The CNET Smart Home antes up for smart blinds

Navigating the peculiar market of smart shades as well as blinds, and deciding if they're worth the price.

Good natural lighting can make or break a house. But for the proliferation of smart light bulbs, there seem to be comparatively few smart window treatments on the market. So coming into this week with the task of picking the CNET Smart Home's shades posed a particularly tough question: Which shades work well and have the most potential?

Motorized or retrofit?

Smart shade solutions generally fall into two categories: motorized shades and retrofit devices. Motorized shades are expensive (each one could be $200, £140 or AU$280 each; plus an additional hub or bridge), but they're also self-contained, reliable and more likely to cooperate with other smart home tech. The leading developers here are bigger names like Lutron, Pella and Somfy. Those brands also integrate with systems like Apple HomeKit, Nest, Lowe's Iris and others.


Most motorized shades will offer app control and remote control.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Retrofit devices, by contrast, are shooting for prices under a hundred bucks. They usually work as simple app-connected motors that you can feed certain blind strings into to make the blinds "smart." The problem with these gadgets -- like Smart Shades -- is they require continuous loop chain blinds, which are hard to find in stores and expensive (often over $100, £70 or AU$140) to buy online.

In the end, I decided to go with standard motorized shades. To use retrofit devices wouldn't have saved that much money in the long run, because I still would've needed to buy new shades to fit them.

Will it integrate?

The second big question I asked myself was, "What shades play well with others?". All the major developers require some sort of hub to enable app control, but Pella only integrates with its own proprietary products. That leaves Somfy and Lutron as my two main options. I've worked with products from both companies, and I knew my basic preference was for Lutron's Serena Shades. They are slightly more expensive, depending how you calculate it, but Serena's motors are also quieter, more responsive via remote as well as their mobile app and they have a superior app interface.

But in my ideal smart home, I don't even want to worry about the extra step of accessing an app; I want more intuitive tools like automation and voice control. So I needed to weigh how cooperative Lutron's and Somfy's products were, and how much potential they had for future integration.


Somfy's Motorized Shades are reliable, but their integration offerings are slim.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Somfy's motorized shades are reliable, but they don't work with any of the integration systems we have set up at the CNET Smart Home -- no SmartThings, Nest or HomeKit integration. In fact, besides Lowe's Iris, they really only integrate with higher-end systems like Control4, Crestron and Savant. Serena Shades, by contrast, work with HomeKit, Nest and even IFTTT, so integrating them with gadgets around the Smart Home would be easy.

Problems with commitment

By integrating with Nest, HomeKit, IFTTT and various other devices, Lutron has positioned its Serena Shades well for the future. Problem is, they're only OK right now. Sure, you can issue voice commands using either Siri or Alexa (Amazon Echo's voice), but Siri can't access Lutron app scenes while Alexa can't individually control shades. You can integrate the shades with Nest, but only on the most basic levels. You can trigger Serena Shades using other smart home tech, but only via third-party apps like IFTTT. If you're noticing a pattern, good.


The Lutron app's scene creation (left) and general control (right) are both intuitive, but too simplistic. The only way to truly integrate Serena with other gadgets around the house is with third-party apps like IFTTT (center).

Screenshots by David Priest/CNET

Lutron's scattershot approach to integration, which could be as much the fault of the various smart home platform owners as Lutron itself, is indicative of a larger pattern in the smart home industry right now. For many tech developers -- caught between the demands of systems like HomeKit, SmartThings or Weave -- Lutron's approach make's sense: focus on more partnerships rather than on well-developed ones. Yes, the products won't work perfectly, but consumers also won't have to worry about a product becoming obsolete because a platform fails in a few years.

My solution

At the end of the day, I couldn't justify populating the whole CNET Smart Home with Serena Shades. Instead I decided to install them in the upstairs reading nook, and to wait for the market to continue developing.

I chose the nook for a few reasons. The space is naturally well lit, and the Serena Shades can cleverly double as smart lighting and smart temperature monitoring. I set it up so the shades stay halfway open while I'm reading, but if the temperature upstairs gets too hot (72 degrees Fahrenheit), then they'll close. And since they're all voice activated, I can control them without standing up.


The shades will automatically close to keep out direct sunlight if the upstairs space gets too hot.

Chris Monroe/CNET

From upstairs, the shades also offer other goodies, like geofencing and Nest integration. Whenever I leave the Smart Home, the shades automatically close. When I come home, they open. And if the Nest Protect downstairs ever detects a fire, the shades will open so emergency responders can see inside the home.

With small touches like these, the Serena Shades blend into the Smart Home well.

Looking forward

Lutron is certainly leading the smart shade market right now in terms of integration. The Serena Shades are reliable and pretty flexible. But before I'm willing to completely commit to any one product for the whole CNET Smart Home, these are the changes I need to see:

Lower prices: $350 (converts roughly to £240 or AU$495) per shade is just too much.

Deeper in-app integration: Serena works with diverse tech, but many of the integrations are one-trick ponies without third-party apps like IFTTT.

Slicker voice control: Siri can control the shades individually, but can't control Lutron app scenes. Plus, finding the right words can take three or four tries.

Until these big changes happen, led by Lutron or another company, fully outfitting the CNET Smart Home with smart shades will have to wait.

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