Speaker

Petcube’s Bites 2 and Play 2 amuse pets and humans alike with Alexa built-in

Posted by | albums, cameras, Gadgets, hardware, laser, pet, petcube, products, Reviews, smart speakers, Sonos, sonos one, Speaker, TC | No Comments

Petcube’s original Bites smart treat dispenser and Play pet camera with a built-in laser pointer were great for pet parents who couldn’t always be around to hang out with their furry charges, but the new Bites 2 and Play 2 come with one big new upgrade that make them far more versatile than the original: They both double as Alexa-powered smart speaker devices.

Both the Bites 2 and Play 2 can hear and respond to Alexa requests, with a four-microphone array that in my limited testing actually outperforms the Alexa mics built into my Sonos One and Sonos Beam speakers, which is pretty impressive for devices whose main features are serving up treats and keeping an eye on your pets. That’s on top of the Bites 2 being able to remotely dispense treats for your pet, and the Play 2 providing playtime away from home with a built-in laser pointer you can direct from your phone.

The Bites 2 and Play 2 also feature other improvements, including new wider angle lenses that offer full 180-degree views of your home for more likelihood you’ll spot your pets wandering around, and better Wi-Fi connectivity support with additional 5GHz networking, plus night vision and full HD video. Currently, the field of view is limited to 160-degrees, with an update to follow that will unlock the full 180; for most users, the 160 FOV is going to show you an entire room and then some.

With the Bites 2, you can also initiate video calls and chat with your pet, though my dog Chelsea basically is just confused by this. It is handy if I need to ask my partner if there’s anything else I’m forgetting to pick up from the store, however. And the treat-flinging feature definitely does appeal to Chelsea, especially now that it’s Alexa-integrated so that I can easily issue a voice command to give her a well-earned reward.

This has actually proven more than just fun — Chelsea suffers from a little bit of separation anxiety, so when we leave our condo she usually spends a few quick minutes complaining audibly with some rather loud barks. But since getting the Petcube Bites 2 to test, I’ve been reinforcing good behavior by reminding her to keep quiet, waiting outside the door and then flinging her a treat or two for her troubles. It’s pretty much done away with the bye-bye barking in just a short time.

The Play 2 doesn’t fling treats, but it does have a built-in laser pointer (which the company says is totally safe for your pet’s eyes). Chelsea straight up does not understand the laser or even really acknowledge it, so that’s a bit of a miss, but with a friend’s cat this proved an absolute show-stopping feature. I’ve also known dogs previously who loved this, so your mileage may vary, but if you’re unsure, it’s probably worth picking up a dollar-store laser pointer keychain first to ensure it’s their jam.

The $249 Bites 2 and $199 Play 2 offer a ton of value in just the image and build quality upgrades over their original incarnations, and their basic features are probably plenty enough for doting pet parents. But the addition of Alexa makes these both much more appealing in my opinion, since it essentially bundles an Echo in each device at no extra cost.

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Amazon said to be launching new Echo speaker with premium sound next year

Posted by | Amazon, apple inc, Companies, computing, Gadgets, hardware, HomePod, ikea, industries, Invoke, smart speakers, Sonos, Speaker, TC, tweeter | No Comments

Amazon is reportedly looking to offer an Echo that more directly competes with high-end speakers like the Sonos line of devices or Apple’s HomePod, according to a new report from Bloomberg. The speaker should be released sometime next year, according to the sources cited in the report, and will be somewhat wider than the existing Echo models (perhaps more akin to the Echo Sub, pictured above), packing in four separate tweeters to help boost the sound quality.

It will, of course, also offer access to the company’s Alexa voice assistant, which is what has propelled Echo to its current level of success. Bloomberg notes that it’s also likely to work better for the high-fidelity audio version of Amazon’s music streaming service that has previously been reported to be in the works.

This could make for an interesting working relationship with some of Amazon’s existing partners, including Sonos, as it sounds like this will be a direct competitor. Newer Sonos speakers, including the Sonos One and Sonos Beam, support Alexa voice commands out of the box. While both Echo devices and Sonos support multi-room streaming and speaker grouping, Sonos has always had far superior audio quality when compared to the Echo hardware – albeit at a premium price.

