Hands On: SmartThings Smart Home Control and Automation System Review

SmartThings is great for true gadget lovers because you can easily expand and tweak it to make it the smart home system you want.

Updated. Originally published March 2014.

There are a lot of smart things in this review. Unfortunately, I’m not one of them. In the case of this test 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, which was acquired in 2014 by Samsung, is one of several recent entries in the do-it-yourself home automation market. Similar to Lowe’s Iris, Wink, 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 Kwikset 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). The company continues to add more device makers to the list of products it works with.

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 occur 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 be a good one to use on your booze 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).

Home security is one of the main areas of interest for devices like this, and SmartThings can be set up for basic security features. You can add notifications for when various sensors are triggered, add an ear-piercing alarm and configure a camera to snap a picture of an intruder. I set up a motion sensor in the garage and programmed it to send alerts when it detected motion. For a while this was useful in letting me know that my wife had come home (I often have headphones on and can’t hear the garage door). Then for three nights in a row I’d get motion alerts around 3AM. Having seen all the Paranormal movies I instantly assumed I had ghosts. Setting up an wireless camera in the garage revealed that the ghost was just a curtain being blown by wind because I had left a window open (maybe I should have put a contact sensor on that window).

Anyway, all the devices I connected worked as planned. The real trick of a system like this is in the app, specifically in how easy it is to set up activies and activate devices. The main screen, called the Dashboard, gives you an at-a-glance view of everything in your system. It will tell you if the doors are locked, the windows open, the lights on, or ghosts (or curtains) moving in your garage. The Things view shows you all the devices. Depending on the device, some can be activated (like a light switch) or configured (like a motion sensor) by pressing the button of that particular device.

The app is comprehensive, in that it allows a wide variety of activities to be configured. If this is your first experience with a smart home system, navigating the interface will take some getting used to. The system doesn’t come with particularly thorough printed instructions, so it’s pretty easy to forget how you set up an action or mode if you want to go back and change it. On the other hand, there’s actually a support feature built into the app that includes very good instructions (you get to this section from the Dashboard). Within the Support section you’ll find several “How to” entries and even a live text chat area to connect with a support person.

So how does SmartThings compare with similar devices? Pretty well. The large variety of “Smart Apps” makes it possible to deeply personalize your system. The large variety can also seem a little overwhelming if you’re new to the whole process. The Lowe’s Iris system, for example, makes programming (or personalizing) a little easier; however some of the Iris’ programming options require a monthly fee of $10. With SmartThings you only pay for the devices. There’s no service charge for now. In fact, it’s the depth that these Smart Apps go that really gives SmartThings its strength. There’s a wealth of creativity in these options, and they’ll most likely give you ideas on how to use your system you would never have thought of on your own.

The library of devices SmartThings works with also makes it attractive. As of this writing SmartThings maintains a list (you can see it here) of more than 100 compatible products from 3rd-party manufactures in addition to SmartThing’s own devices. There are door locks, thermostats, leak detectors, a variety of light switches (including WeMo) and lights (including Hue) and even the Sonos wireless music system.

So back to my challenge–how long did it take me to set up SmartThings? Not counting my errors, the entire hardware setup for the hub and 7 devices was about 25 minutes. Setting up the activities likewise is a process of a couple minutes each, but realistically it may take you several days or longer as you learn the potential of the system and modify it to fit your lifestyle. Someone who is into tweaking gadgets may never finish this process.

As with any DIY home control system, there will be some trial and error involved in the process, but if you’re a curious and tech-savvy person, SmartThings can not only add a high level of functionality to your home, it can also be a lot of fun. We expect that with the help of Samsung’s deep pockets, this platform will continue to expand.

Hub alone $99
Starter Kits $199 – $499

Also available on Amazon

More on home automation:
Timers and Schedules Put the Auto in Home Automation
What’s the Best Home Control System?
Wireless Audio System Basics


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