SmartThings

SmartThings arrived on the marketplace and was quickly backed by Samsung who proclaimed their idea of all things connected, and I mean really connected, not just a company selling their own connected items which didn’t talk to anyone else’s connected items. Suddenly SmartThings looked to be a really strong and viable choice to connect your home devices together, absolutely that’s just what I was looking for.

I had been looking into home automation for some time and had finally recommended Lightwave RF to my Dad, I even bought him a starter kit for a present. He’s loving it now and can control his heating remotely. Oh I know, you’ll be saying why would I want to do that? Well you might not, he does though and so do I. He will be away from home at non-regular hours of the day and coming home at times he can’t determine so a normal timer is wasteful. The ability to switch heating on and off when he wants, from wherever he is, is ideal, and it saves him money. He’s since invested in other Lightwave RF items such as switches and motion detectors which control lights in and out of the home.

Of course Lightwave RF never took a firm hold of the marketplace, even though they were selling individual Wi-Fi controlled radiator valves before anyone else. They didn’t take off and are looking like they are falling well behind the competition. The main reason for that, aside from the obvious lack of marketing and new product development, is that they are a closed loop, they only allow communication with their own Lightwave RF devices, and with no product development that’s a small pool of devices.

After a while of US deployment, and the announcement by Samsung, I settled on SmartThings. There were two other main reasons I chose them. The first is that their site isn’t an advertising slot for a product that hasn’t actually been released, or is just looking for start-up funds and hasn’t even been developed. The second is that they offered integration with a wide range of products, in fact they tease that they connect with both of the major automation network systems Z-Wave and ZigBee.

I’ve now been using them for some time there are a few things I have to say, some good, but many reflect the current state of the Internet of Things and their associated companies, and while I think that SmartThings are one of the leaders and will undoubtedly become a major force with Samsung’s backing, right now they are some way from that, in fact some might argue they shouldn’t have been a publicly available product so soon.

As an aside, I’ve written my thoughts on the Internet of Things in another article. This looks at the problems that the concept is facing and currently has, and where it’s totally failing to achieve the ideal it was originally imagined for. I also point out where it needs to get it right, what it could do to succeed.

So with all of that, let’s look at my experiences with SmartThings in my home so far.

Initially it was easy to install. A starter pack arrived, with some additional items I’d purchased. The pack included the hub, a presence sensor, a power outlet (power plug in this country), a switch, a motion sensor, and a moisture sensor.

The pack came in a nicely designed package (don’t worry I’m not doing a beside the point un-boxing video) all centred around the hub itself. The hub is a neat and unobtrusive box that simply needs power and an internet connection either through WiFi or Ethernet. I chose Ethernet and it was installed in no time.

Surprisingly there’s no real browser interface with the hub, the central controller for all your SmartThings, there is a basic web page you can visit but it isn’t pretty or an easy address to remember. The access and control is all through the mobile app, more on that later.

A switch on the front door was a simple case of sticking to the door, one side on the door and the other on the frame. The motion sensor was also simple, a sticky pad and it was fitted very quickly, although both had the option for screw mounts. The water sensor was even easier to place by lying it underneath the washing machine on the floor.

I had to add the devices to the hub itself, which was a painless experience achieved by installing the app on my mobile and selecting “Connect a Device” to go through the wizard options and add it to my home. You can also do this from the website, which is rather clunky to get to and use, but the experience is much better through the mobile app which is available for all platforms.

Once devices are connected, and you’ve created your home and rooms, you can set your routines to carry out different tasks automatically based on a number of scenarios and conditions. These routines are Good Night, Good Morning, Goodbye and We’re Back. It’s pretty obvious what each signifies.

I have Good Night set to start automatically at midnight and to turn off my printer, if it’s switched on, as well as set the security system to Arm (Stay), the option for when people are still in the house but you want alerting to various sensors such as the front door being opened, closed or knocked on. Good Morning sets the mode back to Disarm, with all device notifications turned off, except for front door knocks, at 06:30 as long as both my own and my wife’s mobile phones are in the home.

