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SmartThings review: A smart start in home automation

Just how useful for home automation are these nIFTTTy sensors?

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Ry Crist
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Ry Crist

Senior Editor / Reviews - Appliances

Originally hailing from Troy, Ohio, Ry Crist is a text-based adventure connoisseur, a lover of terrible movies and an enthusiastic yet mediocre cook. A CNET editor since 2013, Ry's beats include smart home tech, lighting, appliances, and home networking.

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8 min read

EDITOR'S NOTE: Since publishing this review, SmartThings has added support for third-party products including Belkin WeMo devices, TCP smart LEDs, Philips Hue color-changing bulbs, the Sonos home music system, and the Ecobee thermostat. Read the full story here.

smartthings-hub-outside.jpg
8.1

SmartThings

The Good

With easy-to-install sensors, wide product compatibility, and no monthly fees, <b>SmartThings</b> gets home automation right. We love that it's compatible with IFTTT, too.

The Bad

The SmartThings Hub is a little bit limited in terms of range. Also, the newly redesigned SmartThings app feels overcrowded with redundant features.

The Bottom Line

If you're looking for an easy and (relatively) affordable entry point into home automation, then SmartThings makes a lot of sense.

Curious about home automation? If so, you'll want to be sure to consider SmartThings. With a variety of helpful, multifunctional sensors, wide product compatibility, and a slick-looking smartphone app to control it all, last year's Kickstarter-born startup is one of the most appealing smart-home offerings yet. At $99 for a standalone SmartThings Hub and with sensor-rich kits starting at $199, it's a relatively affordable option, too -- especially given the fact that SmartThings doesn't charge its users a monthly fee.

This is a system that takes full advantage of home automation's immense potential. The sensors are designed to be as useful and as usable as possible, and beyond those, you'll have the option to add a great number of different third-party devices to your system, since the hub at the heart of the SmartThings setup uses both Z-Wave and ZigBee. By supporting those two wireless standards, SmartThings is compatible with everything from Schlage deadbolts to Honeywell thermostats. You'll also enjoy full compatibility with IFTTT (If This Then That), meaning you'll be able to use your sensors to trigger other IFTTT-friendly smart devices like the Belkin WeMo Switch or Philips Hue bulbs (not to mention integration with apps like Twitter, Google Drive, and Foursquare).

I was eager to learn whether SmartThings delivers on its promise of making the Internet of Things more accessible, so I installed and tested out one of the kits for myself. Setup was a relative breeze, and for the most part, the sensors I tested worked extremely well, never failing to do whatever I automated them to do. The recently revamped SmartThings app (free on Android and iOS devices, but not available for BlackBerry or Windows Phone users) was a worthy little control center, though at times I found it a bit cluttered and confusing. Overall, I liked what I saw from SmartThings, and would have no hesitations recommending its products to just about anybody with an interest in home automation.

Getting your system started is about as easy as it gets. Screenshots by Ry Crist/CNET

Each SmartThings accessory revolves around the SmartThings Hub. Using Z-Wave or ZigBee, the Hub will communicate with your smartphone over Wi-Fi, then relay your control to each of the sensors and devices in your system. The Hub features a simple design, with no buttons or switches to worry about -- just plug it in, connect it to your router using the included Ethernet cable, then log in to the SmartThings app.

It's a similar experience to installing an Insteon Hub or a Revolv Hub, though it's worth pointing out that the SmartThings Hub costs a little less than the Insteon Hub, and a lot less than the $299 Revolv Hub. It's also worth noting that SmartThings and Revolv do a much better job than Insteon does of guiding you through the setup process with their respective apps (Revolv's app goes even further, offering detailed, automated help for the installation of third-party devices).

The SmartThings app makes it easy to add sensors to your system. Screenshots by Ry Crist/CNET

The SmartThings app features a stylish and appealing new design that will walk you through each step of the setup process with clear instructions, handy illustrations, and even quick video clips that demonstrate exactly what you need to do. I had the Hub up and running within seconds, and from there, installing the additional sensors that came with the kit was just as easy. You'll tell the app which sensor you want to install, then pull a tab to activate that sensor's battery. In moments, the Hub will pair with your sensor, and you'll be able to to start automating with it.

SmartThings recommends keeping within 10 feet of the Hub while installing a sensor, which is a pretty tight radius. After your device is hooked up, you'll have more latitude with placement, but not as much as we've seen from other systems, like Nexia Home Intelligence. In my tests, I saw a slight decrease in reliability whenever I moved a sensor more than 50 feet away from the Hub.

The SmartThings motion detector doubles as a range extender. If you're trying to cover a large area, you'll definitely want at least one. Colin West McDonald/CNET

Fortunately, the SmartThings motion detector that comes included in both kit options doubles as a range extender for the Hub. As soon as I added one to my setup, those performance quirks disappeared. Keep in mind, though, that in order to take full advantage of the range extension, you'll need to place the motion detector roughly in between the Hub and the sensor you're trying to accommodate, which can obviously limit your placement options.

Aside from boosting the Hub's range, the motion detector does a good job of its primary function: detecting motion. In my tests, I was never able to sneak by it without setting it off, and when I programmed it to notify me of changes in motion, or turn on a lamp when I entered the room, it always came through. Over multiple days of testing, I also never saw a single false positive from it, though it did seem a little bit too sensitive at times. When I set it to monitor motion in our conference room, for instance, it would occasionally catch people walking by the door. This would be less of an issue if SmartThings allowed you to customize the sensitivity of the device within the app, but it doesn't. As it stands, you'll probably just need to be prepared to play with the positioning a bit to get it to work exactly as you'd like.

