We're not overrun with uninvited visitors, but we do have our fair share of them.

We have a "No Solicitor" sign up on our house, which seems to be a cause for humor, but not compliance. It's also not unusual to get a knock on the door after dinner, though the late visitors are frequently neighbor kids selling something. In both cases, we don't know who is at the door until we peer through the living room curtains, or open the door.  Then you're committed to having to deal with the visitors, even if you're in the middle of other tasks.

When I read about the new smart doorbell by Ring.com, I knew I had to get one. Luckily, the company was just coming out with a new smart doorbell, the Ring Video Doorbell Pro.

The differences between the Pro and the non-Pro version is the Pro is hardwired to the house rather than using a battery option, supports 1080p, rather than just 720p video, and can work with either 2.4Ghz or 5Ghz. I wanted 1080p support, and liked the idea of not having to mess with a battery.

We also purchased the Ring Chime to go with the doorbell, though it's not a requirement.

When the doorbell came, I was surprised, and not especially happy, to realize I'd have to install a component to my doorbell chime, as well as wire the doorbell. From the web site and videos of the Ring, I knew about wiring the doorbell, but not the chime. In addition, I was one of the "lucky" first buyers who got a plain, exposed circuit board to attach to the chime—not the more polished little white box that you can either install in the doorbell case, or attach to the outside.

The ring.com component that is installed in the doorbell.

Evidently, Ring.com sent a plain circuit board in some of the kits, until someone realized that you don't just send an exposed circuit board with a home consumer product. At which point, the company switched to the white box with the kits. The company did offer to send me the white box to enclose the board, but I made do with the existing board.

You can see a snapshot of my fancy writing, below:

Circuit board installed

The doorbell itself was simple: just remove the old doorbell, attach the wires to the Ring Pro, screw it into the outside wall, pick one of four face plates, remove the security screw, and you're done. The outside only took about 10 minutes.

Installed ring doorbell

It took a couple of efforts to connect the device to my router, but that was because of ongoing issues I'm having with my OnHub router. I couldn't connect the Chime to my OnHub, and had to connect it to a secondary router (more on this in a later story).

The Ring doorbell is simple to control via the Android application I have on my smartphone. You can set up a master installation on one or more smartphones or tablets, as well as provide limited access to other people, such as family members or friends who might be watching your home while you're gone. They'll be able to access the videos and interact with the visitors, but not change any of the existing settings.

The first thing we did was to establish motion zones for the doorbell.  It's simple to add a new motion zone, but one of the problems with the interface on my Samsung Galaxy 7 Edge is that the toolbar overlaps most of the zones, making them difficult to access directly.

ringmotion

Another issue with the interface is there's no way to temporarily turn off motion detection. You have to go into the motion settings and individually deactivate each zone to turn off motion detection. If you go outside to fuss with the plants on your porch, you either have to go through a convoluted routine to turn off motion detection, or you're going to trigger motion detection.

Luckily the Ring Chime sound for motion detection is wind chimes, and not abrasive.

The motion detection is good though you will get some false positives. I discovered that car lights reflected in the rain in our driveway, and the plants swaying strongly in the breeze could trigger the motion detection. However, the false positives are infrequent, and if they are annoying, you can remove motion detection zones altogether.

Where the Ring comes into its own is when someone does come to the door. Within a couple of days after installing the device, a salesman trying to sell pest extermination plans came to the door. He knocked instead of using the bell, but I got a motion detection notice. I was home, but out on the deck. I didn't want to deal with the individual, so used my Ring app to ask him what he wanted.

His reaction was priceless. He started looking all over for the camera and then finally peered closely into the doorbell. He had a huge grin on his face—the experience was as much fun for him, as it was for me. Without having to leave my comfortable seat out on back yard deck, I was able to handle his visit quickly. More importantly, I didn't have to open my door to some unknown person.

If I had not been at home, I could have responded in the exact same manner to the visitor. There is a one to two second lag in communication between the App and the device, but it's not so noticeable that it interferes with communication.

Whether you answer a motion or doorbell ring or not, Ring records video of both. However, if you want the device to persist the video you do need to subscribe to cloud-based video storage at Ring.com. The cost is a very reasonable $30.00 a year, for six months storage of any video. You can review videos on a regular basis, keep those you want to keep, and delete the rest. If you want to keep one of the videos, you can download it. You can also generate a link for any video, and share it to Facebook or Twitter.

