I Went All In On The Internet Of Things And It Was Actually Good: Here’s What I Learned

The Internet of Things isn’t inherently bad, but as Joanna Stern of the Wall Street Journal put it (she can be found at @joannastern), the Internet of everyThing is a monster that must be stopped. The creators of many of these products are living in some sort of utopia in which we desperately need a WiFi-operated crockpot or a sensor that can text you when the cat takes a dump. I preface this entire thing by saying I’m a huge ass and you can laugh at me for my ostentatious amount of dumb gadgetry.

Joanna actually put the industry in good perspective when I asked her whether she sees value in the Internet of Things in general.

“ I absolutely think there is value in the Internet of Things. But every object needs to have a very good answer to: Why? Why do I need this connected? Will it benefit me? Will it save me time? Money? Many gadgets — including connected doorbells, security cameras, thermostats, lightbulbs, garage door openers — have great answers to those questions. Others, like connected forks or cups, simply don’t.”

But let’s get one thing straight for all of you — I really mean all of you. Make as many jokes about how dumb controlling your light-switches from your phone is, or how lazy someone is for not just getting up and locking the door. Given the option — if it was just there — would you not naturally want to just have things done for you? This is a philosophical question that many likely have no good answer for.

The Real and Imaginary Problems of Internet of Things Devices

It’s For The Lazy!

I think that people are confusing laziness with efficiency. If your door isn’t locked, why would you choose to get up and do it yourself if it was a one-button press? Let me put it another way — if someone breaks your remote, do you enjoy getting up and changing the channels remotely? That’s kind of it. Don’t get me wrong, I’m immensely lazy, not quite “I would go to the bathroom on the couch” lazy, but I’m happy to not have to lock the door at night, or turn off every single light in the house either at a distance or via voice commands.

It’s Unreliable!

You’re not wrong. I’d say it 80% works. I’ll get into the specifics, but Alexa, one of the main control points, misses voice commands maybe 30% of the time. WiFi enabled devices lose signal, but that is also possibly based on the setup I have (few are prepared for 802.11r). There’re also clear issues if you have a network setup with any kind of multiple router or switch setup.

It’s Costly!

You’re not remotely wrong. I will break down the costs of the gear for my (egregious) setup to make it work over a large (3200 square foot) house. To have a full IoT setup including light switches, one lock, cameras, a doorbell, before you consider your internet setup is approaching a thousand dollars. That’s if you can install these things yourself, which I have to wonder about. Furthermore, if you’re installing external anything you are going to need wireless extenders. Those things are unreliable and expensive.

My rough calculation of what I spent is (minus networking gear) $3010. That’s not including taxes, shipping or installation. If you add in my Eeros, bought in three packs of three, that’s $4510, not including the Sonos Play:5. My house is an atypical situation and if you DIY elements (such as the outdoor cameras) you could certainly save a bunch.

How About That Installation?

No matter what you do, if you’re not handy, you’re going to find a lot of the joy of IoT is out of your hands without a contractor. That’s going to cost you hundreds of dollars. If you opt to do wiring for certain things (external connected cameras) that’s going to get very expensive, very fast. I have a coordinational disability that meant that I had to either get my girlfriend’s dad or a contractor to install stuff. Seriously, the fact that Nest Cam and Ring Cam require you to drill a hole in your wall to mount them is a security function and I get it, but it also means that you’re gonna, well, need a drill. That’s not easy to do. But then again, these are also things that most people don’t need. And this is how you’d install normal things like light switches and doorbells.

[Extremely Nerds Voice] My Wireless!

If you have anything external to your home, you’re going to need wireless power that will extend to the outside of your house. And it needs to get there with a good signal or the devices will simply give up and not work. This is also the case in your house. The current state of IoT is such that the wireless standards we’ve got used to are going to need to improve significantly to make them reliable enough for consumers to be able to reliably and happily use these systems.

Don’t bother with stuff like this. Extenders are horrible to deal with normally, but when the IoT gets going, you’ll find them randomly failing to connect to the internet, or your network, or just crapping out unexpectedly in some cases.