You can begin to see how powerful this could be with all sorts of devices around the home, all connected and all talking to each other, especially combined with mobile phones and the upcoming power of Samsung’s Internet of Things connected products with televisions, fridges and even ovens. While I was setting up all the rules and items for my home I was very impressed with it’s capabilities.

After a short while of the system being installed the problems started coming, and for a good period the system did not perform as described or as hoped.

The first thing that hits you is the interface, it isn’t completely intuitive, it looks good but it’s a little difficult to understand how the different sections relate to each other. You do start getting used to it, but even when I’ve been debugging some of the Things I’ve defined, I’ve become confused where conditions and item configurations are set. The more you use it though, the easier it becomes.

The home area is simple to use for the standard disarm and arm options, but it really could do with more consideration as to the definition of rules and the relationship of the arm statuses, the routines and the modes, as well as how to manage SmartApps downloaded from the Marketplace and added to your own devices. It needs a little more thought about the user journey, and less about the home automation hobbyist.

The app has a significant lack of widgets, in fact just the one. It allows you to set the routines such as Good Morning or Good Night, routines which then carry out actions on your items dependent upon various states and conditions you define, such as switching off power sockets, turning alarms on, ignoring presence sensors, and then in the morning turning them all back to their previous states. It isn’t well designed either, and it requires scrolling through a list rather than having icons and highlighting the current state. In fact, there is no widget that shows you what the current state of either the system or any of the individual sensors.

It does sound like a useful widget, changing the modes from morning to night, in to out, and vice versa. However, these routines can be set to trigger automatically on times, sunrise and sunset, presence sensors leaving and so on, so why do you need to turn them on and off via a widget? I do believe that widgets to show what the current state of a device is such as the temperature, the position of a door, the moisture on the floor, or if there are any alerts. This seems a much more powerful use case than setting the modes that can be automated.

Thankfully a third party has developed a system called SmartTiles which presents all the information you would need in a dashboard of simple graphical tiles. The app allows you to configure and reconfigure multiple dashboards, unfortunately there’s no native mobile app to go with it and you need to view them on a web browser. Simply saving the page to the desktop from Chrome will create an icon that opens an almost full-screen dashboard, it’s an elegant solution to the shortcomings of the native app.

On their own the SmartThings devices are very useful. The front door sensor doesn’t just indicate open or closed, it can even tell if there’s a knock at the door, thanks to an additional SmartApp I downloaded from the SmartApps marketplace, it even tells me if the postman has dropped something through the letterbox.

That’s also true of the motion sensor which is pointed at the front door, it can spot when a parcel or a large letter has been dropped through the letterbox, and can also show the temperature. The moisture sensor also provides temperature, as well as when it detects water, all valuable functions. However, the problem for the user is that you need to start the app, select the Things tab, and then the individual device before being able to see what the temperature is and the other current states. Again, the SmartTiles app will show you this information straight on the dashboard.

Moisture, motion and the door knocking or opening will all send notifications to your phone should they be triggered. I have set these up in different ways, for example if the status is Alarm (Stay) the door switch will send a notification but not the motion detector, this will only send a notification when the status is Arm (Away) or the time is between midnight and six-thirty for nighttime.

The notifications work well on their own but the Routines themselves have had persistent problems. Good Morning and Good Night are two very important ones that are triggered by times and existing states, you want these automatically turned on and off every night and morning when the state hasn’t been set manually or your presence devices are away from home – for example when you’re on holiday or just going to bed!

These Routines are some of the most powerful parts of the system, they really are the “Smart” part of the title, and yet they have not-worked more often than they have. Even during writing of this review they were failing to automatically trigger. The good news is that a new software update was released to the hub the other week and since then the routines have been working as advertised, but it’s been a fair road getting here.

