I can always depend on my little sister to lock herself out of my apartment.
This time it was 20 degrees in Brooklyn and Sam was visiting from out of town to take care of my dog, Finn. I was across the country at a friend’s wedding north of San Francisco.
As is Sam’s custom, she forgot her keys inside while out walking Finn, leaving the two of them freezing and stranded. Naturally, her phone was also dead because she never charges it, further complicating her predicament. After a few failed options, Sam eventually walked to a friend’s apartment where she used Facebook on his computer to track down a friend of mine with extra keys.
A couple hours and several miles of walking later, she was back to the warmth of my apartment, exhausted and slightly humiliated. At least Finn had a good time.
I knew this wouldn’t be the last time. My sister’s feats of haphazard behavior — like losing our car keys on a cross-country road trip or leaving her wallet on the bus to the airport — are legendary. And so, with the past firmly in mind, I leaped headlong into the future.
I decided to embrace, at least lightly, the smart home.
The gateway drug was the smart lock. Now, when this incident inevitably happens again, Sam will simply type the numerical version of “samsux” on my door’s smart key pad (I changed it, you creeps) and she and Finn will be home free. And I’ll be free to worry about something else.
The decision, however, was not without apprehension. A lot of silly smart devices, including smart toilets and smart toasters, have begun flooding the market.
A torrent of low-cost smart speakers paved the way.
Depending on which study you believe, about a fifth to a third of Americans now own smart speakers, many of which were purchased over the last holiday season. These devices come powered with smart assistants like Amazon’s Alexa or Google’s Assistant — they’re the brains behind the speakers — which can do anything from schedule your day to buy your groceries to set up one of numerous other smart devices with a few uttered words or taps on their app.
This year, consumers are forecast to purchase 862 million smart devices — speakers, security cameras, thermostats, light bulbs — according to market research firm IDC. That’s up nearly 25 percent from 2018 and growth is forecast in the double digits for the next three years.
But do these devices actually make our lives easier? How many of them are gimmicks — like Alexa’s dumb jokes?
I decided to find out, armed with a healthy dose of cynicism about how “smart” it would be to let these objects invade my home. But I was also intrigued by some of the potentially useful things these devices could do.
In January, I began setting up my own smart apartment, but not simply for the novelty. I only wanted to live with devices I thought truly had the potential to make my life better. (For the purposes of this experiment, I’m broadly defining smart devices as electronics that can be controlled from anywhere or that can operate on their own.)
The goal was pretty simple: make my life easier, save me time, and maybe bring me some joy.
But my apartment itself was soon to pose some challenges. I do not live in a Peloton commercial. There are no sleek, polished floors or wall-sized windows overlooking sweeping vistas. I live in (and love) my big, old, imperfect apartment. It’s got irregular floors, too few plugs, and no thermostat (if you’re hot, open the window; if you’re cold, put on a sweater).
I’m also a tech writer who cares about larger trends rather than incremental gadget upgrades. I use a many-generations-old iPhone because it works just fine; this will be the first and probably last time I type the word “bevel.” I want the gadgets that I have in my life to be easy to install and incredibly useful.
In choosing which of these devices to use I did a bunch of my own research, then consulted professionals’ opinions and Wirecutter reviews. I wasn’t interested in testing the relative quality of devices, but rather wanted to choose the best of what was out there (within a reasonable price range) to see if the smartest smart devices could make my life better.
With all that in mind, here’s the list of smart devices I installed in my house:
- A smart lock
- Smart speakers (and their assistants)
- A dog camera/treat dispenser
- A robovac
- A smart smoke/carbon monoxide detector
- Smart lights
- Smart plugs
And here’s what it’s been like to set up and live with each.
Nest x Yale lock with Nest Connect ($280)
A smart lock was the first item on my smart apartment list and the last one I was able to install.
It turns out that I have a mortise lock. Don’t know what that is? I didn’t either. What it meant was that I couldn’t find a similar smart lock to replace it.
This predicament resulted in a lot of back and forth with smart-lock makers and the tech companies that partner with those lock makers. At one point, a smart-lock rep told me I’d need a new door. Right, thanks.
While it’s perfectly okay to change the locks in my apartment, a new door would have to be escalated to my management company and would probably mean a lot of frustration if it was approved at all. Also, a new door is expensive and I didn’t think Vox would want to foot that bill on top of the smart gadgets I was expensing.
