The ins and outs of IFTTT in the CNET Smart Home (part 2)

The free online service promises to help link up smart devices that don't work together otherwise. After our first few weeks of dedicated tests in the CNET Smart Home, here's what we've learned.

Ry Crist Senior Editor / Reviews - Labs
Originally hailing from Troy, Ohio, Ry Crist is a writer, a text-based adventure connoisseur, a lover of terrible movies and an enthusiastic yet mediocre cook. A CNET editor since 2013, Ry's beats include smart home tech, lighting, appliances, broadband and home networking.
Expertise Smart home technology | Wireless connectivity Credentials
  • 10 years product testing experience with the CNET Home team
Ry Crist
7 min read
Watch this: Introducing IFTTT to the CNET Smart Home

Read part 1 of how we approached using IFTTT in the CNET Smart Home.

The CNET Smart Home is a 58,000-square-foot property filled with all sorts of connected gadgetry. The problem? Not all of those gadgets are compatible with one another.

In December, we started taking a closer look at how the free online service IFTTT might be able to help cover those compatibility gaps. Its name an acronym for "if this, then that," IFTTT lets you craft automation recipes by plugging social-networking services, Web tools and smart home gadgets into its eponymous cause-and-effect formula. You pick the "if this" and the "then that," and IFTTT does the rest. That comes in handy with gadgets like the Amazon Echo and the Nest Learning Thermostat that don't work together without help. Both are compatible with IFTTT.

For weeks, we've been putting IFTTT to the test. Along with the Echo and Nest, we've used IFTTT to control our Belkin WeMo Switches, our Philips Hue lighting, our SmartThings gadgetry and our Lifx color-changing LEDs. The goal: determine if IFTTT is useful and reliable enough to serve as the glue that holds your smart home together. Here's what we've learned:

Connect with these 35 IFTTT-friendly smart devices (pictures)

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Creative connectivity

Head over to IFTTT's website, and you'll find oodles of automation guidance, along with curated collections of sample recipes to test out. Still, it takes a little bit of imagination to put IFTTT to work. The full list of "channels" (the services and products that work with IFTTT) is daunting to say the least, and most of them offer a number of different ways to trigger a recipe or be triggered by one.

A lot of the suggested starter recipes are somewhat gimmicky. For instance, I tested out one recipe that changed the Smart Home's Lifx color-changing LEDs to purple whenever it was about to rain. It worked well enough, but didn't seem any more useful than, you know, looking out the window.

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IFTTT can trigger devices based on weather changes -- purple lighting on a rainy day, for instance.

Ry Crist/CNET

Recipes like those help to showcase some of what IFTTT is capable of, but it's up to you to tailor things in a way that's more applicable to your day-to-day life. I found that the best way to do this was to start at the end, and imagine things that I wanted the Smart Home to do automatically. Then, I'd log in to IFTTT and figure out a way to make it happen.

In most cases, this came down to connecting devices that wouldn't work directly together otherwise. Two of my main targets were the Nest Learning Thermostat and the Amazon Echo smart speaker. Both are central pieces of our smart home setup, but neither one works with everything -- and they don't work with each other, for that matter.

Watch this: How to create custom Alexa commands for Amazon Echo using IFTTT

Fortunately, both have fairly robust channels on IFTTT. On the Amazon Echo end, you can craft your own voice commands, then program them to trigger whatever you like. I used this to add some voice-control smarts to our thermostats.

The process was a bit tedious. I needed to craft a separate recipe for each degree -- "Alexa, trigger Nest to 68, "Alexa, trigger Nest to 69," and so forth. I also repeated the entire process with different sets of nomenclature: "Alexa, trigger the thermostat to 68" and "Alexa, trigger the temperature to 68."

All in all, I finished with dozens of IFTTT recipes linking Amazon Echo and Nest. That's obviously more of a hassle than enabling a single all-in-one integration, but there are some subtle perks with IFTTT's approach, too. Primarily, I liked that I could get as detailed as I wanted, teaching Alexa to respond to all manner of different thermostat-related voice commands. If you're a control freak, there's some definite appeal.

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The "Turn on lights" actions for Philips Hue and Lifx LEDs: The Lifx controls go a lot deeper.

Screenshots by Ry Crist/CNET

Not all channels are created equal

I also wanted to see how similar IFTTT-compatible products would stack up against one another. The marquee matchup: Lifx versus Philips Hue. Both are popular color-changing smart LEDs with extra, IFTTT-powered smarts.

