Gushing coverage greeted the release this fall of Nest Protect, a home fire alarm that syncs with a Nest thermostat, lights a hallway, and responds to the wave of a hand. The tiny appliance is pricey, about $100 more than simple home fire alarms, but it exemplifies the trends toward home technology in 2013 -- smart, connected, fun, possibly useful, but on some level a little baffling.
We're not talking simple apps, but rather household appliances that remain part of our daily modern existence. You don't have to be a high-tech pioneer to enjoy these fancy electronics -- or a millennial. Although some savvy is required:
Big Appliances, Tiny Screens
Touch screens and Internet hookups on kitchen appliances blossomed in 2013, said Rich Brown, executive editor for appliances at CNET. LG and Samsung offered refrigerators that allowed owners to enter information about the contents so the fridge could track what was being used. The fridge could also sync with cell phones to create a grocery list. The Wi-Fi-connected screens can look up recipes and the weather, or display family photos. But such applications can feel superfluous.
"I don't know if it's the kind of feature that's really going to make smart appliances feel necessary," Brown said.
He thinks there may be greater interest in ovens that offer pre-heating options that can be turned on via cell phone, perhaps shaving a few minutes off of dinner prep.
Smaller projects feel more necessary to Brown -- such as the Philips Hue, LED lightbulbs that change color, use 80 percent of the electricity of standard bulbs, and can be controlled from a cell phone app. Users can turn on lights before they get home, set lights to raise slowly for a gentle morning wake-up, or dim them for the right mood. "Some of the smaller devices are more practical," he said.
Linked-up entrances, such as the Kwikset locks opened by cell phone, have a more obvious application than the appliance geegaws. They make life easier by doing away with keys that clutter pockets and can be lost. They can make homes safer. And such locks can help family members keep tabs on comings and goings -- for instance, a parent who wants to know when the kids come home.
Christina Tynan-Wood uses smart locks in her home. The writer who pens Family Circle magazine's "Family Tech" column said her kids have their own codes to enter the house.
"It sends me a note that my kid just unlocked the door," she said.
Consoles Work and Play
Game consoles that performed well beyond role-playing were the real standouts for Tynan-Wood in 2013.
"A lot of people gave up on cable TV and just moved toward putting things [such as Netflix and Amazon] through that one box," she said. Such systems streamline everything from the number of remote controls to the number of devices needed for viewing a variety of media from several providers.
The fall 2013 releases of PlayStation and Xbox -- which include voice recognition and motion sensors -- should kick-start 2014 by continuing that trend, Tynan-Wood said.
"It's the year of Star Trek," she said with a laugh.
All of this adds up to...
The Internet of Things
Slowly, household items have pushed their way into home networks to such an extent that they have started dominating Internet connections more than home computers. Beyond smart refrigerators, think of sensors that track workout heart-rates, and mattress monitors that keep tabs on infants. Tynan-Wood calls this the trend to watch in 2014, but "the Internet of things" buzz-phrase gained traction in 2013, as connected appliances did the same.