We just needed the door to lock.
My colleague Megan Wollerton was out at the CNET Smart Home, about a 40-minute drive from the office where we both work. She was working on a video project, and needed an essential shot of the smart lock in the front door turning on its own. The problem? The app on her phone wouldn't pair with the lock.
The fix seemed simple. The lock was the Schlage Sense Bluetooth deadbolt, a smart lock built to work with Apple's HomeKit protocols in iOS devices. The Apple HomeKit products in the CNET Smart Home are all tied to my iCloud account, and Megan was using an iPhone tied to an account that hadn't been linked to mine yet. Without Apple TV plugged in at the house, I couldn't control the lock from afar, so I needed to share HomeKit access from my account to hers. Easy enough.
I sent the invite, then we waited. Nothing happened. We waited some more. Still nothing. I tried sending the invitation a second time, then a third. No dice. Finally, my colleague Andrew Gebhart volunteered to make the drive over to the Smart Home with an iOS device already paired to my HomeKit account in hand. Frustrated and defeated, Megan and I had no choice but to accept the offer.
When Megan got home that night, she found my HomeKit invitations waiting -- on her iPad.
'Why doesn't this just work?'
We've had no shortage of smart home headaches like these ever since we started our deep dive into the connected living space. After all, we've got seven editors using the CNET Smart Home as a living lab for testing connected home tech. At any given moment, each of us is testing out two or three products and seeing how they work in conjunction with the devices we've already got set up at the place. We're trying to control all of it with phones, tablets, Android devices, iOS devices, and voice commands. We spend our days adjusting settings, tinkering with rules, and generally stepping all over each other's toes.
It's an elaborate operation, to be sure, but it isn't as far removed from the typical smart home scenario as you might think. Unless you live alone, you'll need to find a way to share device control with your roommates or family members. That gets complicated if you're using more than one kind of gadget, because different devices handle multiple users in different ways. And -- as we've learned firsthand -- almost none of them do it perfectly.
Here's the good news: butting into these headaches head-on is sort of the whole point. With the CNET Smart Home, we can perform extensive, long-form testing on connected home tech in the setting it was designed for. We're your smart home guinea pigs, and by building our setup out (and, arguably, overcomplicating it), we can uncover the potential pitfalls and make you aware of them before you buy in.
I've long endorsed Belkin WeMo Switches as a terrific starting point for the smart home. They're easy to use, they're relatively inexpensive, and they're flexible, allowing you to automate anything with a plug on it anywhere in your home. So, when it came time to smarten up the lighting in the CNET Smart Home, adding in some Belkin WeMo products seemed like a no-brainer, especially given WeMo's compatibility with SmartThings and Amazon Echo.
We went with four hardwired WeMo Light Switches, cramming them all together into a single four-way switch capable of controlling all of the lights in the front of the house and turning things on and off automatically as needed. The setup worked great -- until we started trying to control it from more than one device. After initially syncing the switches up with the WeMo app on my phone, I tried to access them on an iPad. None of them appeared in the app.
This was strange. WeMo's app doesn't require you to log in -- it simply lets you see and control any devices that are paired with whatever Wi-Fi network you're connected to. Like the phone, the iPad was connected to the CNET Smart Home's Wi-Fi network.
It wasn't until I deleted the app and reinstalled it that our four switches showed up on the iPad. Sort of. Only one of the four lights, our living room chandelier, was actually live and ready to be toggled on and off. The other three were grayed out and listed as "Not Detected." I pulled out my phone to see if the same was true, but instead, it was the opposite -- the living room chandelier was "Not Detected," while the other three were live.
WeMo's app has a little refresh button on the home screen, so I decided to run a little experiment. I'd refresh the app on each device, then take a photo of the result. Ideally, this was just a quick hiccup -- after a refresh or two, everything would be back to normal on both devices.
Except it wasn't. Several refreshes later, I was still nowhere close to normal. Each photo captured my devices in different stages of confusion. If I was lucky, I'd have the same light detected on both devices, and I'd be able to turn it off on one device and watch the status change on the other. But the two apps never matched up, and they never both offered me full control over my setup. Only once did the iPad list all four switches as responsive, and only as the phone simultaneously listed them as "Not Detected."
