The gadgets already solved it: Simple solutions to high-tech problems

In which Jason Snell discovers that sometimes the Internet of Things isn't as good as...regular things.

internet of things smart home

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I can’t remember when I first found myself attracted to technological toys. Was it the first video game I saw, or the first computer keyboard I typed on? No, even earlier than that I was fascinated with typewriters, the manual one I got as a kid and the IBM Selectric with the spinning typeball in my father’s office.

The point is, I’ve always enjoyed technology. You name it: it’s a joy to solve a problem with software or scripting or a web service or a cleverly applied bit of hardware. But in the past few months I’ve been reminded that sometimes it’s a good idea to realize that just because you can use clever new technology to solve a problem, it may not be the best solution available.

I’m a homeowner and someone who is enthusiastically investigating new smart home gadgets, things that tie together sensors and Bluetooth and Wi-Fi with smart Internet-based software. And so when it comes time to address a problem in my house, I’ve started asking myself, “Is this a job that the Internet of Things can solve?”

belkin wemo Belkin

A WeMo switch, temperature sensor, and IFTTT didn't get the job done like I thought they should.

Problem one: Since leaving the full-time employ of Macworld a year ago, I’ve been working in my unheated, lightly insulated garage. Even in Northern California, such a place can get cold enough to be uncomfortable to work in. So I bought a highly rated space heater, and it really does the job. But I found myself wanting it to be more schedulable. I wanted it to work just on weekdays, and only when the temperature in my office was below a certain point. Basically, I wanted a smart thermostat–but for a space heater.

This seemed like a job that could be solved by fun new smart-home technology. So I bought a Wireless Sensor Tag and a Belkin WeMo power switch, and set up IFTTT… only to discover that it wasn’t so easy to program this stuff. I guess I didn’t realize that IFTTT, for all its versatility as a web service that connects different bits of hardware and software, doesn’t do anything more than basic logic. “If This, Then That” isn’t just a brand name—it’s also a disclaimer. I couldn’t set up an IFTTT recipe to get my garage temperature and the time and determine when to turn on my heater, for example.

So I got frustrated and took a break. And during that break, I realized that perhaps somebody just made a programmable thermostat for space heaters and air conditioners that worked by plugging into a wall socket. Yep–the one I found is called the Lux WIN100 and was $36 on Amazon. Cheaper than a WeMo switch and some wireless sensors, and more reliable, I’d wager.

Problem two: I’ve got two exterior lights on a single switch that I’d like to switch on at sunset and then off around 11 p.m. I bought a Belkin WeMo light switch, but it turns out that it requires modern wiring–and my house was built and wired in the 1950s.

Again, the home-improvement people have not been waiting for Wi-Fi and IFTTT to solve these problems. I found a $30 switch at my local hardware store that didn’t require a neutral wire, can be programmed to turn on at sunset (it does the astronomical calculations itself) and turn off at an arbitrary time. No smart devices required.

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Smart locks and video doorbells are cool, but getting extra keys for the kids solves my problem just as well.

So I’ve learned my lesson… maybe. Now that school is back in session, my kids are both coming and going all the time, and I’ve found myself intrigued by a gadget that lets your smartphone control your garage door opener. They could use it to get in the house, I could use it when I go for a run or a bike ride–since I always take my phone, but wouldn’t need to take my keys. I keep telling myself why it’s such a good idea to buy this new gadget. Wi-Fi garage door opener! Cool!

Or maybe I should look at smart locks instead? That would be another way to go…

This is the point when I realize I have yet to learn my lesson. After all, I can probably solve the problem better by just getting a couple more house keys made, and giving those to the kids.

It’s a sensible solution. It’s just a lot less exciting.

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