Dear Chef, Your Steak is Now at 140 Degrees or Medium Rare

Tech Tips
A few months ago, my washing machine suddenly decided it no longer wanted to spin through the rinse cycle. I then spent the better part of an hour hand wringing towels dry enough so that the dryer did not make a similar exit, stage left maneuver. Whether it was years of overwork or a simple desire to retire to a scrapyard in the sun, the washer never gave any indication that the end was near. My new washer and dryer, however, like to email me when they are feeling a bit off. Mostly they tell me they want a spa day, suggesting I run a cleaning or descaling cycle to make them feel fresh and ready to do more socks. If you have no idea what I am talking about, you have yet to encounter a smart appliance.

Part of the internet of things, or non-computing devices that connect to the internet, smart appliances are becoming the cornerstone to many smart homes. A quick Google search for smart appliance shows a range of devices from coffee makers to refrigerators inside the home and water sprinklers to grills on the outside. In most cases, the point behind connecting to the internet is a practical one or an extra convenience feature. In other cases, the idea is at best borderline absurd. So the question any smart consumers should ask is, do I need the smart feature on the device I am looking to buy? While most of that depends an individual’s needs, keep in mind that the connectivity features are often considered a premium add-on and you might want to consider the need before spending some extra money to get them included on your appliance.

The first questions to ask yourself are what is the point of having the appliance connected to the internet and what does it really do for the device or user? One of the biggest reasons to get a device with built-in WiFi is to let it update or alert the owner of potential issues. In the case of my washer and dryer, the manufacturer was pretty upfront about the usefulness of the feature, noting that the pair would self-monitor and let me know when the units needed maintenance to help keep repairs to a minimum and hopefully make them last a bit longer. While I like the feature, it was not a driving force behind my purchase and I opted for the models I selected based on their washing options. Another example of a smart device that many might find helpful are hot water heaters and furnaces that alert the owner when they detect a water or gas leak—an alert that does more than just save on repair bills; it could save lives. Similar useful or just convenient options include connected thermostats that let you turn the heat up as you leave work so the house will be warm when you get there or security systems that allow you to check their status and/or cameras via an app or online. Many of these features also work with home assistants, such as Amazon’s Echo and Google’s Home devices, so you can control them remotely by voice command as well as a phone or tablet app.

Speaking of that thermostat, another question to ask yourself is if the smart feature is replacing something that is already available on traditional, and maybe cheaper, non-smart models. In the case of the thermostat, programmable models have been available for decades so that you can set the temperature up and down at various times during the day. Granted, a smart thermostat can work with an app to let you change it on the fly if, say, you get to go home early on a snow day or because you are sick, or just have a crazy schedule with the kids and want to maximize energy savings and find yourself changing the temp regularly, but not on a set schedule. Other devices are a bit more niche or less useful to the average user in terms of replacing their “dumb” predecessors. Take the idea of a connected sprinkler for example, where you might already have a timer on your hose that does a nice job of turning the water off after an hour or so. You might have the need to remotely turn the water on and off at various points during the day or want to set a schedule in advance so you do not need to remember to water the plants but, if that is not the case, you need to ask yourself if you are just replacing something that already works pretty well for you.

Finally, a good question to ask yourself is if there is even a need for the “smart” feature you are looking at on a device. Business Insider ran an article about a year ago that listed some pretty out-there ideas that straddle the usefulness border. Items on the list include a device to remind you to floss and a garbage can that will suck up crumbs that fall near it. Personally, I think leaving the floss container out or using a dustpan is just as easy as putting out a device that needs to be recharged every month—it seems like going down a rabbit hole—would the next thing I need be a device to remind me to charge all the things that are supposed to remind me of something? One of the other items on the list is the Juicero juicer, which is designed to squeeze special bags of fruit and vegetables into a smoothie. Turns out the developers did not even realize that the bags can be squeezed faster by hand and get the same results as the juicer. Customers have since been offered full refunds, but the lesson is to really think about it before you decide to buy.

The bottom line is, manufacturers will continue to expand smart appliance offerings and these features may well be worth it to save money or time in the long-run. The key is to do due diligence in researching and thinking about the usefulness of the features. If you want to know more, there are a few online guides to get you started, including a list of smart appliances on the Smarthome website and a review area with best-of lists at cNet. The library also has plenty of resources, such as the printed version of Consumer Reports at most branches, a consumer file at the Lawrence Branch, and an online version of Consumer Reports available through our Flipster magazine service.

—Laura N.

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