11 home IoT devices actually worth getting

In the internet of things are many poor home-automation products, but that doesn't mean they're all bad

11 home IoT devices actually worth getting
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There’s a lot of junk pitched to you and me as part of the internet of things and home automation hype. Sadly, most of these products are silly (texting washing machines!!) or unsafe, due to major, widespread security holes.

For example, the SimpliSafe home alarm system can be hacked by any savvy thief to disarm your home alarm system. Bluetooth door locks are notorious for easily being hacked—or simply forced open the old-fashioned way. And internet-connected security cameras are easily hacked, including those meant to help you keep an eye on your kids, letting Peeping Toms in from anywhere in the world.

Then there are the devices that spy on you constantly: Amazon Echo and Google Home. Edward Snowden warned us about the NSA’s overreach, and tech companies initially protested their shock and dismay, but the tech companies have since forcefully joined in the spying fun. Amazon also has Dots, which ensure you automatically buy consumables at whatever price it wants to charge, a great way for you to go broke without knowing it.

Then there are the home hubs that claim to provide one-stop control for all your devices. What they really do is force you to buy from a limited set of compatible products, often require you to pay subscription charges, and lock you in. You can tell they’re a bad idea by the fact that the phone and cable companies now all offer their own hub services. The truth is you don’t need a home automation hub—few IoT devices actually need to work together, and those that do can proceed without a proprietary hub.

But in that stew of crappy, dangerous, and creepy products are secure home-automation technologies that you should consider because they are also actually useful. Note that all require an internet connection, typically via Wi-Fi, to report their status, be remote-controlled, and update some of the information they act upon.

Google Nest Learning Thermostat or Ecobee

A smart thermostat saves you energy and keeps your house comfortable. That’s a big deal.

The $249 Nest Learning Thermostat, now in its third generation, is the granddaddy of this brood, and I still like its aesthetic best. It’s easy to program and manage on the device itself and via a mobile app or browser. If you’re a demanding creature of comfort, it can also be connected to your Google app in iOS or Google Now in Android to turn on before you get home, by tracking your location (too creepy for me, but others love it).

The $249 Ecobee, also in its third generation, is similar to the Nest, with a clean though techier design. What sets it apart is that the Ecobee supports separate room sensors (one comes with the thermostat; an extra pair costs $79) that let it adjust the heat in those rooms when they are occupied, whereas the Nest manages the heating and cooling system for the house as a whole, based on its location. Be aware that few central HVAC systems can separately adjust the heat or cooling sent to each room, so to make the temperature comfortable in the room you’re in may cause other rooms to be too cold or too hot. But that’s true for a one-location thermostat, too, and with the Ecobee you at least have the room you’re in be at the temperature you want.

Google Nest Protect

The $199 Nest Protect, now in  its second generation, is also the granddaddy of its brood, providing the user experience we all have longed for in a smoke and carbon monoxide detector. Each room gets its own name, and the Nest Protect will tell you which room specifically has an issue, whether it’s a dwindling battery or possible fire or CO release—no more trying to figure out which alarm is chirping or, if something is wrong, which room it’s in.

Also, its use of 802.16 wireless interconnect may puzzle your electrician, but it’s actually safer than the wired interconnect now required in most new homes. The wireless mesh network operates even if one or more Nest Protects are damaged or destroyed, and you don’t have to worry about the interconnect wires burning up in a fire either.

And emergency functions like the path light and ability to notify your smartphone are potential lifesavers.

It used to be that the Nest Protect’s cost was hard to justify in an era of $50 standard detectors, but today 10-year units are becoming common (the Nest Protect already had such a lifespan rating), and the price difference between these dumb detectors and the smart Nest Protects is now too small to not get the Nest Protect.

RainMachine Mini-8, Touch HD-12, or Touch HD-16

This one made my geek gadget gift guide this year, for good reason. Much of the western United States has been in severe drought, and shorter-term droughts have occurred in other regions. Water can’t be taken for granted and wasted.

The RainMachine saves us all water and keeps plants healthy by using federal weather forecasts to automatically adjust the watering as needed. You can also program it to shut off during certain months, not water during freeze conditions, and comply with your locality’s restrictions. There are three models: The $175 eight-valve Mini-8, $239 12-valve Touch HD-12, and $269 16-valve Touch HD-16.

Of course, there are several other similar devices, so why the RainMachine? Because the two Touch HD models let you fully manage them from the device itself, via a touchscreen. And the Mini-8 model lets you turn valves off and on, such as for testing or extra watering, from the device itself. It’s great to be able to do all that from your mobile device or browser (which you of course can), but the headless design favored by competitors means your handyman, gardener, neighbor, or visitor can’t adjust or turn off the device when you’re not around or reachable. Headless devices are simply a bad idea for any mission-critical technology for which other users may need at least emergency access.