Sonos, meanwhile, is gearing up with Ikea to launch speakers powered by its technology, with the Symfonisk line that is set for release in August. Smart speakers are a busy space with a lot of money and interest from many companies big and small, but Amazon has a lot working in its favor if it can also produce something that wins on high-quality audio at a reasonable price.

If high-quality sound isn’t all that important to you, Amazon is also apparently working on a home robot equipped with Alexa on board.

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The team behind Baidu’s first smart speaker is now using AI to make films

Posted by | AI, alpha, animation, Apple, artificial intelligence, Asia, Baidu, Beijing, california, Entertainment, Entrepreneur, Gaming, HBO, Los Angeles, natural language processing, Pixar Animation Studios, Series A, Speaker, Virtual reality, Westworld, Y Combinator | No Comments

The HBO sci-fi blockbuster Westworld has been an inspiring look into what humanlike robots can do for us in the meatspace. While current technologies are not quite advanced enough to make Westworld a reality, startups are attempting to replicate the sort of human-robot interaction it presents in virtual space.

Rct studio, which just graduated from Y Combinator and ranked among TechCrunch’s nine favorite picks from the batch, is one of them. The “Westworld” in the TV series, a far-future theme park staffed by highly convincing androids, lets visitors live out their heroic and sadistic fantasies free of consequences.

There are a few reasons why rct studio, which is keeping mum about the meaning of its deliberately lower-cased name for later revelation, is going for the computer-generated world. Besides the technical challenge, playing a fictional universe out virtually does away the geographic constraint. The Westworld experience, in contrast, happens within a confined, meticulously built park.

“Westworld is built in a physical world. I think in this age and time, that’s not what we want to get into,” Xinjie Ma, who heads up marketing for rct, told TechCrunch. “Doing it in the physical environment is too hard, but we can build a virtual world that’s completely under control.”

rct studio

Rct studio wants to build the Westworld experience in virtual worlds. / Image: rct studio

The startup appears suitable to undertake the task. The eight-people team is led by Cheng Lyu, the 29-year-old entrepreneur who goes by Jesse and helped Baidu build up its smart speaker unit from scratch after the Chinese search giant acquired his voice startup Raven in 2017. Along with several of Raven’s core members, Lyu left Baidu in 2018 to start rct.

“We appreciate a lot the support and opportunities given by Baidu and during the years we have grown up dramatically,” said Ma, who previously oversaw marketing at Raven.

Let AI write the script

Immersive films, or games, depending on how one wants to classify the emerging field, are already available with pre-written scripts for users to pick from. Rct wants to take the experience to the next level by recruiting artificial intelligence for screenwriting.

At the center of the project is the company’s proprietary engine, Morpheus. Rct feeds it mountains of data based on human-written storylines so the characters it powers know how to adapt to situations in real time. When the codes are sophisticated enough, rct hopes the engine can self-learn and formulate its own ideas.

“It takes an enormous amount of time and effort for humans to come up with a story logic. With machines, we can quickly produce an infinite number of narrative choices,” said Ma.

To venture through rct’s immersive worlds, users wear a virtual reality headset and control their simulated self via voice. The choice of audio came as a natural step given the team’s experience with natural language processing, but the startup also welcomes the chance to develop new devices for more lifelike journeys.

“It’s sort of like how the film Ready Player One built its own gadgets for the virtual world. Or Apple, which designs its own devices to carry out superior software experience,” explained Ma.

On the creative front, rct believes Morpheus could be a productivity tool for filmmakers as it can take a story arc and dissect it into a decision-making tree within seconds. The engine can also render text to 3D images, so when a filmmaker inputs the text “the man throws the cup to the desk behind the sofa,” the computer can instantly produce the corresponding animation.

Path to monetization

Investors are buying into rct’s offering. The startup is about to close its Series A funding round just months after banking seed money from Y Combinator and Chinese venture capital firm Skysaga, the startup told TechCrunch.

The company has a few imminent tasks before achieving its Westworld dream. For one, it needs a lot of technical talent to train Morpheus with screenplay data. No one on the team had experience in filmmaking, so it’s on the lookout for a creative head who appreciates AI’s application in films.

rct studio

Rct studio’s software takes a story arc and dissects it into a decision-making tree within seconds. / Image: rct studio

“Not all filmmakers we approach like what we do, which is understandable because it’s a very mature industry, while others get excited about tech’s possibility,” said Ma.

