Accept your fate: You can't escape the smart home

Analysis: The long-predicted connected home of the future finally felt ubiquitous at CES 2017. The good news? You may actually love it.

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
6 min read

Yes, Alexa is everywhere. You have only to look at our CES 2017 Smart Home Scoreboard to see how Amazon has married its virtual assistant to cars, refrigerators, televisions and robots.

Alexa's momentum isn't surprising given the amount of hype over the last year. For Alexa's competition, Google Assistant is still new as a smart home assistant, and Apple is sticking to its slow-burn approach to growing Siri and its iOS HomeKit platform. That's why our Scoreboard has a loose quality breakdown. I didn't want to simply hand Amazon a prize for supporting yet another smart plug.


Alexa takes form at CES 2017.

Chris Monroe/CNET

Hopefully also evident from the Scoreboard (or, perhaps, "smart home potential meter") is the breadth of categories in which you will now find these voice assistants. That expansion will help transform the experience from its current Internet of Things grab bag -- the junk drawer full of connected motion sensors, thermostats and light switches -- to a more pervasive experience that will follow us wherever we go (for better or worse).

Done right, and our lives become easier and safer, with more time for the things we truly care about. Implemented carelessly, this new connected world will threaten our notions of privacy and personal safety. The reality will ultimately land somewhere in the middle.

That outcome will be shaped by what we saw in Las Vegas this past week. Here are the highlights.

Watch this: Ford is first to bring Alexa into the passenger seat


This is the category I was most interested to see at this year's show. and Toyota both hinted at bringing Alexa to their respective in-car experiences at 2016's CES , and this year Ford delivered.

I sat with my colleagues Wayne Cunningham and Ben Fox Rubin inside a Ford C-Max while a company representative demonstrated using Amazon's increasingly ubiquitous voice-command assistant, but the experience was underwhelming. The car was parked inside the Las Vegas Convention Center. The software is still in beta so not every command worked well. Ford had no smart home stuff for Alexa to control.

Hyundai and Chrysler had Google Home and Google Assistant integrations of their own here at the show, too. Chrysler's was just a concept. Hyundai lets you ask Google Home to start your car, flash the lights, or provide directions to your house, and then send the route to your in-car navigation system. Handy, but not the same as dictating commands to your home from the inside of your car.

But regardless of this somewhat halting start on the ground in Vegas, that's exactly what's happening: Tell your home to crank up the air conditioner, start the coffee brewing and raise the garage door -- all from the comfort of the driver's or passenger seat. It will eliminate driving a car as a weak point in the chain of control over your home -- but it'll also add another set of in-car distractions.

Watch this: Nvidia Shield gets Amazon video, improved gaming and Google Assistant

Home entertainment

Centralizing voice and smart home around the TV is utterly obvious, and yet somehow no one has combined all of the pieces into a single, unified product. Shame on Samsung in particular, who is best positioned to do this given its Alexa-supporting SmartThings division, and yet somehow has not.

Nvidia's new Shield TV streamer doesn't have a screen, but it might be the best solution when it ships on January 16. It brings gaming, video streaming, SmartThings compatibility (via extra $30 dongle -- converted to £24 or AU$41), and always-listening voice help from a remote that works with Google Assistant. No other streaming device, not even Apple TV, offers that same combination of smart home control with an always-listening voice assistant to control your home entertainment.

A trio of budget TV brands -- Element, Seiki and Westinghouse -- also made some voice control progress. Their new televisions have Amazon's Fire TV service built-in, and they included the same voice remote that lets you use Alexa to turn on the TV, change inputs, change channels, and navigate among the usual assortment of streaming services. Logitech's Harmony remotes and the Amazon Fire TV also bring Alexa to your TV, but built-in methods are usually easier and cheaper.

It will take deeper integration between products to truly marry your smart home and your television. My near-term holy grail (besides verbally flipping channels) remains a video doorbell feed transmitted automatically to your TV with two-way audio support when someone comes to your front door. Maybe next year.

Also: Don't sleep on the cable companies and other service providers who have entered the smart home field. Comcast in particular is taking this market very seriously.

