Building the Home of the Future – 5 Hubs to Completely Automate Your Home
Growing up I remember Bill Gates talking about his “Home of the Future” – evidently you could even visit the “home” on Microsoft campus. In his last CES keynote he even demoed really cool things like broadcasting your screen across all your walls, and other home automation features. This year, Mark Zuckerberg announced one of his goals for 2016 was to build the artificial intelligence to build his own “Jarvis” for his home. Over the last few years I’ve started dabbling in smart home products, and I’m here to tell you we are IN the future! The “Smart Home of the Future” is currently the “Smart Home of the Now”, and now everyone can begin automating their homes with a few very simple products. In this post I’ll be focusing on the “centers” or hubs that you can use to control your home – I’ll be demoing all of these on Fox 13’s The Place tomorrow!
There are basically 2 options for your smart home – installed, and DIY. I’m going to start with the installed options. Vivint Smart Home is a branch of Vivint that focuses on home security-related home automation products. Vivint was kind enough to offer me a set up in my home and the install and set up was extremely straightforward. It took about a day to install.
The majority of the Vivint experience revolves around their SkyControl panel that mounts on a wall and gives you full control over your home. In my set up, they added z-wave locks to all the doors, provided 3 cameras, a doorbell camera, smoke detectors that will set off my existing smoke alarms, glass breakage sensors, and sensors for most of my windows and doors that detect if they are open or closed.
From the panel I can control all the locks, view any of my cameras, and when someone rings the doorbell, a video from the doorbell shows on the panel so I can see who is there. From their smart app I get a notification when someone is at the door and can even talk to them from the app (there is no microphone on the SkyControl panel so it must be done on the phone). The app also sends me notifications when doors have been left open so I can check my cameras and see if the kids have gotten out.
Vivint provides their own home monitoring solution, and I can set it so that when I set the system to “arm” or “away”, all the doors lock, motion sensors are triggered (I opted not to get these since I have a cat), and the system is armed. There is both a home and away mode for arming the system so certain sensors don’t get triggered. Inside the app you can also set basic rules on what gets triggered and armed when you leave the house or arm it for the night. It integrates with all the keypad locks they provide so that if you want, you can even have the keypads on the locks disarm the system. Each person in the home can have their own code, and you can even provide a duress code which appears to disarm the system, but secretly calls Vivint to let them know you are under duress (in the event a burglar is watching you disarm the system).
Lastly, Vivint integrates with Amazon Echo (see my review below)! With simple voice commands I can lock doors, arm the system, and more – all with my voice! “Alexa, arm my alarm!”
Oh, and one more thing – as a self tinkerer who likes to test lots of things and see how they work together, there is a bit of a back door to getting Vivint to work with other devices. I won’t mention nor link to that here (ask me on Facebook), but if you Google “Vivint Z-Wave integration” or “Vivint Smartthings integration” with a little sleuthing you can find ways to add new z-wave devices to your Vivint system. With this I was even able to add Z-Wave lights and even integrate my Samsung Smartthings hub into my Vivint SkyControl panel! This is for very advanced users only though, and is technically not endorsed, nor encouraged by Vivint (who obviously would prefer customers not break the system they set up).
Vivint gives you thousands of dollars of equipment at just a set up fee of $99 per month and a monthly fee starting at $39.99. All service comes with Vivint’s monthly monitoring service that will automatically call police/fire/etc for you in the event an alarm is triggered. You can arrange set up for your home at Vivint.com.
Check out this really cool demo of Vivint in action:
Control4 is the Rolls Royce of home automation systems. They focus on a full-scale solution allowing you, the customer, to completely customize the smart home experience to your liking. They were also kind enough to send out a technician to let me experience the process. Ben Mahoney of A-Team Advisors (call him for your own install!) contacted me and came over to do a full analysis of the type of system I wanted to install. We went over all the rooms in the house and discussed the entertainment systems throughout the home.
From there he and an electrician came out and replaced many of the light switches in my home with their own custom switches. He also went through each of our entertainment systems and got them connected to the main Control4 controllers. Then came the part where he programmed it all to work together. On my wall, I have a Netflix switch! In my main movie room when I go in, I tap on the Netflix switch, and the TV turns on, loaded to the last show I was watching on the service.
The system works with just about everything – he integrated my system with Sonos, and switches that say “Music”, have “Next” buttons, and up and down volume buttons. When I press them it plays the current song in my Sonos queue through my Sonos speaker or controller. With just the tap of a wall button it stops the song putting the home back in silence. They also integrate with other types of music services and even Airplay devices.
The light switches, of course, also control the lights. He set mine so that when I hold them down they dim up or down. He also provided a “Good Morning” and “Good Night” button that when I press them execute a pre-set list of actions that run, like for Good Night, turning off all the lights in the house and the sound and entertainment systems. You name it – they can customize and automate it!
Control4 also provides both a mobile app, and a device to connect to your TV and let you control everything in your house from each device. From my device of choice, I can select any room in the house, turn on the music, listen and control Spotify, turn on Netflix, Hulu, or any other list of options from my Amazon Fire TV. I can also control the lights in my theater room as I’m watching the movie.
They also provided me with a universal remote which I can easily control everything with the click of a button. It doesn’t just control the entertainment system though – I can turn on the lights, set my thermostat, as well as all the entertainment options you would expect from a remote!
Searching around, today I also found an IFTT driver for Control4 – this means potentially I have the capability of connecting any of my Control4 devices from any of my other smart devices they may not support! The possibilities are endless! I just contacted my installer to ask about integration.