The startup’s entry into the fictional world was less about a passion for films than an imperative to shake up a traditional space with AI. Smart speakers were its first foray, but making changes to tangible objects that people are already accustomed to proved challenging. There has been some interest in voice-controlled speakers, but they are far from achieving ubiquity. Then movies crossed the team’s mind.

“There are two main routes to make use of AI. One is to target a vertical sector, like cars and speakers, but these things have physical constraints. The other application, like Alpha Go, largely exists in the lab. We wanted something that’s both free of physical limitation and holds commercial potential.”

The Beijing and Los Angeles-based startup isn’t content with just making the software. Eventually, it wants to release its own films. The company has inked a long-term partnership with Future Affairs Administration, a Chinese sci-fi publisher representing about 200 writers, including the Hugo award-winning Cixin Liu. The pair is expected to start co-producing interactive films within a year.

Rct’s path is reminiscent of a giant that precedes it: Pixar Animation Studios . The Chinese company didn’t exactly look to the California-based studio for inspiration, but the analog was a useful shortcut to pitch to investors.

“A confident company doesn’t really draw parallels with others, but we do share similarities to Pixar, which also started as a tech company, publishes its own films, and has built its own engine,” said Ma. “A lot of studios are asking how much we price our engine at, but we are targeting the consumer market. Making our own films carry so many more possibilities than simply selling a piece of software.”

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Over a quarter of US adults now own a smart speaker, typically an Amazon Echo

Posted by | Amazon, Amazon Echo, apple inc, artificial intelligence, Assistant, Gadgets, Google, Google Assistant, HomePod, smart speaker, smart speakers, smartphone, smartphones, Sonos, Speaker, TC, United States, virtual assistant, voice assistant, voice computing | No Comments

U.S. smart speaker owners grew 40 percent over 2018 to now reach 66.4 million — or 26.2 percent of the U.S. adult population — according to a new report from Voicebot.ai and Voicify released this week, which detailed adoption patterns and device market share. The report also reconfirmed Amazon Echo’s lead, noting the Alexa-powered smart speaker grew to a 61 percent market share by the end of last year — well above Google Home’s 24 percent share.

These findings fall roughly in line with other analysts’ reports on smart speaker market share in the U.S. However, because of varying methodology, they don’t all come back with the exact same numbers.

For example, in December 2018, eMarketer reported the Echo had accounted for nearly 67 percent of all U.S. smart speaker sales in 2018. Meanwhile, CIRP last month put Echo further ahead, with a 70 percent share of the installed base in the U.S.

Though the percentages differ, the overall trend is that Amazon Echo remains the smart speaker to beat.

While on the face of things this appears to be great news for Amazon, Voicebot’s report did note that Google Home has been closing the gap with Echo in recent months.

Amazon Echo’s share dropped nearly 11 percent over 2018, while Google Home made up for just over half that decline with a 5.5 percent gain, and “other” devices making up the rest. This latter category, which includes devices like Apple’s HomePod and Sonos One, grew last year to now account for 15 percent of the market.

That said, the Sonos One has Alexa built-in, so it may not be as bad for Amazon as the numbers alone seem to indicate. After all, Amazon is selling its Echo devices at cost or even a loss to snag more market share. The real value over time will be in controlling the ecosystem.

The growth in smart speakers is part of a larger trend toward voice computing and smart voice assistants — like Siri, Bixby and Google Assistant — which are often accessed on smartphones.

A related report from Juniper Research last month estimated there will be 8 billion digital voice assistants in use by 2023, up from the 2.5 billion in use at the end of 2018. This is due to the increased use of smartphone assistants as well as the smart speaker trend, the firm said.

Voicebot’s report also saw how being able to access voice assistance on multiple platforms was helping to boost usage numbers.

It found that smart speaker owners used their smartphone’s voice assistant more than those who didn’t have a smart speaker in their home. It seems consumers get used to being able to access their voice assistants across platforms — now that Siri has made the jump to speakers and Alexa to phones, for instance.

The full report is available on Voicebot.ai’s website here.

