Hands On: SmartThings Smart Home Control and Automation System
Great for true gadget lovers
May 28, 2014 by Grant Clauser

There are a lot of smart things in this review. Unfortunately, I’m not one of them. In the case of this review I was probably the dumbest thing in the room.

I’ve setup a number of smart home hubs (like this one and this one), programmed my own Control4 system (somewhat), and confused countless universal learning remotes, so I decided to give myself a challenge with this review of a SmartThings system—I wanted to see how fast I could get it setup and running.

SmartThings is one of several recent entries in the do-it-yourself home automation market. Similar to Lowe’s Iris, Revolv, Insteon and Staples Connect, the SmartThings system begins with a hub product that connects to your network router. The hub then connect wirelessly via Zigbee and Z-wave to other devices to create a mesh network of connected smart things such as motion sensors, door sensors, smart locks, etc. and which you then access and operate all through an iOS or Android app.

SmartThings offers its own line of accessories or you can use compatible third-party devices like Kwickset smart locks, Philips Hue lights or Sonos wireless speakers (BTW—use of third-party devices like Hue still requires the original device’s hub or gateway, so make sure you have plenty of ports on your router). Recently the company added several more device makers to the list of products it works with, and that list is likely to keep growing.

So, back to my setup. Hooking up the SmartThings hub started off smoothly. I plugged it into my router, launched the app, entered the unique ID number that came with the system and filled in a little more user information. Then I got cocky. In a rush to get it done, I didn’t write down the password I’d just made up (Rule #1: don’t forget your home automation password).  That little oversight came back to haunt me when I wanted to add the app to my Android tablet.

Next, I neglected to properly look at the very clear directions—the directions that were actually so simple I really didn’t need to look at them at all. Unfortunately I must have had one eye closed, so I skipped step one and went straight to step two. The result is that I spent 10 wasted minutes opening up the back of a motion sensor and repeatedly pressed a pairing button for a product that had already automatically paired itself. (Rule #2: don’t underestimate the power of user error).

After that, things went pretty well. In addition to the motion sensor, SmartThings sent me a number of door/window contact sensors, and an outlet adaptor for connecting to a lamp, all of which paired up with the system easily. I also had two presence sensors. Those are little devices that fit on a keychain and can be configured to make certain actions occurs based on their presence in the house. For instance, when the system detects that the presence sensor has left the house it can turn off all the connected lights.  For a test I put one on my dog’s collar and configured (with a Smart App called “The Flasher) a light to flash when he left the yard.


The SmartThings presence sensor.

Once you’ve got all your devices synced with the hub, you’re going to want to do something with them. Within the SmartThings phone or tablet app you can configure devices to trigger activities. For example, I configured a door sensor to trigger a light to turn on when the door is opened. Unfortunately when the door was closed again the light turned back off. It took a little tweaking to correct that. Within a section of the app there’s a collection of “SmartApps” which are additional activities you can add. One called “Notify Me When It Opens” can be used to send a push notification to your phone when a particular sensor is opened. That might me a good one to use on your liqueur cabinet or beer fridge if you have suspicious teenagers in the house. SmartApps get a lot fancier than that. Some are more for fun than anything else, such as the “Undead Early Warning” app (SmartThings does not offer a sensor which tells the difference between a zombie and an ordinary boring person).

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Grant Clauser - Technology and Web Editor, Electronic House
Grant Clauser has been covering home electronics for more than 10 years with editorial roles in several consumer and trade magazines. He's done ISF-level damage to hundreds of reviewed products and has had training from THX, the Home Acoustics Alliance, Control4 and Sencore. His latest book is Necessary Myths. Follow him on Twitter @geclauser.

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