Smart Home Tech and Gadgets to Make Life Easier

I’ve been hard at work setting up and testing a wide array of technology this month. Brands from around the world have been sending in their best and brightest products to the lab. Some of it works well, while some stumbles. I wanted to make sure I only profile the best of the best.

Here are the smart home gadgets that stood out from the crowd for one reason or another. Whether they make life a little easier or provide an innovative new way to view things, these are a few of my favorite things…

Echo Dot Gen 2 by Amazon
$49.99 on Amazon.com

echo-dot-alexa

Amazon’s second generation Echo Dot packs a lot of punch in a smaller package than the original Dot, which was already smaller than both the Echo and Echo Tap.

What’s most important to know about Echo Dot is it enables Alexa, Amazon’s virtual assistant that can be taught skills from the Amazon store or trigger IFTTT recipes to make life at home much easier.

In addition to advising you on what temperature to cook chicken to, what the weather is like, and how to make the perfect margarita, Alexa can control a wide range of smart devices and let you interact with your home in a whole new way.

You can’t customize Alexa’s name yet, but you can choose to say Echo or Amazon if you’d prefer to dehumanize her or just stop her from activating during Amazon commercials.

Speaking of TV, the Echo Dot has a variety of ways to control different TV sets, but the Fire Stick (not even the new 4k set-top box) isn’t one of them.

amazon-fire-stick

Still, the Fire Stick does enable Alexa on even a dumb TV, making it a useful addition to your smart home. Just understand the platforms don’t mesh.

There are hundreds of great skills you can teach Alexa on either device, though, including how to play games, search for movies across streaming services, change the lights/music, and more.

Read the full review of Echo Dot.

Beddi Style by Witti Design
$59.99 at WittiDesign.com

beddi-smart-alarm-clock-by-witti

You can use your phone, Echo Dot, and a variety of other applications as an alarm, but nothing beats the style of a good ol-fashioned bedside alarm clock. Beddi Style by Witti Design is an intelligent alarm clock that connects to your phone via Bluetooth (and includes a USB charging port on the back) to provide a personalized experience.

But the personalization doesn’t just stop on the inside – a variety of fabric face plates can be found to suit your style, and the bottom lights up to be used as a night light in any color you desire.

Up to four individual alarms can be set on the unit itself, and since it can also be used as a wireless Bluetooth speaker, you can use your smartphone’s alarms as well.

If that’s still not enough, you can upgrade to the $99.99 Beddi Smart Radio alarm clock, which includes a smartphone doc and is capable of streaming Internet radio.

witti-beddi

With the upgraded Beddi, you’ll be able to access your Spotify playlist without the need of your phone. It also stops phone notifications from bothering you while you rest.

Moxie 2.0 by Kohler
$199 on Kohler.com

kohler-moxie-bluetooth-showerhead

I don’t know about you, but I love listening to music in the shower (and anywhere, to be perfectly frank). Moxie 2.0 is an upgrade to the original Moxie Bluetooth speaker/shower head that makes improvements in battery life, sound, and even the finish.

The removable Bluetooth speaker attaches to the shower head through magnets and actually manages to stay on surprisingly well with the water turned on full blast.

Even though the center is filled with a speaker, Moxie still provides a great spray through 60 angled nozzles around the edge. The sound on the speaker isn’t the best – it’s treble-heavy and lacks the punch of any deep bass, but it’s hard to beat the convenience.

Extra speakers can be purchased in a variety of colors, and you can simply bring the speaker with you wherever you go. It doesn’t have to be left in the bathroom, but it will roll around quite a bit anywhere else you place it since the only flat part is where the sound comes out and can’t be covered.

As a portable Bluetooth speaker, Moxie is nothing special, but the ability to stream music from your shower head is a simple and elegant solution to the problem of needing to lug too much tech into your bathroom.

Petcube Play by Petcube
$199 at Petcube.com

petcube-play

If you have a dog or cat, you know they can sometimes get bored and lonely at home. Sometimes this leads to your house being destroyed while you’re at work. Other times, you just have a long day and need to see a friendly face.

Petcube Play resolves these issues using a 1080P HD camera with 138-degree field of view, 2-way audio, motion and sound detection, night vision, and a built-in laser pointer to help you communicate and interact with your furry family when you’re away from home.

For even more interactivity, the optional Petcube Bites attachment will be releasing in 2017 and allow you to dispense treats as well.

petcube-bites

Our dogs are notoriously greedy about food (especially when nobody’s home), and they get bored quite often. Using Petcube is somewhat like Skype or Google Hangouts for you and your pets to communicate.

Of course, you can also use the camera to talk to people in the house and aim a laser pointer at them when they’re bad too.

Smart Security and Lighting Starter System by BeON Home
$158.95 at Beonhome.com

beon-security-bulbs

If the idea of hackers tacking over your security system scares you, there are other ways of making your home a little safer without exposing you to the perils of the Internet.

BeON smart bulbs connect via bluetooth, and contain smart modules which include a 600 mAh (3.59 wh) Lithium Iron Phosphate battery, enough memory to record up to 7 days of activity, a microphone for voice activation, and the ability to control via a mobile app or a bluetooth keychain.

Here’s a video of BeON in action.

BeON bulbs have a 22-year lifespan and, when armed, will follow your normal lighting patterns throughout the house, making it seem as though you’re actually home.

This functionality can be mimicked with a bit of tech skill, IFTTT recipes, etc., but if you want the functionality right out the box, you can’t beat BeON.

