Thursday, July 7, 2016

The ins and outs of IFTTT in the CNET Smart Home

The CNET Smart Home is a 58,000-square-foot property filled with all sorts of connected gadgetry. The problem? Not all of those gadgets are compatible with one another.

In December, we started taking a closer look at how the free online service IFTTT might be able to help cover those compatibility gaps. Its name an acronym for "if this, then that," IFTTT lets you craft automation recipes by plugging social-networking services, Web tools and smart home gadgets into its eponymous cause-and-effect formula. You pick the "if this" and the "then that," and IFTTT does the rest. That comes in handy with gadgets like the Amazon Echo and the Nest Learning Thermostat that don't work together without help. Both are compatible with IFTTT.

For weeks, we've been putting IFTTT to the test. Along with the Echo and Nest, we've used IFTTT to control our Belkin WeMo Switches, our Philips Hue lighting, our SmartThings gadgetry and our Lifx color-changing LEDs. The goal: determine if IFTTT is useful and reliable enough to serve as the glue that holds your smart home together. Here's what we've learned:

Creative connectivity

Head over to IFTTT's website, and you'll find oodles of automation guidance, along with curated collections of sample recipes to test out. Still, it takes a little bit of imagination to put IFTTT to work. The full list of "channels" (the services and products that work with IFTTT) is daunting to say the least, and most of them offer a number of different ways to trigger a recipe or be triggered by one.

A lot of the suggested starter recipes are somewhat gimmicky. For instance, I tested out one recipe that changed the Smart Home's Lifx color-changing LEDs to purple whenever it was about to rain. It worked well enough, but didn't seem any more useful than, you know, looking out the window.

Recipes like those help to showcase some of what IFTTT is capable of, but it's up to you to tailor things in a way that's more applicable to your day-to-day life. I found that the best way to do this was to start at the end, and imagine things that I wanted the Smart Home to do automatically. Then, I'd log in to IFTTT and figure out a way to make it happen.

In most cases, this came down to connecting devices that wouldn't work directly together otherwise. Two of my main targets were the Nest Learning Thermostat and the Amazon Echo smart speaker. Both are central pieces of our smart home setup, but neither one works with everything -- and they don't work with each other, for that matter.

Fortunately, both have fairly robust channels on IFTTT. On the Amazon Echo end, you can craft your own voice commands, then program them to trigger whatever you like. I used this to add some voice-control smarts to our thermostats.

The process was a bit tedious. I needed to craft a separate recipe for each degree -- "Alexa, trigger Nest to 68, "Alexa, trigger Nest to 69," and so forth. I also repeated the entire process with different sets of nomenclature: "Alexa, trigger the thermostat to 68" and "Alexa, trigger the temperature to 68."

All in all, I finished with dozens of IFTTT recipes linking Amazon Echo and Nest. That's obviously more of a hassle than enabling a single all-in-one integration, but there are some subtle perks with IFTTT's approach, too. Primarily, I liked that I could get as detailed as I wanted, teaching Alexa to respond to all manner of different thermostat-related voice commands. If you're a control freak, there's some definite appeal.

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