CES 2021: Smart Home Insights
We’ve been heading to Las Vegas for CES for years to see the latest smart home technology. Every year we make our list, pack our bags and fly down, usually on Sunday or Monday, to get ready for the show opening Tuesday.
The last couple of years we’ve had the opportunity to get a sneak peak at products before the show opens in hot, crowded hotel suites. We are too cheap to pay for the premium hotels so we are always just a bit far from the action. We are at the mercy of the bus schedule and rideshare availability, though Uber and Lyft are a big step up from taxis.
Our best years have been where we had the right hotel and weather combination that allowed us to walk to the Sands Convention Center in the morning – a great way to get ready for a long day ahead.
This year CES was virtual, so our only commute was from our bed to the living room. We watched sessions on our TV and visited booths from our laptops. It was certainly easier on our bodies, but mentally it was almost more exhausting. Sitting in front of a screen all day just doesn’t have the same energy as walking around and talking to people about their products.
The show was also quite a bit smaller, just 1,957 exhibitors and 69,655 virtual attendees, less than half the size of 2020. We were concerned back in July that a virtual CES might actually attract more people but it didn’t seem to make much of a difference.
Still, plenty of companies did exhibit at CES 2021 and/or made product announcements before and during the event. Here are our insights from the week.
Not surprisingly, almost every CES pitch includes something about COVID: the new normal, unprecedented times, social distancing and all the other buzzwords.
And there were plenty of products promising to help address the challenges – hand sanitizing stations, UV sterilizers for phones and masks, air purifiers, self-cleaning door handles and pen sanitizers. Many of these products were targeted at in-person small businesses, so we didn’t spend a lot of time exploring them, but we got plenty of CES messages inviting us to try them out.
Clean Indoor Air
Air quality monitors, air filters and air purifiers have been a home tech trend for several years now. We first met AirThings at CES in 2019 and recently got a chance to test their Wave Mini, which detects airborne chemicals and mold risk.
This year, we saw dozens of air purifiers with various claims of effectiveness, some claiming to detect and eliminate viruses. While the air quality monitors make sense to us – detecting particles in the air with the right sensors – we remain a little skeptical about the purifiers. How do you really know they are working? But the price points are pretty reasonable, so maybe $200 is worth spending to make you feel better about your indoor air. We have one ourselves now and hope to review it in the near future.
Smart Kitchen, Appliances and FoodTech
Every year we look forward to FoodTech Live – held at a nearby hotel one evening during CES. Michael Wolf and team at The Spoon bring together food tech companies from all over the world for one marathon night of displays (and samples!) and we love seeing what’s new in this space.
This year FoodTech Live went online and we spent all day Monday watching. It was a great format with a combination of panels and sponsor interviews – we were able to hear almost every sponsor talk about their products in one place.
Alternative proteins continue to be a big trend as more and more people turn to them for the sustainability and ostensible health benefits. We saw a live demonstration of cell-based meat from NovaMeat in Spain – we could actually see how the cells changed into something that looked like a chunk of medium-rare steak.
Smart Appliance Revolution
Everyone is cooking at home more often and it seems the smart cooking appliance trend has accelerated. There seems to be a smart connected cooking device for almost everyone – from multi-purpose countertop cookers like the ChefIQ Smart Cooker, a beautifully designed pressure cooker, to the Anova Precision Oven, a combination steam/convection oven, to machines that promise to do almost everything for you like the Oliver, Foodstar and Julia.
There were also several new specialty cooking devices – the CocoTerra personal chocolate maker and the ColdSnap frozen dessert appliance were two of our favorites. These machines promise to take all the complex processes and combine them in one easy-to-use appliance and also hopefully make prep and clean up easier. On the beverage side, the BeerMkr makes homebrewing simple with an all-in-one brewing and fermenting machine that fits on the countertop. At this rate, you may never have to leave your house again to go to the bar or the ice cream shop.
Of course, you may wonder, how am I going to fit all these things on my countertop? We have a reasonably-size kitchen and we’ve been pushing back against getting an air fryer. We think more appliances like the Millo might help – a compact blender that uses wireless tech rather than a big base and bulky power cords, but it remains to be seen what kind of uptake that gets in new kitchen design.
In the meantime, LG is incorporating some of these new capabilities into their more traditional home appliances, like the InstaView line. The InstaView smart range includes an air fryer and waterless sous vide functions, with an app that helps you find recipes to take advantage of both.
There’s no doubt that the kitchen continues to be a space to watch in smart home technology. Samsung even introduced SmartThings Cooking, integrating their Family Hub refrigerator and other cooking appliances with their popular home control app.
Smart Home Adoption Continues
The global pandemic has definitely impacted the smart home market – in a good way. According to the Consumer Technology Association (CTA) – the CES organizers – there was a 17 percent increase in the smart home market in 2020.
As for the virtual exhibitors – we saw lots of companies we’ve never heard of with full lines of smart home products, bulbs, switches, lighting, door locks, cameras, etc. These manufacturers are looking for partners to carry their products, with many enabled by Tuya which we’ve noticed provides a lot of software for the products for sale on Amazon.
