SmartThings review: A smart start in home automation

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).

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