Smart homes offer so much potential for security, energy savings, and convenience, but why … why do they have to be so complicated? Let’s take a look at my smart home, which I love and have been refining for 10 years, to see why so many people think smart homes are just stupid homes. And what’s coming in the future that may fix all of it.
I’m Matt Ferrell … welcome to Undecided.
If you’ve seen any of my previous smart home videos, you know that I love this technology, but in all of the feedback I get there’s a clear trend. This stuff is just way too complicated for the general public out there. People are interested, but are struggling to understand where to start … and even when they do start … they can quickly get overwhelmed. If you’ve been trying to setup a smart home and it’s not as easy as it looks like it should be, there’s a reason for that. Let me take you through my smart home as an example of why they’re awesome … and also frustrating.
I’ve been refining my smart home for over ten years and ended up with what I have now by sliding down that slippery slope of smart home automations. It all started with a few Philips Hue light bulbs a long time ago and ended up … here.
Let’s start at the top. This is my Hubitat Elevation Hub that I use as the central brain of my home automation cobweb of insanity. I did a review of this a little over a year ago and talked about why I switched from Smartthings to this little guy. My original opinions of Hubitat still hold true today. It’s a very capable little hub that supports all of the major standards that are out there like WiFi, Zigbee, and Z-Wave. It has integrations into IFTTT, Amazon and Google, so it’s super easy to get those voice assistants controlling everything with a simple command. Everything is privacy-focused and in your control.
But my biggest gripe with it hasn’t changed: the user interface is a hot mess … it’s not good … and this is coming from someone who’s worked as a user interface and experience designer for over 20 years. The pros of this are that it’s easy to setup. Taking it out of the box and getting it up and running and hooking up your initial devices is pretty easy. Far easier than a lot of other self hosted options out there, but once you get into the deeper home automation controls with the feature they call Rule Machine … it’s awful. No other way to say it. I hate it. The longer I’ve used it … the deeper my hatred for Rule Machine becomes.
Thankfully you don’t have to use it on a daily basis. Once you get automations set up, it’s a set-it-and-forget-it type of thing. And the stability of the system has been perfect for me. My Smartthings setup up was constantly having services go offline, which made the whole thing frustrating to use. The Hubitat … never had that happen once, but I’ve had issues with weak Zigbee and Z-Wave signal strength. That was never an issue with Smartthings. I had to buy some repeaters and put them around my house to strengthen that signal, which did the trick.
Would I still recommend Hubitat? Yes, but only if you’re someone who isn’t afraid to tinker and has some comfort level with scripting and computers. It’s not a device I’d recommend to the average Joe off the street … it’s not meant for the mass market with the user experience it has today.
So if I hate the interface so much, why am I still using it? Well, it’s the best option for my situation when you look at the landscape of what’s out there and available in the US. Smartthings has a decent user experience and is easier for novice users to setup and get going, but the more you build out your system you’ll start to run into the same stability problems that I did.
But if you’re trying to keep things simple, Amazon and Google are great entry points into smart homes. However, they’re massive walled gardens. The more you build out your smart home within those walls, the harder it is to get out when you start bumping into the limitations. Apple Homekit is very accessible and works really well from my experience, but is also a walled garden that limits your options … there’s fewer Homekit enabled devices out there than there are for everything else. But it’s the best privacy first option we have from a major platform provider. Check out Shane Whatley’s YouTube channel if you’re interested in a Homekit focused smart home. He’s got some great how-tos and reviews. There’s also other self-hosted smart home software like Home Assistant, but it’s even more unfriendly to novices than Hubitat. Home Assistant can do anything you want, but good luck getting up to speed if you don’t know scripting or computer programming. Not everyone wants to tinker with this stuff. Home Assistant is like Linux vs. Windows or Mac. How many people out there want to use Linux as their main computer at home?
To give myself flexibility I’ve got a crazy number of hubs Macgyvered into my Hubitat. There’s my Philips Hue hub acting as a bridge for 24 Hue devices. There’s a Lutron Caseta Pro hub bridging 17 Lutron devices. Logitech Harmony Hubs for each TV setup in the house (that’s three in total). A Raspberry Pi running Homebridge to make all of the non-Homekit devices accessible to Apple Homekit and the Home app. A Eufy hub for most of the Eufycams around the house, but sadly that doesn’t tie into any of my other systems … with the exception of Homekit for a few of the cameras. And at one point I had a Keen smart vent hub for controlling my smart vents. I’ve ditched that hub and linked the Keen smart vents directly into the Hubitat hub, but how should I put this … I hate these Keen smart vents. They chew through batteries unlike anything else I’ve used.
So with all of that hub craziness I’ve been able to link the vast majority of the things in my home together into one cohesive smart home. It’s that easy. Hubitat is acting as the brain, which is where I setup all of the automations for things that happen automatically without direct user interaction. Things like when the house is empty making sure all of the doors are locked, the garage door is down, the lights are off, intrusion detection is turned on, and the HVAC is set to an away mode. Or turning on the exterior lights when someone arrives home after dark. And a more recent addition that I really love is auto-locking the exterior doors after they’ve been shut for a couple of minutes. I can’t tell you how many times one of us has come in and forgotten to do that. It’s been working great and all locally and in my control, so privacy is a key feature there. No cloud services to muck things up or cause delays.
