I Turned My Tiny, Dark, And Overpriced Unit Into A 'Smart Home' For Just $US300

Smartthings starter kitSmartThingsThe SmartThings kit has all the basics you need to get started connecting your home.

My apartment gets almost no natural light.

That’s one of the problems with living in New York. I spend about a zillion dollars per month in rent, and still have a teeny tiny apartment that faces the back of a bunch of taller buildings that block the sun. My bedroom window faces some other guy’s bedroom window across a narrow, dark alley.

So no matter what time of day it is, I always have the lights on in my apartment.

For the last several weeks, my apartment has been programmed to light itself up. Whenever I enter my building, my apartment knows I’m home and switches on the lamp in my living room so I don’t have to fumble around in the dark. When I leave the room, the light shuts itself off.

That’s because I’ve been testing something called SmartThings. SmartThings isn’t just one gadget, but a Web-connected system of everyday objects that can control everything in your home from your lights to your coffee maker. I tested one of the SmartThings starter kits, which sell for $US199 or $US299.

How It Works

SmartThings starts with the hub, a small white plastic box that looks sort of like a WiFi router. The hub plugs into your router and talks to the rest of the connected objects in your home. Since the hub is connected to the Internet, you can control everything from a computer or the SmartThings app, even if you’re out of the house.

From there, you set up the objects you want connected. My starter kit came with two motion sensors, two multi sensors that can tell you when a door or window is open, two presence sensors that you clip to your keychain so the hub knows when you’re home (the app can also double as a presence sensor using your phone’s GPS), a smart outlet for controlling lamps or appliances, and a moisture sensor that goes under the sink to alert you in case of a leak.

The app is where the real magic happens. Once all your devices are set up around your house, you use the app to program them all to talk to each other, getting as detailed as you’d like.

For example, I have a motion sensor in my living room and bedroom. If the motion sensor detects me in the living room, my lamp turns on. When I leave the living room and enter my bedroom, the lamp turns off. I put the moisture sensor under my sink and programmed SmartThings to send me a text alert if it gets wet. (Luckily, that never happened, but I was able to test it by sprinkling a little water on the device.)

You can get clever with location too, meaning you can tell SmartThings to do stuff like crank up the thermostat when you’re within a mile of your house.

SmartThings HubSmartThingsThe SmartThings hub talks to all your connected devices.

And if the starter kit isn’t enough for you, there are tons of other devices you can purchase to add into the system, from door locks to garage door openers to Sonos speakers. If you wanted to, you could replace just about any appliance or switch in your house with a SmartThings-connected gizmo.

Using It

What I described above probably sounds like the Jetsons or something out of one of those pie-in-the-sky magazine articles from the mid-twentieth century describing “the home of tomorrow.”

And it sort of is.

Smartthings iphone app dashboardScreenshotThe SmartThings app lets you program everything in your home.

Before the Internet and modern-day smartphones, having a connected home was nearly impossible. But now that we carry the Web in our pocket and connect our homes with broadband, there’s the potential to make everything smart, not just phones, tablets, and computers.

One of the buzzy terms in tech these days is “The Internet of Things,” meaning connecting everyday objects like light switches to the Internet for a deeper level of control. The idea is everything in your home will one day do what you want without having to flip a switch or press a button.

Tech investors love the trend too, and they’re pumping money into companies working on the Internet of Things. SmartThings recently raised $US12.5 million.

Nest, a company that makes smart thermostats and smoke detectors, recently sold to Google for a whopping $US3.2 billion.

For me, SmartThings was a convenience, not a necessity. My lights would still work if they weren’t connected to the Internet. But that promise of all the stuff in my home just working the way I want them to feels almost magical.

Imagine never having to fumble with thermostats, door keys, and light switches ever again. Your home would just know what to do.

We’re not quite there yet, but SmartThings will get you pretty darn close.

I’m already dreaming up ways I can add other stuff to SmartThings. In the summer, I’ll program it to switch on my air conditioner when I get off the subway a few blocks away. I’m also looking at a few SmartThings-powered locks that can unlock themselves when they detect me approaching my door.

Maybe I’ll program my coffee maker to switch on when I get out of bed in the morning.

We’re in the very early days of this trend, and SmartThings is a great start for anyone interested in automating their home. The beginner’s kits may start you off small, but the most brilliant part of SmartThings is that you can build into the system as you go, adding more switches, motion sensors, appliances, etc.

Unfortunately, it’s not cheap. You can get a kit for as little as $US199, but it only comes with a few devices. It’d likely cost a few grand to completely trick out your home.

But if you’re remodeling or building a new place, it’s something to consider. And even if you’re just curious and want to give it a try, $US199 isn’t a lot to ask.

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