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What You Need (and Don't) to Make Your Home Smart

From a practical standpoint, a video doorbell can help you, your packages stay safe

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TV commercials show busy women directing their robot vacuums to clean up crumbs and pet hair, opening an app to heat their ovens while they shop in the frozen food aisle and asking their smart speakers to notify them when the laundry is dry.

For many older adults, the technology that makes a home “smart” evokes memories of The Jetsons in the early 1960s more than their own abode today. But that’s OK, according to a half dozen tech experts that AARP asked about smart home technology.

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You don’t need most of it — with one exception: Our experts love doorbell cameras, which can connect with your computer, phone, tablet or TV and allow you to see who is at your door without opening it. You can also set many of them up to send alerts when packages are delivered or when someone walks by.

Porch pirates are real, and you want to know when something is delivered; you want to know when someone comes up to your door,” says Judie Stanford, editor in chief of electronic review site Gear Diary. “That’s not fearful; that’s being a smart consumer. It lets me know if somebody comes up and doesn’t ring the doorbell, which is always strange to me. I like to know.”

Edward C. Baig, an AARP contributing writer who was a longtime USA Today tech columnist, agrees: “I’m a fan of video doorbells. They may deter a burglar who, seeing the camera, will move on to someone else’s house.”

Smart home devices not wildly popular or necessary

Video doorbells were among the few smart home devices that cracked the double digits when the not-for-profit tech website surveyed 1,000 adults age 18 and older late last year to find out what smart or Wi-Fi enabled devices they own. In the top five, excluding a smart speaker or hubgaming console and smart TV, were these gadgets:

  • Video doorbell, 14.6 percent
  • Smart garage door opener, 13.8 percent
  • Outdoor security camera, 12.3 percent
  • Smart thermostat, 10.3 percent
  • Indoor security camera, 9.3 percent

Beyond video doorbells, the experts we asked have little use for most internet-connected appliances. Many on our panel say simpler solutions are available.

“One of the things you can do on the smart fridge is display a recipe on the screen,” Baig says. “It’s handy, but no more so than looking at the ingredients and following steps on a phone, tablet or — dare I suggest — an old-fashioned cookbook.”

If you want to wake to the smell of piping hot coffee, you don’t need to tell Amazon’s Alexa or Google Assistant to brew it, says Ty Ahmad-Taylor, vice president of marketing at Facebook’s parent Meta. And you don’t need to pay the premium price that smart coffee makers command.

“I have my coffee maker on a timer, just a regular analog timer that turns the power on and off, and that’s how the coffee gets made,” he says. “I think there are simpler ways for people to get the benefits of home technology without enmeshing them in a whole internet-connected universe.”

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But don’t discount all smart home technology, says Laurie Orlov, founder of the Aging and Health Technology Watch website that spotlights aging in place. Some of it can help you stay independent and in your home as long as possible.

“Smart home devices can be helpful for older adults who live alone, especially those who have difficulty reaching lighting controls,” she says. “Smart home capabilities can be very inexpensive, including motion-sensor nightlights on the way to the bathroom that light up as you move past them.”

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Companies on cusp of better standards

Creating a smart home isn’t easy, says Mark Vena, host of the SmartTechCheck podcast.

“The smart home, from an automation standpoint, is still a very challenging undertaking for many, many people,” he says. “It’s still not very intuitive. You generally have to utilize multiple applications.”

But homeowners and renters who are late to the smart home party will be rewarded this year when the Matter smart home standard is expected to debut. More than 250 companies, including Amazon, Apple, Google, LG and Samsung, have worked together in the past couple of years through the Connectivity Standards Alliance to support development of this new standard that will allow devices to be compatible with whatever smart home system you choose.

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Right now if you buy, say, a smart thermostat and want it on the same system as your video doorbell so your smartphone won’t be littered with individual apps, you have be sure that both can communicate with your Alexa, Apple Home, Google Home or Samsung SmartThings smart speaker or hub, according to Consumer Reports.

By waiting, you may be able to avoid the modern-day equivalent of the 1980s battle between the Sony Betamax and JVC VHS videocassette formats. But whether you wait or decide to explore smart home technology now, be prepared for a learning curve.

“To have a smart house, you have to be somewhat smart,” says Dick DeBartolo, who reports on personal tech for ABC’s World News Now and goes by the moniker the Giz Wiz. “And that’s not for me.”

Some expert advice

Better memory. A subscription plan for your video doorbell, generally $3 to $6 a month, will let you replay videos it records and stores in the cloud.

Some models always require a subscription. Others don’t but will overwrite video footage after they reach capacity on internal storage.

Battery vs. wired. A battery-operated wireless video doorbell is typically easier to install than one that uses existing doorbell wiring. But battery-operated models will lose power when the battery runs out.

Expect to replace the battery twice as often — every six months — as your smoke detector. So a wired doorbell might be more convenient in the long run.

Energy savings. Many smart appliances, such as dishwashers, dryers and washing machines, can be programmed to start at a time when electricity is cheaper. They generally have energy-efficient modes, too.

For those who might forget about a load of wet clothes in the washer for a few days, a smart washing machine can send an alert to your phone when its cycle is finished.

Comfort. You can take your programmable thermostat to the next level by getting one that connects to the internet. Using your habits and preferences, it can program itself based on temperatures you prefer at different times, and you can manually change the settings from your phone while you’re away.

“I’m mildly ashamed to admit it, but I sometimes raise the heat or lower it from the app when I’m feeling lazy and in bed rather than walking downstairs and making the change manually,” Baig says.

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