The SmartThings entry sensor looks like other entry sensors, but it's actually packed with extra features. Colin West McDonald/CNET

The motion detector isn't the only sensor in the SmartThings lineup with multiple functions. The magnet-powered entry sensor is even more impressive, featuring a built-in temperature tracker and vibration detection, too. The latter is especially nice for security-minded automators. Place an entry sensor on your window, for instance, and you'll get an alert if it opens, plus you'll get notified if the window breaks -- even if the magnet doesn't move in the process.

The third core sensor of the SmartThings lineup is the presence sensor. Clip it to your key ring, your kid's book bag, or your pet's collar, or toss it into your car's glove compartment. You'll be able to track whenever it enters the Hub's range and whenever it leaves -- a useful way of automatically triggering your smart devices when you come and go, or an easy means of keeping track of loved ones and valuables. In our tests, they never failed to notify me when one of my guinea pigs co-workers arrived at the office or left -- although there were a few strange false alerts that came through while we were eating lunch together. Still, they're handy, inconspicuous little devices, and a great way to automatically manage your automatable lights, locks, and thermostats.

The presence sensors will allow you to keep track of people, but they did give us a few false positives -- Katie was eating lunch right next to me from 11 to 11:30 a.m. Screenshots by Ry Crist/CNET

That said, you might want to think twice before adding a presence sensor to your system. Straight out of the box, the SmartThings Hub will already detect the location of the primary user's smartphone in the exact same way that it detects the presence sensors, so if you're buying a system for yourself, including a presence sensor for your keychain would be a waste of money.

Buying them for others might not make sense, either, given the fact that the popular Web service and key SmartThings partner IFTTT just announced iOS Location as a new trigger channel. This means that anyone with an iOS device can easily program IFTTT to track his or her iPhone's location and use it as a trigger (the "If" of If This Then That). All you'd need to do is set a SmartThings device as the IFTTT response in your recipe (the "That"), and it would be doing exactly the same thing as the presence sensor.

The SmartThings presence sensor is a nifty, useful device -- but you might not need one at all. Colin West McDonald/CNET

You'll be able to track all of your sensors in real time from the SmartThings app. Just log in and head to the app's Dashboard to see what's going on with each one. Additionally, you can view a tiled list of all devices (or "Things") along with their current status. There's a third option, too: head to the app's newly introduced "Hello Home" mode, which is designed to look like an SMS conversation between you and your system. If it ever detects changes at home, it'll tell you about it with a new message. You can answer back by saying things like, "I'm home," or, "Good morning" in order to trigger Actions -- these Actions serve as customized modes for the system, and will let it know when it is and isn't important to deliver these notifications. You can also associate things like lights turning on or doors locking with these Actions.

The app's new design looks great, and there's definitely a certain charm to texting back and forth with your system. Still, the approach seems slightly convoluted. An event log that you can interact with isn't a bad idea, but given the plethora of settings and controls already packed into the Dashboard and Things screens, it feels perhaps a little redundant and possibly overwhelming. I give the developers at SmartThings credit for trying to make their app as powerful and informative as possible, and I definitely prefer this approach to the sparse, underdeveloped designs of some of the other smart-home apps I've tested out, but I think that they'd be wise to refine their vision a little more.

IFTTT and SmartThings work great together -- if you want, you can essentially control your entire system through IFTTT. Screenshots by Ry Crist/CNET

If anything, SmartThings might want to look to IFTTT for inspiration, as the IFTTT smartphone app is about as elegantly designed as you'll find. Since you can use your SmartThings devices as both the "Ifs" and the "Thats" of your IFTTT recipes, you can essentially control your entire system through the IFTTT app if you want, and in many of my tests, I actually found this to be an easier approach than using the SmartThings app. If you're using smart devices like Belkin WeMo products or Philips Hue bulbs that are IFTTT-friendly but not automatable directly through the SmartThings Hub, then you'll probably want to control your system through IFTTT anyway, since you won't have access to those gadgets within the SmartThings app.

Who should buy it?
If you're looking to get started with home automation, I think that you should move SmartThings to the top of your list. Aside from a few flukey-seeming false positives, its sensors performed very well in my tests, never failing to catch a trigger. This means that you'll be giving your smart home a very solid foundation with a SmartThings kit, and one that you can build upon however you like, since it's compatible with so many different Z-Wave and ZigBee devices (not to mention the compatibility with online services and additional smart devices through IFTTT). Security-minded consumers will likely be pleased, too, given the extra functionality packed into the system's entry sensors, along with the option to automate lights and locks or add a Z-Wave siren into your system.

Even if you're already automating with another system, switching to SmartThings might make sense if you'll be able to integrate enough of your existing devices into the SmartThings Hub. At a price of $99, you might be able to expand the functionality of your system and open it up to a greater number of potential devices (you'll want to check with the SmartThings Web site for a full list of recommended compatible devices -- you can also find these within the SmartThings app).

smartthings-hub-outside.jpg
8.1

SmartThings

Score Breakdown

Features 9Usability 7Design 8Performance 8