In addition, the module’s battery means these lights can be turned on even when the power goes out, making them a valuable emergency lighting kit regardless of whether you have dumb or smart lighting in your home.

The price listed above reflect the cost of a 3-bulb starter kit and keychain dongle (shipping is free if you get it, and it’s definitely worth it for the extra control).

Amplifi HD by Ubiquiti
$349 at Amplifi.com

amplifi-hd-mesh-wifi-network

Getting a decent WiFi signal throughout the home can be a pain, and it’s only gotten worse with the introduction of a bevy of smarthome technology. Some houses and apartments are built with especially solid walls that can block or severely dampen signals and speeds.

Amplifi’s HD home WiFi mesh network fixes these problems by creating a high-density mesh network with aggregate speeds of up to 5.25 Gbps (which of course is limited by your ISP and a few other factors).

Ubiquiti has created high-end broadband WiFi networks for enterprises for years, and Amplifi HD is the high-end of the company’s first foray into home networking. Now you can enjoy the same solid connection speeds at home as you do at work.

In addition, an iOS/Android app lets you monitor network traffic, run speed tests, set timers, access 24/7 chat support, and diagnose system issues using a simple interface.

This modular approach to home networking is sure to be a hit with gamers, 4k movie lovers, and those who have a need for reliable speed.

Weather Station by NetAtmo
$149.99 at Netatmo.com

personal-weather-station

With one touch of a button, you can see a quick, color-coded overview of the air quality inside your home using the NetAtmo Personal Weather Station. The $150 starter kit includes an indoor and outdoor monitor that measures air temperature, humidity, noise level, and even CO2 levels.

While only one outside Weather station is necessary outside, there are a ton of optional add-ons that can warn you of more than just temperature. Rain and wind sensors provide an overall view of outdoors, while additional Indoor Weather Stations can be used in each room.

netatmo-healthy-home-coach

Another option for indoors is the Healthy Home Coach, but at $100 vs the Indoor Weather Stations’s $80 price tag, it’s only useful if you don’t want to know the outside temperature.

It’s also important to know that although the Weather Station supports IFTTT, Healthy Home Coach currently does not. That means you can’t trigger events like playing an alarm on your speakers and turning the lights red if the CO2 levels reach dangerous levels.

SmartCast Crave Pro by Vizio
$299.99 at Vizio.com

vizio-crave-pro-wifi-bluetooth-speaker

What at first looks like your ordinary house speaker turns out to have a host of smart home and entertainment features inside. The Crave Pro by Vizio connects to your WiFi network and has Google Cast built in, allowing you to sync all your Chromecast-enabled devices and content around the house.

This does unfortunately mean that Crave Pro doesn’t work with Alexa directly, but you can pair an Echo Dot (along with any other device) to the Crave Pro via bluetooth to access her. Sonos only allows WiFi connections, so this is a huge plus for those looking for a versatile speaker.

However, know that WiFi streaming isolates the speaker from phone notifications that constantly interrupt the bluetooth listening experience, as Sonos points out in its latest commercial.

Capable of playing pretty much everything in the Googlesphere, it can be connected to other SmartCast speakers to provide even more power and functionality. Each Crave Pro produces a solid 102 dB.

The SmartCast app is necessary to access some features, and it can be a little annoying to deal with (especially when it’s always on and a bit invasive with permissions). However, the wide variety of connection and streaming options makes it a solid investment.

Hue White and Color Ambiance Starter Kit Gen 3 by Philips
$199.99 at Meethue.com

philips-hue-hotline-bling

Having spent some time with different smart lighting systems this year, I’ve learned they all have different styles and uses, depending on your particular lighting needs.

You can get a Hue starter kit for as low as $69.99, but that kit is only for single-color automation. A white ambiance kit can be had for $129.99, which adds an entire spectrum of whites. On top of that, you have a $179.99 Gen 2 color kit and $139.99 Gen 1, all of which work with Alexa.

However, the Gen 3 bulbs add much brighter and more vibrant colors, as you can see in this video.

Even if you don’t ever use the colors for mood lighting (which it’s actually pretty awesome for), these color bulbs have a variety of great uses grouped or individually, especially when IFTTT recipes are added to the mix.

You can use a lamp as a weather device that changes color based on current weather conditions. Your bedroom lights can turn red when a camera’s motion detection or emergency event is triggered. The possibilities are endless.

Hue isn’t the only game in town though. Check out how Philips Hue compares to Lifx smart lighting.

Airbar by Neonode
$69 on Air.bar

airbar-touchscreen-tech

One of the more annoying habits I’ve picked up since the proliferation of smartphones and tablets is constantly trying to touch old-school screens without touch functionality. Connecting to your USB port and using lasers to create a touchscreen over any monitor, Airbar is a breath of fresh air.

Available in 13.3-, 14-, and 15.6-inches, Airbar is a useful way to revitalize your old tech or save money when buying a newer laptop. A touchscreen can add over $100 to a laptop’s price, so you can use the money saved to beef up your hard drive, graphics, memory, processor, etc.

Sound too good to be true? I thought so too until I tried it on my Asus laptop in this YouTube video.

Not only is it effective on the screen, it can also be used for midair controls, which is mostly a novelty feature, but still pretty cool. With Airbar, touchscreen technology is accessible to anyone.

Stay tuned to Thought for Your Penny for more hi-tech reviews and coverage…

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Brian Penny is a former Business Analyst and Operations Manager at Bank of America turned whistleblower, troll, and freelance writer.

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