Samsung’s smart home-in-a-box Starter Kit gives you all the wireless devices you need to link your lighting and security to your smartphone. Nick Peers set up his SmartThings from scratch to see if it made his home any better.
Updated: There’s more than one entry level smart home kit on the UK market with options from Panasonic and Belkin amongst others, but SmartThings is probably the best known and most successful.
Samsung’s Starter Kit is a box of smart home tricks including a wireless hub and four wireless devices – a socket switch, a motion sensor, a presence sensor and a multi-sensor that can detect if a window is open or closed. Version 2 of the hub, released last year, adds a number of improvements – now certain devices don’t require internet access to communicate with each other, while the hub supports video streaming from compatible devices.
In theory, it’s everything you need to turn your house into a smart home. In our assessment we’ve decided to take the basic Starter Kit and, in order to appraise it as part of a wider smart home setup, we’ve added a number of extra elements: an Aeotec Z-Wave indoor siren, a Smappee energy monitor and smartplug, plus we’re integrating some Philips Hue lighting. We’re also running the SmartThings app on a variety of Android and iOS mobile devices and attempting to integrate non-supported devices like the Canary security camera in other ways, to see how flexible SmartThings really is.
Samsung SmartThings smart hub: getting started
Step one: connect the hub to your Wi-Fi router. The hub bridges your devices to your main network, giving you access from the SmartThings app and other compatible services like IFTTT. Annoyingly, the hub itself doesn’t have built-in Wi-Fi – it connects to your network (and the internet) via an Ethernet cable only.
If the router’s in an awkward place, or you’ve run out of spare Ethernet ports, you’ll need to invest in a Powerline adapter and/or network switch. The former extends your network via your mains electricity ring, while the switch lets you connect multiple devices to a single Ethernet port – perfect for us, as the Philips Hue hub is similarly Ethernet-only.
Setup is relatively straightforward. Once plugged in, switch on the hub and install the app on your smartphone or tablet. It’ll detect the hub, take you through the process of setting up an account and then you’re ready to start introducing devices to it. When adding a SmartThings sensor, this involves opening the SmartThings smart app. Tap + followed by ‘Add a Thing’ and ‘Connect new Devices’. Pull out the plastic flap from your sensor and it should immediately appear, ready for you to configure.
Configuration involves naming the sensor and assigning it to a room (for those sensors that will reside in a fixed location). Tap Next and you’ll see a range of SmartApps (not to be confused with your phone’s app), which provide you with pre-built ‘recipes’ that allow you to link the various smart devices in your home together. Only popular SmartApps are listed, so tap Done if you don’t see one that suits your purposes.
On the whole the app works reasonably well – it can be a little complicated to navigate at first, but you’ll soon become familiar with its layout and have the basics of connecting devices together via apps down to a tee.
What you get: Motion Sensor, outlet switch, sensor, camera and more
This discreet device detects motion, and can be used simply to inform you if anything passes by via a phone notification. It’s better paired with other devices though – we fitted one in a corridor to detect movement when the rear door was opened (or someone passed in range of the sensor). We then set up the Philips Hue hub, linked it to the SmartThings hub and fitted two smart bulbs in the corridor.
Next, we installed the Smart Lighting SmartApp, which allowed us to link the motion sensor to the bulbs. Thanks to a range of options, we were able to have the bulbs switch on when someone walked within range of the sensor after sunset, then automatically switch off after a minute had passed where no motion was detected. It was reasonably straightforward to fine-tune the app by experimenting with the options on offer and it works flawlessly. If we have any criticism, it’s that the motion sensor has a relatively narrow field of vision.
Samsung SmartThings: outlet switch
The Outlet switch can turn any electrical device into a smart device. When linked with the SmartThings app, you can turn whatever is plugged into the socket on and off from anywhere using your phone. We’ve used it to turn on a floor lamp, so we labelled it “Lamp” in the app, but it could also be used to provide a remote control, like the Dyson fan heater in the picture below. It’s worth noting that you can now also use Belkin WeMo switches directly with the SmartThings hub – these tend to be about £5 cheaper than the outlet switch, while the WeMo Insight switch allows you to track energy usage too.
Samsung SmartThings: multipurpose sensor
This sensor comes in two parts, and when the circuit joining these two sensors is broken, you’ll get an alert. It’s a great way to identify if a door or window is open, but the sensor also has a built-in vibration sensor too and can also monitor the temperature of the room it’s in, giving you even more functionality (for example, you could trigger an alarm when a window has been opened and the temperature has fallen below a specific point).
We’ve fitted one to the inside of our front door, not simply to detect entry, but also to react when someone knocks on the door – we attempted to pair this with the Aeotec Siren as an alternative to our untrustworthy front door chime, but aside from problems with the siren (it’s too loud and no SmartApp exists that would automatically shut off the siren after a few seconds), we realised it was understandably not smart enough to differentiate between a knock and any other vibration, such as opening the door. No matter, we’ll find another use for it soon enough.
Samsung SmartThings: arrival sensor
This little tracking device – the SmartSense Presence – can be used on a keyring, or attached to an item that you want to keep track of, like your briefcase, or maybe your children. It sends an alert to your phone when the sensor enters, or leaves the hub’s network. You can get identical functionality from your smartphone or tablet, but this is considerably cheaper than both.
