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Smart Home

See CNET's city pad transform into a smart apartment

We've partnered with the city of Louisville to figure out the best ways for renters to smarten up their living spaces.

First, you met the CNET Smart Home. Now meet its urban baby sister, the CNET Smart Apartment. Right in the heart of downtown Louisville, Kentucky, the apartment helps us test the best tech for any rental or apartment dweller.

We've partnered with the city of Louisville to bring connectivity to an urban environment. The place overlooks the Ohio river and is within easy walking distance of Louisville's downtown restaurants and museums. The interior still shows signs of the office space it used to be, but it's becoming residential, bit by bit. More importantly, it's becoming smart, too.

For this space, we've challenged ourselves to add connected convenience using simple devices with easy installation. We want to replicate the experience of actual apartment dwellers as much as possible, so we're aiming to use easy-to-install, landlord-friendly devices you can take with you when you move. Here's what we've done so far, and our plans for the space in the future.

Now playing: Watch this: Take a tour of the CNET Smart Apartment
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Light it up

To start, we wanted to automate the lights of the apartment, and we immediately ran into challenges for our low-install approach. We didn't want to replace the switches on the wall or the outlets since we don't want to deal with wiring. We didn't want to replace the light bulbs in the ceiling, either -- they're a part of the surrounding trim.

Instead, we focused on the lamps. As we added furniture to make the place homey, we put lamps in every corner and on every side table we could. We used Philips Hue bulbs in the areas we spend the most time -- the living room and the bedroom. Just like that, through Apple's HomeKit, we can turn our lights on or off and change their colors by talking to Siri, the voice assistant built into your iPhone. We can also program scenes to have them all change to a specific brightness and color, again using a single command.

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The lamps in the living room have Philips Hue bulbs.

Chris Monroe/CNET

We smartened the rest of the lamps with Belkin WeMo Insight Switches, allowing us to turn them on or off with the WeMo app. Plus, the WeMo app monitors energy usage.

Better yet, both the Philips Hue bulbs and the Belkin WeMo switches work with Alexa, the brilliant voice assistant built into the Amazon Echo. The Echo -- a tall cylindrical speaker that doubles as a personal assistant and smart home controller -- fits the smart apartment perfectly. We're starting with one in the central foyer, and it lets anyone in the apartment control the lights with a voice command. Given the small space, Alexa's always within shouting range.

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The Echo lets us control any of our lamps with a voice command.

Chris Monroe/CNET

Locking down security

After we smartened the lights, we wanted to make sure the place was secure. I've lived in a few apartments that have been burglarized. Populous areas are naturally more susceptible to crimes of opportunity, so security needed to be a particular point of emphasis for the smart apartment.

You probably won't have access to monitoring services like ADT in a place you're renting, and you'd definitely need to have a conversation with your landlord if you wanted to replace the lock with a smart deadbolt, so we started with something that we could just plug in and set on a table -- the Piper NV.

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The Piper NV keeps an eye on our living room.

Chris Monroe/CNET

A security cam that monitors motion and sound, the Piper lets us check on the apartment from anywhere using the Piper app. The camera also sends custom alerts if it detects motion or sound when we're away, and it doubles as a hub, so we can add motion detectors and other devices to the Piper system later if we choose.

We also installed a Ring video doorbell just outside the front door. Since we attached the Ring to the wall with drywall anchors, the setup was more intensive than most of the rest of our gear. Not all apartment dwellers will be able to install something like the Ring -- you'll want to check with your landlord -- but the process is roughly as invasive as hanging a picture on the wall.

Like most apartments, we don't have an actual doorbell in the CNET Smart Apartment, so installing something like Ring might seem silly. But now we have a connected cam with a motion sensor outside of our door. If someone presses the button, we don't hear any chimes, but our phone alerts us and we can use the Ring app to talk to the person at the door and use motion alerts to monitor who comes and goes.

The kitchen and appliances

We broke our low install rule to an extent in the kitchen -- we wanted to use the space to test the functionality of smart appliances. I highly doubt you'd bring your own refrigerator or stove if you're renting an apartment, but large appliances might be in play if you're, say, leasing a condo. Now, all of ours have connected tricks up their sleeves.

  • The Samsung Family Hub fridge snaps a picture of its interior when the door closes, letting us check on our groceries from afar with an app. We can also use the touchscreen on the front of the fridge to leave notes, track expiration dates, add events to a calendar and play music.
  • The Samsung Wi-Fi range connects to the same Samsung app as the fridge. We can start preheating the oven remotely when we're on our way home to the apartment.
  • The GE Profile dishwasher keeps us posted on the status of the cycle and syncs with Amazon Dash to automatically reorder detergent pods when it starts running low.
  • The Whirlpool Cabrio Washer and Dryer also sends our phone status updates and syncs with Amazon Dash when the laundry detergent supply needs restocking.

In addition to the appliance splurges, we wanted to make sure we had smarts in the kitchen that would be useful to typical apartment dwellers. The iGrill Mini Thermometer talks to our phone via Bluetooth, so we can check the temperature of the roast without having to get up from the couch. We also set up an app-enabled Instant Pot multicooker, which lets us pick recipes from the app and send them to the cooker.

Now, that's entertainment

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Look closely at this bedroom -- that's a Philips Hue Tap on the left table, which control the Hue bulbs in the lamps. You'll also notice a Sonos speaker on the right and a tablet that controls the TV on the left.

Chris Monroe/CNET

Finally, we wanted to make the CNET Smart Apartment a fun place to be. We installed Sonos speakers in the bedroom and the kitchen. The Amazon Echo can play music in the foyer, and the TV in the living room and the bedroom both connect to video streaming services through a Roku.

What's next?

Our entertainment experience should get smarter soon. Google's releasing a competitor to the Amazon Echo -- called Google Home -- later this week. The Home will sync to Chromecast video and audio streamers, allowing voice commands to speakers and TVs. We'll test this functionality to see if it makes sense for the apartment.

We'll be similarly keeping an eye on what makes sense for the apartment with everything else we do. Adding smarts to temperature control is easy with a smart thermostat like the Nest. But what if you can't install one in your place? We've already plugged a fan into a Belkin WeMo switch, and we'll do more with space heaters and fans in the coming months to see if we can efficiently work around installing a thermostat.

We're also looking at the lock on the front door to see if we can work around building regulations and still have some measure of smarts on the entrance itself.

So the CNET Smart Apartment is more than a bite-sized CNET Smart Home -- consider it more like the CNET Smart Home in a takeout package. We'll eventually use it to test integrations with the city of Louisville itself, while continuing to see just how smart we can make the place without touching the wiring.