Home Automation, So Far

This fall I started making some decisive home automation improvements to our house—I know there are plenty of others who are much further along this particular curve than I am, but I thought I’d share some brief thoughts on what we’ve done so far.

Actually this effort really started earlier this year when I installed our first Nest Thermostat. We live in a century old house without central air, so the Nest only controls heating during cold months, but it works terrifically. It’s a triumph of through-and-through good design—the interface and the hardware are intimately, elegantly linked.

If it did nothing more than demystify the act of changing the temperature in one’s house—something that has always been confounding with older thermostats—that would almost be enough. But all of its advertised “smart home” benefits also ring true in everyday use: the thermostat learned our heating preferences and tailored a schedule accordingly. As a result, it begins heating up the house shortly before we wake up, and turns it down by itself while we’re out of the house for extended periods of time.

I’ve been so happy with the Nest thermostat that I bought a second one for the bottom floor of our house. In fact, my experience with the Nest brand has been so convincing that it’s now my preference for all things home automation. Unfortunately, that only gets you so far.


Nest does produce a smoke and carbon monoxide detector, which interests me, but I’ve been focused on more immediate home automation needs instead. For instance, we have twin toddler boys who are getting increasingly rowdy in their cribs when they can’t sleep, so a good baby monitor has been a necessity for some time now. Earlier in the year I bought a Wi-Fi Baby brand camera, which is really just a value added Y-Cam. I almost immediately regretted the decision, as those cameras really feel primitive and unsophisticated next to the Dropcam that ultimately replaced them. Y-Cam software feels out of date, as if it were ported from an old Windows application to the Web, its hardware is clunky and unattractive, and the camera itself has poor, frustratingly narrow viewing angles. By contrast, Dropcam has modern software, a unique, attractive industrial design, and a much wider, much more useful viewing angle. I would recommend it to anyone.

The company was acquired by Nest not long ago, but unfortunately my Nest account and my Nest iOS app (which is very well-designed too) still don’t work with the Dropcam. I had to register for a separate Dropcam account and install a separate Dropcam iOS app—first world problem, I know.

What I really want is a Nest-powered home security system, but absent that I settled for a system from Frontpoint Security, which provides its own hardware but resells monitoring services from Alarm.com. Frontpoint is pretty well reviewed, and were recommended by The Sweethome, which is what convinced me to go with them.

Frontpoint Security

The system is easy to install yourself and reliable, and hooks into Alarm.com’s serviceable iOS app. While my family and I were traveling over Thanksgiving, I was able to disarm the system for a guest who had her own key (we don’t yet have automated locks on our doors), which felt very satisfying. But overall the product lacks the polish of Nest or Dropcam and feels closer to a more polished version of Y-Cam-style hardware—still clunky, with the feel of cheap plastic materials. Unfortunately, Frontpoint’s pricing makes it hard to avoid signing a long contract, so I’m committed to the system for the next few years.

Signing a contract at this point in the evolution of home automation is particularly painful because so much is changing so fast. I expect a much more robust set of offerings in the market within a few years. For instance, it would be surprising if Nest doesn’t have a more complete set of home automation products—including security—by that time. What’s more, as soon as next year, we should start seeing the first products built from the ground up with Apple’s HomeKit home automation SDK at their cores, which could be really game changing. I’m already considering lighting automation courtesy of Lutron, which looks set to integrate HomeKit, and rumor has it that the next major revision of Apple TV will function as a kind of hub for HomeKit-connected products. (Actually, Frontpoint has indicated that they may do an integration as well.) The future is right around the corner, as always.