From the kid's room to the kitchen, come take a look at everything we learned.
Rich BrownFormer 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.
ExpertiseSmart home, Windows PCs, cooking (sometimes), woodworking tools (getting there...)
What would you do with a sprawling, 5,800 square-foot house in Louisville? If you're CNET, you fill the place with the best, most interesting smart-home tech. Since August 2015, we've done just that -- exploring the state of connected-home tech by experimenting with every gadget we can find, mixing and matching to figure out which tech works best in our living lab.
Now it's time to show you our work. We're here to tell you about the best of what we saw in the CNET Smart Home, and also to give you some advice about how to approach building a smart home of your own.
You may already have seen our weekly updates from the house. Throughout our grand experiment, we've written about adding smart lights to the home, an alarm system, voice control, a smart refrigerator and oven. The market is developing so quickly, we covered some categories like thermostats and connected garage door openers twice. You'll find our full coverage of the home on our handy round-up page.
The hardest part of the project has been building the home out around one common smart-home network. Voice control via Echo and Alexa became everything for us. Weekly updates to the list of Echo-supporting devices brought voice control to more and more smart-home products as the weeks went by.
We're bullish on voice partly because of the geeky novelty inherent when you say, "Alexa, turn the downstairs thermostat down 2 degrees." More importantly, voice control is democratizing. Anyone within range of the Echo's microphone can use voice commands to turn on a light, change the temperature, turn on the TV or even open the garage door if they know the right phrase.
You might still have one person serving as the head of household IT, but with voice input, everyone can interact with the home without dealing with log-ins, permissions or tracking down the right phone. It feels natural, and it can give almost everyone control.
It wasn't that way at the start of our project.
We began building the home around SmartThings, the hub that promises an "open" philosophy that theoretically lets different developers, and even users, write their own software to connect various gadgets to the SmartThings hub. Once you link a bunch of devices to to the hub, you can program them to perform various automated behaviors, like having the lights come on when you unlock the front door.
Poor usability of the SmartThings app, and eventual stability issues still plaguing the system eliminated SmartThings as a long-term solution. Our frustration hit its peak right around the time Amazon Echo hit its potential in the smart home. Good timing.
Start small for big results
The DIY smart home right now is like the home PC industry 15 or 20 years ago. For anyone who doesn't know a lot about connected tech, the prospect of outfitting an entire house with smart systems might feel overwhelming. Luckily, we did the work for you. Here's our guidance.
Keeping track of all the changes in fast-moving smart-home tech proved challenging throughout the project. We've had a horse race going between the Nest Learning Thermostat and the Ecobee 3 thermostat for control of our home's two heating and cooling zones. Each device seemed to get a new feature via software update every week. That kind of competition is great for consumers, but it also makes buying decisions difficult. We went with both, one for each zone, but you'll most likely want to pick one. Just brace yourself for the inevitable buyer's remorse when the product you left on the shelf gets a feature you wish you had.
All eyes on the Ecobee3 smart thermostat (pictures)
You should also keep in mind the volatility of the smart-home category. In the last six months we've seen the Revolv hub die, and the Staples Connect hub is going a similar route. SmartThings and Lowe's Iris have both struggled with stability and usability issues in their second-generation hubs. Even standard bearer Nest has gotten some bad press. This will sting if a device you like all of a sudden becomes a brick. It will feel like a gut punch if you bought a lot of other devices to interact with something that no longer works. That kind of risk will plague early adopters of any kind of technology.
To protect yourself against that uncertainty, we recommend leaning towards products that work on multiple smart-home networks and that stand alone as stellar gadgets. Philips Hue LED bulbs are the best example --they work with SmartThings, Nest, HomeKit, Wink, Echo, and pretty much everything else; plus, they're simply very good LED bulbs on their own. Big Ass Fans' Haiku smart ceiling fans have useful motion and temperature sensors even if you don't link them to a Nest Thermostat. Amazon Echo is a helpful virtual assistant, even if you never pair it to a smart light switch.
Choose a few clever pairings based on what you need done in your house, and the magic happens. When you get every light in your house tied to Alexa and you can control them by lamp, by room, or by floor with your voice, you'll feel the power of the smart home. Even better, open up your Nest Cam app when you're away from home, hit the microphone button, and you can not only tell Alexa to turn on your lights or lock your door when you're away from home, you can also watch her do it.
There's a lot of skepticism around the smart home, and we understand it. It really doesn't take much time or effort to walk across the room to flip a light switch. I don't need a connected saute pan to tell me how to cook a steak. We've tested plenty of ridiculous products in the CNET Smart Home. But when you find one that really works well, like the Echo, or a Nest Cam, or Philips' Hue bulbs, it's hard to let go.
We also still have a lot more test. There's outdoor tech. Connected health and fitness products. Green tech. Baby tech. We're eager to see smart-home control integrated (safely) with more cars. Many of the products we've already tested will be improved upon and upgraded. If I've come to believe anything about the smart home, it's that this category has so much diversity, and so much potential, it's going to be around for a long time. We look forward to testing all of it.