Samsung SmartThings is an intriguing little platform, one that's come on leaps and bounds over the past couple of years.
SmartThings had a big head start over Apple HomeKit and the growing stables involving Google Home and Amazon Echo, but it's also had a more tangled and winding route to get to where it is as Samsung has tried to consolidate SmartThings - the company it bought in 2014 - with its own technologies. The good news is that even if you’re already slightly invested in another system, it oddly doesn’t make a difference Instead, SmartThings brings the package together - think of it as a place that coordinates your smart home devices, as opposed to having a hub that controls it all.
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Since Samsung bought SmartThings in 2014, it's been working to bring everything together - to varying effect. Right now there's still some lingering confusion that we'll do our best to clear up, but while the platform works perfectly well it still feels like one in the midst of a transition.
Whether you’re interested in investing in SmartThings or you’ve already picked up SmartThings Starter Kit, here’s our guide on how to use it.
Level one: How it works
First things first; here are the basics on what SmartThings is all about, and which bits you need to buy and how to fit it all together.
The hub is the brains of the operation; without it, everything else becomes plastic junk. At first there was just the Samsung SmartThings Hub, but last year the company launched the Connect Home, another white box to centralize your smart home. Both live in the same universe and perform mostly the same, but the Connect Home acts as both a router and a hub. The advantage here is that you can use it to boost your Wi-Fi signal around the house and even build a mesh network when using Connect Home units (you can buy them as a pack of three) around the house. Alternatively you can pick up the Connect Home Pro which supports heavier bandwidth usage.
Whichever you go for, the hub creates a wireless network to connect and communicate with all your smart home gadgetry. Yes, another wireless network; not the Wi-Fi one that you use for your internet, though. Without the Hub, you have nothing. If you have the SmartThings Hub you have to plug it into your Wi-Fi router at home with an Ethernet cable, though the Connect Home box can connect to the router wirelessly.
There are two main wireless standards that cover just about all smart home products in existence - Zigbee and Z-Wave. The SmartThings Hub has radios for both, meaning that almost none of your kit is going to end up left out in the cold. For anything else, as long as it can access your Wi-Fi, the Hub should still be able to pick it up. If it can't, then there's services like IFTTT to help. More on that later.
Now you've got your SmartThings network set up, you'll be wanting some connected kit to drag your home into the 21st century. The SmartThings power plug, referred to as the Outlet, seems a bit weak to begin with. It's an adapter plug that turns whatever you've got in the socket into a controllable device; nothing too far-fetched here. The trouble is that there's actually not that many things that one plugs in which only require an on or an off to function properly.
The obvious and most popular option is to use them on lamps, but a heater would work well, as well as certain coffee machines. Maybe even a radio that's set to play as soon as it's given power. It's worth having a look around your house to see what you've already got plugged into the wall because you might find a few ideas that you hadn't thought of before. Again, a lot of this is about the joys of experimentation.
SmartThings Multipurpose Sensor
The Multipurpose is our favourite because it's actually a lot more than just the open/closed detector that it describes itself as. Firstly, there's a lot you can monitor, even if it's just about whether something's shut or not. It could be an external or internal door, or it could be a drawer or a cupboard. That might sound a bit dry but, depending upon where you put it, it could be about access monitoring or it could simply be about safety and security. It could even just be used as a trigger to do something else, such as play music or turn on a light when you walk into or leave a room.
What we really like about it, though, is that it will sense when the door in question experiences any kind of handling which it refers to as 'activity' rather than opening and closing. So, for example, if it's on your front door, it will tell you when the postman's been or when someone's knocked because of the vibrations, and that can be handy to know if you're out in the garden or listening to loud music.
As we say, the presence sensor can be a nifty security device while you're away from home, especially if it's for a longer period of time. You can set it up to alert you when a door or window has been opened, and if you're using the older SmartThings Classic app, you can get an SMS notification too, should you be vacationing somewhere more rural.
Finally, the MPS will also measure temperature. Frankly, we haven't found a particular good use for that facet yet but, as is the way with SmartThings, it's only a matter of putting your mind to it for a while and trying things out.
SmartThings Motion Sensor
The Motion Sensor is fairly straightforward. Like the MPS, it also doubles as a temperature sensor, but the real trick with it is working out where in your house to put it for the best results. This largely depends on what you'd like it to trigger; lights, music, heating. It can tell the difference between presence and movement and you can get it to keep things on or off for a limited about of time after it senses something.
It depends on the kind of house you live in but, for us, we found we could tie most functions to it when we place it in hallway,s either at the top or the bottom of some stairs. These positions seemed to represent a general shorthand for coming down in the morning or trips out to the bathroom during the night, but there's plenty of other scenarios. At £30 a pop, it's also not too much of a stretch to pick up a second unit.
