All this has been an expensive luxury until now, with the entry of budget tech provider Archos, using a system based on Android and an enhanced version of Bluetooth.
The Archos Smart Home starter pack kicks you off for a penny under £200, including the Archos Smart Home 4GB tablet, and six mini wireless sensors: two cameras, two movement tags and two weather tags.
We’ve fitted these around the Recombu office to see what they can do with the help of the Archos Home app, which also runs on your phone for remote access.
The individual Connected Objects sell for £30 (less a penny), and will be joined this summer by a smart plug socket adapter, a siren and a motion detector.
Archos Smart Home review: the tablet
At the heart of the system is the Smart Home Tablet, running Android 4.2.2 Jelly Bean through a 7in, 1024×600 pixel screen.
The rechargeable battery means you could use this as a regular tablet, but the desktop design means it’s not very portable beyond the home, with a flared base that lets it stand up and is actually very comfortable to hold.
It’s also not a very powerful tablet, with a dual-core 1.2GHz processor that won’t handle anything demanding games and video, just 1GB of system RAM and 4GB of Flash storage, although you can add micro SD cards for up to 64GB.
That’s not the only bad news: the screen has a horribly grainy look, and the touchscreen has poor sensitivity – you won’t be playing any games that rely on fast reactions or accuracy.
It’s basically good for a live photo slide show, or scrolling news and weather device, when you’re not using the home control functions.
It’s these that really matter: Bluetooth Smart for gathering data from your Connected Objects and WiFi for connecting to the internet via your router. The Archos Smart Home Tablet only supports 2.4GHz WiFi B/G, but it does also support 433MHz transmissions for other devices.
Of course, if you’ve already got a tablet, you might wonder why Archos doesn’t just supply a small Bluetooth-to-WiFi hub for linking to your Connected Objects without this lump of last-gen tech cluttering your home.
Archos Smart Home review: Bluetooth Smart and 433MHz
Bluetooth Smart is the more memorable name for Bluetooth 4.1 or Bluetooth Low Energy, and is specifically designed for low power devices with short-ish range and that don’t need high speed data.
As well as the Archos Connected Objects, these include wearable health sensors like the Fitbit, or the Parrot Flower Power plant monitor.
So, for its own devices, Archos claims to have doubled the range of Bluetooth Smart for its own devices, from around 10m to 20m, which should cover most British homes, and tripled its capacity from four objects connected at once to 13 objects.
Unfortunately, Bluetooth Smart isn’t built into Android 4.2 – it doesn’t appear until Android 4.3 – so the Archos version won’t support devices outside its own family – we’ve tried it with a Fitbit, a Parrot Flower Power and a Blue HR heart rate monitor and got nothing.
The 433MHz channel is an interesting addition: it’s an unlicensed channel used for devices like garage door openers, remote door keys, and all sorts of experimental amateur devices.
Archos Smart Home review: Connected Objects
The Archos Smart Home Starter Pack comes with six Connected Objects: two Mini Cams, two Movement Tags, and Two Weather Tags.
Three more will be launched this summer: the Motion Ball infrared motion detector and the 92dB Siren. France and Germany will get a the Smart Plug power socket adapter, but there’s no delivery date for a UK version.
Though they rely on small CR2430 flat watch batteries, the objects have a lifetime of up to a year because Bluetooth Smart draws such little power, and weigh no more than 50g for the Mini Cam, and just 16g for the tags.
Pairing them to the tablet is just a matter of running the simple Add Device wizard in the Archos Smart Home app, and holding down a small button on the object – like any other Bluetooth device but without any security PIN.
The 40mm-wide Mini Cam is slightly smaller than a golf ball and mounts into a neat magnetic cup with a sticky base, so you can aim it almost anywhere within sight of the spot you choose. The Motion Ball will have the same mount.
It’s also waterproof so you can mount it outside, and can take either a 640×480 VGA image or a 7s video clip with a very low frame rate.
The tags are just 36mm square and 15mm, making them very discrete, with a sticky-back mount.
The Movement Tag will react to either being moved if you place it on any object, or as a magnetic door/window sensor to tell you when it’s open or closed.
The Weather Tag sits wherever you place it and reports in temperature and humidity, although it’s only good down to -10°C (the upper limit of 50°C shouldn’t be a problem).
Recombu HQ is a notoriously radio-opaque building at the 2.4GHz used by Bluetooth Smart, and thick with competing WiFi networks from our neighbours, so it’s no surprise that the objects struggled over distances below 10m.
Even so, a smart addition to the Archos Smart Home line-up would be a repeater for boosting signals from distant objects.
Archos Smart Home review: mixing it up with the apps
The Archos Home app is at the centre of the experience, available free for Android and iOS so you can install it on your phones and tablets as well as the Archos hub tablet.
You set up the rooms in your home where you want to place Connected Objects, and then pair each object with the Archos Smart Home tablet and any rooms you want it to apply for.
Once that’s done, you can set up programs which will do something with the objects: alert you with a notification or email when a door is opened or when someone moves the cookie jar, when the temperature is too high or too low, or just take a photo every few minutes.
You can combine objects in programs, so a Mini Cam will take a photo or video clip when a door opens, and you can limit which time of day or day of the week a program is active.
In practice it’s quite slow to respond – if you want to photograph whoever has opened a door or window, you’ll need to place the camera where you think they might be a few seconds later.
That’s unfortunately as far as it goes: Archos Home won’t email an image, let alone automatically share it via another app like Twitter or Facebook – although you can do that manually.
You can access images and notifications anywhere, and control the system remotely, by installing Archos Home on another device and pairing it to the Archos tablet.
And sadly there’s no integration with the popular integration centre of smart home technology: IFTTT (If This, Then That). IFTTT is easy to use and free, and accommodates numerous web and smart home technologies with simple recipes that follow the formula spelled out in its name.
Instead, Archos recommends you buy Tasker, a £3 app which is undoubtedly powerful but hideously complex, and a perfect example of what happens when engineers design software only comprehensible to other engineers.
Archos Smart Home review: Recombu’s verdict
There’s not a lot to like about the Archos Smart Home: but it’s a good demo of trying to make technology too cheap, too fast.
We like the Connected Objects: they’re compact, discreet and easy to use, although we’d pay double for an HD camera instead of the VGA Mini Cam.
The Archos Home app is a bit of a let-down, and the Smart Home Tablet doubly so: the cheap touchscreen is frustrating and the screen is just unpleasant to look at.
The app is easy to use as far as it goes, but it doesn’t do enough, and the Tasker app recommended as an alternative is a nightmare. IFTTT integration is a necessity for any smart home kit today.
Maybe the biggest let-down is the use of Android 4.2 instead of 4.3, forcing Archos to develop its own Bluetooth integration that only works with the Connected Objects. Pointless.
With Apple poised to launch HomeKit and Google expected to announce a similar initiative, we can’t help feeling that the best hope for Archos Smart Home is to make its neat Connected Objects accessible to better software than its own.