While the setup is a little complicated it’s given me the freedom to move between major smart home services. I can use Amazon, Apple, or Google voice assistants with this setup for one-off verbal commands if I want. For me I’ve been using Google the past year or so, but may be switching over to Apple soon. It’s really no fuss to jump between them.
A good example of why I like this type of setup is with the app I use on my phone for direct control if I need it. Hubitat’s mobile app is really just a window into a web view for controls. So you’re essentially seeing a webpage in an iPhone app wrapper. This makes it easier for the developers to code once and have it work everywhere, but it makes for a weaker user experience. The app is sluggish and sometimes takes a few seconds for the screen to fully load and display. Apple’s Home app is a much nicer UI and ties into Siri for additional voice control and shortcuts, so my Raspberry Pi running Homebridge has been super useful there. I won’t walk through how to setup Homebridge, but there are some good instructions written up on the website. And there are third party options like Hoobs, that take the frustration out of setting something like this up. It’s more plug and play. My Homebridge setup is really set it and forget it. I’ve never had it crash. It doesn’t need any tweaking after the initial setup … it’s great. In Hubitat you use the Maker API functionality to control which devices will be surfaced to Homebridge, so if you add a new device you just go into the Maker settings, add it to the list, and it will just show up in the Home app. It’s a similar experience if you want to reveal devices to Google. In Hubitat’s Google Home app, you just select the devices you want to surface and in the Google Home app they’ll show up. It’s this level of control and ability to wall things off for privacy, but at the same time surface specific things for broader integrations, that makes Hubitat so powerful.
But the geolocation functionality for Hubitat has proven to be unreliable. To solve that I installed a community created Hubitat app for geolocation called the Presence Governor. It uses multiple services to try and determine if you’re home or not. In my case I’m layering Life360’s geolocation, and iPhone showing up on my WiFi as additional markers for if I’m home or not. After setting this up the geolocation for my Hubitat system has been fantastic.
And because I have things setup the way I do, I can buy pretty much any smart home device I want and get it tied into my broader system. That’s not true across the board though with things like my Eufy products … they’re on an island by themselves because Eufy hasn’t made integrations possible yet universally. A handful of my cameras are on Homekit, but even with that limitation I still love my Eufy cameras.
So if I’ve done so much with my smart home, why am I bagging on smart homes a bit in this video? Well, because the user experience sucks. I’ve heard from so many of you asking where to start. It’s a tough question because it depends on what type of person you are. Are you a DIYer? A tinkerer? A developer? Or a complete newbie with limited computer experience? Depending on where you fall into those buckets changes the answer dramatically. Just look at the examples I gave from my smart home setup. It’s very flexible and I have a ton of options, but it’s very fiddly. There’s a lot of customization and hoops I had to jump through to get it working in a way that fit my needs. On one hand that flexibility is amazing, but on the other it’s horrible for a novice. There’s a reason why Amazon has taken such a commanding lead on the voice assistant and smart home front. They’ve done an incredible job making smart homes accessible and relatively easy to set up. The cheapest and easiest solution will win every day of the week, which is why I find this so frustrating. Because Amazon’s ecosystem isn’t the best option out there, but it’s the easiest one right now.
Even worse are the crazy number of knockoff devices out there that are WiFi connected. Some use their own proprietary systems, while others are built on top of broader platforms like Tuya. All of these will end up flooding your WiFi router if you add too many devices, and remember that each WiFi connected device is adding another vector and intrusion point into your digital home. How securely were those devices made? Do they get regular firmware updates to plug security holes? Where are they sending data to? From a privacy perspective, WiFi devices really give me pause. I do have a bunch, but I’m pretty selective based on who makes them and how much control I can get over them. Go in with your eyes open.
Thankfully there is a light at the end of the tunnel here. A shining beacon of hope for smart homes and mass market adoption. All of the major players, which includes Apple, Google, Amazon, Zigbee, Z-Wave, Tuya, etc., have signed on to Project CHIP (Connected Home Over IP). The whole goal of this is to build a standard for all smart home devices. It will ensure that CHIP-certified devices will be able to talk directly with each other. The crazy patchwork I’ve built out for myself may slowly become unnecessary if CHIP devices are as interoperable as promised. The open standard is supposed to launch sometime this year, but I don’t think we’ll start seeing CHIP-certified devices hitting the market for a year or two. It’s probably going to have a bigger impact on the smart home market in 3-5 years, so we’re going to have to ride out the smart home wild west for a bit longer.
Do I still advocate for getting started with a smart home? Yes. Just go in with your eyes open and know that you’re going to run into some stumbling blocks along the way. Try to build out a system that’s using cross-platform capable devices where you can to give yourself options down the road. And hopefully, CHIP will help smooth out the user experience rough edges that exist today. Until that point, I don’t think most people will want to go beyond dipping their toe into the smart home pool with a few devices.
So what do you think? Jump into the comments and let me know what systems you use … or if you avoid smart home products because of these issues. And as always a special thank you to all of my Patrons. All of your support is really helping to make this possible. If you liked this video be sure to check out one of the ones I have linked right here. Be sure to subscribe if you think I’ve earned it. And as always, thanks so much for watching, I’ll see you in the next one.