In fairness, the true appeal of WeMo isn't app control, but automation. I've used a few of WeMo's plug-in switches in my own home for almost two years now, and I rarely open the app at all. Instead, I use them to turn my bedroom light on automatically when a motion detector catches me walking into the room, and to cut the power to the electronics in my entertainment center when I'm not using them. 99 percent of the time, those automations work fine.
Still, given our experiences in the CNET Smart Home, if I needed to share control of those devices with anyone else, I might be a lot less satisfied.
Multiple users, one* login
After tackling the lights in the CNET Smart Home, we set out to find a control hub capable of bringing even more types of devices together under one system. After some deliberation, we settled on the second-gen SmartThings hub. It's a well-established platform with lots of activity on the developer end, meaning that there's a lot you can do with it.
One thing we haven't been able to do until very recently: manage multiple users. With SmartThings, you'll need to register an account when you set your system up, complete with an email and password login. At the time when we first installed it, if anyone else needed to access the app, they'd need to share that initial login info on their device -- we couldn't just invite someone else's SmartThings account to share access with the original one. So, we each had to log in to the SmartThings app on our phones using the same login email and password.
SmartThings recently updated the system to allow for multiple accounts to share control of a single smart home, but that approach is the exception, not the rule. SmartThings aside, the CNET Smart Home team uses shared logins for Nest, Philips Hue, Chamberlain MyQ and IFTTT, not to mention the shared iCloud account that we use for HomeKit devices. All of it works, but not without some key problems.
First off, there's the passwords. So. Many. Passwords. Each product has different constraints with regards to length, capitalization, and numerics, and that means that we have to juggle five or six different passwords in order to control all of the stuff in the house. Logging everything in a shared Google doc is a simple enough solution, but needing to pull up a spreadsheet whenever you want to log into an app you haven't used in a while is an annoyance that cuts right against the smart home's promise of easier living.
Second: these aren't always passwords that you'll want to share. Sure, more than a few of them are throwaway passwords tied to a dummy email account that none of us actually use -- but that's not the case with a product like Amazon Echo that uses your Amazon account to log you into the app. I trust my coworkers not to log in and buy stuff with my saved credit card info, but would you trust your teenage kids? The roommate you found on Craigslist? And what if you want a housemate to be able to see your devices and turn things on and off, but not edit or delete any of your rules or settings? A lot of systems aren't able to make distinctions like that.
Third is the fact that we often can't customize things like email and SMS alerts to specific people. With multiple users sharing a single account for each product, the products can't differentiate between those users, or between their devices.
There are workarounds on that last point -- most notably IFTTT, which lets you create free automation recipes that tie smart home devices to specific phones and email accounts. Still, none of it is as simple as it should be.
A silver lining?
There's obvious appeal to automated gadgets that bring some brains into everyday life at home, and the fact that things can get complicated when your setup features multiple devices for multiple users doesn't change that. And while they still might not offer the level of multi-user control that we'd like, some products have still managed to impress us with how reliably they work for all of us. We might have to share login info for the Nest thermostats, for instance, but they've still proven consistent and responsive whenever any of us have used them on our various devices.
Amazon Echo is another standout in this regard, providing proof of concept for the role of voice control in the smart home of tomorrow. Any of us -- regardless of what kind of phone we have or what apps we've downloaded -- can use the Echo to control the compatible smart home gear in the house. The same applies to guests, who can ask Alexa to dim the lights or turn a heater on without needing to learn the various ins and outs of your setup.
The real takeaway might be that the CNET Smart Home largely deviates from the first commandment of smart home tech, and that's to keep things simple. Your best bet is to start small, with whatever device seems most useful to you. From there, you can build outwards, adding in complimentary gadgets that fit in with what you and your family want from a connected living space. But, if our experience is any indication, you'll want to take each device's multi-user-friendliness into strong consideration before doing so.