My First Tentative Steps Into The World Of Smart Home Technology

Member of the AppleVis Editorial Team

Without a doubt, one of the biggest areas of growth in technology currently is in home automation, or smart home technology. Over the recent Christmas holiday I decided to take my own first tentative steps into this world.

Up to this point, to some extent, I have been skeptical about smart home technology, asking myself for example "Isn't it actually easier to flip a light-switch on the wall as I enter the room than to invoke a smart assistant such as Siri, or to take my phone out of my pocket?" In addition, there are a lot of different manufacturers offering products, and a lot of difficult language and references to hubs and bridges, so getting started seemed quite a daunting task. But in truth I know there are benefits to be had, and I am someone who likes to stay up to date with the latest tech, so decided it was time to take a closer look.

My situation is a tricky one when it comes to this, as I live in a rented apartment and have very limited ability to make changes, so things like smart door locks and perhaps some other items are out of the question for the time being at least.

Without going into unnecessary detail, the central heating system is very poor here, so I and most of my neighbours rely instead on plug-in electric radiators. Mine do not have an ability to set timers, at least not an accessible way, so I often have to wake up to, or arrive home to, a cold apartment. This makes them the perfect place to start my smart home technology journey.

My decision was to purchase a couple of smart plugs, one for the electric radiator in the living room, and one for the heater in the bedroom. The ones I got, or in fact were gifted to me, were from TP Link, though there are many options available. Through their app for iOS, called Kasa, setup was a breeze. By following a few simple steps, I had my plugs, and therefore my electric radiators, connected to the wifi and manageable from my iPhone.

Things do get a little more complex from here. I'm no expert in this area as I eluded to at the beginning, far from it in fact, but stick with me as I try to explain what I can and can't do with these plugs out of the box. These plugs connect directly to the wifi, and therefore do not require a bridge or hub. As long as I am in my home and connected to wifi, I can switch them on and off, and crucially for me, set up schedules.

What I did not know or expect was that I would not be able to control the plugs from outside the home, at least not without a hub or bridge of some sort. I could have chosen, so far as I can tell, to go out and buy a bridge from the same manufacturer, or a compatible one. Instead though, a magical little cylinder called the Amazon Echo stepped into the breech for me.

As well as being able to switch the plugs on or off with my voice using the Echo, I can also switch them on or off when outside of the home via the Amazon Alexa app for iOS. This is fantastic. As it turns out, the particular plugs I got are enabled for both Amazon Alexa and Google Home, but not Apple's HomeKit. If they were HomeKit enabled, I would also be able to use the Home app on my iPhone to achieve the same thing, with my Apple TV or an iPad which is on the wifi network playing the role of the Amazon Echo for remote access to the plugs.

The story doesn't end there though. I have much more study to do on this subject, but it seems that many smart home devices do still need a hub or bridge, and cannot simply connect directly to Apple HomeKit or Amazon Echo. Most smart lightbulbs for example it seems require a hub or bridge. This is because while my plugs communicate via wifi, many other smart devices use different connection protocols, in part to be more energy efficient, and so need that bridge to, well, bridge the gap.

So where to next for me? Well I'm absolutely delighted with my smart plugs, they have brought much needed warmth into my apartment this winter and are very easy to manage and use. I am still a little sceptical about smart lights, though can admit that there are circumstances where they could be useful. My next priority though is to investigate whether I can get a smart panel for my hot water system. Wish me luck!

My advice if you are sceptical about smart home technology, or find it all a little daunting, is to start as I did with something simple like smart plugs. You may stop there, or decide to keep building. If you use Apple products it is advisable to look for products which are compatible with Apple HomeKit, though depending on what other tech you have in your home, that may or may not be essential. It's still relatively early days for this technology, but it looks to be growing and growing. Best of luck with building your home of the future!

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Submitted by kevinchao89 on Monday, February 5, 2018

I've tried many smart plugs, including TPLink, but found that WeMo wins in terms of not requiring a hub, working with most of the voice assistants, and app is accessible.
WeMo has great wall-switch as well, which can be voice-controlled.

Submitted by Martin on Monday, February 5, 2018

Hi there,
Good article. I too have been playing around with SmartHome technology and also started with the Smart Plugs. I recently wandered into smart bulbs and had to get a Samsung Hub in order to interact with them. The really neat thing is if you have the Google Home, you can actually ask: "Okay Google, are there any lights on." It will then list the lights and their status. The Echo won't let you do that unfortunately. If you're a bit of a tinkerer, you may want to look at the Raspberry PI with the open source Home Assistant project (hass) for short. You can then schedule and automate all sorts of things, but it definitely needs a bit of noggan power for setting that one up.

