High-tech home gear for gadget gurus

Robots and other gizmos that help you clean and control your home

Published: December 19, 2013 01:45 PM

Pretty soon we’ll all be monitoring our homes from smart devices that enable us to turn lights on and off, adjust the heat, and start the washing machine or dryer. And then we can put up our feet and watch robots vacuum the floor and clean the windows. Robots and Wi-Fi enabled thermostats, lights, and light switches are just some of the smart appliances that Consumer Reports tested this year. And we have to admit, most of them were pretty cool. Perhaps just the thing for the gadget lover on your list.

Robotic vacuums
The iRobot Roomba 760, $450, is the only robotic vacuum of the three robotic vacuums tested by Consumer Reports that picked up every piece of paper and all the cereal, sand, and rice we laid down on our test carpet. It also found its way out of tight spots and around extension cords. And, like other robotics, you can program it to run when guests or children aren’t around. A random pattern with more passes over the same spot helped account for its cleaning, though that also meant the Roomba roved around our 12x16-foot test area four to five times longer than the other two robotics before it returned to its charging base.

The LG Hom-Bot Square LrV790R proved to be the quietest and, at $800, the most expensive robotic vacuum we tested. Instead of cleaning in a random pattern like the Roomba, the LG Hom-Bot Square goes back and forth and typically covers a spot just once. A “turbo” mode kicks in on carpets, while a spot-cleaning mode lets the LG circle over a 4- or 5-foot area for several minutes. But it cleaned less thoroughly than the Roomba, picking up most of the rice and sand but simply pushing around some of the cereal. It couldn’t pick up the paper we dropped on bare floors. And it had trouble sidestepping power cords and narrow objects.

Winbot window-cleaner
The Winbot W710 and Winbot W730, $350 and $400, are 4.5-pound robots that claim to "clean your windows, glass doors, mirrors and more with just the touch of a button." In one pass, the Winbots run a pad dampened with cleaning solution over glass, squeegee it, and then dry it. The devices hold on by suction and use two antislip treads to move around. You can direct the devices with a remote control. The Winbots do windows, but not perfectly. Although they cleaned fingerprints, dust, and streaks, they didn't handle heavy stains, and they sometimes missed a spot. If you're a gadget junkie or if you have high windows that are hard to clean safely, a Winbot could make sense. Otherwise grab some glass cleaner and paper towels.

Nest learning thermostat
If you love interacting with electronic gadgets, consider the Nest thermostat. Different-looking than the other thermostats in our tests, the round Nest has a rim dial for making adjustments, much like classic round thermostats of years past. Program it or it will program itself based on changes you make the first week, and from then on it keeps on tweaking. The Nest is connected to the Internet via Wi-Fi, so it automatically installs software updates made by the company. You can control the thermostat from your computer, tablet, or smart phone and set the Nest to send you e-mail alerts. Next from Nest is a CO/smoke alarm that we’re testing now.

Photo: Manufacturer

Belkin Wemo light switch
While the Nest helps you monitor your heat, the Belkin Wemo light switch, $50, lets you turn your lights on and off with a smart phone or tablet from home or afar. The Wemo replaces regular switches and connects to your home's Wi-Fi system with an app. With it you can program all the lights inside and outside your house including ceiling fans. While the company claims that setup is a snap, because it’s bigger than your typical light switch, it was a bit tricky. But once we installed one, it worked well at customizing a lighting schedule and sending e-mail alerts indicating if the lights are on or off.

Philips Hue LEDs
Hue takes lighting technology way past on, off, and dimmable, redefining what a lightbulb can do. The Philips Hue LED web-enabled system, $199, lets you switch the color of the LED bulbs from warm to bright white or to almost any color in the rainbow using any smart device in your home or remotely. The set comes with three web-enabled LEDs and a device that plugs into your wireless router. Additional bulbs are $59 each. Each system can control up to 50 bulbs using a free app with smart devices running on certain Apple and Android systems. Setting it up was a snap, and the app was intuitive and easy to use. In our early tests, the LEDs provided instant light and used even less energy than claimed. But there were some trade-offs between brightness and color temperature and accuracy. When the color of the light was warm, like an incandescent, the accuracy was great, but the light was only a bit brighter than a 40-watt bulb. 

Smart laundry apps
More appliances come with their own apps these days, including new LG, Samsung, and Whirlpool clothes dryers that let you track your laundry’s progress and even turn your machine on or off remotely. The Whirlpool model can send a text or an e-mail when the load is done. The Samsung and Whirlpool apps also let you start the machine remotely, but you have to manually set it up. The apps we tested were easy to use. Still, it’s not a good idea to run appliances when no one is home. And you may have privacy concerns: To use them sometimes involved providing an e-mail address, a cell number, or both. LG even asks for your birthday, sex, and other info.

—Mary H.J. Farrell

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