Today on the hookup we’re going to take a look at a part of CES that usually doesn’t get much coverage: The sands convention center, hall D and I’ll show you my picks for the best new smart home technology for 2019.
After 4 days of walking around expo halls from 9am to 5pm I feel like I was finally able to see all there was to see at CES 2019... sort of. CES is spread out along many different venues on the las vegas strip, but it is generally divided into three main categories: At the las vegas convention center huge companies like Samsung, LG, sharp and sony compete to see who can build the largest, thinnest, highest resolution TV. In the Las Vegas convention center the booths are an experience, and there is little to no interaction with the people in charge of the development of the products. Conversely, on the first floor of the sands expo hall tech startups are packed tightly into a huge basement style space, the mood is chaotic and the people in the booth are usually the owners and developers directly involved in the direction of the company.
Somewhere in the middle of those two is where I spent the vast majority of my time. On the second floor of the Sands Expo hall established companies display their smart product lines and knowledgeable booth workers are able answer technical questions, or at least put you in touch with someone who can.
In this video I’m going to show you the smart home products that were most interesting in an installment of the hookup that I’m calling “the good, the bad, and the exactly the same”.
Starting with the most basic smart home category: Smart switches and bulbs. Innovation in this category was sparse, but there was some good stuff: Sengled produced the first a19 form factor 100 watt replacement smart bulb, and It was BRIGHT, depending on your application for this bulb it might produce a strange lighting pattern since the top of the bulb is vented to allow for sufficient cooling on the massive LED array and wifi radio. I did put my hands directly on the base of the bulb that had been on for more than a few hours and I was surprised that it wasn’t any hotter than any other LED bulb I’ve dealt with. It’s expected to be released by the end of Q1 2019 and pricing had not yet been finalized.
A company called Aurora has succeeded in producing the first wifi smart switch that does not require a neutral wire. The one caveat for this switch is that there must be at least 15 watts of load on the switch (when switched on) to be able to power the wifi module, still, this is an impressive and exciting step forward for the huge number of consumers around the world who don’t have neutral wires in their switch boxes. According to the engineers at the aurora booth, the only reason we can’t buy them right now is that they haven’t finished the packaging, due to a delay in getting their apple homekit certification. Price was not finalized, but unofficially was around $30 US.
The popular USB receptacle producer TopGreener has developed a shelly like relay device that is meant to be installed behind a switch panel to convert an existing dumb switch to a smart one. This smart relay requires both hot and neutral and uses the tuya module to provide wifi control and can also power monitoring for that circuit. It should be available for purchase by mid February, final pricing was not available, nor was information about UL certification, though it should be noted that the rest of the products in the TopGreener booth had UL listing.
Then there’s the bad: of all of the lighting companies that I spoke with, exactly zero of them expressed interest in allowing local control of their bulbs, some politely said “maybe at some point in the future” while others laughed and basically said that would never happen.
And last there’s the “exactly the same”. Tuya absolutely dominated the market. Almost every brand is using Tuya to handle their wifi connectivity. And while some have custom skinned apps that carry the same brand name as their products like TopGreener, inside they all contain the same Tuya module.
Speaking of tuya, we learned some extremely interesting information from the head north American marketing at tuya who spent over a half an hour talking to DrZzs and I about the tuya brand. I had previously thought that all tuya products were the same, and that it didn’t matter if I bought from zemismart, topgreener, or martin jerry, because they were all sending data to the tuya cloud. As it turns out, that assumption was not correct. The tuya cloud is handled locally in the country in which the device is located. That means that for the US and Europe they are processed using their respective amazon web services clouds, and in china tuya resides on the Alibaba cloud. But according to ________ tuya merely acts as an intermediary and any data that is collected from the use of the product is encrypted by the device and sent directly to the manufacturer of that product, and it is never decrypted on the tuya cloud. Tuya does not collect or store any data on it’s cloud and has no business model related to data collection. This doesn’t mean that your data isn’t being sold, it just means that the manufacturer of the product is selling it, not tuya.
Alright, back to new products.
The next category of smart home tech that dominated CES 2019 was security cameras.