Eventually, a more practical solution arose: Forget about the mortise lock and instead install the smart lock above it where a deadbolt had once been. I chose the Yale/Nest lock because it was the best rated on Wirecutter and because a Google rep (Google owns Nest) was the one who suggested this brilliant workaround.
Still, there were roadblocks. Was my door the right size? Did a millimeter or two in width make a difference? Would the fact that my door is metal be an issue? Installing a smart lock is supposed to be something you can do yourself, and I’ve even installed regular locks before. But by now I’d had enough frustration with every step of the process that I was unwilling to chance screwing it up. Eventually, a Google Nest Pro — an outsourced local technician — had to come by to help me widen the defunct deadbolt’s footprint.
One major issue with getting a smart lock in an apartment building — in addition to not wanting to spend money on a place in which you won’t live forever — is that you still have to contend with the lock on the common front door. Indeed, the Google tech told me that most of his jobs are in private, suburban homes.
In my case, my apartment building is so highly trafficked that I’ve never waited more than a couple minutes before a neighbor entering or exiting lets me in. I also carry a front door key and leave a copy of it in the apartment so guests can easily get in and out of the building.
Twenty minutes after the Google technician arrived I had a smart lock that I could open and close remotely.
The best part is knowing that my loved ones can come inside whenever they please. From the Nest app on my phone I can see if my door is locked and I’m notified as different people use their codes to get in. It’s kind of like a doorbell camera — without the camera — in that it lets you spy in a low-key way. The lock makes me markedly less anxious about having guests or going out of town.
The second-best part about having a smart lock has been being able to give my friends and family passcodes in the form of insults written numerically (e.g., samsux.) It’s simple to issue, change, and revoke passwords, or give a temporary one.
If I did it again, though, I’d want a smart lock that included a physical key, in addition to a touchscreen pad.
The app is supposed to warn me way ahead of time when the batteries are low — which should be about once a year — and if that fails, there’s a spot below the keypad where I can attach a 9V battery for juice. Still, I can’t help fearing that one day the tech just won’t work or that I’ll write one too many critical articles about Google and I’ll be the one locked out.
If the wifi goes out, I’d still be able to unlock the door for 24 hours, according to Google. I’d have to get Nest’s alarm system, Nest Secure, plus pay $5 a month for back-up cellular coverage for longer outages. Nest Connect, which plugs into the wall inside your home and helps the lock connect to the internet, has a backup battery.
So far, the system has worked seamlessly.
Google Home Hub ($150), Google Home Mini ($50), Amazon Echo Plus ($150) and Echo Dot ($50)
I created some problems for myself here by getting both Google and Amazon speakers as well as their attendant smart devices. I did this for your sake, dear reader, who will likely choose between one and the other. I also did it because some smart devices work with Google and some work with Alexa and that’s by design.
As futurist Amy Webb recently wrote in the New York Times, these companies are trying to trap us in their own siloed ecosystems.
As the name suggests, these devices are speakers, and they do an admirable job of playing music and expanding my previous sound system, which was confined to the living room. But calling these devices “speakers” completely undersells their value.
Their real raison d’être — and I assume why they’ve been so wildly popular — is their function as personal assistants, specifically ones that can control all the other smart devices in your home.
To me, using these smart speakers to control my devices seems more practical than installing a separate “bridge” or control center. A bridge is simply a more agnostic device — meaning it works with a wider variety of brands and products — with which to control your other smart devices, either through an app or by voice. It’s also just one more goddamn thing to set up.
Google Home and Alexa obviate a bridge. When I tell my speaker to shut off the lights or the TV, I’m not talking directly to the lights or the TV. Rather, the speakers are communicating to those devices for me. Otherwise the other devices would have to be a lot bigger to hold the necessary hardware.
These systems also helped rein in the chaos by functioning as a sort of umbrella app for their partner devices. For example, I can control my smart plugs through their own app or I can control most of my devices through either the Alexa or Google Assistant apps and speakers.
There are still a lot of apps.
Used in conjunction with the Amazon Fire TV Stick ($50 for the 4K version) or Google’s Chromecast ($35), both of which are plugged into the back of my old flat-screen TV, I can have Alexa play Better Things on Hulu or have Assistant play Solange on Spotify. They are good at rewinding or playing an episode where you left off, but neither is able to select a specific episode — “play episode three” — though Assistant can “play next episode.”
