About two and a half years ago, I wrote a story called Building a Smart Home Is Cheaper and Easier Than You Think. The premise of the story was this: If you wanted to put together a basic DIY smart home system--some lighting, temperature, and security controls--what options were available from big-box retailers like Best Buy, Home Depot, and Lowe's. I visited each of those stores and detailed what I saw on the shelves that you could take home that very day to get started.
Here we are a couple years later, and it's safe to say that the popularity of smart home products has continued to explode. So, Jerry Del Colliano asked me to revisit the premise of that original story: to return to those same stores and see what, if anything, has changed in the smart home category.
Well, I didn't have to step foot in a single store to identity the single biggest change that has taken place in the smart home category over the past few years: voice assistants (or smart assistants, as they're also called). Amazon Alexa, Google Assistant, and (to a lesser extent) Apple HomeKit/Siri have really become the backbone of smart home control.
When I did the original story, the starting point to assemble a smart home system was to choose a hub. Yeah, you could get a Nest Thermostat or a Lutron Caseta wireless lighting system or a Netgear IP camera and control each device through its own app. There was some compatibility between devices, so you could control a few products through one manufacturer's app. But the best way to get a cohesive, integrated control experience was to start with a smart hub like Iris, Wink, SmartThings, or Harmony Home Control, then build a system of compatible products around it.
While you can still take a hub-based approach to building a system, retailers recognize that this approach doesn't reflect the way that most people are assembling smart homes today. Now, step one is to choose your voice assistant--Alexa, Google, or Siri--then build a system of compatible products. You can mix and match Wi-Fi, Z-Wave, and ZigBee wireless protocols as long as all of your devices work with the smart assistant you've embraced.
You don't have to take my word for it, though. Let's pay a visit to each of the major retailers and see what they're up to in the smart home arena.
The setup that changed the least from 2015 to 2018 was Lowe's. That's because Lowe's still sells its own sponsored smart home platform called Iris, which is a Wi-Fi-based system built around the Iris Smart Hub ($69.99) that connects to your broadband router and can also communicate with ZigBee and Z-Wave wireless devices. The retailer continues to prominently display the Iris system at the front of the store, near the checkout aisles.
In addition to Iris-branded smart plugs, sensors, keypads, and various starter packs (security, automation, and pro monitoring), you'll find Iris-compatible products from Nest, Honeywell, GE, Schlage, Kwikset, First Alert, Blue Sky, and more. You can control the whole system via the Iris app for iOS and Android, and there are now three service plans from which to choose (compared with two plans in the past): the Basic free plan, a step-up Premium plan for $9.99/month, and a new Professional Monitoring plan for $14.95/month. You can learn what each plan offers here.
The difference in the Lowe's display area now compared with 2015 (beyond just a wider variety of products to choose from) is the Google Home kiosk that sits right out in front of it all to catch your eye. Google Assistant works with Iris, and you can grab a Google Home or a Mini right there off the shelf. Iris is also compatible with Alexa, yet this is not prominently advertised in-store.
Across the aisle from the Iris display is a huge Nest display, showing the company's line of thermostats, cameras, smoke detectors, and video doorbells. Nest is another Google-owned property, so methinks Lowe's and Google have built a bit of a partnership--which would explain why Alexa is conspicuously absent.
Wander the smart home area a bit more, and you'll also find ecobee thermostats, Lutron Caseta wireless lighting controls, Ring video doorbells, and Samsung SmartThings and ConnectHome hubs and products (although not many). By the way, ConnectHome is just a SmartThings hub and Wi-Fi router(s) packaged together.
Overall, Lowe's does a nice job of displaying its smart home offerings and keeping them all grouped in one convenient place. But, unless you decide to use the Iris system, the in-store selection of smart products is fairly limited. On the company website, Lowe's is promoting its new in-store Smart Home Showrooms, where you can get hands-on experience with a range of smart products; however, those showrooms are currently only available in a few states and have not come to my local Lowe's yet.
My biggest complaint when I visited Home Depot a few years ago was that smart home products were not grouped together in one location; rather, they were scattered all over the store, in the designated areas for lighting controls, light bulbs, door locks, etc. Now, they're still scattered all over the store, but at least my local Home Depot also includes one general Smart Home display, located in the middle aisle near the lighting section. The display is much smaller than the one at Lowe's and not prominently featured near the front of the store, but I guess it's better than nothing.