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Wrest control from a snooping smart speaker with this teachable ‘parasite’

Posted by | Advertising Tech, Alexa, artificial intelligence, connected devices, Europe, Gadgets, GitHub, Google, google home, hardware, Home Automation, Internet of Things, IoT, neural network, privacy, Security, smart assistant, smart speaker, Speaker | No Comments

What do you get when you put one internet-connected device on top of another? A little more control than you otherwise would in the case of Alias the “teachable ‘parasite’” — an IoT project smart speaker topper made by two designers, Bjørn Karmann and Tore Knudsen.

The Raspberry Pi-powered, fungus-inspired blob’s mission is to whisper sweet nonsense into Amazon Alexa’s (or Google Home’s) always-on ear so it can’t accidentally snoop on your home.

Project Alias from Bjørn Karmann on Vimeo.

Alias will only stop feeding noise into its host’s speakers when it hears its own wake command — which can be whatever you like.

The middleman IoT device has its own local neural network, allowing its owner to christen it with a name (or sound) of their choosing via a training interface in a companion app.

The open-source TensorFlow library was used for building the name training component.

So instead of having to say “Alexa” or “Ok Google” to talk to a commercial smart speaker — and thus being stuck parroting a big tech brand name in your own home, not to mention being saddled with a device that’s always vulnerable to vocal pranks (and worse: accidental wiretapping) — you get to control what the wake word is, thereby taking back a modicum of control over a natively privacy-hostile technology.

This means you could rename Alexa “Bezosallseeingeye,” or refer to your Google Home as “Carelesswhispers.” Whatever floats your boat.

Once Alias hears its custom wake command it will stop feeding noise into the host speaker — enabling the underlying smart assistant to hear and respond to commands as normal.

“We looked at how cordyceps fungus and viruses can appropriate and control insects to fulfill their own agendas and were inspired to create our own parasite for smart home systems,” explain Karmann and Knudsen in a write-up of the project here. “Therefore we started Project Alias to demonstrate how maker-culture can be used to redefine our relationship with smart home technologies, by delegating more power from the designers to the end users of the products.”

Alias offers a glimpse of a richly creative custom future for IoT, as the means of producing custom but still powerful connected technology products becomes more affordable and accessible.

And so also perhaps a partial answer to IoT’s privacy problem, for those who don’t want to abstain entirely. (Albeit, on the security front, more custom and controllable IoT does increase the hackable surface area — so that’s another element to bear in mind; more custom controls for greater privacy does not necessarily mesh with robust device security.)

If you’re hankering after your own Alexa-disrupting blob-topper, the pair have uploaded a build guide to Instructables and put the source code on GitHub. So fill yer boots.

Project Alias is of course not a solution to the underlying tracking problem of smart assistants — which harvest insights gleaned from voice commands to further flesh out interest profiles of users, including for ad targeting purposes.

That would require either proper privacy regulation or, er, a new kind of software virus that infiltrates the host system and prevents it from accessing user data. And — unlike this creative physical IoT add-on — that kind of tech would not be at all legal.

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FCC greenlights Soli, Google’s radar-based gesture tech

Posted by | computing, FCC, Gadgets, Google, hardware, smartphone, smartphones, smartwatch, Speaker, technology, touchscreen, wearable devices, world wide web | No Comments

Google has won U.S. regulatory approval to go ahead with a radar-based motion sensor that could make touchscreens look obsolete in the coming years. Known as the Soli Project, the initiative began in 2015 inside Google’s Advanced Technology and Projects unit, a group responsible for turning the giant’s cutting-edge ideas into products.

We’ve seen a number of Soli’s technological breakthroughs since then, from being able to identify objects to reducing the radar sensor’s power consumption. Most recently, a regulatory order is set to move it into a more actionable phase. The U.S. Federal Communications Commission said earlier this week that it would grant Project Soli a waiver to operate at higher power levels than currently allowed. The government agency also said users can operate the sensor aboard a plane because the device poses “minimal potential of causing harmful interference to other spectrum users.”

Soli fits radar sensors into a tiny chip the size of an American quarter to track slight hand or finger motions at high speed and accuracy. That means instead of twisting a knob to adjust the volume of your stereo, you can rub your fingers over a speaker that contains a Soli chip as if sliding across a virtual dial. Under the regulatory order, you also would be allowed to air press a button on your Soli-powered smartwatch in the future.