While both bulbs' IFTTT channels serve the same basic purpose -- namely, automating your lights to turn on and off, or to change colors -- the Lifx channel does a better job of it. Use IFTTT to automate a light to turn on, and Lifx will also let you specify the color, brightness level and fade duration. With Hue, you only get to pick which bulb will come on.

I was a bit surprised by this, as Philips Hue was one of the first smart home systems to sync up with IFTTT. With over a year's head start on the Lifx IFTTT channel, you might expect that it'd be further ahead at this point. Then again, IFTTT compatibility is just one feather in the Philips Hue cap -- with Lifx, it's a central feature, and one that the bulb's creators have clearly put a great deal of effort into getting right.

The practical takeaway from all of this is that if you're going to use IFTTT compatibility as a key factor in your smart-home buying choices, then you'll want to examine the actual channels of each of your options to make sure that the controls fit your needs. With color-changing bulbs, I know I'd prefer Lifx's more comprehensive approach, but others might want the simpler, more streamlined controls offered by Philips Hue.

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We used IFTTT to teach these WeMo Switches how to control things other than lights -- with mixed results.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Occasional kinks?

One of our first projects in the CNET Smart Home was to optimize the Wi-Fi signal. Doing so allows us test out Wi-Fi gadgetry in a controlled environment where we know that strength of signal won't skew the experience. I was excited to test IFTTT out in such an environment, and see just how reliable it really is.

I was pleased to discover that IFTTT did extraordinarily well in my tests. Each recipe I crafted worked as promised, even when I tried pushing the service. For instance, I crafted four separate Amazon Echo recipes using the same voice command. Each recipe triggered a different Philips Hue LED in the kitchen to change to a random color. I wondered if this would trip things up, but it actually works quite well -- whenever I say the command, all four bulbs change to a random color within a few seconds. Pretty impressive.

A four-way smart switch for the CNET Smart Home (pictures)

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I did run into one notable kink, though. It happened when I tested out a few recipes involving the four WeMo Light Switches that we installed in the CNET Smart Home's entryway. The WeMo Switches have a cool feature on IFTTT that lets you trigger recipes by long-pressing a particular switch for a couple of seconds. Essentially, this lets the WeMo Light Switch serve as an "IFTTT button" that's capable of triggering anything you can think of.

I set up two separate recipes: one that triggered a Lifx bulb to toggle on or off with a long press on switch No. 1, and another that triggered the Nest to 68 degrees with a long press on switch No. 4. When I tested the first recipe out, the Lifx bulb regularly failed to respond, sometimes taking a few minutes before toggling on or off, and other times not toggling on or off at all. The Nest recipe was a completely different story -- each and every time, it fired off flawlessly and instantaneously.

The really interesting part of all of this is that when I would try and fail to trigger the Lifx bulb and then try to trigger the Nest, the Nest would work perfectly -- and the Lifx bulb would suddenly respond, too. With the Lifx recipe, it was as if I were trying to order a beer at a crowded bar, and failing to get the bartender's attention. Switching to the Nest recipe was like waving a $100 bill around -- the bartender rushed right over.

I asked the team at IFTTT to review my recipe logs to see if they could identify what was happening here. After a close look, they claim to have successfully identified an issue specific to our four-switch setup that affected how IFTTT's servers were queuing all associated WeMo Light Switch recipes. One device of the four was prioritized over the others when queued. IFTTT says that a fix should be live within the next 24 hours.

It's an edge case, to be sure -- a four-way switch setup like ours is anything but common. Take it out of the equation, and IFTTT was essentially a flawless performer across all of my tests.

Screenshot by Ry Crist/CNET

IFTTT's oomph

After digging in deep with IFTTT, I've come away convinced that it offers enough automation chops to anchor a basic smart home setup -- so long as you're willing to stick with IFTTT-compatible devices. Fortunately, that list is growing longer and longer as time goes on, giving you plenty of options to choose from.

Perhaps more than anything, though, IFTTT serves as a great way to introduce yourself to automation. It's a free and relatively easy to jump in and start crafting automation recipes that deal with online data and social-media accounts. Once you're comfortable with that, it's a much smaller leap to start diving in with connected home devices and bringing those automation smarts from the Web to the physical world around you.