Submitted by Kareem Dale on Monday, February 5, 2018

Club AppleVis Member

Thanks very much for the article. I recently also took the jump into this technology but started with my Chamberlain garage door opener. In short, while it finally works now and works well, it was a 4-month nightmare of a process to get it installed. The basic problem is that the hub and bridge that you buy from Chamberlain are not in any way accessible so a blind person can't hook them up. Moreover, they are not even easy enough for someone with sight and basic tech skills to set them up. I literally had to find a technology company that works on iphones to find someone to come out to install it and it took them 3 hours and talking to Chamberlain to trouble shoot it for 2 hours for it to finally work. I had to try a few different tech companies because most of them that work on iphones don't do it where they come out to help install home kit items. There were lots of fits and anger throughout these months of work in talking to Apple, talking to Chamberlain and many other frustrations. I think this is something Apple is going to have to think about because they are partners in some fashion with these companies that are making their products work with home kit but persons who are blind will have a hard time if the partner companies' products are bad and not accessible for hooking them up. I imagine there will be more and more companies focusing on installing home kit products like there is one in Australlia I believe. So, I might take another leap soon into something else but I'm more hopeful that other products that I already have in my home, like Nest thermostat, will eventually work with home kit.

Submitted by Ekaj on Friday, February 9, 2018

This whole home-automation thing just seems rather daunting to me, but for those who have it and like it more power to you. A next-door neighbor of mine has the Nest app on his Android phone, and he can control the heat in our building even when he is out. I don't know how far that extends though. For instance, he and his wife went out of town with their kids for a few days to celebrate his birthday. But our heat is a whole other story inandof itself, one which I won't go into. We have a Samsung washer and dryer in our building which are pretty high-tech but not terribly accessible for me. I'm wondering if Samsung's iOS app is at all accessible? But those machines downstairs haven't really presented a problem for me. We put Braille labels on them, and I just use whatever settings each was left on when the person before me did their laundry. This method has worked great thus far.

Submitted by Voracious P. Brain on Friday, February 9, 2018

Just to point out, none of this is about Apple products, though I guess the app is implied to be running on an IPhone... Whatev's, though. I'm also puzzled that this is on the blog and not a forum thread, since the author is avowedly not providing well-researched information, but just dipping a toe in. It *would* be nice to see a tab for home automation, though, like a HomeKit category, including the HomePod.
I've had a half dozen smart plugs and bulbs in the house for a couple of years, mostly the IDevices brand because the app is fully accessible and they are compatible with HomeKit, Google, and Alexa. Or, they *were* compatible with Alexa. That functionality went south two months ago, and the software engineers for the IDevices Echo skill haven't seemed to get on top of it yet. Google Home does not seem to activate them as quickly or as reliably as the echo devices did. Whether or not they actually trigger every time when you tell the smart speaker to do it is an important factor, not to be taken for granted.

The TP_Link Kasa app is only partially accessible, in my experience. I've had to hand the phone to a sighted person during set up. Wemo is accessible, but was less reliable at triggering, and actually seems to interfere with my bluetooth signals in the vicinity--maybe it's not shielded adequately. Maybe my issues with both those units are "just me."
Except for the Alexa issue, the IDevices units respond very quickly and 100% of the time for Siri, after firmware updates a year or so ago. Just tell Siri, "turn on the lights" and on they go, or "turn off the stereo." The IDevices smart bulb has a button on it, and I have HomeKit set up to turn off all the lights in the living room when I turn off that one lamp, making it a master switch. Most importantly, I have them automatically turn off at 1 am, even if I forget to or if people in the house forget to. I can also know from a distance when they're on, as well as how many watts the plugs are drawing. As noted above, the AppleTV serves as the hub for enabling remote functionality when you're not at home.
The two reasons I have these: 1) I don't know if my lights are on or off unless I either touch the bulbs or open the Home app to check their status. This way, I know 100% if I'm turning a lamp on or off. Second, I live with someone who is notorious for never turning lights off, ever. "scenes" in the IOS Home app allow me to automatically turn the lights on a sunset and turn them off late at night. Take that, girlfriend! Also, random on/off stuff for security purposes while we're on a trip, of course.
Until the technology settles down, I'm holding off on in-wall wired switches or ceiling fans, but I look forward to going in that direction when it does settle down. If my house didn't shift so much from age, I'd have a smart door lock or two. Thermostats are coming down in price as well, but my wiring is not reliable enough: having your heating system accidentally come on full blast and stay that way while you're on vacation, which happened to someone with the first-gen Nest thermostat, is not something I want to risk. Oh, I also have an Intel compute stick on a smart switch, so that I have a Windows PC on during the day connected to my stereo and for backing up files. "Ok, Google, turn on the computer." It automatically powers down gracefully after midnight, and the HomeKit app shuts off the switch after that.

