumption hours. All of that feels understandable to consumers.

You might also have seen news about the LG Signature refrigerator. A less broad set of smart features than Samsung's fridge, instead LG has innovated around your physical interactions with the appliance. Knock on the glass door and a set of interior LEDs will come on, giving you a view inside without having to open the door. Walk up to the LG fridge with your hands full and you can swipe your foot under a sensor near the floor to open the door.

Appliances large, small, and smart at CES 2016 (pictures)

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No price on this model yet. Considering the LG Signature line sits above its Studio appliance family, it will likely be high. The top-end Studio fridge costs $4,000.

Another trend prevalent at the show is voice interaction, specifically with Alexa, the virtual assistant built into Amazon's Echo Bluetooth speaker. We counted a total of 11 new products promising Alexa support, including Samsung and Ford who have said that they're exploring the possibility of adding it to the Family Hub fridge and cars with its SyncConnect and AppLink services.

Also intriguing is that ADT announced a month-to-month security monitoring service called Canopy to device partners Samsung, LG, Nest, Honeywell, August, and others. If your Nest Protect smoke detector goes off while you're away, for example, ADT will not only give you a call, the service can also call the fire department to go over to your house. Security has proven one of the most popular smart home sub-categories. As the traditional contract model loses ground to DIY alternatives, old guard companies will need to make more and more of these kinds of adjustments.

Alexa learned a bunch of new tricks at CES 2016

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Otherwise the smart home stayed the course at the show this year. iDevices has a few more doodads designed to work with Apple's HomeKit smart home platform. Big Ass Fans expanded its Haiku smart home line adding a more affordable ceiling fan, a wall control unit for the fan, and a recessed ceiling light. FirstAlert has a new baby monitoring camera with a sensor that can supposedly track your child's breathing patterns. August says its new HomeKit-connected smart lock and doorbell camera are almost ready to ship. LG has a new hub.

None of the above is a revolution, but it's clear every player in this space sees is pushing ahead, despite a report just ahead of the show from consulting firm Accenture painting a picture [PDF] of consumer wariness towards the smart home.

It's possible, just maybe, that the smart home is starting to come together in a way that will make it easier for consumers to get all this stuff working together. SmartThings, Nest, and Amazon's Alexa voice interface seem to be showing up in more and more places. LG's even told us it wants its devices to talk to Samsung's.

It looks like 2016 will give us no shortage of new things. We look forward to putting all of this to the test in the CNET Smart Home and in our large appliance lab.