Aside from clearing safety concerns, the FCC also found that the sensing tech serves the public interest: “The ability to recognize users’ touchless hand gestures to control a device, such as a smartphone, could help people with mobility, speech, or tactile impairments, which in turn could lead to higher productivity and quality of life for many members of the American public.”

We contacted Google to ask for more detail and will update the story when and if we get a response.

The regulatory consent arrived months after Facebook raised issues with the FCC that the Soli sensors operating at higher power levels might interfere with other device systems. The two firms came to a consensus in September and told the FCC that Soli could operate at power levels higher than what the government allowed but lower than what Google had requested.

It’s a rational move for Facebook trying to shape the rules for the new field, given its own Oculus deploys motion technologies. The company also has invested in researching the area, for instance, by looking at a device that creates motion on the arm to simulate social gestures like hugging.

The update on Google’s technological development is a temporary distraction from the giant’s more questionable, revenue-driven moves in recent months, including a massive data leak on Google+ followed by the closure of the online ghost town, its failure to crack down on child porn and its controversial plan to re-enter China reportedly with a censored search engine.

[Update: Google removed several third-party apps that led users to child porn sharing groups after TechCrunch reported about the problem.]

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Sonos delays Google Assistant integration until 2019, private beta to launch in 2018

Posted by | Amazon, amazon alexa, artificial intelligence, computing, Gadgets, Google, smart speakers, software platform, Sonos, sonos one, Speaker, technology | No Comments

Sonos today announced that Google Assistant will not be available on its products until at least 2019. The service was supposed to launch in 2018 but the company said in a blog posting it needs a bit more time. Additional information about timing will be released in early 2019, Sonos says.

Eager customers can sign up for a private beta as long as they agree to use the service extensively and respond to surveys within a few days.

Sonos products already have access to Amazon Alexa. Given Sonos’s longstanding notion of supporting all platforms, it makes sense that the company would want customers to have access to both Alexa and Google Assistant. That’s what makes Sonos compelling: They provide the hardware, and owners use whichever software platform they want.

This is clearly critical for Sonos. For a long time, Sonos provided the best-sounding smart speaker system on the market, but Amazon, Google and traditional speaker brands are quickly introducing speakers that provide similar sound quality. To keep up and justify the higher price of its hardware, Sonos needs to offer owners the best sound and the best software, and offering Google Assistant on its products is a key part of that goal.

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Here are all the details on the new Pixel 3, Pixel Slate, Pixel Stand, and Home Hub

Posted by | Android, Apple, Assistant, computing, Gadgets, Google, Google Assistant, Google Hardware Event 2018, google nexus, google store, machine learning, mobile phones, new york city, PIXEL, pixel 3, Samsung, smartphones, Speaker, tablet computers, TC, touch pad | No Comments

At a special event in New York City, Google announced some of its latest, flagship hardware devices. During the hour-long press conference Google executives and product managers took the wraps off the company’s latest products and explained their features. Chief among the lot is the Pixel 3, Google’s latest flagship Android device. Like the Pixel 2 before it, the Pixel 3’s main feature is its stellar camera but there’s a lot more magic packed inside the svelte frame.

Pixel 3

Contrary to some earlier renders, the third version of Google’s Android flagship (spotted by 9 to 5 Google) does boast a sizable notch up top, in keeping with earlier images of the larger XL. Makes sense, after all, Google went out of its way to boast about notch functionality when it introduced Pie, the latest version of its mobile OS.

The device is available for preorder today and will start shipping October 18, starting at $799. The larger XL starts at $899, still putting the product at less than the latest flagships from Apple and Samsung.

Pixel Slate

The device looks pretty much exactly like the leaks lead us to believe — it’s a premium slate with a keyboard cover that doubles as a stand. It also features a touch pad, which gives it the edge over products like Samsung’s most recent Galaxy Tab. There’s also a matching Google Pen, which appears to more or less be the same product announced around the Pixel Book, albeit with a darker paint job to match the new product.

The product starts at $599, plus $199 for the keyboard and $99 for the new dark Pen. All three are shipping at some point later this year.

Home Hub

The device looks like an Android tablet mounted on top of a speaker — which ought to address the backward firing sound, which is one of the largest design flaws of the recently introduced Echo Show 2. The speaker fabric comes in a number of different colors, in keeping with the rest of the Pixel/Home products, including the new Aqua.

