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Get smart

How the Internet of Things affects our lives

Created date

June 23rd, 2017
Image of things you'll find in a household.

We may not be getting smarter every day, but our gadgets sure are. No longer just the domain of computers and cell phones, now more and more devices are Internet-connected, from fridges to lightbulbs.

But where does convenience end and frivolity begin?

How it works

Many devices now come with software (or its cousin, firmware) and a wireless network connector allowing the device to access either a local network or the Internet. What it does from there depends on the software: It might be controlled by an app, it might broadcast its status to a website, or it might just wait around for a specific trigger of some kind.

These devices are part of what’s called the Internet of Things (usually abbreviated IoT), a term that comprises TVs, slow cookers, medical devices, garage door openers, and a thousand more gadgets.

We’ll narrow our scope a bit here and cover the sector of the Internet of Things that helps make our homes smarter. And so this doesn’t get too repetitive, unless otherwise noted, assume that most of these devices are controlled by, among other things, an app of some kind.

Knock, knock

Wondering who knocks on your door when you’re not home? Or package that was delivered just now? Want to get a closer look at the solicitor on your doorstep before deciding whether to open the door? You need to know more about wireless door bells, like those made by Ring, SkyBell, and others. Most of these combine Wi-Fi ability with a video camera. Meaning that, once installed, you connect it to your home network or router just like any other computer or smartphone and you can then control it from anywhere, usually via an app. You can set some of these to record if they sense motion or when their button is pressed, an especially helpful feature during the holidays to deter package theft. Some will let you speak to the visitor using your phone, essentially acting as an intercom device. Whether they make knock-knock jokes obsolete remains to be seen, though.

Don’t forget the milk

Usually the most popular room in the house, the kitchen is no stranger to “smart” upgrades. Smart fridges with touch screen panels let you see the contents of your fridge without even opening the door and, in some cases, from outside the house entirely. Meaning that you can check to see if you’re out of milk while you’re standing in the dairy aisle of your grocery store. Calendar apps that sync with services like Google mean that you can ditch the paper calendar taped to the side of the fridge. And recipe apps and a web browser let you ditch the hefty cookbook propped open on the counter.

Not to be outdone, other devices have been getting in on the action, with ovens, dishwashers, and even slow cookers that let you control and monitor them remotely.

Turn up the heat

One of the better-known smart-home automation gadgets at this point is the “learning” thermostat. Nest is the brand synonymous with these, but there are others too. These thermostats aren’t cheap, but instead of simply being programmed to heat or cool the house to a specific temperature at specific times, they “learn” each time you adjust the temperature. The devices then start to use your regular patterns and preferences to keep things comfy all the time. Though they’re pricey up front, they claim to save real money over time by reducing your energy consumption and, thus, your utility bill.

Let there be light

Even devices as simple as lightbulbs are ripe for a “smart” upgrade. No longer just a simple on/off gizmo, now there are LED bulb units available at your local big box store that can be controlled remotely using your phone to turn on and off at specific times or to change color to suit your mood or decor.

Plug that leak

Beyond those things we use every day, like lights and refrigerators, there are smart devices that are mostly out of sight and out of mind…until they do their jobs. If you’ve ever dealt with a flooded basement, you’ll probably be happy to pay $70 for a Wi-Fi water sensor to make sure it never happens again. Usually just a unit that plugs into the wall with a sensor wire placed near a water source such as a hot water heater, washing machine, or sump well, they can be configured to send you an email or a text the instant they sense the presence of water. The same goes for related devices like smoke detectors and carbon monoxide detectors that can notify you in the event of a fire or gas leak.

What’s the catch?

There’s always a catch. And the catch with some of these devices can be pretty big. First, the cost: almost none of these devices is as cheap as the nonsmart, nonconnected version. You pay a price for that added convenience and connectivity, after all.

More than that, the danger posed by the big, bad Internet applies here too—even boring devices like washers and dryers can be hacked. Some of this is because good, solid, secure programming is lacking on some of these gadgets. So far, most of the hacking has involved simply turning these devices into “bots” that are used to clog up traffic on the Internet and slow or even take down websites, which happened in a big way last fall. But it’s only a matter of time before hackers get more creative and use the specific information from your devices for more nefarious ends.

You might think none of your neighbors saw you dash out to grab the morning paper in your boxer shorts, but your video-recording door bell probably did.

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