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Smart Home

The kitchen catches up to the rest of the CNET Smart Home

For our first attempt at adding technology to the CNET Smart Home's kitchen, we dove into lighting, voice control and cooking (of course).

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Open floor plans and a food culture shaped by celebrity chefs and cooking channels have changed the way we look at the kitchen. No longer meant to be hidden behind walls and swinging doors, the kitchen is now the hub of the modern home. And for the kitchen at the CNET Smart Home, I wanted to add devices and use apps that would enhance the entire experience of gathering in the kitchen, from cooking and eating a meal to entertaining guests.

For our first pass at adding smart technology to the kitchen, I decided to forgo Internet-enabled large appliances -- for now. Most of the smart devices we've added thus far to the Smart Home, such as light bulbs and locks, have been small and relatively easy to bring into the house. Kitchen appliances are a different -- and far bigger -- story. We'll have to do some remodeling before we can really set up the kitchen with smart large appliances. I'll continue to evaluate smart large appliances to decide which ones to put in the Smart Home until the sledgehammers come crashing.

In the meantime, I examined easy ways to make the kitchen smarter without investing thousands of dollars into a new oven or refrigerator. I tweaked, fiddled and installed devices throughout the kitchen that, with the help of a few compatible apps, helped me create a room with a healthy foundation of intelligence that will let me add more smart appliances and capabilities in the future.

Light the way to a smart kitchen

My fellow CNET editors have been working in the Smart Home for weeks outfitting the 5,800 sq foot house with connected lighting, voice control platforms and a smart thermostat, automation hub and security system. These installed systems created a baseline from which I could build a connected kitchen experience without completely starting from scratch. The key was figuring out how to make the existing technology work for what I wanted in the kitchen.

And what did I want in the kitchen? I focused on how folks usually begin and end their days. In the morning, I wanted a soothing environment and coffee at the ready. In the evening, I wanted a brighter room and tools that will make cooking dinner easier.

Shaping the existing kitchen lighting was first on my to-do list. CNET Associate Editor Ry Crist already installed Philips Hue smart bulbs into the pendant lights that hang above the kitchen counter. Since we'd already committed to this hardware, I added another product from the Phillips family -- the Hue Lightstrip Plus -- to the dark corner of the kitchen where we set up the coffeemaker. The lightstrip was easy to install -- they attach via a sticky back, and you can cut the lightstrip to the length you need (you can only cut the strip at certain marked points, so don't get too happy with the scissors). The lights then connect to a power adapter that you plug into the wall. I used the Philips Hue app to connect the lightstrip to the Smart Home's Hue Bridge, which came with the Philips Hue Starter Kit that Ry used for the pendant lights I mentioned earlier.

I stuck a Kuled Motion Sensor LED Light in one of the cabinets in the CNET Smart Home kitchen cabinets.

Chris Monroe/CNET

A cheaper lighting alternative that I included in the Smart Home's kitchen was the Kuled Motion Sensor LED Light. This 7.48-inch-long light (about 190mm) turns on when it senses motion, which made it perfect to put in the kitchen's dark cabinets. I ordered a three-pack of the Kuled from Amazon that cost $24.99. Add in the cost of the four AAA batteries each light needs, and you have a fairly inexpensive, semi-intelligent lighting solution that would work throughout the kitchen.

Queue the coffee

Next, I moved onto what I think is the most important part of the kitchen: the coffee maker. I consulted our resident coffee expert, CNET Senior Editor Brian Bennett. With the exception of the lackluster Mr. Coffee Smart Optimal Brew , there's a shortage of brainy coffee makers that connect to apps or other smart home gadgets and make a good cup of joe. So Brian recommended I take a different approach: pick a good "dumb" coffeemaker and connect it to a smart outlet. I went with the Technivorm Moccamaster , a simple coffee maker that is only equipped with an on-off switch. I turned the coffee maker's power to the "on" position and plugged the machine into an iDevices Switch rather than a traditional outlet. This way, the Technivorm would only brew when I turned on the Switch through an app. This setup would work with other coffee makers that only have an on-off switch.

The coffee corner of the CNET Smart Home kitchen, which features the Amazon Echo, the Technivorm Moccamaster, a Philips Hue Lightstrip and an iDevices Switch.

Chris Monroe/CNET

One advantage of relying on Philips and iDevices in the kitchen was the fact that the products play nicely with HomeKit , Apple's software platform built into iOS 8 and iOS 9 that integrates with Siri to control compatible devices. HomeKit appealed to me because the platform let me create Scenes for the kitchen. In HomeKit speak, a Scene will let you decide which HomeKit devices you want on for a specific situation. For example, if you want to perfect lighting for studying, you could create a Scene in which a Hue light in a desk lamp turns on, along with a coffee maker plugged into an iDevices Switch.