Submitted by Dave82 on Saturday, February 10, 2018

Member of the AppleVis Editorial Team

Hi all and thanks for the responses.
@Kevinchao89, Good to know about WeMo, I know they have been one of the big brands in home automation since the early days of the technology. And yes, by all accounts, wall switches which can be programmed to carry out various actions and groups of actions look to be becoming quite popular now, so it's not all about the voice assistants.
@Martin, Good to hear how that is working for you. It's going to be interesting to see over the next while how things develop in terms of Apple, Google and Amazon competing against each other in this space. Would love to hear from some HomePod owners.
@Kareem Dale, That sounds like you had a nightmare, fingers crossed it keeps working well for you now that it's finally up and running. Yes absolutely, the accessibility of these apps and set-up processes is definitely a concern. As I mentioned above, I'm looking for a smart panel for my water heating system next hopefully, but hard to find out in advance what is and isn't good from that point of view. So more conversation on AppleVis will be very useful. I'm surprised to hear Nest is not HomeKit enabled.
@Ekaj, I understand totally about it seeming daunting, it is a bit. That said, as I said above, there are ways to get started and experiment a bit with its don't be afraid to give it a go if there is something that would be useful to you.
@Voratious P. Brain, Thanks for the comment. Honestly it's in the Blog section because it's definitely a blog post in my opinion. It is what it says in the title, my story of getting started in the world of home automation. It isn't, and doesn't pretend to be, a highly researched review of all things home automation, nor does it need to be to qualify, it's a story.
The Apple connection I guess is that these technologies very much connect with our iPhones and other Apple devices, but by it's very nature, other products of course come in to the conversation too. Personally I believe it is connected strongly to Apple and is a conversation that is of interest to the community.
Yes, fair point, the Kasa app is not perfect, there are some oddly labelled buttons for example. However I personally had no problem in getting the plugs set up independently, and continue to be able to manage them, so that's just my own experience. But I agree, TP Link and it's Kasa app may not be the best available on the market for those of us who use VoiceOver.
I know exactly what you mean about waiting for the technology to settle down before going all in. For me, re-wiring etc isn't really an option anyway as I rent.
It sounds like you have some interesting things going on there already though, so I look forward to hearing about how you develop it further, and any recommendations you might have.

Submitted by Taeshim on Thursday, June 14, 2018

@Martin Is the app for the samsung smart thing hub app fully accessible with voice over? Not sure if I should get an apple TV or the smart thing hub... I own an echo plus... Thinking about getting smart switches, plugs, and door lock... Would like to be able to control everything using voice command to Alexa...

Submitted by Voracious P. Brain on Thursday, June 14, 2018

Don't you hate it when people answer your question by saying "I can't answer your question" and then go on anyway? ...but I can't answer your question:) However, if nobody ends up providing direct experience with the SmartThings hub app, I suggest picking one up at BestBuy, trying it out for two weeks, returning if it doesn't work, and reporting back here. I'd be surprised if it was unusable, but I'd also be surprised if it was as usable as HomeKit. Note that a newer iPad in Home mode can also act as the automation hub for HomeKit devices, if you happen to have one that stays home.
I avoided buying an additional hub (other than the ATV I already had), but now I'm finding it limiting, because we prefer Google Cast over the ATV and I don't need to have it plugged in anymore, basically, except for hub duties. And, more devices work with SmartThings than HomeKit thus far (though this should change, now that software authentication is allowed by Apple). Except for scheduling, I *think* Alexa and Google Assistant can control devices outside the home directly using their own skills. Most devices have skills for the Echo and Google Home devices, so you should be safe there for normal operation without a hub. WeMo, TP-Link, and IDevices all do not require a hub for their products, but all are compatible with SmartThings, I think. There are also cheap Chinese smart plugs that don't require a hub, but they have a nasty habit of communicating with servers in Russia and China for no obvious reason, according to people's packet sniffers. But Alexa and Google Home don't yet offer time scheduling, like turning off lights at 1:00am if they aren't off already or turning them on at sunset. Or adjusting the thermostat on a schedule if the native thermostat app is not usable. If I bought a hub, it'd be the SmartThings hub. The Wink app is basically usable but unpleasant, from my recollection.
The hardest part is picking a lineup of devices that will all work with one hub, rather than requiring a slew of them. Door locks, door bells, and security devices may be the hardest to fit into the system.

Submitted by Taeshim on Sunday, June 24, 2018

@Voracious P. Brain thank you for your answer. Good idea on trying it out and returning it if it doesn't work. I'm wheelchair bound and was hoping that someone that has tried out the smart thing hub ands app could let me know so I can avoid the hastle of returning it if it doesn't work... hehe But, I guess that is the best way to know what works.