When a Smart Home isn’t So Smart at All

Shopper's Market: Security and privacy precautions you can take for your Internet-ready devices


If you’ve watched even a few episodes of “Downton Abbey” on PBS, you can appreciate the notion of having things done for you virtually at every moment. For moms in particular, it’s not just a notion. It’s a fantasy.

Today, anyone with a smartphone and a few hundred bucks can choose from a myriad of products claiming to simplify life in the same way. From the moment your phone’s alarm stirs you awake with the melody of your choice, the same device can raise the blinds, switch on lights, adjust your thermostat and start your coffee.

Even if you don’t want to futz around with all the apps you’ve downloaded to run this electronic wait staff, no worries. Some newer product families from Amazon, Apple, and other successors to the now decades-old HAL 9000 of “2001: A Space Odyssey” will accept voice commands.

Maybe you could also train them to say, “Very good, m’lady.”

But members of the Crawley family from “Downton,” as with other fictional representatives of Britain’s landed gentry, now and then needed to shoo away a servant and (gasp!) do something without any help whatsoever. Should we too willingly embrace the so-called smart home, it can become a trap.

Smart-home products offer genuine benefits to the disabled. But the rest of us should regard each new solution in search of a problem with the proverbial hairy eyeball — at least until it demonstrates some actual benefit.

Here are some worthwhile possibilities, some to question and some to completely avoid.

Worth a Try
First Alert Onelink.
 Older versions of this carbon-monoxide detector were interconnected, so when one alarm went off, they all did. That loud din won’t help if you’re not home. The latest generation will text you when it detects either CO or smoke.

Utilitech White Flood Sensor. It’s one of several products that sense leaks from appliances, and texts you — an improvement over older versions that just sounded alarms. This one, though, costs just $30 and works with the Lowe’s Iris hub, a smart home management system and certain others.

Connected by TCP Light System. This expandable system from TCP does more than let you turn on various lights in or around your home from afar. You can also use the app to have them go on and off at various times while you’re on vacation. Two LED bulbs and a gateway device come with the $80 kit, and you can add more bulbs than you’ll ever need.

Dubious Prospects
Febreze Home. 
Air fresheners have their devotees, but some people find them revolting. If you had both freshener lovers and haters in the house, you might use such products sparingly or even occasionally crack open a window. This app-driven product takes the damn-the-torpedoes route: It uses your home’s heating and cooling system to pump out Febreze to every cubic inch of your home.

Mr. Coffee Smart Optimal Brew BVMC-PSTX91WE. Say aloud, “It’s too hard for me to walk to the coffeemaker to program it to brew.” If you don’t feel embarrassed, you’ll like this $150 coffeemaker, which you program using an app. But someone still has to add coffee and water to the machine.

Smart Baby Monitors. If you’ve got infants at home, you’ll sleep better, probably, knowing your video monitor will let you see and hear what’s up in the nursery. But if both the monitor and the wi-fi network to which the camera’s connected aren’t set up securely, you might be inviting strangers to see and speak to your child — which, alas, actually has happened.

Don’t Bother at All
Quirky Egg Minder.
 This $12 connected egg tray has claimed to “track the number of eggs you have and tell you when they’re going bad.” A few questions come to mind. Is this a problem that calls for technology? Do you really want your egg tray to text you? And when in a busy household does an egg, barring power outages, ever go bad?

Oral-B White 7000 with Bluetooth. Should you feel your smile isn’t what it ought to be, you’d probably decide to brush better or longer before anything else. You could instead, though, pay almost $180 for your own toothbrush to nag you that you’re brushing wrong — and tattle to its app.

HAPIfork. For the ultimate dining experience, you pay $80 to have your own fork scold you. The HAPIfork records every bite you take, how quickly and how often, and both vibrates and lights up to tell you — and whoever else is near — that you’re a glutton. Oh, joy.

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