Abode Connected Home Security

Given the high monthly charges for some products, the dubious security of others, and the overly limited capabilities of still others, I’d all but given up on a reasonable IoT home security system. But that system does exist, and it started surprisingly as a Kickstarter project (very few of those ever see the light of day despite all the promises they make).

Abode has multiple components, at the core of which is its hub that contains the intelligence, battery backup, radio controller, internet connection, and siren. The company sells the kinds of sensors you’d expect: open door/open window ($27), motion detector ($54), occupancy ($59), motion detector with camera ($115), vibration glass-break ($36), acoustic glass-break ($59), water ($35, for failed water heaters and plumbing breaks), and indoor motion camera ($99), plus key fobs ($22), keypads ($79, great for visitors), and extra sirens ($60). The base kit costs $359 and includes the hub, two door/window sensors, one motion detector with camera, and one key fob.

In addition to Abode’s own radio protocol, the hub supports the Zigbee radio protocol to work with (a limited set of) third-party sensors and devices; you can also get extra Zigbee relays ($35). The system also supports IFTTT for automated actions such as geofencing to sense when your smartphone leaves or approaches the house or turning on the Zigbee-enabled lights if motion is detected.

The company, founded by a former CEO of alarm-monitoring giant ADT, provides monitoring plans ($30 per month) like a traditional alarm provider, but you don’t need a plan to get alerts on your mobile devices or to remote-control the system. There are also no-commitment three-day ($8) and weekly ($15) plans such as for when you are on vacation. And you can choose to pay $10 per month to get a cellular connection in case your internet access fails.

The Abode system is clearly still in early days, so there are rough edges: The geolocation can lag, so you may enter your house before it knows you’re there, tripping the alarm; the motion camera is basic in image quality; and the motion detector with camera takes a quick snapshot of whatever it sees. But it’s the first do-it-yourself IoT security system that checks all the boxes.

LiftMaster MyQ Internet Gateway

If you have a recent model of LiftMaster, Craftsman, Raynor, AccessMaster, or Chamberlain garage door opener (all made by LiftMaster), chances are it supports LiftMaster’s MyQ technology. With a MyQ Wi-Fi device, you can check the status of your garage door, as well as open or close it from your mobile device. 

The $60 MyQ Internet Gateway 828LM device does not use Wi-Fi; instead, it uses the same revolving-key radio controller that your standard garage door opener uses. That way, the MyQ can’t be hacked via Wi-Fi. (The gateway connects to the internet via a physical ethernet connection to your router, and it has to be in signal range—about 50 feet—of your garage door controller.)

Although LiftMaster now sells MyQ-compatible garage door openers with built-in Wi-Fi, I recommend you get an older model without Wi-Fi to reduce the risk of being hacked open, and use the Internet Gateway instead for remote status and control when away.

Standalone ATA

The era of the landline is ending, both with cable providers pushing use of VoIP calling and even the phone companies petitioning states to end support for standard phone lines (they’d still install DSL for internet access).

It should surprise no one that the VoIP telephony from the cable companies and phone companies costs as much or more than the landlines they replace: $40 to $60 per month with taxes and fees included. Given how little most people use landline-style service, that’s too much. But inconsistent cellular reception, battery issues for long cell calls, and needs like faxing mean we can’t completely let go of landline-stye phones.

That’s where standalone VoIP devices come into play. These services use an analog telephony adapter (ATA) that connects to your router and provides the voice phone service on your traditional phone. They are typically cheaper than what your cable or phone company provides and use the same internet connection as those services.

One of the best known is Ooma, whose $100 Telo acts as your phone’s base station. Ooma also offers $50 Linx wireless extension modules that plug into a wall socket and into which you plug your phone—handy for adding phones where you don’t have existing jacks. The basic service is free, but chances are you’ll want the $10 plan (local taxes and fees are extra).

I prefer the plain Grandstream ATA from Pioneer Telephone, which also comes in two- and four-line models for your home office. (Most ATAs are single-line or require complex setup to handle multiple lines.) The cost is quite reasonable: $10 per month per line, plus your local taxes and fees. The ATA is included with the service, but you must commit to a year’s service.

If you have phone jacks already in your home, you can drive them all from your ATA. You’ll need to modify the setup of your telephone block, which was installed with your phone lines however long ago your home was wired. Normally, the outside phone line’s wires are wired into that block, then all the internal jacks’ wires are wired to it, hub-and-spoke style.

To convert the existing block for use with an ATA, disconnect the phone company’s wires (and cap them, since they are low-voltage), then take the line for the jack connected to your ATA and connect it to the block’s input—it replaces your phone company’s lines to receive the phone service. All your other jacks’ wires remain connected to the block as before. (Really old blocks have no separate input—all lines connect to the same set of screws; in that case, you’re already wired once you disconnect the phone company’s outside wires.) If you’re a neat freak when it comes to wiring, as I am, I suggest you get Leviton’s $60 476TL-T12 Telephone Input Distribution Panel wiring block.