There are 17 HomeKit apps that would let me create the Scenes. Unfortunately, this is a convoluted process on all the apps I tried. For example, I used the MyTouch Home app to create a "Breakfast" Scene. To build a scene in the app, you scroll over to "My Scene" and click on the "+ Scene" circle. After you've named your new scene, you add the actions you want to happen during that scene. This is where the app gets tedious. You have to add the devices you want to come on one at a time. If you want a more specific action, such as a Hue light to turn blue, you must create two actions: one to turn on the light, and one that will turn the light blue. This makes for a cluttered screen that makes it hard to review what actions you've created.

All of the connected devices appear in a list when it's time to build a Scene (left). Unfortunately, a full Scene creates a cluttered screen (right).

Screenshot by Ashlee Clark Thompson/CNET

For my breakfast scene, I set the overhead Hue lights to a blue color and 50 percent brightness. I also set the Hue lightstrip to blue. Finally, I set the iDevices Switch to turn on in the Breakfast scene. With my actions set, I could use the MyTouch Home app to manually turn on the scene or schedule the scene to play on specific days and times. I also created a similar Scene for later in the evening, with the Hue lights set to a yellow hue and about 90 percent brightness.

Alexa and Siri help when your hands are full

Voice commands played a big part in building a smarter kitchen. I wanted to be able to shout out an order and have the devices in my kitchen respond since cooking and cleaning usually require both hands. For help, I turned to my smart homegirls: Alexa and Siri.

The Smart Home's kitchen already had an Amazon Echo, a Bluetooth speaker and smart-home controller that answers to the name Alexa. We've had some trouble getting the Echo to connect to and control the Hue lights because of a glitch when we updated the Hue Bridge, but I found Alexa most useful in keeping me organized in and out of the kitchen. A lot of that was possible because of the Echo's compatibility to IFTTT, the free "if this, then that" online service that allows you to create commands to control apps, social networks and smart devices. I created a Shopping list in the Reminders app on my iPhone, then created a rule with IFTTT in which Alexa would add whatever items I told her to this list. For example, if I said, "Alexa, add 'steak' to my shopping list," "steak" would pop up on my Shopping list a few minutes later. It wasn't the quickest way to create a grocery list, but it worked for moments when you look in the refrigerator and see that you're out of milk, but don't have a pen handy. Alexa was also handy when it came to my favorite morning activity (after drinking coffee): listening to NPR. "Alexa, play NPR" was enough to prompt the Echo to find my local affiliate and keep me up on the latest news of the day. Well played.

Screenshot by Ashlee Clark Thompson/CNET

I turned to Siri, the iOS personal assistant. to control the Hue lights and iDevices Switch. I also used Siri to activate the scenes I'd previously created in MyTouchHome. This is when I discovered that Siri, HomeKit and Hue weren't always on my side. Several times when I tried to set a Scene, Siri would tell me that she couldn't find the lights. The lights would also disappear from other HomeKit apps. Sometimes, I'd restart the Hue bridge, and that would solve the problems. When that didn't work, I'd try to control Siri and the lights from another phone. And when that wouldn't work? Well, I'd just step away for a few minutes and hope for the best. Siri always found the lights eventually, but these glitches were frustrating and slowed me down.

And now, time to cook

Lighting, coffee and grocery lists are nice, but eventually, I had to get around to cooking in this kitchen. I decided to include a couple of tools we've previously reviewed that offer versatility and some connectivity to make cooking easier, or at least a little cooler.

The first product I cooked with was the iDevices Kitchen Thermometer Mini . You place the probe in the meat that you're cooking, then use the iDevices app to set the temperature to which you need the food to cook. From the app, you can watch the meat's temperature on a little line graph. The thermometer gave me the piece of mind to step away from the kitchen and know that the iDevices app would send me alerts when my food was within 10 degrees F (5.6 degrees C) of its final temperature and when the meat reached the right temperature. And since I already had the iDevices app installed in my phone (for the iDevices Switch for the coffee maker), it was easy to get started with the thermometer.

I used the iDevices Kitchen Thermometer Mini to roast this chicken. It tasted as good as it looked.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

I also brought in the Bluetooth-enabled Anova Precision Cooker to add smart sous vide to the kitchen. Sous vide is a method of cooking that uses a hot water bath to cook vacuum-sealed food evenly over sometimes long periods of time. With the Anova, you fill a pot with water, hook the device to the pot and set the temperature at which you want your food on the device or the Anova app. The Anova, like the iDevices thermometer, sends notifications when the water has reached temperature or when your food is done (if you set a timer). These notifications make it easy to multitask while you wait for your meal.

Chris Monroe/CNET

Final thoughts

I skipped big and fancy and went for thoughtful and simple when it came time to outfit the CNET Smart Home's kitchen. Smart large appliances aren't the only items that will give a kitchen more brains. A few well-placed devices, helpful apps and a couple of voice assistants can make cooking easier. You might even want to stay in the kitchen even longer than you already do.

In the coming weeks and months, I'll review more smart kitchen products and decide which large appliances (if any) we want to move into the Smart Home's kitchen. Until then, be sure to keep up with the progress of the CNET Smart Home.