Some Interesting products were released by Ring that are a result of their acquisition of the Mr. Beams line of battery powered LED spotlights and flood lights. All of these motion based lights will be able to communicate with each other so that if one is triggered the rest will be able to light up. These motion events can also be used as a trigger to start recording on your ring cameras.
Wyze is releasing a standalone NVR to use with their Wyzecam PTZ and 1080p cameras. Video will be stored directly on the NVR instead of on the cloud. The NVR unit will likely come without a hard drive so that users can more easily configure the storage size that meets their needs and price point. Wyze is working hard to offer RTSP streaming from their devices, but they are having issues since RTSP doesn’t support the 10 FPS that the wyzecam records at when in night mode. said if it happens it won’t be until Q2 of this year at least.
Blue sky wireless also released an interesting camera that bridges the gap between battery cameras and cameras with hard wired power. The only advantage of a battery powered wireless camera like blink is the ease of installation. Anyone can install a set of blink cameras regardless of technical skill level, and I believe blue sky wireless is trying to create the same ease of installation for a hardwired camera by utilizing an existing light fixture to power the device. It also has a power passthrough that still allows the installation of a lightbulb in the same socket if necessary.
Then there’s the bad: Wired cameras are dying. Companies like Zmodo, Reolink, and Zosi that made their name selling wired cameras have essentially stopped marketing wired cameras in favor of wifi cloud recording cameras. None of the cameras that were in these booths supported RTSP or Onvif and cannot be used with NVR software. A few companies like starcam continue to produce PoE IP cameras, but only in the same designs and specs that have been out for years.
And last: there’s the exactly the same. Every camera company had their own battery stick up camera, their own video doorbell, and their own indoor nest cam style device. All for use only with their proprietary app and cloud service. Most included some amount of cloud recording for free, but all of them had a premium subscription to increase the cloud storage capacity. There were also a significant number of cheap ring and nest cam knockoffs, powered by… you guessed it, tuya. These could make for interesting products if tuya cameras end up working in home assistant. This vendor that spoke with estimated that their ring style camera would retail for $60 US.
After cameras the next most common product was robotic vacuums.
And again, very little innovation occurred this year in this category.
But some good things did come out of CES. I spoke at length with the owner of Ecovacs, the maker of the popular Deebot series and explained to him that many users would prefer to have local rather than cloud based control of their vacuum. He seemed extremely receptive and put me in touch with an engineer on the software development team, who noted that the cloud is really just used to bypass the need for port forwarding and also to store the floor plan file that is generated by their lidar based robots. He mentioned that it should be trivial to add local control to their robot vacuums and said that it could probably be made available as a special firmware download. Fingers crossed on that one.
The bad: These robots don’t really do anything new. Aside from the new Roomba i9 which is able to empty its dust bin automatically no new innovations were made. I shared some million dollar ideas with the owner of Ecovacs, so hopefully next year we’ll see some real innovation in the robotic vacuum category. Also, a few companies are using upward facing cameras to detect obstacles. I for one am pretty uncomfortable with my robotic vacuum roaming around my house taking peeping tom style video from the ground level.
And for the completely the same: Every vendor offered three main types of robotic vacuums: At the low end of the price range you find your dumb vacuums that bump into furniture and randomly clean your house. In the mid range they gain some sensors that increase their ability to avoid obstacles and stop them from ramming your baseboards at full speed. At the high end lidar technology allows these cameras to map out a room and determine the most efficient path for cleaning. And while the technology is the same for each brand, I’m interested to see exactly how well the Chinese brand knockoffs can perform compared to the bigger names like irobot, xaiomi, and ecovacs. A company called kingxchip will be selling their top of the line lidar model for $299, nearly half the price of it’s closest competitor the xaiomi s51, they are expected to be on amazon starting at the end of Q1 this year.
That about covers the ordinary categories of smart products from CES this year, but I’m going to take a minute to talk about the unique products that don’t fit into the categories above, starting with the good ones.
