We've been dancing around it for months.
There's the coffeemaker we keep plugged into an iDevices Switch for automated, app-enabled java. There's the smart frying pan we've grown strangely fond of (its knack for dishing out perfectly cooked lunches helps its cause). And don't even get us started on connected sous vide machines.
Yep, we want a smart kitchen in the CNET Smart Home.
We've reviewed many connected countertop devices (along with an actual connected countertop), but that's not enough for the fully equipped smart kitchen we want to test. What about the appliances that anchor a kitchen -- the fridge and the range? Can you really have a smart kitchen without smartening those up, too? And are any of them even worth the high cost of buying in?
The only way to find out is to spend some time living with the things -- and wouldn't you know it, that's sort of the whole point of the CNET Smart Home.
Sure enough, we've got our sights set on a number of smart large appliances from names like GE, Whirlpool, and LG. But first up is Samsung, with the Family Hub Refrigerator and the NE58K9850WG Wi-Fi Range. They're two of the most recent smart appliances to hit the market, and we were eager to see what they could bring to our connected kitchen.
Smart and smart-looking
Samsung's smart appliances make a good first impression. Both are available in a classy-looking black stainless steel finish, and both take advantage of Samsung's most popular high-end builds -- Four-Door Flex for the refrigerator and the split-cavity, hinged door Flex Duo design for the range. They're striking and sufficiently futuristic in a way we haven't seen from many other smart appliances.
Still, our focus is on each appliance's smart features. With the fridge and its 21.5-inch touchscreen, they're literally staring you in the face. Play around with it, and you'll find apps for syncing your family's calendars, streaming music and Internet radio, or mirroring the feed from Samsung smart TVs. There are even cameras inside the fridge that'll let you peek inside without opening the door, or check on inventory remotely while you're out at the store.
The range is more subtle -- no oven cams, no interactive control panel. Nothing about it screams "high tech" until you get to the small "Smart Control" button on the touchscreen control panel. Once you enable the Smart Control, the Samsung Smart Home app lets you check to see if your cooktop is on, and you can use it to program oven settings, cook times and temperatures, too. But you're powerless over the oven if you don't press the Smart Control button before you leave the house, a safety feature that's more hassle than helpful.
A tough sell, to say the least
Strong first impressions aside, neither of these appliances is perfect, and neither one delivers the sort of seamless smart kitchen experience that tech-minded foodies have been clamoring for. Though it's a vast improvement over past Samsung models, the Family Hub Refrigerator's touchscreen still feels too sluggish. And even though you can monitor the range's cooktop from the app (a big step in the app-connected range game), you still can't control it outright, and the app itself tended to get a little wonky if you were inactive for too long. Plus, the fridge and the range don't interact with each other nearly as much as you might hope for.
There's also the question of longevity: Will the hardware and software that make these appliances smart last as long as the appliances themselves? It's one thing to replace an outdated smartphone after a couple of years; you shouldn't have to upgrade a large appliance that costs thousands of dollars on the same schedule. With the fridge, at least, Samsung has suggested that you'll be able to update to the smarts of tomorrow by swapping out the touchscreen door for a new one, but that still hardly counts as a simple fix.
All of which brings us to the elephant in the room: the price. Together, the Samsung fridge and range cost more than $9,000. That's more than competing smart large appliances from Whirlpool and GE, but still, there isn't anything from any brand that you could count as a bargain. With smart appliances, it's essentially luxury or nothing -- and most of us can't afford luxury appliances.
Less is more
Kitchen appliances play a central role in almost every home, so it feels like it's only a matter of time before smart versions make their way into the mainstream. Like cities developing along waterways, smart home tech tends to pop up most prominently in places that have a dedicated power supply. That bodes well for the future of connected appliances.
But we aren't there yet. Full-size smart appliances are prohibitively expensive, and with manufacturers experimenting with different feature sets to win consumers over, there isn't a clear sense of direction for the category. Just look at the variety of smart fridges on the market right now. Aside from Samsung's touchscreen-equipped model, you've got coffee-making smarts from GE, Nest-integration from Whirlpool, and an automatic door from LG. All of them are essentially concept appliances. And the smart range market includes products that experiment with various means of wireless connectivity such as Bluetooth or NFC (near-field communication), but we haven't seen a smart range that nails the concept. None of these appliances have made a big enough impact to change the way people outfit their kitchens.
For now, the better smart kitchen approach is to invest in those devices and small appliances we mentioned at the top of this piece. Whether it's an app-enabled meat thermometer or a smart barcode-scanning grocery manager, there are gadgets that'll get the job done with your existing dumb appliances at a fraction of the cost of smart ones like the Samsung suite. If nothing else, devices like those are proving the appeal of an affordable connected kitchen -- time will tell if large appliances learn to follow suit.