Between these cheaper products and mass market products like the newly-branded Cync line from GE Lighting, there’s definitely a trend moving towards more common connectivity protocols like WiFi and Bluetooth instead of Zigbee and Z-Wave.
The big players are working on CHIP (Connected Home over IP) that will supposedly make all this plug and play, but that will still take some time to make it to real devices. At the Connections event held after CES, the Parks Associates team said they get questions about CHIP every single day.
Smart Home Modules
We have seen modules coming for a while, with some brands starting to come from Europe. The concept is that instead of replacing your light switches or putting in smart outlets or plugs, you can add a Wi-Fi-based module to the circuit and control everything that way.
We see modules as ideal for people who have beautifully designed switches they may not want to replace or a way to add control for appliances and other equipment where it’s not convenient to just swap out the outlet.
At CES, Philips Hue became the first mainstream smart home company to add a wall switch module to their lineup to allow you to make your switches smart. Their module, however, only works with their compatible bulbs – to solve the old smart bulb problem that happens when someone turns off the power to your smart bulb. It also requires a battery. We don’t understand why you would open up your switch box to install something that needs a battery, but maybe we’re missing something.
We haven’t tested modules yet but we expect we will try them at some point this year.
With everyone home all the time, security has also seen huge growth in 2020. According to CTA, 38 percent of US households plan to add security this year, whether it’s Do-it-Yourself or professionally-installed systems.
We saw a couple of really interesting products in this space – the Hex Home from Origin Wireless uses Wi-Fi waves to determine motion in your house – and the Owl Home smart CO/smoke detectors that also add motion, temperature and humidity sensors to multi-task to protect you and your family from visible and invisible threats.
We are definitely DIY focused here at AppMyHome and we think the most successful companies in the home security space will allow a combination of both DIY and professionally-installed systems. Monitoring your own alerts is one thing when you’re home but when people start to travel again they will likely want to have the option of a professional service. But few people want to be tied into a long service contract with high monthly fees.
Home Network Infrastructure
Everyone is spending more time at home, and whether it is work or play, networks are taking a beating. Video conferencing, streaming movies and games plus the expansion of security cameras and smart home devices mean that consumers are maxing out their data caps, internet bandwidth and too many Wi-Fi devices make the whole network slower and less reliable.
Wi-Fi 6, the latest version of Wi-Fi, started hitting the market in 2019 and we’ve just recently seen a lot of Wi-Fi 6-ready routers becoming more mainstream. While Wi-Fi 6 is faster and more efficient, until recently it was forced to operate in 2.4 and 5GHz radio frequency bands. These have been around for a while, and if you have installed a smart home device lately, you might notice that some devices only can operate in one band. If you’re old enough, you may also remember having a 2.4GHz cordless phone (or maybe you still do).
Wi-Fi 6E will be able to operate in the recently FCC-approved 6GHz band, which provides more than twice as much bandwidth as 5 GHz, at closer ranges. This should improve Wi-Fi in congested environments and for high-end devices like virtual reality. Plus, since it hasn’t been used before, it won’t be competing or interfering with a bunch of older and slower devices (like your cordless phone).
Netgear, Linksys and TP-Link all announced Wi-Fi6E routers at CES, and TP-Link announced new Wi-Fi 6E mesh routers in their Deco line. Not all of these are shipping yet, and there are not very many 6E capable devices available to buy either (the new Samsung Galaxy S21 is a notable exception). All of these new routers are predictably expensive, so it may be a year or so before it’s worth upgrading, but it is something to watch.
Smart Home Need
Even though there are so many smart home product options and more and more people are buying and upgrading smart speakers, making the right choices can be really intimidating.
One company we met at CES has come up with an interesting solution – Smart Home Need. The founders, Sharon and Sergi, have built a comprehensive service with some of the most complete smart home buying guides we’ve ever seen, organized not by tech specs but by actual human needs and motivations – like saving the earth, sleeping well, feeling safe, and working from home efficiently. You can subscribe to get great content and even hire a coach to help. We think it’s a great way to get the products you need with confidence, on your own terms.
Big Players skipping Virtual CES
In the smart home space, part of the story was who was not at the event. For the past few years, Google has made a tremendous investment in CES, wrapping monorail cars, building huge gumball machines and interactive displays, and staffing partner booths with people in white jumpsuits. Ring (Amazon) has also had a prominent presence with a large space (though we are kind of tired of seeing the same old fake grass booth). Neither company was at virtual CES, or at least, not with a “booth.”
Microsoft had been missing for a couple of years in person, giving up their great booth space across from Intel in the main hall. This year they were back as a big sponsor, which seemed to mostly be providing the tech platform for the virtual event. I am not sure if that will be seen as a successful branding or not – since it was not a great experience, at least for us.
Virtual CES was a bit of a mixed-bag. On the positive side, we watched several sessions during the week, something we never do in Las Vegas. Obviously we also saved money and didn’t catch any viruses. But we really missed the excitement and energy of meeting people in person, being able to experience the products up close and especially exploring the start-ups we see every year in Eureka Park. We look forward to seeing smart home companies in person again at the CEDIA Expo in September in Indianapolis.