Control4 only works with their own components and drivers, so if you have a security system like Vivint they may not work together (I’m going to experiment with the IFTTT support though), but that also ensures a smooth experience with few flaws caused by the end user. For just about $600 plus approximately a $200 installation fee you can have an immediate start to your smart home with Control4 and a set up in one of the entertainment/multimedia areas of your house. Oh, and no monthly fee!
Their video below summarizes the experience I had with their service:
Amazon Echo may not be considered a “Hub” per se, but for what it can do as the central voice control for your home it may as well be. Amazon Echo provides a series of devices where you can summon “Alexa”, the voice controlled service that responds to what you ask her. On the Echo itself, initially you may think of it as a device you can play songs with your voice. It is so much more than that though!
With Amazon Echo I can actually integrate anything from Vivint, to Samsung Smartthings (see below) and using my voice tell it to do things like turn on the porch light, set the thermostat, or even turn on the fireplace! Amazon Echo has a limited number of devices it works with right now, but my experience with it so far has been quite impressive. Word has it there is also a Control4 integration in the works.
Amazon Echo retails on Amazon for $179.99. They also sell the Echo Dot which is smaller, cheaper, and works through your bigger speaker system – you can order that one through your Amazon Echo only, and there is a long waitlist. In the meantime check out the video I did on Facebook turning on my lights with Echo below:
The Samsung Smartthings Hub is my favorite of the DIY “Smart Hubs” available. I like it because of the detailed API and strong developer community to go with it. A “Smart Hub” is a device that communicates with all the other smart devices (like lights, locks, alarms, etc) in the home. Vivint and Control4, as installed systems, provide their own hubs to control the devices they provide. Samsung Smartthings provides a solution that lets you connect devices on your own, giving you full flexibility to add whatever you want to the system.
The Smartthings hub integrates with multiple radio technologies – it speaks Z-Wave, Zigbee, as well as bluetooth and then connects to the internet over an ethernet cable. Because it has so many different frequencies available to communicate, you can connect it to a slew of different devices on the network and control those from your phone, or from device to device. On my Smartthings hub I have integrated my garage door controller to connect via a Z-Wave relay you can buy, into my Smartthings hub. Whenever my car comes in proximity of the house (it knows that by looking at your phone’s location, although the proximity is a couple blocks wide – see Google’s Onhub below for a solution to that), I’ve set Smartthings to automatically trigger the relay, opening the garage door. I do the same to close the garage door automatically when I’m out of proximity of the home, in case I forgot to close it.
I’ve also set up Z-Wave timers (you can also do this with Vivint and Control4 in different capacities) which turn on my porch and yard lights at night and turn them off in the morning. In addition, you can connect multiple devices, for instance, if my smoke alarms go off I could have it trigger my Skydrop Wifi sprinkler controller to turn on and keep the surrounding yard moist.
If you’re a DIYer and love to build things yourself, you’ll be responsible for buying all the switches, sensors, and lights, and you’ll be responsible for programming them and maintaining them, but the Smartthings hub gives you perhaps the most flexibility of all my listed options in this article. As a tinkerer myself, it is my go-to for everything I can’t necessarily do in the other systems (or use as a bandaid until I can contact my reps to install what I need). Most people will feel more comfortable with either Control4 or Vivint though.
The Samsung Smartthings Hub retails for just $99 on Amazon. You will also need to buy all the devices that connect to it, so always keep that mind if you take this approach!
Today Google announced IFTTT integration with their Onhub “Smart Router”, which puts it immediately in the smart home category. The Onhub router is a smart router that learns the way your home uses the internet, and automatically assigns bandwidth to the devices that need it most. But now with IFTTT integration it will also integrate with the other smart devices in your system!
Unlike the Smartthings hub, Google Onhub doesn’t have Z-wave or Zigbee integration (that I’m aware of), so it won’t talk to your Z-wave devices, but because Samsung Smartthings already integrates with IFTTT you can set up rules on things to do with your devices. Here’s where it gets cool – one of the rules for the Onhub is to detect when your phone loses Wifi signal. This means you can detect proximity to the house even closer than you can with Smartthings. So now the minute I leave my driveway, I can use IFTTT to close my garage door, no clicker necessary! The Samsung Smartthings hub relies on GPS, which has a multiple block radius for its proximity. Using Wifi presence narrows that to much, much closer. I’ll be investigating this one further – expect more on this in the future.
Google Onhub retails for $176.39 on Amazon.
Check out this awesome video of these two brothers using Onhub with IFTTT:
While there were definitely strengths and weaknesses of each system I tried, it’s really hard to pick favorites. The truth is I love elements of each system. Vivint I love because of the home monitoring service, the ease of set up, lack of learning curve, and security features. Control4 I love for the detailed integrations from the color of the LEDs in the light switches to the ability to completely control my home theater experience. Smartthings I love for the full flexibility to add what I want to my smart home experience – it in many ways is the glue between everything. Echo I love for the voice control of everything else, obviously. And Google’s Onhub serves as the proximity sensor for my house. There are benefits to each.
As a consumer you will need to decide how much effort, and how much detail you want to put into your system. Each service will have its own strengths and weaknesses. I hope this review has given you at least some idea of the right approach to take. Stay tuned and I’ll have a further review of some of the individual smarthome gadgets in my home. In the meantime leave a comment and let me know what you’d like me to review in the future, and for the future!