What we loved and hated about the 2013 smart home

Four months after the launch of CNET Appliance Reviews, here's the best and worst of what we saw this year.

Megan Wollerton Former Senior Writer/Editor
5 min read
The CNET Appliance team. Colin West McDonald/CNET

The CNET Appliances team has tested a whole bunch of stuff for you this year, from the surprisingly capable SimpliSafe home security system to the extremely disappointing Infinuvo CleanMate QQ5 robot vacuum. Hopefully our reviews have come in handy. And while we're excited about CES 2014, we're also feeling a bit nostalgic about the products we reviewed in 2013. So, here's a brief look back at the year in home appliances -- what worked, what didn't, and everything in between.

SimpliSafe was one of just two home appliances to receive an Editor's Choice award this year. Colin West McDonald/CNET

"Smart" large appliances

Several manufacturers introduced new ways to incorporate "smart features" into large appliances in 2013 (the main large appliance categories include cooking, refrigeration, washers, dryers, and dishwashers). Now, "smart" is a broad, ambiguous term, but generally, we expect that to mean some form of connectivity (Wi-Fi, Bluetooth) with an app and the ability to manage, monitor, or control something remotely and/or some sort of integrated tech like a touch screen.
Colin West McDonald / CNET

It calls to mind the LG Smart ThinQ line, which includes a connected range (model LRE3027ST), refrigerator (model LFX31995ST), washer (model WT6001HV), and a gas or electric dryer with corresponding apps. There's also the GE Profile Built-In Double Convection Wall Oven (model PT9550SFSS), which comes with the GE Brillion app, and the Samsung refrigerator (model RF4289HARS) with a touch screen and all sorts of fancy capabilities -- you can access Pandora and Twitter on it, and there's even a grocery manager.

Our take: The primary question we ask about the supposedly smart features in an appliance is "Will this feature help you get your chores done faster?" If not, you probably won't care about them. I'm not saying we don't find built-in 8-inch touch screens on refrigerators intriguing (a la the Samsung fridge), but they don't really impress us in practice.

The GE Profile Built-In Double Convection Wall Oven (PT9550SFSS) with LED status bar. Colin West McDonald / CNET

I really think GE's double oven does "smart" features right. It comes with a well-designed app and a built-in LED status bar that gives you a clear visual indicator that displays how much more preheating time, cooking time, and so forth, you have left. That's helpful. The ability to read Twitter from my fridge? Not so much.

The smart home (small appliances)

We've seen a lot of fantastic products come from the smart home category this year -- particularly in the areas of home automation, home security (systems and locks), gardening, and lighting. Many of them were innovation-focused crowdfunding success stories or start-ups, while others came from established companies. The latter in particular suggests that this whole "smart home/Internet of Things" thing isn't just a trend.

My favorite example of this is the Nest vs. Honeywell thermostat war. Nest introduced a "learning thermostat" that uses algorithms to study your usage patterns and help you save energy and money. Not long after, Honeywell introduced something very similar to the market.

Honeywell realized that Nest, a small company started by two former Apple employees, was on to something and had to play catch-up. If that isn't the Internet of Things showing its influence over a larger market, I'm not sure what is. And it isn't just happening in thermostats.

Our take: Smaller appliances in general are a fantastic place for experimentation. Where a fridge decked out in all sorts of "smart" tech can feel alienating to someone who just wants to store food, a small gadget that lets you control a basic, practical function around your house has pretty obvious appeal. Consider the light bulb. Incandescents are on their way out and LEDs (with better efficiency and all sorts of interesting features) are flooding the market.

Colin West McDonald/CNET

But all of this "smart" tech still has to work. Take the $219 Kwikset Kevo lock. We liked the core technology, but the SmartKey deadbolt just didn't offer enough security for the price. The Quirky Egg Minder is another good example. We were so excited to test this thing because who hasn't (probably prematurely) disposed of eggs due to lack of certainty? Sadly, the app just didn't deliver. We had similar complaints with the Quirky Spotter Multi-Purpose Sensor.

Colin West McDonald/CNET

There's good news on this front, though. We really wanted these devices to work well because we could see their potential. We just expect them to be fully functional before they are sent out into the world. Same goes for you, Honeywell, re: the Wi-Fi Smart Thermostat with Voice Control.

Colin West McDonald/CNET

The "dumb" home (small appliances)

In addition to all the "connected" stuff we reviewed, we also tested toaster ovens, microwaves, blenders, vacuums, and coffee makers in 2013. I feel a bit guilty calling these appliances dumb because we really loved some of them. But, you have to differentiate them from the rest because none of them have advanced functionality; they are just good (for the most part), old fashioned home appliances.

Our take: You don't have to spend $600 on a Dyson to get a great vacuum cleaner. You can find something in the $200 range, like the Shark Rotator Pro Lift-Away and enjoy more features and similar performance. We also thought iRobot's Roomba 880 was a revelation; it comes with "brushless" technology that cleans better than any previous Roomba vac (and much better than many of the other robot vacs we tested -- especially the shockingly bad Infinuvo CleanMate QQ5).

Sorry, Infinuvo. Colin West McDonald / CNET

We also discovered that you can make almond butter in the $200 Breville Hemisphere Control Blender almost as easily as you can in the $529 Vitamix 7500. And we were surprised to learn that you shouldn't ever try to cook a hamburger in a toaster oven, but that you can get a significantly more edible hamburger if you just pop it in the microwave for 3 minutes. Who knew?

We did it for science

We had a lot of fun testing all of this stuff for you in 2013, and we can't wait to see what will show up at the office next year. So stay tuned. We'll be kicking off 2014 with tons of tasty CES appliance coverage (hopefully literally).