Thanks to these assistants, I listen to a lot more music than I used to, if only because I now have speakers in my bedroom and kitchen in addition to the living room. I also watch more streaming TV and movies. Telling Google to play Baskets on Netflix skips the rabbit hole that is surfing Netflix’s homepage.
For media, Google Assistant defaults to YouTube while Amazon defaults to Amazon Prime Video and Amazon Music. I have them both hooked up to Netflix and Spotify. Assistant can’t play stuff from Hulu, but Amazon can. There are countless quirks like this with specific devices or subscriptions because Google and Amazon try to lock you into their — or their partners’ — products.
It’s annoying, and it ruins the seamless feel. It usually results in me turning to the other device to get what I want. If one can’t answer my question or command, I see if the other can. In the living room, I’ve positioned an Amazon Alexa and a Google Assistant speaker side by side, hoping they might learn from each other.
You tend to start using them depending on their strengths.
Assistant, backed by Google’s powerful search engine, is better at answering general queries. For example, when I ask questions that pop up in my daily life — “Why does my dog like playing tug of war?” — Google is usually the one that’s able to answer. Answer: Behaviors like this mimic specific hunting techniques and are a fun trust-building exercise, according to the site Google referenced.
Unlike Amazon, Google lets you change the assistant’s voice to a male, which I prefer because I think it’s perverse that an assistant is automatically female.
Alexa, however, feels a little more personable. When Alexa does answer a question, it does so in a way that feels more like a conversation, responding “yes” or “no” rather than referring me to an article the way Google often does. Alexa also works with a wider range of third-party devices and has more robust “skills” than Google’s “actions,” both of which are basically voice apps created by other companies. You can use these, for example, to ask Tide how to get a stain out of a particular fabric or to ask Patrón what sort of tequila cocktails to make, or, if you’re a monster, you can order Dominos pizza.
But I find doing all of the above easier through the assistants’ regular search functions or on my computer or phone. In the case of shopping, I’d rather use my phone or computer, because I like to be able to see my choices. Voice can only give you one option at a time, read in order. If you ask to buy something with either Assistant or Alexa, they’ll surface an option or two based on order history, availability, and rating. Both Amazon and Google have said they don’t preference their own products.
If I search on a screen I can see a whole pageful of options, which is helpful if I don’t know exactly what I want. Household consumables like toothpaste or soap would be a much better use case for buying with voice, but so far I haven’t wanted or needed to do so.
At a high level, these devices/assistants are generally the same. It’s hard to tell which is more effective and they are continually getting better, so their capabilities change and expand every day.
When they understand me, it’s like magic. When they don’t, I’m arguing with a speaker whose compute power comes from a server far away. It feels ridiculous.
They can also be a lot of fun.
A new common pastime when friends are over is to talk over each other to tell Alexa or Google to play whatever videos or songs come to mind. It’s even funny when they screw up with titles — creating a kind of tech-enabled Russian roulette — though it’s less funny when I’m by myself and I just want to watch a thing.
The Google Home Hub has become an unlikely delightful device for me. (Amazon’s speaker with a screen, the Echo Show, has a camera in addition to a screen for video calls, but as I mention later cameras make me weary, so I went with its screenless version, Echo Plus, instead.)
When I’m not asking it for recipes or commanding it to play music, the Home Hub in my kitchen most of the time serves as a digital photo frame — not really the most obvious use case for a device that’s half tablet, half speaker. It cycles through some of my approved Google Photos albums, pairing photos of different people or different trips, and generally making me reflect more on my friends and family. It’s a lot less soul-crushing than digging through old photos on Facebook. And it has a sort of wonderful spontaneity to it: Hey, remember when we did that?
I know digital picture frames have existed forever but I would never have purchased that kind of one-use device. Here it’s just an afterthought to a billion other useful things, but it’s arguably one of the nicest and most unexpected uses.
Dog camera/treat dispenser
Furbo Dog Camera ($200)
While I’m certain my dog Finn has a fulfilling inner life, outwardly he mostly sits around and sleeps. I know this because of Furbo, a device that lets me spy on him through a wide-angle live video shot of my living room.
I can also remotely throw him treats — regular kibble works best — from a small catapult wedged inside the device. This is very fun — just ask my colleagues what I do at work all day. Additionally there’s a speaker, so I can talk to Finn through the app when I’m not home, though I’ve stopped doing it as much because I fear I’ve inflicted serious psychological damage.