Without the motion detection and videos we wouldn't have known a package was dropped off by FedEx, since we weren't expecting it. We also wouldn't have had that interesting video of the large spider, crawling across our doorbell.

The videos can serve another unintended purpose which we discovered fairly recently. A person who lives nearby was burning an open fire in their yard, generating thick smoke that filled the entire neighborhood. We're in a strict burning ban area because of air quality issues, so I called the Fire Department to report the illegal fire. As usual in these types of events, the police accompanied the fire personnel. After the fire and police professionals visited the residence with the fire, the police came to our home. As soon as they entered the porch, the motion detection started the video recording. Our entire interaction with them was recorded on video.

After they left, we checked out the videos. The very first one showed the two police officers checking out the unusually shaped planters on our porch (Vegtrugs), and the prolific plant growth. We could hear one police officer say to the other, "Is that marijuana?", as both shined their flashlights over the plants.

Police checking our our planters

No worries, the only weeds in our gardens are the kind you ruthlessly yank up when you can't stand the sight of them anymore. But it did demonstrate an interesting and unintended benefit of the Ring smart doorbell.

Quibbles with the motion zone interface and installation issues aside, the Ring smart doorbell has become one of our best smart home investments. If you have no qualms about wiring devices, I recommend the Pro version, for the best video interface.

When last we left our intrepid, if challenged, SmartThings home hub, it was not having the best of times.

CNet picked up my previous story, and expanded on it in an article titled Samsung's smart home push hits disconnect. In addition, researchers exposed what they considered to be serious security flaws with the hub.

Multiple issues exist in SmartThings' framework, the researchers say, but most pressing are the privileges given to apps, many of which they don't need to function. A smart lock might only need the ability to lock itself remotely, for instance, but the SmartThings API bundles that command with the unlock command, which an attacker can leverage to carry out a physical attack. Another over-granting of permissions involves the way in which SmartApps connect to physical devices. When a user downloads a SmartApp, it asks for specific permissions to perform its intended purpose. After being installed, SmartThings then lists all the devices that could be used with that app because of its ability to sync with those permissions. But it also gives the app more access than it needs.

In response, SmartThings CEO Alex Hawkinson apologized in the SmartThings community forum, promising improvements. He also posts a weekly update (the latest) about what improvements have been pushed out that week. In addition, the company recently hired Amazon's former director of engineering, Robert Parker, to oversee the improvements.

As a result, SmartThing users have been seeing an improvement in the hub. We're no longer seeing the "red bar of death" that used to be so common in the Android app. In addition, performance has improved, including better detection of presence, as well as quicker response to actions. Scheduled events actually run on schedule, after months of erratic behavior.

Hawkinson also responded to the security concerns:

A research report entitled “Security Analysis of Emerging Smart Home Applications” was released this morning by a team from the University of Michigan and Microsoft Research. The report discloses hypothetical vulnerabilities in the SmartThings platform and demonstrates how, under certain circumstances, they could be exploited. Over the past several weeks, we have been working with this research team and have already implemented a number of updates to further protect against the potential vulnerabilities disclosed in the report. It is important to note that none of the vulnerabilities described have affected any of our customers thanks to the SmartApp approval processes that we have in place.

The system has stabilized enough that some of us are tentatively moving back into the world of the Smart Home Monitor—the golden child of the SmartThings network, responsible for security. It is this application that had the most faulty behavior, with frequent false alarms, and not being able to manually arm or disarm the system.

I turned on SHM last week for the first time in over two months. Unfortunately, I also had a false alarm at exactly 5:04 AM last Thursday, when one of my monitors detected movement where there was none. However, I do believe this is more the monitor (I've had some issues with SmartThings own motion sensors in the past)—perhaps reacting to a spider, or air flow eddies—and not the application or the hub. I've switched to a different motion sensor (the Fibaro Motion Sensor), and so far no additional false alarms.

We can now easily arm and disarm the SHM security system. When the security alert did go off, all the appropriate lights and alarms were triggered, and notifications sent. In addition, when I dismissed the alert, the alarms were immediately silenced, though I had to turn off all the lights manually.

There are still issues with the SmartThings Hub. The biggest concern is that most of the activity related to the Hub occurs within the cloud rather than locally. This means that if we lose internet connectivity—something that happens daily for me during the hottest part of the day in the summer—automatic actions that should still function, don't.