SmartThings Presence Sensor
Psst, presence sensors are actually for children and pets. Your mobile phone works as a presence sensor too. Either way, though, they're really useful and rather fun. Both are a way for your smart home to know that you're coming or going. That might be because you want lights to come on or heating to go off, but we rather enjoyed getting music to play before you get home. Make sure to set your geo-fence to a reasonable distance or it'll start triggering smart actions if you go outside to fetch the mail, for example. A hundred metres or so radius of your front door should do it.
SmartThings: Third-party devices
Obviously, SmartThings would be a bit frustrating if it didn't work with non-SmartThings devices. Currently, there're something to the tune of over 100 different products covering burglar alarms, smoke detectors, doorbells, bulbs, garage doors, kitchen white goods, soundbars, robot vacuums, surveillance cameras, thermostats, door locks, speakers and more.
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Some of the names that'll interest you include Bose, Amazon Echo, Sonos, Honeywell, Philips Hue, WeMo, Yale and, of course, plenty of Samsung tech. And, remember, just because an item isn't officially labelled 'Works with SmartThings' it doesn't mean it won't. Head into the Marketplace section of the SmartThings app and browse the categories under the Things tab for full list of compatible bits and bobs. You'll be pleasantly surprised to see that you probably already own a few third-party compatible goodies.
Well, apps. This is where we get into a bit of a pickle. There are two different apps for controlling your Samsung SmartThings gear and both work, albeit with some different options and features. To cut a long story short, the SmartThings app still exists - a hangover from Samsung buying the company a few years back - and is now called SmartThings Classic. Meanwhile Samsung has rebranded what was previously the Samsung Connect app to... SmartThings. Confused? Us too. But essentially Samsung wants everyone to eventually upgrade to the SmartThings app - not SmartThings Classic - which consolidates more than 40 of Samsung's smart home apps - yes, 40 - into one place.
The downside right now is that the new SmartThings app, while looking good and adding additional granularity to routines and automations, doesn't work great with every phone. Got a Samsung phone? Great, you'll be fine. But we've been using it with an iPhone and too often it hangs when even performing simple tasks like toggling lights on and off. It's also been slow to detect when our door sensor has been opened. For the reason we've gone back to the SmartThings Classic app for the time being.
Once you've chosen which app you're going to use, things are pretty straightforward, but we'd encourage spending some time going through all the settings, possible automations and routines and getting a feel for it. As we say, the newer SmartThings app does things a little differently when it comes to tying together different conditions and actions.
Allowing the app access to location services will allow the app GPS access so it can detect where you are, should you want to create a routine that powers the house down when you've left for work.
SmartThings: Velcro tape
A final tip on setup here. Some home devices, like the motion sensor, come with little adhesive strips, but they don't last long when you start experimenting with moving sensors around your home. Go and buy length of sticky-backed velcro tape which you can use to put your motion detectors and the rest wherever you want them without too much fuss. Plus, when it's time to change their little coin batteries, it's just a question of peeling them on and bunging them back again.
Level two: Automating your home
Everything may be all connected and controllable individually, but if you want your smart home to really sing, you'll need to start grouping your gadgets. That way, the ones you like can jump together when you need them to with a single command. If you do it properly, you might not have to press any buttons at all.
Routines seem like a really boring thing to have to program and, we're not going to lie to you, they absolutely are. They're exactly the reason that Nest was invented, because it's all the manual scheduling that no one can be bothered to do themselves.
You'll find the Routines section of the app under the Automations area of either app. The Classic app comes pre-loaded with suggestions called things like 'Good Morning!' and 'Welcome Home!' and 'Good Night!' to make certain things happen at those times of day. You can rename them things like 'Bum' but don't bother because it's really not helpful later when you can't remember how you want the kitchen lights to be set during Bum time.
What you definitely should do, though, is modify each Routine so you can tell it what you consider to be morning, night, coming home time, etc. These can be about your location, everyone's location, the hour, sunset and sunrise and a few other bits and pieces, too. It's rather clever. Have a good think about what works best for you and then try to keep it fairly simple. Generally speaking with SmartThings, too many parameters spoil the broth.
NB: Routines are not the same as Scenes, though this hasn't been made very clear. Put simply, a Routine lets you perform actions when conditions are met, while Scenes let you set multiple device behaviors at once. With a Scene you could have multiple lights turn on, but at different levels of brightness or different colours. The difference between the two won't matter initially, but it's worth fiddling with once you're a bit of a SmartThings ninja.
SmartThings Rooms and Locations
Another way to control multiple devices easily is with Rooms. You'll find this in its own section in the Classic app, while the newer SmartThings app displays your different rooms under the Devices dashboard. You can group the relevant devices into it and give the room a name. You can also go a step further by adding Locations, so you can control Things in multiple locations and have it detect when you're entering/leaving one of those locations using geolocation.
Just to confuse things a little, there are apps within the SmartThings Classic app and even an app store, known as a Marketplace, where you can download them. Don't worry. They're free. It seems needlessly confusing to begin with, but it begins to make sense. SmartApps are pre-written recipes for home automation and each device has its own set to browse. Start with those that SmartThings recommends and build from there. There's plenty to get on with, but they're not that simple to understand at first because each one comes with so many possible conditions and variables.
