Five Points of Advice for Buying Your Own 'Internet of Things'

Photograph by Tetra Images/Corbis

The “Internet of things” is hot. Gigaom even put out a connected gift guide showcasing a variety of connected products and home automation devices. But after spending the holiday testing a variety of connected devices and fielding questions from friends and family about the Internet of things, I realized I was answering the same questions and saying the same things over and over. I figured I’d condense it all to a little list in hopes of helping others navigate the smart home and the Internet of things.

Don’t buy a home hub for someone else. You can buy one for yourself, but the home hubs such as SmartThings, Staples Connect, Lowe’s Iris, and Revolv all require a little too much hand-holding work for you to give a home hub to someone who hasn’t specifically asked for one. Best case: They’ll love it, and you’ll be their technical support person for the next decade. In the worst case, they’ll stare at you in utter confusion and frustration when you explain that in order for this hub to be useful, they need to shell out serious cash for connected light bulbs, locks, outlets, switches, and thermostats.

Buy a connected device that offers something you want. Connected devices can offer convenience and whiz-bang WOW factors that excite people. If you want to add connectivity to your home, do it with a device you know you want. People don’t buy systems; they buy something they need. So if you want to save money on your energy bill, get a connected thermostat. If you want to turn your lamp on when you’re out of town, buy a connected switch. (If you want greater flexibility, buy an outlet.) If you want connected lights that change color, then buy the Hue lights.

Buy Wi-Fi and buy open. A lot of protocols address the connected home, but if you are going to start adding devices, stick with Wi-Fi. You won’t need a hub that speaks other protocols and you won’t have to get involved with the madness of Insteon, Lutron, ZigBee, or Z-wave. You can just pop the device on the network and get started. Later, you or the gift recipient can get fancy with hubs and new protocols, but start simple. And if you can, buy devices that are open—meaning they let others (such as IFTTT or app developers) access their API or let you control the device from other apps. This way, the device can evolve with your smart home or connected vision.

Buy popular devices—or those made by big names. As the market for connected products grows, companies trying to integrate those devices into a single app are working overtime to support the ecosystem. Services such as IFTTT or SmartThings will build channels and support for the most in-demand product, or eventually a big-name brand will pay them to provide support for their products. I’m currently waiting on support for my Ecobee thermostat, which is coming but has moved behind the Nest thermostat—and might move even farther back if a company such as Honeywell decides to pay to get support.

Consider other features for the devices you want. A perfect example of this might be Hue lights. They are connected, but the color-changing aspect is what sells them. I could set up one in my daughter’s room and turn the lights to pink when I’d like her to come downstairs. I could set it to turn off at her bedtime. Add that you can connect it to Web services to make it even more useful by putting a certain trigger to a certain color. Another example is the Lutron light switch I installed in our dining room. There, the connectivity wasn’t as important as having a dimmer switch, but I’m already thinking of how I can use it. Maybe I’ll use it to freak out my daughter’s friends during a slumber party séance. (Do kids still break out a Ouija board during sleepovers?)

Those are the big elements to consider. Another basic is to make sure you have the right device to work with your new, connected gear. Most devices start out with Apple support and gradually add Android. If you’re toting an old Droid, you might be out of luck.

I’m curious to see what others might add to this list. I’m sure that in a few weeks, I’ll have a few more testing scars and pieces of advice.

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