When not in use, the product doubles as a smart picture frame, using albums from Google Photos. A new Live Albums, which auto updates, based on the people you choose. So you can, say, select your significant others and it will create a gallery based on that person. Sweet and also potentially creepy. Machine learning, meanwhile, will automatically filter out all of the lousy shots.

The Home Hub is up for pre-order today for a very reasonable $149. In fact, the device actually seems like a bit of a loss leader for the company in an attempt to hook people into the Google Assistant ecosystem. It will start shipping October 22.

Pixel Stand

The Pixel Stand is basically a sleek little round dock for your phone. While it can obviously charge your phone, what’s maybe more interesting is that when you put your phone into the cradle, it looks like it’ll start a new notifications view that’s not unlike what you’d see on a smart display. It costs $79.

more Google Event 2018 coverage

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Review: The Marshall Woburn II packs modern sound, retro look

Posted by | aptx, Bluetooth, electrical engineering, electronics, Gadgets, headphones, marshall, Speaker, wireless, wireless headphones | No Comments

Marshall speakers stand out. That’s why I dig them. From the company’s headphones to its speakers, the audio is warm and full just like the classic design suggests.

The company today is announcing revisions across its lines. The new versions of the Action ($249), Stanmore ($349) and Woburn Bluetooth ($499) speakers now feature Bluetooth 5.0, an upgraded digital signal processor and a slightly re-worked look.

Marshall also announced a new version of the Minor wireless in-ear headphones. The wireless headphones were among the company’s first products and the updated version now features Bluetooth 5.0 aptX connectivity, new 14.2 mm drivers and 12 hours of battery life. Marshall also says the redesigned model will stay in place better than the original model.

It’s important to note that the company behind these Marshall speakers and headphones is different from the company that makes the iconic guitar amp though there is collaboration. The Marshall brand is used by Zound Industries, which also operates Ubanears.

The models produced by Zound Industries stay true to the Marshall brand. I’ve used several of the products since the company launched and I’m pleased to report that this new generation packs the magic of previous models.

The company sent me the new Woburn II speaker (pictured above) and it’s a lovely speaker. This is the largest speaker in the company’s line. It’s imposing and, in Reddit-speak, an absolute unit. It’s over a foot tall and weighs just under 20 lbs.

The speaker easily fills a room. The sound is warm and inviting.

The Woburn II features a ported design which helps create the rich sound. Bass is deep though doesn’t pound. Mid-tones are lovely and the highs are perfectly balanced. If they’re not, there are nobs mounted on the top to adjust the tones.

I find the Woburn a great speaker at any volume. Turn it down and the sound still feels as complex as it does at normal listen volumes. Crank the speaker to 10, drop the treble a bit, and the speaker will shake walls.

Don’t be scared by the imposing size. The Woburn II can party, but it is seemingly just as happy to spend the evening in, playing some Iron and Wine.

Sadly, the Woburn II lacks some of the magic of the original Woburn. The new version does not have an optical input and the power switch is a soft switch. It’s just for looks. The first Woburn had a two position switch. Click one way to turn on and click the other to turn off. It was an analog experience. This time around the speakers retain the switch, but the switch is different. It’s artificial and might as well be a power button. When pressed forward, the switch turns on the speaker and then snaps back to its original position. The clicking it gone. I know that seems like a silly thing to complain about but that switch was part of the Marshall experience. It felt authentic and now it feels artificial.

Like past models, the speaker is covered in a vinyl-like material and the front of the speaker is covered in fabric. Don’t touch this fabric. It stains. The review sample sent to me came with stains already on the fabric.

The Woburn II is a fantastic speaker with a timeless look. At $499 it’s pricy but produces sound above its price-point rivals. I expect the same performance out of updated Action II and Stanmore II speakers. These speakers are worthy of the Marshall name.

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Everyday home gear made smart

Posted by | Android, Assistant, Belkin, belkin wemo, Bluetooth, Column, electronics manufacturing, Gadgets, Google, Home Automation, iRobot, kwikset, Nest Labs, Roomba, smart devices, smart thermostat, smartphone, Speaker, wi-fi, Wirecutter | No Comments
Makula Dunbar
Contributor

Makula Dunbar is a writer with Wirecutter.