Positioned front and center in the middle of that display were a Google Home and an Amazon Echo, surrounded by compatible devices from Cree, Lutron, Nest, and Ring. Below that were shelves filled with informational sheets on compatible products from Nest, Honeywell, ecobee, Ring, Schlage, Lutron, Sen/si, and WeMo. You could grab a sheet on any product, including the Google Home and Echo, and take it directly to checkout, and they would get the product(s) for you.
In 2015, Home Depot was mostly pushing the Wink smart hub, and that system is still available, although it's definitely not emphasized the way it was before. The Smart Home display area included hubs for Wink and SmartThings; Insteon was also mentioned on the PoS display, but no product sheets were available.
Without question, Best Buy's smart home product selection and in-store presentation were the most robust--and the most evolved since my 2015 visit. Smack dab in the middle of my local store was a huge Smart Home area, with a vast array of product options in the security, energy management, and lighting categories--plus a ton of networking stuff to provide the needed backbone.
My Best Buy had one dedicated display area for Google Assistant and another for Alexa. All the different flavors of smart assistant within each platform were available, surrounded by a collection of compatible smart products (and yes, there was a lot of overlap with products from Lutron, Nest, ecobee, etc.). Video tutorials were set up on tablets.
In addition to those dedicated Google/Alexa spaces, there were displays organized by product type: security cameras, video doorbells, lighting, smart bulbs, and networking. Most areas had some type of interactive display, such as live video feeds to demonstrate video doorbells or the ability to enact lighting scenes.
In 2015, the two main hub-based services I found at Best Buy were Logitech's Harmony Home Control and Belkin's WeMo. As with Wink at Home Depot, these were no longer the focus. Obviously Harmony still has a large presence over in the Remotes area, but it was a not a major presence in the Smart Home area. I did see a few WeMo products, mostly in the lighting area. SmartThings products were available, including the hub, a home monitoring kit, and various sensors.
Best Buy has also introduced its own service called Best Buy Smart Home powered by vivent, similar in concept to the Iris by Lowe's platform. It had its own dedicated display area, too--filled with Vivent-branded products and compatible devices like the Echo and Google Home, Nest, Philips Hue, Kwikset, and more. The system is installed by Best Buy, and compatible products can be controlled via the main app. There are four different packages (two self-monitored plans and two professionally monitored plans), ranging in price from $9.99 to $49.99/month. You can compare plans here.
Best Buy offers in-store and in-home consultations. As I was wandering around taking photos and doing research, a Best Buy rep was providing a consultation to a customer; from what I heard, he was doing a thorough job. I know people like to rip on Best Buy employees, but I've got to give props to my store in Longmont, Colorado. The reps are always helpful and friendly, and they seem very well trained in their categories.
Needless to say, whenever you get the bug to build or expand your smart home, there's no shortage of products nearby to fit the bill. In considering all three of the stores I visited, Best Buy is definitely the place I would go to shop for smart home products. The in-store selection is larger, the displays are well organized, and the demos are more comprehensive.
I do want to stress that everything I described above relates specifically to what you might find in-store at your local retailer. If you want to shop online, it's a whole different ball game. Go to Lowes.com, HomeDepot.com, or BestBuy.com and type "smart home" into the search bar, and you find that all three sites actually offer a pretty thorough and well-designed smart home channel. You can search for products based on compatibility: Google, Alexa, HomeKit, Nest. Or via hub: SmartThings, Wink, Iris. Or just via product category: security, energy management, lighting.
When it comes to the smart home category, the sky really is the limit ... and the sheer number of choices can make it seem overwhelming. That's why I think the emergence of the voice/smart assistant is such a good trend, as provides that unifying factor that was missing early on. Plus, voice control just makes it all a whole lot cooler.
• Should You Buy a Retail Protection Plan for That New TV? at HomeTheaterReview.com.
• Google v. Amazon: the War Is Escalating at HomeTheaterReview.com.
• Best Buy Needs to Focus on the Experience to Compete with Amazon at HomeTheaterReview.com.