We also still don't have Rule Machine, the extremely popular community-developed application, and no idea if it will ever return.

Still, I'll take the improvements we've received, and the promise of more.

I'm moving the SmartThings Hub from "hold on buying" to, "OK, you can give it a try, but don't go crazy buying devices just yet".

5

One of the most popular smart home controllers is SmartThings, especially the company's newest hub, SmartThings V2. Interest in the hub was sufficient to attract the attention of Samsung, who bought SmartThings in August, 2014. Samsung recently touted SmartThings as the hub controller for many of its new smart home endeavors.

Unlike *other smart home hubs, SmartThings controls ZigBee as well as Z-Wave devices, meaning that smart home consumers don't have to choose devices of one standard over the other—opening the door to seemingly twice as many devices. It was the dual support, as well as the Samsung patronage that made me decide to invest in SmartThings.

I have a SmartThings V2 hub, as well a Z-Wave and ZigBee devices from SmartThings and other vendors. In the beginning, I was very happy with the hub, and delighted at what I could control with it. I used it to turn on and off groups of lights, set lights to come on at certain times, or based on motion or a door opening. I also used it for home security. When the outside lights came on at sunshine, the hub would also ensure my door locks were locked. Movement in certain areas at certain times would not only turn on all the house lights, it would also trigger two very loud, very irritating sirens.

All was well, until after Christmas. In January, my SmartThings experience began to go south. It started with a false alarm one night, waking the household up, and generating a frantic check of house cameras to ensure there was no intruder. Over the next month, we suffered three more false alarms, but only some of the lights would come on, and siren support was sporadic. As thankful as we were that the sirens weren't triggering with the false alarm, we contemplated what would happen if the alarm was real, and we slept through it because neither lights nor siren came on.

About a month ago, we found that the nighttime routine that was supposed to set the Smart Home Monitor application's state to armed wasn't running most of the time. When it did run, it frequently wouldn't change the armed status. Then it  became an esoteric exercise to change the application's armed state. We'd have to, first, set the device to Armed (Away), then back to Disarmed, then to Armed (Stay), to get the system to arm the home for the night.

In addition, the morning routine to disarm the routine wouldn't fire, or if it did, wouldn't disarm the home. When a House Hold Member would leave for work, the lights would come on, the alarms would sometimes go off—all of which made for a stressful morning routine. When the disarm procedure did work, it started turning on a small group of lights, for no reason. The same group, each time, including the light that shown directly in my face. There was nothing I could do to stop it.

After months of increasing aggravation, I finally followed the advice of many, and uninstalled SmartThing's Smart Home Monitor application. Now I'm using the Smart Lighting application to trigger lights and alarms, though the routine isn't as sophisticated, and doesn't send out notifications. However, it turns on lights and the alarms when motion occurs in certain areas at certain times, and it does so reliably. That's enough.

In the SmartThings community forum, the complaints about the routines not running on time, and the Smart Home Monitor failing to arm or disarm have taken over, with many customers vowing to dropkick the hub out the window.

Rather than the fix we desperately needed, a month later, a whole new set of problems are surfacing.  Cree bulbs—those lovely, affordable, reliable ZigBee gems—started failing. They still showed as active in the SmartThings Hub, but if you looked at another controller, such as Amazon's Echo, it would show the bulbs as inactive. And the routine to fix the dropped Cree bulb is bizarre: rename the device, several times if you must, and this, somehow, magically reconnect SmartThings to the bulb.

The Cree bulb issues join with problems with several other (primarily Z-Wave) devices, and the answer is typically the same: you have to remove the batteries, or reset the devices, or rename them, or some other process that more closely resembles "sacrifice a chicken at midnight" voodoo than tech troubleshooting.

The Smart Home Monitor wasn't the only application that  began to fail. Others, including one very popular community member-provided application known as Rule Machine, also began to have problems. Because of the problems, the Rule Machine author has pulled the application for now, until the SmartThings infrastructure problems are resolved.

(And how do you get access to these community-provided smart apps? First, you have to have a GitHub account. Yes, not a first step I would recommend if you want widespread adoption of your products. Reliability isn't the only functionality that SmartThings needs to improve.)

The SmartThings status page has noted the problems for several weeks, and we're assured, both in the forum and in the status page, that engineers are working on solutions that they hope to roll out. Soon. Soon. Soon.