The Setup: The What, The How and the Why

Keep in mind I have no shame and this setup is utterly overkill. The house is a very tall, three-story build with lots of walls, way, way too many lights (and switches to go along with them — the dining room has three switches just to control all the lights, so does the kitchen, etc.) and a large living room.

I didn’t so much want home automation as I wanted the ability to control the house from my phone and with my voice. I wanted security cameras (exterior and interior), light control, temperature control, music control and the ability to both lock my door remotely and see if it was locked. I also wanted music to be readily available, either through web services or through Bluetooth.

Helpful, idiot cat tries to use non-Internet of Things device

I actually hate schedules. In the two years I previously had a Nest thermostat, it didn’t learn particularly well our habits. When I’ve set up schedules I’m constantly fiddling with them. The only ones I like are the ones that make sure the outside lights go off a certain time and that, no matter what, my door is always locked at a certain time of night if I forget. “Home automation” is so, so far away in the sense of an intelligent home.

In fact the term “smart home” should be changed to “easy home” because “smart” suggests these devices know how to do shit on their own. They mostly don’t.

More importantly I had one key requirement from anything replacing a normal thing: it absolutely without exception had to work physically in the event that the internet went out. I didn’t want to be locked in (or out) of my house because Comcast screwed up. I’m also going to leave out my Thermostat, because it sucks and I hate it, and I don’t want them to get any money. My HVAC doesn’t work with Nest and I’m still mad. Any device controlled by Nexia sucks, whoever designed Nexia sucks, you all suck. Shut up.

Alright, here we go.

Router: Eero

I won’t bore you with how I’ve had to set this up bizarrely with a bunch of other networking gear, but because of the height of the house and the amount of walls, and because I’m a huge asshole, I own twelve Eeros. Eeros operate as routers, but also use the 802.11r standard, creating a large roaming wireless network throughout your home. This is great if you have a weaker wireless signal, and there’s something to be said (though I’ll be damned if I can prove it) that even with a full signal on some routers your speed slows down. I actually did this because the signal was so bad in my home office, but it helped a lot with any external IoT devices.

There is one really weird problem with Eero, though. Some devices get really weirded out by it, seeing 12 separate identical wireless networks. You have no idea which is which.

Three Eeros, which should cover most homes.

Setup: Open app. Plug in first Eero to power and modem. Setup is relatively straight forward. Add Eeros as you go. Occasionally they won’t find each other and I can’t tell you why, because they claim it’s a line of sight issue. I can’t think of a single house in existence that has a clear line of sight point for every single Eero. Nevertheless it was painless. NOTE: They connect via Bluetooth on setup, so don’t just walk away like I did about 11 times.

Interface: Amazon Echo, Echo Dot (you have to literally order it through another Echo device), Echo Tap (and the Sonos Play:5)

While I liked the idea of using my smartphone, once I got my first Echo, placing it in my kitchen (where my fiancé and I commonly cook and eat), it took me a few weeks to really “get” it. This included replacing it for quick timers, reminders, and eventually controlling the IoT hellscape I’d decided I’d live in. The truth is to control most of your house with Alexa, with the exception of a few companies, you’ll probably need some other doodad to plug in (we’ll get there).

What surprised me about the Echo was how little I’ve ended up using it with its streaming services. While it’s awesome when you use Amazon’s services, there is a definitive shittiness to how they make you have to say “Alexa, play X song on Spotify.” Amazon, come the hell on. You already have my money. Why are you being a dick about it? Why not query all music services, instead of pouting and playing a sample of a song when I don’t have it in your library? Or, alternatively, let me set it up so Spotify is the default? Dick move.

Sonos PLAY:5 Connected to Echo Dot, next to cat carrier, on top of redwood table from Offerman Woodshop.

This is why I mostly use it for Bluetooth. And I’ll be damned if it didn’t instantly relegate every single Sonos (sorry guys) I had in the house to “oh, uh, I guess I have that” status. Being able to yell “Alexa, bluetooth on,” connecting and then just using your phone for music is just awesome.

Alexa also can control most devices I list below. There’re some that require workarounds, and I’ll say specifically with them how they work.

