SmartThings began life as a crowdfunding smash success in 2012, making it one of the first smart home platforms to enjoy mainstream adoption.
It had a big head start over Apple HomeKit and the growing stables around Google Assistant and Amazon's Alexa, but it's also had a tangled and winding route to get to where it is. When Samsung bought SmartThings in 2014 it tried to consolidate it with its own technologies, a process that's been longer and messier than one would hope. There's still some lingering confusion, but we'll do our best to clear that up.
The good news is that even if youâre already slightly invested in another system, it doesnât make a difference. Instead, SmartThings brings the package together; think of it as a place that co-ordinates your smart home devices, as opposed to having a hub that controls it all.
Whether youâre interested in investing in the wide-ranging hardware or youâve already picked up a SmartThings Starter Kit, hereâs our guide on how to use it all.
Level one: How it works
First things first â here are the basics on what SmartThings is all about, 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. It'll create a wireless network to connect and communicate with all your smart home gadgets (another wireless network, not the Wi-Fi you use for your internet).
All you need to do is plug the hub into your router via an Ethernet cable. Or, if you have the newer hub, it can wirelessly connect to your Wi-Fi network and be placed anywhere in your home. As for what devices connect to the SmartThings hub, you won't have to worry too much.
The two main wireless standards that cover just about all smart home products in existence (Zigbee and Z-Wave) are supported through the SmartThings Hub. And with Bluetooth 4.1 also in tow, 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.
The SmartThings Hub is the at the more basic end of controlling your smart home, but there's now also SmartThings Wifi for you to enjoy â a mesh home system, built in collaboration with Plume, which uses a bunch of nodes to create wider and more reliable coverage in your house.
Not only does this have a built-in SmartThings hub, making it an ample smart home controller, but it also doubles up as a Wi-Fi router. This means you're not reliant on an Ethernet connection for internet connectivity, and, interestingly, Samsung Wifi uses AI to allocate bandwidth more effectively â if you use multiple modules, that is. According to the company, the system adapts to internet usage by accounting for all your connected devices and selecting the optimal band and frequency channel to get you the fastest speed.
You can buy a single SmartThings Wifi unit, but in order to take advantage of the mesh-y features, you're going to need the three-pack. Obviously, the benefit of this is that you can blanket your home with full coverage, with each node bringing a range of around 1,500 square feet. As this is mesh Wi-Fi, you can also add as many as you want around your home.
Note that Samsung already let you do this to some degree with its Connect Home system, but SmartThings Wifi takes this a step further with the AI smarts and wireless connectivity.
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 you plug in which only require an on or 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 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. Since the MBS can be used to control other devices, you can use its temperature sensing to help smart thermostats like the Ecobee4 properly heat your home.
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 amount 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 hallways 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. The 2018 edition has also been redesigned with a magnetic ball mount, so you can change the tilt angle for a wider view range to detect motion and trigger automated events.
SmartThings Presence and Water sensors
Pssst, 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.
Samsung's water leak sensor was recently upgraded to make it more accurate at detecting unwanted moisture. The module now has sensors on both the top and bottom, which should make it more effective.
The newest addition to the SmartThings line, and a handy one for those of you who are into routines and want a simpler way to force them into action. The Button has programmable triggers that manually control your routines around the home (a movie mode, for example) without having to faff about in the SmartThings app. Like the rest of its SmartThings brethren, the Button can monitor temperature in an area of the home, too, and can signal your connected thermostat to adjust automatically.
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.
Read this: The best SmartThings compatible devices
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. The first app is SmartThings Classic, which is a holdover of SmartThings before it was bought by Samsung a few years back.
Then there's the new SmartThings app, which is a rebranded version of Samsung's old Connect smart home app. It can be a bit confusing, but know that Samsung wants everyone to eventually use the new SmartThings app - not SmartThings Classic. The new app consolidates more than 40 of Samsung's smart home apps - yes, 40 - into one place.
Previously, we were hesitant to use the new SmartThings app because it didn't perform the best when used with an iPhone. Samsung went back to the drawing board and recently renovated the app, and we're having a fine time with it. If you're a classic SmartThings user, you may want to use the Classic app. If you're new to SmartThings, you shouldn't have a problem with the new app.
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 it 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 a 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 off and bunging them back again.
Level two: Automating your home
SmartThings Classic app
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.
The new app will come with some custom Automations created by other people. Some of them are actually very creative, and will do things like warn you if the windows are open when it's about to rain. Or locking a door if you forget to lock it.
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.
Note: 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 behaviours 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
New SmartThings app
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 makes things a bit easier. You can add your favorite rooms to your home screen for easy access. You can also access all your rooms in the dashboard, just tap that hamburger menu in the upper left corner and then choose Rooms. When your SmartThings app detects a new device, it'll ask you to place it into a room. You'll be able to group relevant devices into a room and then give that 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 once you're involved.
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. But if you've already set your Routines, it makes it a lot easier. 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 are 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.
SmartThings on your wrist
The SmartThings app is available on Apple Watch and on the Samsung smartwatches, including the Samsung Gear S3 and Galaxy Watch. 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 â 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 lightbulbs 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 â 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, non-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.