While the smart home category has grown over the last three or four years, it's only been this past year that we've seen kitchen appliances take long strides instead of baby steps toward incorporating Internet of Things technology into the way we cook.
Big-name manufacturers teamed up with small, food-centric startups to create software that helps rather than gets in the way of home cooks. Whirlpool teamed up with Silicon Valley software startup Innit to connect your large kitchen appliances so that they talk to one another. Bosch and the creators of the Drop smart scale joined together to make software that will let you adjust an oven's cook times, temperature and humidity levels via Wi-Fi.
We saw ambitious ideas (like a countertop oven that can see and recognize your food, that Samsung fridge) turn into real-life products that push the limits of what we thought our appliances can do.adjust the oven's cook times, temperature and humidity levels via Wi-Fi,.
The second half of the year produced impressive innovations in the smart kitchen. This might even be a legitimate product category. Let's recognize some of the major trends that came to the kitchen in 2016.
Most Improved: Amazon Alexa
Earlier this year, I complained that Alexa wasn't much of a sous chef. Amazon's digital assistant, which powers the Echo line of voice-controlled smart speakers, let you add things to your shopping list, play a few tunes while you cook or provide a recipe or two, but that was about it. Then companies began to partner with Amazon to let your words power your kitchen appliances. Joule, a newcomer to the immersion circulator scene, worked with Amazon to create a Skill (sort of like an app for Alexa) that lets you use voice commands to tell the sous vide machine to what temperature to set your water bath or cancel cooking.
One of the year's most notable Alexa partnerships came in September when GE Appliances and Amazon debuted a new Skill called Geneva. You can give Alexa voice commands that will, in turn, control GE's Wi-Fi connected appliances, which include refrigerators, ovens, ranges, dishwashers, washing machines, dryers and hot water heaters in GE's Monogram, Café and Profile product lines. So far, we've tested Geneva on a GE induction oven. I could tell Alexa to tell Geneva to preheat the oven and ask for updates about the oven's temperature. But Geneva does have limitations -- you can't control the oven's cooktop or broiler, and you have to use specific wording when you give verbal commands. The Wi-Fi appliances are a bit more expensive than their more analog counterparts (the $2,000 GE Wi-Fi induction oven, for example, costs $300 more than the least-expensive induction range we've tested), but the price could be worth it for folks who already have an Amazon Echo at home.
The Splurge if You Got It Award: Samsung Family Hub Refrigerator
I wanted to hate this monolith-like fridge. The specs border on extravagant -- a 21.5-inch built-in touchscreen with its own apps, ingredient-tracking fridge-cams, a $5,600 price tag. Yet this smart fridge looks good and performs even better thanks to unique, user-friendly features (a view of your fridge's contents is a capability you don't know you need until you're lost at the grocery store), multiple storage options and apps that can help keep a family organized. The Samsung Family Hub shows what happens a manufacturer tries to really show the potential of a smart kitchen appliance.
The Why Hasn't Someone Done This Before Award: Jenn-Air and Nest
A busy night of baking can make your kitchen feel like a sauna. It makes since that a company would decide to use Wi-Fi to solve this problem. Jenn-Air's line of connected wall ovens work with the Nest Learning Thermostat. You can set rules so that the Nest will lower the temperature in your home when your oven begins to bake. This integration combines common sense with technology, and it paves the way for other kitchen appliances to work with smart home devices.
Most Ambitious Debut: June Intelligent Oven
The June Intelligent Oven made a lot of noise for its $1,495 (about £1,200 or AU$2,000) price and its claim to be able to recognize your food. But the hype was worth it -- the oven's built-in camera, smartphone-speed processor and software can identify more than 20 foods (and counting) and cook them automatically. The June had its fair share of problems: The oven's food recognition gives you two options of what items it thinks you put in the oven rather than pinpointing the exact dish and it had the most trouble cooking convenience items like PopTarts and toaster strudel. But this countertop appliance pushes the limits of how you can use technology to remove some of guesswork of cooking.
Here-to-Stay Award: Sous vide immersion circulators
Sous vide is a cooking method that involves putting food in a vacuum-sealed plastic bag and letting it cook in a temperature-controlled water bath. It's still a bit of a niche way to cook, but manufacturers spent this year creating and upgrading immersion circulators -- a column-shaped machine that controls the temperature of your water bath. New devices, such as the Joule, have started to compete with established immersion circulator brands that have responded by adding Wi-Fi and building out more robust learning apps to stay in the competition for a place in your kitchen.
Most Side-Eye Worthy: Juicero
Companies scrambled to create the next Keurig, aka single-function machines in which you pop in a pod, push a button and get a prepared drink or food item. We saw this ambition come to life with the fully funded Kickstarter campaigns of the Chip Smart Cookie Oven and Flatev flatbread maker, but none deserved more skepticism than the Juicero. This Wi-Fi-enabled countertop appliance cold-presses proprietary packs of fruit and vegetables into individual drinks. It sounds like a good idea for juice lovers (little clean up, fresh juice) until you get to the price: $699 for the machine and $7 to $10 each for those fruit and veggie packs. The Juicero shows what happens when companies make innovative appliances without stopping to think about how much (if any) sense it makes for you at home.
Most Likely to Succeed in 2017: Voice commands
As I mentioned earlier, Alexa's integration with large and small appliances went a long way toward making this voice-controlled assistant a valuable asset in the kitchen. I predict that more companies will not only hitch their saddle with Alexa, but with other voice-control platforms such as Google Home or Siri. The kitchen is the room of the house where you're most likely to have your hands full (or covered with dough), so it makes sense for voice controls to have a place there.
In 2016, appliance companies showed that they were serious about incorporating more smart home technology into the kitchen. I expect they will continue to ride this momentum into 2017 with more partnerships between established manufacturers and startups, compatibility with platforms like Amazon Alexa and Google Home and products that use technology to make cooking easier.