The smart home didn’t make a splash in 2021, and that’s OK

By | December 15, 2021


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In the mid-2010s, smart home technology hit the mainstream, thanks largely to smart speakers. These clunky columns and pucks had embedded robotic voices that listened and responded to basic queries on simple topics like weather, sports scores and movie trivia.  

Gradually, those capabilities expanded to controlling lights, cameras, doorbells and dozens of other devices. Today, millions of households have at least one smart speaker. Everything from garage doors to toilets are online and operated by app or voice. 

Looking back on 2021, we saw less accumulation of new smart devices and more refining of the core uses for smart home tech and the networks that power it. Though this pattern was industry-wide, Amazon led the pack. Here’s a look at the last 12 months across the smart home.

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Networking

The way devices connect is changing, and will continue to change in 2022. Big industry presences such as Amazon and Google are investing in networking and expanding how smart home devices get online. 

Matter

Project CHIP (that’s Connected Home over IP) rebranded as Matter in mid-2021 and kicked off a months-long PR circuit promising big things for the smart home. Development was delayed, however, and we’re now anticipating a 2022 release. Still, the premise is intriguing.

The goal of this project is to create a unifying protocol across major device brands that would allow smart home products to work together seamlessly. We’ve described it before as “a single, IP-based, open-source standard that works over Wi-Fi, supports all major control platforms, and acts like a universal language that smart home devices can use to connect with and understand each other.” 

In 2021, Matter inched closer to reality by gaining buy-in from major brands including Apple, Samsung, Google and Amazon. With this team of heavy hitters supporting the project, some even promoting it on their own sites, Matter will likely change the smart home game next year, if all goes as planned. 

Amazon Sidewalk

In January, Amazon announced the launch of Amazon Sidewalk. It went live in June and is enabled by default on compatible Echo and Ring devices.

In short, select Echo and Ring devices use Bluetooth LE and 900MHz LoRa signals, as well as your home’s wireless network, to create a sort of mesh system that keeps devices on the edge of your network’s reach online. This extends to other devices in the neighborhood, meaning your neighbor’s device could use your network to stay online, too. 

Our resident networking expert Ry Crist says that’s not as scary as it sounds. Multiple layers of encryption, regular data deletion and rolling IDs are just a few of the measures Amazon is instating to make Sidewalk more palatable to privacy-minded users.

Sidewalk does help your Echo and Ring products stay better connected to your smart home, potentially alleviating pesky smart home connectivity headaches. That said, the feature is something of a background update that doesn’t change day-to-day use of your devices.

Ring Alarm Pro

What’s more immediately exciting than Amazon Sidewalk (though that admittedly has some interesting potential) is the tech giant’s security brand Ring, which launched a new generation of its DIY home security system.

The Ring Alarm Pro isn’t just a security system: It works with an Eero router to provide mesh Wi-Fi, seamless backup Wi-Fi using cellular data (in case of power or internet outages), internet security and household usage monitoring features, local storage and processing for some of Ring’s video devices, Alexa Guard compatibility and Z-Wave compatibility. The latter means potential for integrating more smart home devices like flood sensors and all sorts of other little gadgets.

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The Ring Alarm Pro is one of the most compelling examples on the market of an integrated smart home platform for a reasonable price and super easy installation. And with the more niche smart home offerings like Z-Wave compatibility piggy-backing on products and services with much more mainstream appeal (hello, Wi-Fi, home security and backup internet), this product seems poised to smuggle a lot more smarts into the average person’s home.

Wi-Fi 6 and 6E

Speaking of internet, we also saw the rise of the latest Wi-Fi band, Wi-Fi 6 and Wi-Fi 6E. This new Wi-Fi standard was released prior to 2021, but the year brought several new Wi-Fi 6 routers to the market.

Faster speeds, stronger bands and better range are nothing but good news for the internet of things. Problem is, smart home devices aren’t compatible with this new Wi-Fi yet. For now, it’s just a handful of the latest smartphones, laptops and routers (we’re keeping a running list).

Besides the Ring Alarm Pro, Wi-Fi 6 compatible smart home devices have yet to make a splash, but we expect adoption to spread pretty quickly in the coming months. All in all, better Wi-Fi is critical to future device generations and keeping a house with dozens of connected devices running smoothly. 

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Amazon

New smarts and features

Big brands updated their devices with hardware and software that added significant features and capabilities. 

Google’s Sleep Sensing tech

In March 2021, Google released the second generation of the Nest Hub. This 8-inch smart display is a favorite of ours, especially if you’re looking for a device that doesn’t have a camera. However, the new model added Sleep Sensing, and that raised the eyebrows of anyone concerned with privacy. 