Alexa is far from without fault, though. It’s seemingly totally random when it decides it wants to work and doesn’t. I’d say 8/10 times it’ll successful accept a thing said in completely the same way. “Alexa, master bedroom off” will most of the time work, but sometimes get you a “I have several devices with that name.” I don’t have more than one bedroom light, let alone several. Sometimes it’ll just go “badoop” and turn off, as if you forgot its anniversary and it’s moody. The future’s sort of here, I guess.

The dot’s great if you have a room that already has speakers in it, or no need for music. The Tap is an overpriced bluetooth speaker that runs out of charge too easily and takes away the core functionality that makes Alexa awesome, which is the ability to not touch a physical object. Why the hell would you have a device that makes me hit a button to speak to it? Also, it sounds like I’m listening to a song through a can. Who greenlit that piece of shit? The Dot can play music from its tiny, tiny speaker and I’d say the Tap is only a little better.

An interesting fact that the New York Times’ Farhad Manjoo brought up is that the Sonos Play:5 can connect to the Echo Dot and effectively make it a more expensive version of the Amazon Echo itself. Ironically, I’d stopped using most of my Sonos devices because of Echo — the lack of a need of a UI beyond yelling “connect Bluetooth” or asking for a random artist, combined with the general good-quality sound of an Echo made it almost pointless. However as the Play:5 has a line-in, and so does the dot, I have been able to use my Play:5 again for the first time ever, and it’s like having a really, really fancy echo. You need a line-in cable and this is what I use.

I haven’t experimented super hard — I wonder if you can, for example, make some sort of speaker setup with the 5 and it’ll go to all of them (which would be badass but I doubt it) — but the moment you turn it on and have the line-in plugged in, you’ve got an Echo-Play:5. The only issue I found was that I had to pump up the volume on the Play:5 to some extent, but not all the way up (or it got too loud) and make sure the Echo was set to half-volume.

A big plus here is that this doesn’t just add voice commands to these speakers, it turns them into easy Bluetooth speakers. There’s a reason Sonos is scared of Alexa.

Setup: Plug in Alexa. Open Alexa app. Connect to Alexa’s little wireless network. Also, don’t walk away during this as I did every time. Go to app, setup is self-explanatory.

WeMo Light Switches

On their own, these switches are at best just kind of useful occasionally. You load up a lazily-made app, hit the button and the light goes on and off. It’s cool. It’s a party trick. The actual use of it is certainly less effort than walking around hitting a bunch of light switches (I have twelve, don’t judge me, don’t @ me).

You can also set up schedules, which is great for things like outdoor lights, and there’s a built-in “away” one that turns them on and off randomly to make it seem like you’re home. That’s cool. I like that I can make my outside light turn on at sundown (that’s a specific option) so that if I get home late I don’t trip on the stairs.

What makes WeMo’s light switches(and that’s the last time I’m writing in Belkin’s stupid way of writing it) magical— and don’t talk to me about the half-assed clone apps that barely work — is Alexa.

Alexa lets you group up multiple WeMo (fine, I did it) lights, such as “downstairs lights” or “outside lights.” This means, as I have, you can create a group named “all lights” that has every single WeMo light switch attached, turning off every single thing in the house. It means I can walk into a room with stuff in my hands (say, the living room while holding something) and yell “Alexa, living room on” and the Echo Dot will pick it up, turning on the light. Or as I head upstairs to bed I can say both “Alexa, downstairs lights off,” followed by “Alexa, master bedroom on,” and the things just happen.

The issue you run into with WeMo light switches, at least thanks to Eero, is when they decide one Eero isn’t quite Eeroing enough and they lose wireless connection. They still work physically, but they grey out in the app. It’s annoying, but I doubt it’d happen with a normal person’s wireless network.

The switches have little buttons to reset them — and the only classical IoT mistake they made so far is that if you update the firmware it won’t let you use the light switch while it’s updating. Hilarious!

Setup: I got an electrician to do it. I think someone who can install a lightswitch could do it easily enough. My anecdotal observation of internet reviews says that I’m too stupid to do so, but many not stupid people can.