The problems that SmartThings faces are the problems many smart home technologies face: dependence on a cloud, increasing numbers of users, and a massive number of device events. Infrastructures that worked for a small number of diehard fans don't scale for larger numbers of people, many of whom are not techs or geeks, just people trying out the new technology; people who will quickly abandon the new technology when they hit problems, rather than persevere like the earlier adopters.

I watched the events for my devices one night, using the web UI that SmartThings provides. My motion detectors not only signal activity, they also signal the room temperature every 10 minutes. So do my sensors that check whether a door is opened or closed. My Netatmo indoor and outdoor temperature sensors also update every ten minutes. When I set one of my Hue bulbs to a different brightness level, it triggered over twenty log entries, as SmartThings reviewed illumination levels, current color setting, current on/off state, and then seemingly did it again and again, several times in a row. When I turned it off, the same twenty-plus log entries were displayed.

After an hour I had to turn off the log: it was so long, I could no longer scroll to the end.

We know that many functions are handled at the device level, and don't require the internet. But when you have coordinated mobile and desktop applications, then you require the cloud. The concern then becomes: what's handled in the device? What's handled in the cloud? And what happens when you magnify all of this by several thousand or tens-of-thousands users, each with many different devices?

What happens is what we're seeing: incomplete or out-of-sync device states, orphaned devices, phantom device activation, slow responses, or non-existent and unreliable responses.

I'm not ready to dropkick my SmartThings Hub V2 out the window, yet. I have both Z-Wave devices and ZigBee, and most hubs support one or the other but not both. When I avoid routines for important functionality, use IFTTT to schedule events, and limit my smart applications to the few that show themselves to be reasonably stable, the system does work. But the functionality is severely limited—a ghost of our glorious expectations.

However, for all the technical problems the company has, it is making some good organizational decisions. SmartThings does stay connected with the users. True, support may not answer your questions for a few days, and the answers not what we'd want, but they do respond. I've found that most of the smart home technology companies have appalling support—I'm been waiting for a response from Netatmo for five months now, and don't even start me on Google's OnHub or Nest support.

In addition, SmartThings employees do respond in the community forum, even though for the most part, they're responding to increasingly irate customers. Not just customer support employees, either: company engineers have communicated from time to time, giving us glimpses into the technology that powers the SmartThings cloud (Groovy, a Java dialect from Apache, and Cassandra for event management).

Amazingly enough, the company also lets the customers vent. And vent. Not many companies would allow customers to discuss the relative merits of competitor products and jumping ships in the product's community forums. I hesitate to say such openness is unique, but it is very unusual. And, frankly, another smart organization decision.

So, I stay with SmartThings. For now. However, I don't recommend buying a SmartThings Hub until the infrastructure problems are fixed.  If this happens, I'll post an update.

* Newer hubs do have support for both ZigBee and Z-Wave. Harmony Home Hub Extender supports both, as does the new VeraPlus Advanced Home Controller.

I have a Samsung SmartCam that's monitoring our basement entryway. Though the camera has a motion sensor, my smart home hub, SmartThings, doesn't yet use it. We've been assured that a future upgrade will incorporate support for the camera's motion sensor. Right now, I'm using a SmartThings motion sensor.

The motion sensor monitors all basement motion in the evening or when I'm away. If there's any motion, it sends me a text alert, turns on all lights that are currently connected to my hub (most of the house), and records a video clip of the motion using the camera. It also incorporates buffered video of the 15 seconds before the motion. This video clip is attached to the alert that's sent to my cellphone. It's also attached to the alert in the SmartThings app.

It works remarkably well. If we're home, all the lights coming on will definitely wake us up. They should also give anyone breaking in pause before continuing. And the triggering happens immediately. The lights will still come on when we're away (to scare whoever is breaking in). But when we're away, we'll also have the video so we can check if the motion was triggered accidentally, or we have a problem and need to call the police immediately.

I'm using the SmartThings hub to control the camera rather than the native Samsung camera app. I believe it does better than the native app and web site. Plus I can inactivate the camera when I want to deactivate its recording capability.

