Consumer Reports Not Impressed with Smart Home Systems

Are smart home products ready to go mainstream? Consumer Reports rates their favorite devices.

If Consumer Reports says home automation is finally here, well, it must be. We won’t argue about the fact that true home automation has been achievable for years, or that that an Internet of Things (IoT) light bulb and an integrated automation system aren’t the same thing, because, whatever.

Still, there’s no denying that IoT smart home devices are falling out of the cloud like pollen on my car hood. A recent article in Consumer Reports takes a look at some of the new smart home devices available for do-it-yourself home-improvers and came to a mix of conclusions.

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But first, of course, some definitions and numbers.

When we say Internet of Things, generally we’re speaking about products that connect, at some level, to a wireless network. Sometimes the smarts for these things are in a cloud server far away, but often the products require a central hub installed in the home and connection to the user’s network. Smart Things, Lowe’s Iris, Revolv, Staples Connect and Insteon Hub all work essentially that way, though they speak a variety of wireless languages. This new landscape of products is making it easier for people to integrate unified control over systems such as lighting, temperature control, window shades, security monitoring and other odds and ends. Even big name appliance manufacturers are slowly getting into the act.

From an Electronic House point of view, these systems and products are different, though part of, the extended family of home automation from companies like AMX, Crestron, Control4, Elan, Savant and others.

And about those numbers—Consumer Reports reports that Cisco says by the year 2020 there will be 37 billion smart products on the market. Of the readers Consumer Reports surveyed, 20 percent say they use some smart home products now, and 70 percent of the ones who don’t, plan to in the near future. Another research firm predicted that there will be 10 million smart connected devices by 2017.

The report rightly pointed out the importance of a robust and secure wireless network when starting your own IoP smart home system. CR recounted a story in which an internet-connected refrigerator was the victim of a cyber-hacking attack—owners returned home and found all their beer had been slurped through their cable modem.

Where the CR report goes wrong, though, is in stating that the “promise of an easy, centrally controlled smart home has yet to catch up with reality.” I read similar statements all the time, mostly from mainstream news outlets, and I always want to ask something like “what reality?” Maybe the question would better be “at what price?”

The easy, centrally-controlled smart home has been available for years. Just take a look at any of our recent Home of the Year winners and you’ll see that these systems are not only available, they’re also fairly common. The problem, though, is that the ultimate connected home is not available at big box prices. And why should we expect it to be? Do you want to trust your home and your family’s security to something you can throw in a shopping cart?

The other issue is that people need to have reasonable expectations. DIY smart home products are not for dumb people—a basic understanding of how your own home works and how these technologies can enhance it is extremely important. Don’t rush out to get the latest smart home device without seriously thinking about how you use your non-connected version. For example, will a thermostat you can adjust from your iPhone really be useful, or is there a schedule feature on your old thermostat that will solve the same problem?

RELATED: So What Is Home Automation Anyway?

After checking out a variety of smart home products, the Consumer Reports editors came up with their most and least favorites:

CR’s Most Favorites:

TCP Smart LED Bulbs. This product gives you smart phone control over LED light bulbs with integrated wireless radios. Electronic House reviewed this system a year ago and found the product sets up easily and works well. Unfortunately the system is proprietary and doesn’t integrate with any other smart home products.

Generac Mobile Link. This is a product that alerts you if your generator isn’t working correctly. If a generator is something that’s important to you, this product makes sense. Its $280, plus a monthly service fee and several thousand for a compatible generator.

FortrezZ Wireless Z-Wave water valve. Yup, a water valve. Consumer Reports really knows how to pick fun products. Anyway, it’s a device to alert you in case of a wet basement situation. As someone who’s spent a lot of time with a shop vac, I can’t really argue.

Given the high excitement value of CR’s top picks, what do you think they didn’t like?

CR’s Least Favorites:

Nest Smart Thermostat. Yes, the Nest that Google spent loads to acquire. CR’s editors yawned this away. You can read our own Nest review here. CR was also not impressed with the Nest Protect smoke alarm. Tough crowd.

GE Profile PT9050SFSS Wall Oven. This app-controlled oven didn’t move the editors, nor did any similar connected cookers. I’m not surprised. If it slices the ham for me, then I might be more interested.

A representative of Nest Labs responded with comments regarding Consumer Reports testing procedures for the Nest Thermostat and Nest Protect:

“…I read your story on Nest/Consumer Reports and felt it was important to provide some context re: Consumer Reports’ “testing” of the Nest Learning Thermostat. We strongly disagree with their testing process, which is designed for traditional programmable thermostats, not the new category that Nest created with our learning thermostat. In the CR lab test (see image below), Nest was included on a wall with 29 programmable thermostats and people were asked to complete a list of tasks relevant to programmable thermostats, such as:

Set the date/time. This is like asking someone to set the time on their smartphone. Nest is connected to Wi-Fi and does not need manual time adjustment.
Program a schedule for a specific day (e.g. Program a Saturday schedule that includes a 7am set point of 70 degrees, a 9am set point of 66 degrees, etc.) Nest gets programmed simply by adjusting the temperature as needed over a weeklong period (and continues to learn after that). It is not designed to be programmed the way a traditional programmable thermostat is.

To the best of our knowledge, Consumer Reports did not conduct any in-house, real-world tests of the Nest Learning Thermostat.

With regard to Nest Protect, Consumer Reports has determined as a matter of editorial policy that no product without both types of smoke detection sensors will receive its recommendation. The most authoritative fire safety regulatory sources in the United States have concluded that either type of detection technology commonly used in smoke alarms (photoelectric or ionization) can provide time for occupants to escape most residential fires, regardless of the type of fire. Nest Protect was tested by (third-party) Underwriters Laboratories against rigorous and well-documented performance tests across a wide range of fast and smoldering fires, and in each case it met or exceeded any requirement for responsiveness. We stand behind our product.”

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