The Schlage Camelot Lock (And SmartThings Hub)

Browsing for an IoT lock is an exercise in insanity. There’re several that are apparently breakable with a simple paperclip. There’re several that just straight up don’t work. I got to the Camelot after some digging into the ones that would still work during a power cut, be operational using my phone and were still actual deadbolts. I don’t want some lock on my handle, that’s nonsense.

Anyway, I also didn’t want to look into the August Smartlock, or any other lock company that has, say, never made normal locks let alone one that’s been so thoroughly mocked that I’m surprised that they haven’t gone full “mad online” and called reviewers out for taking bribes from Big Lock.

This isn’t my door and I don’t know who to credit it to, as the link past Google Image Search was dead. I’m sorry whoever’s door this is.

Sadly, there’s not one that I can find that just operates by connecting to your wireless network, but that’s probably a good thing considering the hacking implications. The likelihood of someone personally hacking my house is minuscule, nor do I know how they’d do it (and my alarm system isn’t connected to my network), but it’s still good to not have a lock directly connected to your network in my mind.

The Schlage Camelot uses an external touchscreen, a real key and Z-Wave to connect to your home network. To use it remotely, I had to get one of the $100 SmartThings hubs and plug it into the switch that goes into my network, and I initially despised this until I realized it gave me a functionality that makes me recommend this thing to just about anyone.

The Camelot is awesome because it’ll say if the door’s locked or not. And it can tell when it’s been physically unlocked with your filthy, non-digital hands. If the door is left ajar and you try and lock it, it’ll give you the vague “unknown” status. I’ve had it be incorrect about its status exactly zero times. If you’re like me you go and check whether you’ve locked your door twice before you leave and possibly angst over it constantly even when you’ve checked.

It’s also got one of the most byzantine programming methods (using a number from the back of a manual I’ve already lost) for adding codes. There’s an app — Schlage Connect it’s called — that I could never make work. So every time I wanted to add one, I had to hit that number in, then another number twice, then turn three times, I don’t know. It was frustrating.

Nevertheless the app is really, really great if you use SmartThings. It’s nice to know if your door’s locked.

You can also connect it to Alexa using IFTTT using this command. “Alexa, trigger <lock name you’ve set in SmartThings>” will lock the thing. It’s kinda cool when you have your hands full. I think there’s an unlock IFTTT recipe too.

Let me put it in bold because it’s important: WHATEVER YOU DO, IF YOU USE IFTTT WITH ANY OF YOUR HOME DEVICES, TURN ON TWO-FACTOR AUTHENTICATION.

Setup: If you’ve installed a door-handle and deadbolt before, you can do this. It’s the exact same way. SmartThings and the deadbolt connect using a relatively simple setup process of hitting a code on the door to put it in pairing mode (using Z-Wave). To change codes you require a ‘program code’ on the back of the manual. It’s annoying but it works.

External and Internal Cameras: VMAX IP 4-Camera Setup and Nest Cam

If I was doing this again today I’d likely get a Ring Cam. However, I wanted a system that could survive an internet drop for the external cameras, and my alarm company (Bay Alarm) installs them and the exact setup for a pretty unreasonable price I still agreed to pay.

[Extremely Finch voice] Mr. Reese this UI is terrible.

Just to be clear: to set up four security cameras outside my house was an absolute pain in the ass. They spent 10 hours running cables through the floors, the walls, everywhere around the house to make them fit but also make them have good sight lines. They record to an internal DVR with an uninterruptible power supply (this one). The software is absolutely god-awful. I mean seriously, someone disrupt this garbage. You have to give the software your IP, and hope you’ve got your ports set up properly, and every time you close the Mac OS version it’ll wipe your info so you have to enter it again. When it’s set up it is kind of cool — you can look at four separate screens like a badass. For some reason, however, my wiring has gone wrong and now it’s showing the same image twice. Great.

The basic image quality is viewable but not great. You can however then set hit a button to turn it to 1080p.

The Nest Cam is so easy to set up it’s trivial. Stand by camera, take picture of QR code, camera connects to whatever WiFi your phone’s connected to. The only issue is that if Nest goes down, so does your camera system. And if your internet goes down, so does your camera system. You’d need a more intricate and expensive system to DVR these and I don’t really care to get one.