Goodbye and Welcome Back are completely flaky. Both these Routines are defined to work with both mobile phones in the house. The system should only perform Goodbye when both phones leave the pre-defined area around the home and We’re Back need only be performed if you are the first mobile phone back within that area. Neither really works consistently, rather it’s a surprise when it does.

This can not only be annoying and clearly remove a massive part of the functionality of the system, but at times it is counterproductive. It can leave your system in alert when it shouldn’t, and worse still turn it off when it should be set as armed. If you rely on it as an alarm system, this can be rather worrying. At least you’ll receive notifications when routines are triggered so you should know the current state.

The support teams, who do provide responsive and personal support, have told me that this is going to be resolved quite soon, the next thing to be fixed after the recent hub update resolved the Routine triggers. Once this is fixed it will be a major boost to the system.

Regarding the app and the notifications, it isn’t just tied to one phone, you can invite others to share your hub. This has allowed me to set-up the app on my wife’s phone and allow her to receive the same notifications, alerts and functionality that I have. The only problem with this is that it appears to be treated as a completely separate installation and while my notifications are working now that I’ve resaved settings following the hub update, my wife’s hasn’t. This is simple to fix, but I had thought everything would have been controlled and set at the hub level, not at the app, and a change on mine would reflect on my wife’s.

I must admit that I’ve not stepped out of the realm of SmartThings devices apart from one, the Samsung Smart Home Camera – now you may remember I pointed out that SmartThings has been bought and is being backed now by Samsung, and this camera is touted on the SmartThings list as being compatible.

Here’s where you need to be careful, there are granularities of the word compatible that aren’t shown on the SmartThings compatibility list and the problem that lies within that is shown to perfection with this rather costly camera.

I first set the camera up with the Samsung software. It isn’t pretty but it’s easy enough to do and I can watch video over the internet, have it set to record activity and alert me when there’s motion or audio. Even better I can define certain areas of the picture to be motion triggers, and on an event video is recorded to the SD card and alerts sent to my mobile.

Connect this SmartThings compatible device to SmartThings and you’ll be disappointed. There is only one function available, should any other SmartThings device trigger you can set SmartThings to tell the camera to start recording. That’s it, the only connection. The motion and audio detection built into the camera do not link with SmartThings, SmartThings can only start recording on the device, not work with the detection systems within it, I can’t get alerts through SmartThings should the camera detect anything, just the native camera app. Oh, to be fair I can watch the video through the SmartThings app, but it really isn’t integrated.

To be honest I am now wary of purchasing anything based on that compatibility list as I’m not sure what level of compatibility it will provide. Especially if it isn’t a SmartThings device, even if it is a Samsung device there’s no guarantee of full integration.

I am very disappointed that the functionality of the expensive Samsung HD camera I bought isn’t utilised fully and integrated, with Samsung backing SmartThings I would have thought that this hardware would have been fully operational through SmartThings.

Right now SmartThings still feels like a product that is being bug tested, a beta release if you will. With the latest updates it has taken a big step forwards and it would be fair to say it could be seen as almost out of that phase, but there are still a few issues.

It doesn’t always behave the way that it claims and I’m surprised that a Samsung home security product isn’t fully integrated. SmartThings and home automation are still in the early stages and Samsung need to step up their investment and support and help SmartThings become the leading Home Automation product it could be. They have to beware as Panasonic and Hive are coming quickly behind them.

While this review is about Samsung’s SmartThings, those last comments shouldn’t just be attributed to this product alone. Many, if not all of the products I’ve looked at for Home Automation are in a similar or much worse state. Indeed, I chose SmartThings because it was the most comprehensive and furthest ahead, holding onto their ideal of bringing together the competing systems.

Despite some of the negative things I’ve said above, I’d still rate SmartThings high up the list of home automation systems. The system is getting better and better and they have the backing and the drive to make their service better as well as the leading system. If they keep focusing on support, fully integrating devices and concentrate on bringing together the multiple home automation systems, then SmartThings could well be the system to have in home automation.

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