Editor’s note: This post was done in partnership with Wirecutter. When readers choose to buy Wirecutter’s independently chosen editorial picks, Wirecutter and TechCrunch may earn affiliate commissions.

If you only have one smart home device, it’s likely something simple and fun like a voice-controlled speaker or color-changing LED light bulb. As you expand your smart home setup, you can begin to swap out gear that isn’t as flashy but you still use everyday.

Switching to connected locks, power outlets and smoke alarms are all simple installs that can improve your safety and comfort in your own home. We’ve pulled together some of our favorite essentials made smart for anyone looking to upgrade.

Smart lock: Kwikset Kevo Smart Lock 2nd Gen

The Kwikset Kevo Smart Lock 2nd Gen is the most versatile smart lock that we’ve tested. Whether you prefer to use a wireless fob, smartphone app or key, you’ll be able to control the lock with all of them. When we compared it to similar models, the Kevo’s Bluetooth-activated tap-to-unlock mechanism was the easiest to use.

The second generation of the Kevo improved on security and has all-metal internal components for better protection against forced break-in attempts. With the optional Kevo Plus upgrade, you’ll add the ability to control the lock remotely and receive status-monitoring updates.

Photo: Liam McCabe

Robot Vacuum: iRobot Roomba 960

If cleaning is neither your forte or preferred pastime, a robot vacuum will come in handy. Our upgrade pick, the iRobot Roomba 960, is one of the most powerful models that we tested. It can be controlled through the iRobot Home app and uses a bump-and-track navigation system that helps vacuum an entire floor without missing spots.

If its battery is running low during a session, it’ll return to its dock to power up before finishing the job. It’s easy to disassemble for maintenance and is equipped with repairable parts that make it worth its price over some of our less serviceable picks.

Photo: Rachel Cericola

Plug-in Smart Outlet: Belkin Wemo Mini

We tested 26 smart outlet models over more than 45 hours and chose the Belkin Wemo Mini Wi-Fi plug as our top pick. If you’ve ever thought it’d be nice to remotely turn on or off home essentials such as lamps, air conditioners and fans from your smartphone, plugging them into a smart outlet makes it possible.

The Wemo Mini has proven to be reliable throughout long-term testing, it doesn’t block other outlets on the same wall plate and it’s compatible with iOS and Android devices and assistants, including HomeKit/Siri, Alexa and Google Assistant. The interface of the Wemo app is intuitive and easy to use. You can view all of your connected devices on one screen, set powering timers and from anywhere power on or off a device plugged into the Wemo outlet.

Photo: Jennifer Pattison Tuohy

Smart Thermostat: Nest Thermostat E

For a smart thermostat that’s affordable and doesn’t require extensive programming, we recommend the Nest Thermostat E. After about a week, it creates a schedule after learning cooling and heating preferences that you’ve set. It isn’t compatible with as many HVAC systems as similar Nest models, but it’s easy to install and doesn’t lack any features we expect.

It does come with Eco Mode — an energy-saving geofencing feature that detects when your home is empty (or when your smartphone is nowhere near your house). The Nest app uses the same technology to set the thermostat to a preferred temperature when it senses you’re on your way home. If you don’t have your smartphone on hand, you can still operate the Thermostat E by turning its outer ring and pressing selections on its touchscreen.

Photo: Michael Hession

Smart Smoke Alarm: Nest Protect

A smoke alarm is one of the most relied-upon safety devices in every home. Nonetheless, it’s easy to forget to do routine checks to ensure it’s in tip-top shape and functioning properly. With a smart smoke alarm like the Nest Protect, we found that its simple app, self-tests, monthly sound checks and consistent alerts are enough to keep fire safety worries at bay.

It isn’t difficult to install, has a sleek design and integrates with other smart home devices like the Nest Cam (which can record video of a fire) and the Nest Learning Thermostat (which shuts down HVAC systems that may be the cause of a fire). It’s sensitive to fast- and slow-burning fires, plus it monitors homes for both smoke and carbon monoxide.

These picks may have been updated by Wirecutter. When readers choose to buy Wirecutter’s independently chosen editorial picks, Wirecutter and TechCrunch may earn affiliate commissions.

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