Watch this: LG's see-through smart fridge takes the CES stage

Kitchen and appliances

Samsung promised it would add Alexa to the touchscreen-equipped Family Hub refrigerator at CES last year. This year LG beat Samsung to the punch.

On the whole, LG's Smart Instaview fridge feels like a copycat product to Samsung's Family Hub, from the touchscreen and its various home organization and shopping apps to the cameras inside that let you view the contents remotely. LG's Instaview gimmick is unique -- knock on the screen and it goes translucent, letting you look inside that way, too.

Incorporating Alexa into a multi-thousand dollar refrigerator doesn't seem to get you anything different than plunking down a $50 Echo Dot. Still, I wonder if putting Alexa in a fridge won't make Amazon's shopping services (including Amazon Fresh groceries) feel a little more immediate when you're staring into it wondering what to make for dinner.

As for Samsung, Alexa has fallen out of favor as a voice assistant. Alexa never came to Family Hub 1.0. The 2.0 version, announced this week, will come with unspecified "advanced voice technology." Is it Samsung's old S-Talk Android voice recognition? Is this what Samsung has in mind for its new voice acquisition, Viv? Samsung gave no specifics during its presentation nor would its US appliance division exec, John Herrington, comment when I asked him directly.

For the rest of the appliance landscape, small appliance maker Gourmia brought Alexa to an entire suite of countertop gadgets . Whirlpool and GE rolled out Alexa integrations across their large appliances, with special Alexa-specific commands like preheating the oven, or asking how much time is left on a dishwasher cycle. Not as flashy as a touchscreen on a fridge, but certainly more practical.

Watch this: Hands on with Kuri -- an adorable wandering security cam

Home assistants

The list of either static or mobile home companion devices was surprisingly robust this year. Two stand out.

Among the flood of baby and parenting-focused tech, Mattel's Aristotle is one of the most ambitious thanks to its split personality. Yes, it's another smart speaker with Alexa built into it. But prompt it with "Hey, Aristotle" instead, and you or your kids engage its alter-ego.

Among Aristotle's tricks, it can sing a baby back to sleep, read from a list of books, play games. It even has a manners option that requires your kids to say "please" before it will acknowledge a request. If that's not enough, it also comes with a camera for keeping an eye on your kid's room, a bracelet option to help track if your child has completed his or her chores, and of course, the ability to trigger sound effects with compatible Mattel toys. Real-world parents, presumably, are sitting in the next room with their feet up while Aristotle doles out the life lessons.

Kuri, from Mayfield Robotics, looks like a refugee from Pixar's "WALL-E." It seems to have its own voice control tech (other robots use Alexa). But most importantly, it's got a ton of charm.

Cute-eyed Kuri will toddle along on the floor, patrolling the halls with its camera. It an play music and podcasts, tell you the weather, and even, supposedly, recognize faces. I'm skeptical of the market for free roaming bots that aren't vacuums. The utility doesn't seem to be there yet to sway city dwellers to let a floor drone mess up the already cramped flow of a 1,000 square foot apartment. But years ago, Sony's Aibo showed that consumers can fall in love with a robot. For those with the square footage to spare, Kuri looks to have that kind of appeal.

Check out all the smart home products at CES 2017 (so far)

See all photos

Apple's long smart home shadow

Alongside these larger trends, the more traditional smart home hardware -- lights, switches, locks -- were present here too. If you didn't hear much from Apple and its HomeKit smart home service at the show, it's because most of its news centered on these kinds of products, which aren't as flashy as cars and fridges and robots.

Apple expanded its reach this year, as usual, via its partners, who introduced cameras, security systems, and, finally, a Chamberlain garage door opener to its platform. That's all new stuff that will make HomeKit even more capable. The big question for Apple remains whether it will bring out its own Echo or Google Home competitor to add a truly seamless voice companion to the home environment. Until that happens, or until Apple introduces a better alternative, I suspect HomeKit won't benefit as much from the present hype surrounding voice control at home.

That may not matter in the long run. It's still morning in the smart home. But it won't be forever.