There’s no finesse with this sensor – you can’t use it to track people’s progress between rooms for example; instead, it simply records when they travel outside the range of the hub and then come back in. Speaking of which, the hub’s range extends into the street, so SmartThings might record someone as being at home even when they’re having a cuppa next door.
SmartThings: Samsung SmartCam HD Pro
The SmartThings devices all work satisfactorily, but they provide a very low level of security on their own. The idea is to add devices, like this camera until you have a system that suits your lifestyle. The Samsung camera is motion sensitive and can be configured to record any movement while your away. It integrates smoothly with the SmartThings app by letting your view a live feed on your phone from your home any time you’re away. The detail is impressive in HD mode, but if you’re not on a fibre broadband connection, you’ll need to knock it down to standard definition when streaming.
Samsung SmartThings compatibility
It’s taken a while, but SmartThings is starting to gain traction as a viable smart home standard, with other manufacturers taking steps to make existing devices as well as new tech compatible with the SmartThings protocol.
Cameras: There’s a range of D-Link security cameras that work with SmartThings, although sadly our Canary smart camera isn’t (yet) compatible. Workarounds may be available – you can switch the Canary’s mode using a combination of the Wink app (no hub required) and an IFTTT recipe linking it to a SmartThings motion sensor, but it’s not really much use.
Light bulbs: we’ve seen how Philip Hue bulbs work with SmartThings, but only via the Hue’s own hub. If the idea of adding another hub doesn’t appeal, then check out Belkin WeMo and LIFX bulbs, both of which link directly through the SmartThings hub. You can also link Osram Lightify bulbs, but its own hub is needed.
Smart energy: there’s still no support for Nest devices, but support for Honeywell’s evohome alternative is coming soon (it’s currently in private beta). We also discovered that support for Smappee’s smart energy monitor and smart plugs has also been added, allowing us to make good use of recipes like ‘Energy Saver’ and ‘Energy Alerts’.
Speakers: SmartThings works with a number of speaker systems from Bose, Sonos (unofficially) and – of course Samsung.
Other devices: you’ll find third-party sensors, key-free locks, dimmer switches and even panic buttons are now compatible with SmartThings – thanks to its combined Zigbee and Z-Wave signals, enthusiasts are also finding ways of linking other devices to the service too.
Samsung SmartThings and Amazon Echo in the UK
We tested our SmartThings setup with an imported Amazon Echo speaker. We hooked up the SmartThings Skills app to the device, which claims to work with on/off switches (including lights), dimmer switches and thermostat controls. We were only able to test it with the Philips Hue lights, but discovery, setup and use was flawless – it’s just a shame it couldn’t detect our Smappee smart plug.
Living with Samsung SmartThings: verdict and second opinion
Setup is straightforward – both the initial steps of connecting to the hub and then adding devices to it. There are some niggling annoyances with both iOS and Android apps though – we’re currently encountering frequent errors whenever we add new rooms or attempt to edit their settings (such as by uploading a photo).
The Starter Kit retails for £200, and that’s frankly not good value. You’re better off mixing and matching what you need – the hub can be had for under £80 on its own, and keep an eye out for regular sales when buying sensors – Currys and Samsung recently had sensors for sale for £24 each for a limited time (regular price £30). Be sure to stock up on a supply of CR2032 batteries too – these are used to power the various sensors, and while they’re not particularly long-lasting (months rather than years), they are at least cheap and ubiquitous.
The good news is that with the growth in compatible devices from third parties, and the addition of new services from Samsung, like the Home Monitoring kit, we’re starting to see a long-term use for the kit beyond mere novelty value.
Recent revelations about potential vulnerabilities are concerning, but Samsung moved swiftly to close these. That’s important, because SmartThings needs to sell itself as a security tool – right now, using it primarily for energy saving and convenience means you’re paying a hefty premium for the privilege.
Living with Samsung SmartThings – is it any good?
Jim Hill installed and tested SmartThings over several weeks – here’s his second opinion.
- Name: Jim Hill
- Occupation: Writer
- Lives: London
What’s it like to install?
“The SmartThings setup is fun, fairly easy to install and potentially quite useful. It’s also relatively affordable, compared to buying all the components separately. But if you don’t use all of the components, you’d have to admit that it’s rather expensive and maybe no more than a novelty.”
How did it integrate with your other smart technology?
“It was annoying that I had to add yet another wireless hub to my faltering wi-fi network. It was also frustrating that it won’t recognise my existing Nest smoke alarm, or my Netatmo security camera.”
What was it like to live with?
“I have been living with SmartThings for a short time, and it’s only by getting into the habit of checking the status of the sensors on my phone regularly that it becomes an effective security system. I can also see that it would become more useful, with a few more sensors.”
What impressed you most?
“What I do like is being able to turn on my lamp with my phone using the SmartThings Outlet switch without scrabbling for the socket, but that’s still not justifying the whole SmartThings kit and caboodle for me just yet.”
There’s a range of good resources for SmartThings users in the UK, starting with its community site. It’s well worth a visit.