Setup: Eh, I wrote it before.

The Ring Doorbell (and Chimes)

Why do you need a $199 doorbell? You don’t. If you’re scraping by for money and you want to buy one stupid thing, make it something less stupid than this.

Ring is a doorbell that also has a miniature, cloud-supported wide-angle lens inside. Whenever anyone hits the door, it pings your phone, bringing up a connection to said doorbell wherever you are (assuming you have your internet connection) and you can talk to them, or simply creep on them if you’re that way inclined. You can also pay $30 a year for it to automatically upload any and all doorbell video to the cloud.

So why did I want it if it’s so dumb?

  1. Our current doorbell was so small people routinely missed it. Then again, people still miss the giant doorbell with the word “RING” on it, but way less.
  2. I wanted an intercom system — for practical reasons and because it made me feel cool. We get random salespeople walking up to the door all the time and they love to turn up about 7 in the morning. It’s a lot easier to tell them we’re not interested this way.
  3. If I’m out of the house and someone comes with a delivery I can say “hey, can you leave it there?” or “I’ll be back in 15 minutes, can you come back then?” This actually helped me make sure I was able to get an urgent package when I horribly miss-timed a trip to the store.
  4. Security. Yes, I’m paranoid, but there’s the classic “hey, I wonder if they’re home, I’ll hit this button a bunch.”
Yeah man thanks for waking me up at 7 in the morning that was great.

It’s actually a really great product. It’s easy to install, it has very few hiccups, the quality is good enough to make out faces, it records enough time that you can see the before, during and after of having a conversation with someone at the door, and it connects to IFTTT. This means that my doorbell being rung automatically turns on the outside light, meaning that (though it has night-vision) they’re always clearly lit despite the time.

I should also add you don’t have to wire it into your existing doorbell. Our current one A) couldn’t and B) was in an awkward place. Now it’s not. It uses a rechargeable internal battery you recharge with any micro-USB cable, and they claim it lasts a year. You have screws in the bottom of the mounting plate that you take out to recharge it.

Important note for people who claim that someone could steal it: Well, yes, but they’d need a screwdriver, and it won’t easily yank off the wall if you mount it properly. It will also notice any motion and start recording when it does. Ring also claims they will replace any stolen doorbell.

One annoying part is that my door is very, very thick. I mean like a damn castle door. The result is that the chime of the actual “bing-bong” of Ring gets…lost. So you can pay $30 for these little “chime” boxes that plug into any outlet and play the noise, connected to your Ring, anywhere you want. Which is cool and all but $30 a piece is a painful one.

I really like it but that’s just me.

Setup: You have to set up the digital side first using the app. Why? Because they put the ‘sync’ button on the back of the damn device. I mean it makes sense so that someone couldn’t just come up and sync it to their phone somehow but it’s worth remembering.

The box comes with all the tools you’d need, but my fiancé’s dad used his real big boy drill/screwdriver to mount the plate. It comes with a level, a screwdriver and a drillbit that allegedly is strong enough with a normal human hand to do the job. Once the plate is on you slide on the Ring doorbell and screw in two philips screws in the bottom. You’re done. If you want to wire it to your current doorbell there’s a clear video in the app.

So Was It Worth It?

As Joanna said, the questions to ask yourself are “Why? Why do I need this connected? Will it benefit me? Will it save me time?” This is a very sensible rule to go by with any IoT device. I’d probably expand the term “benefit” to also include “will I be happier as a result?”

For example, while I can’t say that it’s a necessity in my life to have WiFi-controlled lights that I control with my voice, I save time (and I’d argue electricity) thanks to voice-controlling most of them. Using Alexa’s groups of lights, I can yell “downstairs off” to my dot in the living room as I walk upstairs, then “master bedroom on” — before I’ve opened the door everything’s done for me. It’s also great for multi-switch rooms — one set of lights in the dining room is weird-looking, so saying “dining room” does all three. And turns all three off. It’s also great to automate the outdoor light.