Shelly has developed an affordable wifi energy clamp monitor that can either monitor your entire electrical service up to 100amps, or a single circuit. Personally, I’d love to know how much energy my pool is using per month, so I’ll be putting one on my pool’s subpanel rather than the main service for my house. They are hoping to release by the end of Q1 2019, and like other shelly products, it will support local MQTT with the default firmware. We’ve seen energy monitors before, the Sense is a very cool product that can identify your larger power consuming devices individually using their “electrical signatures” and that feature won’t be available on the shelly energy monitor, but that can easily be forgiven when you realize that a sense will set you back $299 and the shelly energy monitor will be available under $35 US.
In the elder care technology field we saw two really great products. Pillo is an automated pill dispenser with facial recognition, voice calling, and intelligent programming. The pillo ring can hold up to thirty days worth of pills, and they are planning to offer filled rings direct from the pharmacy to make the process even more simple. The pillo reminds its users to take their pills on a schedule, and if the doses are missed pillo has the ability to alert a family member or care taker who can then initiate a voice call directly on the pillo.
Also in elder care, two companies have come up with similar fall detection systems using completely different technology. My Cherry Home is a start up company using computer vision and ai to detect unusual behavior and falls, their product protects user privacy by replacing the video image with an animated stick figure generated by the computer vision software. Meaning grandpa looks the same in a 3 piece suit, or his birthday suit. The product is still undergoing heavy design changes and they are looking to handle all of the computer vision processing on the device, rather than their current solution which uses a more powerful base station computer to analyze video.
Walabot home can also detect falls and irregular behavior using an array of radio frequency sensors and emitters. The upside to walabot is that it doesn’t contain a camera lens so concerns of privacy are significantly reduced while still maintaining functionality. The wallabot home retails for $150 US and is available for purchase now.
So what’s my pick for the best smart home product for CES 2019?
I’m really excited for a wifi smart alarm clock called the sandman doppler. The alarm clock has amazon alexa, great set of speakers, Bluetooth, fully configurable RGB 7 segment display with status indicator lights, 6 USB charging ports, 2 customizable “scene selection buttons” for controlling smart devices, and in their words “a fully hackable computer” inside. I spoke with the team from Palo Alto Innovation and they were extremely open to releasing an API to allow for full customizability of the sandman doppler, and excited to work with the open source home automation community. Release price will be around $150, but I’m hopeful that this price will go down as sales volume increases. I’ve been using the same alarm clock since 1995, and I’ve been wary of tablet style replacements due to issues with backlighting and screen wake, the sandman doppler achieves significant smart functionality without drifting too far from the classic alarm clock feel and in my opinion is the perfect balance between old and new. I can’t wait to get my hands on one.
That’s all the good stuff, stick around if you want to hear about the bad:
Smart mirrors are cool, and these tricked out mirrors run android 8.1 and have LED lighting and high quality speaker options. So why is it bad? Their smallest available device, which was the size of a standard medicine cabinet mirror had a suggested retail of nearly five thousand dollars, and was only available through their authorized dealer network, never direct to consumer. Cool product, completely unreasonable price.
Another product that I REALLY want to like, but I just can’t is the Axis battery powered shade automator. It’s a great concept, and they offer both BLE and zigbee control. But again we’re seeing an issue with price. I just can’t imagine a world where a small DC motor and a battery could justify the $250 price tag, regardless of R&D costs.
Ever seen a sonoff T1? Ever wanted to pay $199 for one? Now you can! iotty brings “Italian design” into the mix to increase the price of the three gang switch over ten fold.
And the worst product of CES2019?
My vote goes to this $5300 smart patio umbrella made by ShadeCraft. They had a HUGE booth that was mostly empty every time I walked by it. I’m not sure which venture capital firm threw all their money at this product, but they better hope for a massive hotel or restaurant deal, because I’m not sure there is much of a market for a five thousand dollar patio umbrella that won’t fit in a standard table mount and requires internet connectivity to open and close. I guess I could be wrong, let me know what you think down in the comments.
I’d also like to give a shout out to the guys at Marsoar for loaning me one of their 3 axis cell phone gimbals to get some good shots at CES. Their gimble was every bit as good as the DJI Osmo mini but only costs $89. Check out their products at Marsoar.com
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