I turn the camera on at sunset and off at sunrise using an IFTTT rule.  I also use the SmartThings Smart Home Monitor smart app to monitor the motion sensor in the basement, and part of its alarm notification process is to grab a clip from the camera (in addition to the lights and text message). This is a premium service that's free until the end of 2015, and which will cost $4.99 a month starting in 2016.

screen shot of OnHub device bandwidth pageOne interesting effect from using a Google OnHub router with this setup is that you can actually see the upload bandwidth between the camera and the SmartThings hub. I originally thought the upload was going to a cloud via my internet connection and was alarmed at the amount of bandwidth being used. The engineers at SmartThings explained that the upload is only going to the SmartThings hub, and once I looked at the OnHub's readings more carefully I could see this was so.

The lights, themselves, are a mix of switch, bridge, and bulb. I am using Cree light bulbs, several GE z-wave light switches, in addition to a Philips Hue Bridge and bulbs. The Hue bulbs are outdoor lights, and I'm changing them to red during an alert. Otherwise, they're normal white during the night, and off during the day.

The brains of the entire outfit is the SmartThings Hub. Well, and me. Primarily the Hub, though.

How-to: install the motion sensor and Samsung SmartCam as Things in the SmartThings Hub. Add them to the room (in this case, our basement). In the Smart Home Monitor, click the gear box and then create a Custom rule. I use a Custom rule because I can set the monitoring to happen only at a certain time. In the page that opens, add a New Monitoring Rule. In the next page that opens, select your motion sensor.

Next, configure the device by setting its type and in which mode it's active (Night and Away), and during what times. In the next page, configure the Text & Push notifications, Alert with Sirens, and Alert with Lights.  You can also select the camera to use during the event. In my case, I'm setting up a push notification, turning on lights, and using my basement camera.

If you want different times for different modes, you can create multiple rules. For instance, I could use the Security routine to monitor the motion sensor 24 hours a day when I'm away from home, and reserve the Custom rule for when I'm home.

I set up an IFTTT rule to deactivate the camera during the day, and activate it only at night. No need to clutter up the LAN with activity during the day when I'm home. If I leave the house, it's simple to turn it on manually. Eventually, I'll probably create another rule to turn it on automatically when I'm Away.

Use the IFTTT Date and Time channel for the trigger, and the SmartThings channel for the action.

 

I recently received the SmartThings Hub v2, as well as several sensors and light bulbs. It's been a gas putting all the things together, trying them out with my Amazon Alexa, as well as trying out the different SmartThings smart apps.

I connected IFTTT to my ST hub, and it turns on my bedroom and office lights at sunset. Another app has a motion sensor monitor the basement at night and if motion is detected, every light controlled by the Hub is turned on and a text sent to my phone. If I'm away from home, the text message also includes a one minute video clip of the intrusion.

If my front door isn't locked at 10, it's automatically locked. When I get a garage relay installed, if the garage door is open at 10, it's automatically closed.

It's fun, useful, and fascinating to see all the pieces come together. But it can also be frustrating, too, especially for a ST newbie, such as myself.

Today I was experimenting with a smart app to use a light as an alarm clock—having it come on gradually over 5 minutes. I ran a test case on my light in my office, just to see how it worked. It seemed to work fine, but something I did  triggered it to run again. It turned on the light, I used the ST app to turn it on again. The app immediately turned it on again, and I turned it off again.

This on-off-on-off battled continued to happen for another five minutes, as I tried to figure out how to turn the smart app off.  Eventually, I uninstalled the app.

As I wrote in Facebook:

It gives one pause in one's enthusiasm for a smart home when one realizes that one has been having a heated argument for several minutes with a light bulb.

 

I admire C/Net for taking the next long step in Internet of Things coverage. The company actually bought an entire house to use as a test case for all things smart.  Not just any home, either, but a large behemoth, which should end up being an effective test for signal range and device conflict.

I'm also in the process of updating my newly purchased home into a smart home. But my home and budget are considerably smaller than C/Net's. It's going to be interesting seeing which of the modifications C/Net makes I can afford to apply to my house.

I already have one advantage: since my home is so much smaller, I have decent wireless range all throughout the home. As I recently wrote, I'm trying out the new Google OnHub, though I have an excellent TP-Link router backup. Both provide good, overall coverage.

Speaking of coverage, C/Net's first smart home article is on ensuring sufficient Wi-Fi coverage. I do have two routers I'm not currently using, so may convert one to a repeater in order to extend the range into the back yard. I'd like to put up a wireless weather station, and I don't think my current setup is sufficient to cover the necessity of installing the station far enough away from my house to get accurate readings.

In the meantime, C/Net's newest enterprise should be interesting reading.