Just to give one example, we started with a Sonos SmartApp, which plays a certain track under certain conditions. Within that one alone, there's the method of triggering to think about, what song to choose, which speakers to play it on, how long to play it for, how loud you want it to be, how many times a day to let it happen, what time of day it's ok for it to work and whether there should be a minimum amount of time between separate incidences. See what we mean? And that's just one simple thing. What makes it a lot easier is if you've already set your Routines. That way you can quite easily get each action to work just at certain times of day when you're awake/asleep and the right people are home to appreciate it.
SmartApps are really the key to the best of the experience. They help give you ideas of what you can do with all the kit. Go to your Things list in the Marketplace and you'll find all the top SmartApps for each device you own. Once you're done with those, go directly to the SmartApps tab in the Marketplace and you'll find just about everything else that's been written. Be warned, they're not all that useful. Other than that a quick internet search under 'Best SmartThings SmartApps' always makes for colourful suggestions.
SmartThings & IFTTT
IFTTT is a web-based service that allows you to make your own automation recipes that can involve smart homes, social media, weather, other web services, other smart gadgets and just about anything you can think of with an IP connection.
There are two main reasons why IFTTT is particularly useful to SmartThings users. The first is that there are variables to Routines that just aren't available as options within the SmartThings app. So, for example, there's an IFTTT recipe that will strobe your alarm if there's a hurricane on the way or one that will switch your lights on during the day if there's a forecast for rain. Take a look at the SmartThings channel on the IFTTT website for everything that's available. There's a fair bit.
The other useful part of IFTTT is that it brings in a few of your smart devices that are not compatible with SmartThings. One of the big ones here is the Nest family of products. You shouldn't have to replace any such smart devices that you already have installed and fortunately, there's plenty of SmartThings/Nest recipes on IFTTT to keep you going until Samsung and Google manage to strike some kind of deal. Don't hold your breath. Until then, IFTTT can provide a workaround for SmartThings to open your windows if your Nest Protect senses Carbon Monoxide and much, much more.
SmartThings: Think about interconnectivity
SmartThings is at its best when you get more than one Thing involved. It's not about pressing a button on your phone to turn a light on. It's about using your app to set your door sensor to turn the outlet-controlled window lamp on when it senses activity between midnight and 6am. It's about using a chain of smaller bits of kit to make your own version of a smart burglar deterrent. It won't all come to you at once, so you do need to be prepared to put the hours in playing around with it. That's not everyone's idea of a good bit of tech but, if it's your bag, SmartThings is a lot of fun.
Level three: Further tips
The SmartThings app on your smartphone does the brunt of the work, but there are quite a few other ways to access and control your connected home.
SmartThings & Amazon Alexa
Why use your fingers at all when the Amazon Echo and Echo Dot are perfectly good at understanding your voice? If you have Alexa locked up in a smart speaker somewhere, then you can enable SmartThings from inside the Alexa app, as well as by finding relevant SmartApps, too. For now, voice control functionality of your home is limited to lights, power outlets and thermostats. It's probably a good thing, otherwise people would be able to unlock your front door by shouting from the outside.
Any Routines you have which do not involve locks and other non-voice supported device will work through your Echo. "Alexa, Sexy Time," and you can get your bulbs to turn purple and have Barry White blaring.
SmartThings on your wrist
The SmartThings app is available on Apple Watch and on the Samsung Gear S smartwatches including the Samsung Gear S3. On each of those, you'll get notifications about all the occurrences in your smart home such as when doors open, when your housemates come and go, when alarms go off, when motion is sensed and everything else. More importantly, you'll also be able to activate your basic Routines from your wrist too. So there's no need to go hunting for your mobile to relax into evening mode.
You also now have Google Assistant voice controls for SmartThings via Wear OS watches, Google Pixel phones and also the Google Home - the feature is called Home Control.
SmartThings: Buy some bulbs
As much as there's all these sensors and all sorts of other exciting Things out there, SmartThings is a lot more fun if you've got connected light bulbs and even some dimmer switches too. Most of the actions we wanted to happen generally involved some kind of change in lighting conditions. It's not too important which brand you go for from the likes of Philips Hue, LIFX, Osram, WeMo - simply whichever has the best functions to price point ratio for your budget.
SmartThings: Is it for you?
SmartThings is not for everyone. Steer well clear if you're not a tech-savvy person, and until the app migration is complete, there are some unnecessary complications lingering. That said, tech-savvy people will love living in a SmartThings house so long as they never have to get involved in programming it. Our big tip, though, is not to be put off if you're already invested in Nest or Apple or anything else. It's an excellent system for hooking up smart devices you already own and the only one we've seen that is really interested in getting them to work together rather than just trying to control them all.