The Furbo app notifies me if Finn is moving around a lot, if he’s barking or if it spots a person — usually my husband. The first time the latter appeared on the app, I texted him a screenshot of himself. Seconds later, he mooned me (sorry, no screenshot).
Of all the devices now calling our apartment home, this one has given me, and especially my husband, pause. It’s a camera and a microphone in our living room — a combination that’s just asking for privacy invasions. Of course, many of the other devices have microphones — they’re supposed to only listen when you address them — but something feels spookier about a camera. (In January, the Intercept reported that users of Amazon’s doorbell-cum-security-camera Ring could be viewed by employees in Ukraine.)
In general, smart devices are privacy nightmares, but, like many Americans, here we are.
To gain back a modicum of control and dull our paranoia, we at first would cover the camera with a bandana when we were home. I soon figured out something more elegant: using smart technology against itself. I connected the Furbo to a smart plug (see the smart plug section below) so that I could actually shut off power to the device. The Furbo has a privacy mode, but, alas, we didn’t trust it.
It’s nice that Furbo lets me see my dog when I’m at work and it’s a fun novelty to throw Finn treats. It’s especially helpful when I’m away so I can check on Finn and spy on my sister (halfway kidding).
But while it brought me a little peace of mind, it also raises important privacy issues about the device itself and smart gadgets in general.
Nest Protect ($120)
Like the Google Home Hub and its digital photo frame, one of my favorite things about the Nest Protect has nothing to do with its core functionality: letting me know if my apartment is on fire. Rather, I like that it lights up my dark hallway as I walk under it. Yes, I know night lights are a thing, but again, I would have never bought one.
Something about the Nest being new and “smart“ makes me feel like it’s actually better at detecting fire or carbon monoxide. It regularly performs checks to tell me it’s working and it just seems more sentient, though I’ve fortunately not had to test it in a real fire.
One great perk is that the Nest warns me before going off, rather than immediately terrifying my dog and torturing my neighbors. If I’m braising a thick cut of meat or tossing a lively wok stir-fry and the hallway outside the kitchen starts to fill with smoke, the detector tells me that the alarm will soon go off: “Heads up, there’s smoke in the hallway. The alarm may sound.”
So far, I’ve had plenty of time to silence it on the Nest app before the alarm was triggered. Strangely, it doesn’t work with Google Assistant — which would be way more convenient than yet another app.
It does know when the smoke has cleared and will reset itself, so I don’t have to remember to plug it back in like I’ve had to do with my old smoke alarm whose batteries I’d disconnect in a frenzy while cooking. Using an app feels like a far more civilized interaction than running for a chair and waving a dishtowel at the smoke detector before ripping it from the ceiling. Telling it to shut off the alarm and having it listen would be ideal.
I still wish it knew the difference between cooking and calamity — it’s supposed to be better at that but it isn’t — but I’d rather be safe than sorry.
Eufy Boost IQ RoboVac 11S ($230)
Wirecutter’s best robot vacuum for controlling pet hair happened to be one that didn’t have an internet connection at all. That was fine with me. It’s still smart in the sense that it has a bunch of sensors that help it return to its charging dock when it’s almost out of juice and keep it from falling down stairs.
Unlike vacuums with internet connections, this one will not be sending maps of my floor back to its home corporation. Instead, it operates by going straight until it hits something and then ricochets in another direction. Admittedly this has him — I think of it as a him — zigzagging around my apartment like a li’l drunk, but by the time he returns to base the floor is clean.
I don’t ask questions.
After just a couple minutes of setup, the brave little robovac quietly set off into places a vacuum had rarely ventured in the five years I’ve lived at my current apartment — under the couch, for example — and came out alive. As time goes by, his dust bin has become much less full than it used to be and my house has become a lot cleaner.
Still, he’s not perfect. I kind of wish he had another robot to clean out his dust bin. And when he first moved into our apartment, the Eufy was set to automatically run once a day. For some terrifying reason, that time was midnight. I was only able to figure out how to shut off the automation with a call to customer service.
Eufy also needs adult supervision.
He is very slim — just 2.85 inches tall — but still manages to get stuck under the radiator, so we’ve evolved a series of deterrents to block him from doing so. My kitchen and bathroom floors are also raised several inches above the others, so he needs assistance getting into those rooms. He’ll also try to suck up stray cords. If his sensors are dirty, he doesn’t charge correctly. But all in all it’s still much less work than using a real vacuum.