More importantly, it’s just kinda nice to yell “bedroom off” or “all lights off” and know that I’ve not accidentally left one of the lights off. Or if I stumble out of the bedroom (on the top floor of my house) I can hit a button on the app and have the living room on to find whatever it is I need, and if it requires two hands I can just get it turned off upstairs. It’s nice. It’s not necessary, I’m perfectly capable of doing it, but it’s genuinely made me happier.

Also, if you’re cooking and have a bunch of stuff in your hands and you haven’t turned on the dining room lights, there’s an obvious use case.

There’s definitely a problem when you need a better interface to make it worthwhile (Alexa for WeMo, SmartThings for Schlage’s locks). From what I can see there’s been an insane bandwagoning to make things “smart” without thinking about whether anyone should band around a standard interface. This isn’t the control mechanism — I mean it’s laughable that HomeKit, for example, is on so many phones and so many devices just don’t use it. Maybe I’m missing a complexity, but having a SmartThings App, WeMo app, Ring App, IFTTT…it’s just kind of dumb.

Even SmartThings, which is probably the most intelligently-made IoT app, can’t find my WeMo switches. Alexa can. It makes no sense.

With that being said, there is something kind of magical about my home now. Not that I ever thought “ah man, using light switches again? God, isn’t this the future?” there’s a certain feeling of walking through rooms in the house and getting the lights turned on. Or knowing that if someone’s at the door you know exactly who and exactly when. When a contractor decided to drag a couch across my floor, scarring the wood, my Nest cam caught it. When a guy was hanging outside my house looking in windows, I knew, and informed my security (Bay Alarm’s got a patrol team, it’s not like the Zitron Household has some sort of security detail). When I want music, there’s music just about anywhere. And, yeah, I can change my thermostat from my phone.

In the end there is still that very, very valuable question — why does this need to be “smart”? I can’t think of a really attractive reason to own Philips Hue’s lightbulbs, or a WiFi-activated crockpot. I have a WiFi smoker that’s cool and all but really it’s just an electric smoker I can set things with using my phone. There’re “smart air vents” out there somewhere. There’s a WiFi crockpot and a WiFi coffee machine and a WiFi wine thing.

There’re huge possibilities in intricate automations, such as motion sensors that trip when you walk into a room, look around for a bit and if they don’t see anyone, they shut the light off. Or automating things like your morning coffee, just the way you like it, and particular days you do it earlier because of whatever reason.

But people don’t seem to be building these products out (notice that I’ve really not called out that many considering the length of the piece) thinking “hm, what problem are we solving here?” It’s the George Lucas problem — that there’s technology and as a result it must be used as much as possible, regardless of whether it’s useful or intelligent. I can understand why you may want a schedule-able humidifier, dehumidifier or air conditioner, but do you really need them? I’m a hypocrite in the sense I definitely don’t need any of this stuff, but those three are very, very common examples of things that don’t necessarily need smartphone functionality. Nor is yelling “ALEXA MAKE IT LESS HUMID” even that useful.

I won’t even go into things like automating your thermostat to post IT IS HOT in Slack, but you don’t need a smart trashcan and I challenge you to come up with a good excuse for buying one. If you can’t see it’s time to take out the trash based on how much trash is in the trash can then you are someone I just don’t understand. If someone made a smart trashcan that simply teleported my trash to the outside trash can, then yes, I’d be all over that.

Most people don’t need most IoT devices. I like my home how it is now. I love that I can control my lighting easily, or unlock/lock my door with my voice (and know it’s locked) and I really like having the ability to see who’s at my door. But these aren’t necessities. They’re great and useful but not essential by any means, especially if you have a smaller home.

Out of all of it, I’d really recommend most people try Alexa and a WeMo switch or two, along with the Schlage lock. Once you get past the party trick stage of “heh, I yelled at a thing and it did a thing,” Alexa becomes a great music player and multi-faceted device (with timers and basic questions like “what time is it?” and “how long on that timer?” and “why did father leave?”), the switches while you’re lazy for using them become second nature, and seriously, if you don’t appreciate knowing for sure your door’s locked, you’re a more secure person than I am. Mentally at least.

Thanks for reading, follow me on my webzone @edzitron, share this with your friends, or ask me questions.

-Ed