Tech’s in the Mail: The Top Five Smart Gadgets to Get With Your Tax Refund

April 15, 2014

This post comes to us from Darryl Wilkinson, contributing CE reporter and A/V reviewer.

“In this modern world,” Benjamin Franklin might have said were he alive today, “nothing is certain but tech and taxes.” Indeed, technology helps us figure, file, and - grudgingly - pay our taxes. But technology can make getting a refund quicker and easier, too. If you’re expecting a refund, you might be tempted to use that extra cash to buy a newer model smartphone or tablet. (Yawn…) Here’s a better idea. Rather than swapping one perfectly good device for another slightly newer one, make a genuine upgrade in your life by replacing some of the dumb items in your home with smart devices that’ll make your home more convenient, more comfortable, and more fun to live in. Here’s a quick rundown of five of the top smart-tech home improvements you should consider buying with your tax refund (or any other money, for that matter).
1) Smart Thermostats
In theory, programmable thermostats are supposed to lower your home’s heating and cooling costs while simultaneously ensuring your house is always at the most comfortable temperature. The reality is that thermostats are a giant pain in the posterior to program - and reprogram as your life changes - so most people simply don’t do it. A smart thermostat, on the other hand, can do a lot of the programming for you, so you’ll automatically get the cost saving and comfort benefits without a second thought. For example, the most recognizable of the smart thermostats available today, the Nest Thermostat, has a round, dial-type design that’s reminiscent of the old, decidedly not smart, analog thermostats of decades past; but tucked inside is a programmable thermostat so smart, it actually programs itself. Over time the Nest Thermostat keeps track of the temperature adjustments you make and builds a personalized schedule based on how you actually live in your home. As with the Nest, other WiFi-enabled smart thermostats can be controlled via apps on smart devices or over the Internet when you’re not at home.
2) Motorized Door Locks
While it may not be as dumb as a doornail, the average door lock certainly isn’t the sharpest tool in the shed. The traditional door lock, however, does have two interesting properties. The first is that door locks have the innate ability to make you forget whether or not you locked the door within minutes. The second is that door locks are aware of the weather and will always refuse to cooperate with your key when nature is at its worst. A motorized door lock, on the other hand, won’t leave you stranded in the cold because your keys are buried in the bottom of your purse or it’s too dark to see the lock. Companies such as Yale, Baldwin and Kwikset all offer motorized door locks that unlock after typing in your personal code on the keypad. If you’re not good at remembering codes, Kwikset’s latest motorized lock, incorporates Bluetooth connectivity and can automatically detect when your smartphone is within range. Once activated, no code is needed. All you do is touch the lock to make the deadbolt retract.

3) Lighting Control
The lights in your home have their own uniquely annoying characteristics: 1) kids are incapable of turning off the lights when they leave a room; 2) light switches are always located in highly inconvenient spots; and 3) you will only realize that you left the kitchen light on after you’ve gotten into bed for the night. One great solution is to replace your current “dumb” light switches with switches (from companies like Control4) that have built-in motion sensors that automatically turn the lights on and off as people come and go. This works well for a single light or two and can be programmed to operate automatically or can be controlled by apps on various smart devices. The Philips Hue system uses LED bulbs (some capable of up to 16 million colors) that can be controlled individually or in groups; and, in addition to reducing energy consumption, the Hue’s colorful LED bulbs let you change the mood in your room - from serious to party to romance - at the touch of a button.
4) Motorized Shades
Unless you’re into the whole decor and design thing, shades, curtains, and blinds - aka, “window treatments” - are pretty boring. But even window treatments can be smartened up, and the benefits go well beyond how awesomely cool it looks when your window shades go up and down or the curtains open and close dramatically on their own. Obviously, motorized drapes and blinds can be used to let light in or keep light out, the latter being particularly important for home theaters and bedrooms; and window coverings are also an important way to help insulate your home. In many cases, the simple convenience of being able to adjust one or more shades by remote is worth the extra cost of motorized shades. But you can take the advantages of motorized window treatments to an entirely different level by combining them into a system that can be programmed to raise and lower shades, for example, based on the time of day. You could also program particular shades to open or close depending on the season and the position of the sun in order to let sunlight help heat your room in the winter and block it out in the summer.
5) Whole-House Automation
If the idea of bringing your home into the 21st Century by adding a smart device or two is appealing to you, then you should think about getting a real home automation system. You see, the thing about technological gadgets, especially the kind that are supposed to make your home “smarter”, is that regardless of their brainpower, most of these clever devices only speak one language: their own. The Nest Thermostat, for instance, won’t discuss domestic politics with a Baldwin or Kwikset motorized lock; nor will it chat with a remote controlled cellular shade or a Philips Hue lighting system. Taking control of the different smart parts and pieces and making them work together as if they’re the best of friends is what a Control4 home automation system does. Sure, it’s nice if the light comes on when you enter a room, but a Control4 system can do things it’d take an entire house full of servants to accomplish. Imagine, for example, that your garage door opens automatically as you pull into the driveway. Then the door to your house unlocks itself while a pathway of lights to the kitchen turn on in sequence. Music begins playing in the house that, by the way, is just the right temperature. (You could also have the system announce, “Welcome home, your Majesty!”, but that might be a little over-the-top.) The beauty of a Control4 system is that about the only limit to what it can do is your imagination - and it’s the way a smart home becomes a genius home.
You can start small with a single motorized door lock or smart thermostat, or you could use your tax refund to treat yourself to a fully automated lifestyle with a Control4 system. Either way, you’re going to find that all the hype about the “smart home” isn’t really hype at all. Certainly, if you don’t like things to be convenient and comfortable, or you don’t care about saving money, then home automation - at whatever level - isn’t for you. For everyone else, the day of the smart home has finally arrived. Now all you have to do is wait for that check to arrive in the mail.