Another downside: Between the Eufy and the Furbo, Finn now firmly believes in ghosts. At first, my dog would bark at and bite the strange little robot that seemingly came to life out of nowhere. Finn certainly doesn’t like Eufy, but over time they’ve established a sort of truce wherein Finn removes himself from whatever room it’s in.
And the floor in that room is the cleaner for it.
TP-Link Kasa Smart Plug Mini (works with Google), Amazon Smart Plug
Smart plugs are the way to make your dumb devices smart.
On newer models, the Chromecast or Fire TV Stick should turn your TV on and off. My TV apparently is too old. However, using smart plugs, I can now turn it on and off with my voice or through an app, by way of the smart assistant.
The remote is still somewhere, I think.
As noted above, I used another plug to cut off the power to the Furbo, which I assumed would spy on me through its camera.
This is all stuff you can do by getting off the couch, but there are some use cases — hard to access devices or plugs, or walking into a dark room — where it makes sense to employ a smart plug. I could use these plugs to turn off the lights or TV remotely, to scare off intruders, or, more likely, to make sure I didn’t accidentally leave them on.
I wish there were a way to figure out if I left the stove on or the refrigerator open.
Amazon Philips Hue bulb ($13.48 each), GE C-Life smart bulbs ($25 for two)
It probably takes the same amount of time to say “Hey, Google/Alexa turn off the lights” as it does to get up and flip the switch yourself. That said, I really enjoy feeling like Mickey Mouse in Fantasia, bringing inanimate objects to life.
And the utility of smart lights depends on the situation: It’s nice if you’re coming in the door with your hands full or your light switch is in an awkward place. They’re also super easy to install: plug in light, tell assistant to find light, voila.
They’re also one of the cheaper smart devices out there. Sure, $13 is a lot more than a regular bulb — and you need several to make the functionality worthwhile — but they supposedly last a long time.
Smart bulbs enabled me to dim my lights in my old apartment — something I hadn’t realized would be lovely. I have typical switches, so it used to be either on or off. One issue is that we still use the regular touch switches. When the switch is off the light is off — and no amount of cajoling the smart assistant will change that.
It’s easy to group lights so you can control them en masse. I can turn off or dim all of my smart lights, or the ones in the kitchen, or just one.
Determining the exact language with which to do so is a bit trickier.
To save yourself some hassle, it’s really important that you name your devices in an obvious way, say, “kitchen lights.” It does feel a bit dumb to be standing in the kitchen and have to say that, though. Shouldn’t it just know?
Smart lights can seem superfluous, but I certainly enjoy having them. When you’re on the edge of sleep it’s wonderful to be able to move your lips or tap an app on your omnipresent phone and drift off to sleep in darkness.
Remember the Clapper’s “clap on, clap off”? This is 2.0.
What does this all mean?
The creature comforts of having music follow me from room to room, floors that are clean without my effort, and a door I know is locked or that can be unlocked for my sister definitely raised my quality of living. It feels luxurious.
I have more peace of mind knowing I’ll know if there’s a fire in my building — though that certainly raises the question of what I would or could do if that happened. And for good or ill, I consume more streaming media like Spotify, podcasts, and Netflix than before it was so easy to do so.
I also think I spend more time at home now, but maybe that was just the winter and the necessity of writing this article.
To be clear, none of these devices is hugely life-changing. All of it is stuff I could live without. But there are plenty of things in our modern lives we could live without.
And smart assistants have made it so that at least at home I spend more time without my phone. Smartphones are certainly a staple of our modern lives but they’ve also become the harbinger of our society’s need to unplug, look up from our phones, and talk to each other.
Now in the mornings and evenings I’m more likely to turn to Google Assistant or Alexa to tell me the weather that day or to quickly refute an argument. In itself, that might not seem like much of a timesaver, but it is when you consider the time suck your phone creates. If I pick up my phone to check the weather, more often than not I end up doing something completely different, like checking email, dealing with a work notification, or reading Twitter.
Asking an assistant a question is a distinct action with a definite endpoint. Of course, you can argue that talking to a smart assistant isn’t unplugging at all, even if it does keep you from looking at a screen.
These devices highlight a future in which we interact with our technology in the simplest way possible. In some cases, that could be typing on a computer keyboard or touching a screen. In others, say when your hands are occupied or your eyes are tired or you’re just feeling lazy, you can use voice.
Ideally, our everyday devices could intuit what we want and when, but we’re a long way from that level of capability. Till then, we have some smart options.
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