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Chris Monroe/CNET

Sleep Sensing uses Google’s miniature radar technology Motion Sense, which is powered by Soli, to detect submillimeter movements of the person sleeping closest to the display in order to provide sleep tracking data and suggestions for better rest. Motion Sense on the Nest Hub also enables Quick Gestures, a way to control music playback with a wave of your hand, instead of talking to Google Assistant or tapping the screen. If we see more smart displays from Google in the future, it’s likely Soli will be there. 

Amazon’s AZ2 chip

The AZ2 chip Amazon announced in September is 22 times faster than the previous chip, AZ1. It also powers voice recognition and facial recognition capabilities the company calls Visual ID. You’ll find Visual ID on Amazon’s recently released Echo Show 15 and presumably all the Echo devices Amazon releases in the future. New chips don’t often make the front page, but they’re important for supporting new technology now and in future upgrades. 

Apple’s ultrawideband expansion

The long awaited Apple AirTags launched in 2021 with the goal of helping iOS users find their stuff. It relies on the ultrawideband capabilities of Apple’s U1 chip, in the iPhone 11 and newer. This year’s launch of AirTags was the first time we really saw UWB technology come to life. It’s a significant improvement over Bluetooth, which can track items to within 5 meters or so. UWB can pinpoint a device to within 5 to 10 centimeters. 

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Sarah Tew/CNET

The HomePod Mini is also equipped with the U1 chip, but Apple didn’t really turn it on until a 2021 software update. Currently, UWB is used in the HomePod Mini to enhance the audio handoff feature between UWB-equipped iPhones and the speaker or to locate an AirTag with an audible ping. Future devices, integrations and software updates could really expand the way the Siri-powered smart home locates and understands its pieces. 

Home security focus

There were a handful of new devices, but they’re all mostly based on well-established product segments. We saw updated versions of things we were already buying. Nearly every major smart home device category got a new generation of existing products this year, but smart home security saw the most significant growth. This is the place where we actually did see genuinely new stuff. 

Nest home security

Google bought Nest, famous for its learning thermostats, nearly seven years ago, and has since developed the brand into a serious smart home competitor in multiple markets. Most recently, Nest rolled out a new line of security devices, including an indoor camera, an outdoor camera, a floodlight cam and a wireless video doorbell. Expect the company to add a new wired video doorbell to replace its existing option (2018’s erstwhile Nest Hello) soon.

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Chris Monroe/CNET

This new product line shows Google really establishing a footprint in the DIY home security market — rejecting the piecemeal approach of years past. We liked the cameras generally, though none of them blew us away. That said, we’re seeing smarter features, like alerts that distinguish between people, animals, packages and vehicles, become the industry norm. And of course, resolutions are rising and prices are falling, slowly but steadily. 

Ring security products

Ring had a pretty ridiculous year, frankly. It launched nearly 20 distinct devices, ranging from the excellent Ring Alarm Pro to the mediocre Ring Doorbell 4, from the super featured Ring Video Doorbell Pro 2 (with built-in radar) to the super affordable Ring Video Doorbell Wired (which was selling for about $40 on Black Friday).

But along with its veritable deluge of new products, Ring also battled to rehabilitate its public image after years of playing host to racist vitriol on its Neighbors app, fostering unethical and chummy relations with police departments, instituting policies that degraded community privacy and fending off suspicions following a variety of security snafus.

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Chris Monroe/CNET

How much these controversies really damaged Ring’s brand is hard to say, considering the company still commands impressive control over the market. Aside from optics, did Ring improve? That’s a complicated question to answer, and we’ve written about it extensively before

The company offers industry-leading options for security and privacy (including end-to-end video encryption and local storage and processing if you get Ring Alarm Pro); by the same token, Ring is also normalizing the transformation of public space into recorded space, and facilitating (though now in less direct ways) the sharing of footage with police forces.

In short, that Ring has had a successful year is inarguable; whether or not that’s a good thing is up for debate.

The rest of the field

Amazon and Google aren’t the only companies developing popular home security devices. Arlo, Wyze, Abode and plenty of other developers continued to refine their product lines. Arlo’s security cameras continue to be best-in-class for most people, and Wyze continues to push prices down across the whole industry.

Unlike some others, the home security market remains incredibly competitive entering 2022, and not only with regard to security cameras and video doorbells. Increasingly, companies like Wyze, Ring and others are adding more holistic home security systems, sometimes even including professional monitoring subscriptions.

A flyover year

What we saw in 2021 wasn’t leaps and bounds for the smart home. It doesn’t need that right now. The smart home became more refined this year. Privacy discussions took steps forward. Existing products and technologies got better and the things we loved in 2014 are still evolving to be their best yet. 

At the time of this article, we don’t have any word on the release of Amazon’s Astro robot. There’s no real-life Ring Always Home Cam drone. We’re OK with that. The smart home made significant improvements in 2021 that might not have grabbed headlines but certainly made progress. There’s a good chance that means big things for 2022.

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