25 Jul 4 Cool Smart Home Products That Deserve Consideration

Summer is finally here. I’ve recently come across a handful of new smart home products that are truly useful and game-changing—particularly if you’re spending more time indoors than usual hiding from the heat. Let’s dive in.

Netgear Nighthawk AX12 Router satisfies your need for speed

I’ll admit it: I’m a hopeless router fanatic, and I’m always on the prowl for a faster way to wirelessly access the Internet. Part of this is grounded in my ongoing quest to solve a design flaw in my condo: the cable jack in my home is located on the second floor of my house, while my home office and work iMac are located downstairs. While I would prefer to connect my desktop directly to the router for the fastest Internet performance and the lowest possible latency, it would be a significant job to run another cable jack to my home office. Hence my fixation on finding the best, fastest wireless router.

While I get very good performance with my existing Orbi mesh networking setup with consistent download speeds in the 300Mps range, ping speeds are often in the 12-14 millisecond range. I’d been hoping that new WiFi 6 (802.11ax) routers would give me snappier, low-latency performance, and I’m happy to report that Netgear’s new Nighthawk A12 router gets me a lot closer to nirvana.

Netgear Nighthawk AX12
 NETGEAR

The beautifully designed Netgear Nighthawk AX12 is shaped like a spaceship with two delta wings that hide the router’s antennas. It will undoubtedly be an attention grabber in your home. While there are multiple versions at various price points, I tested the $499 RAX120 model, which accommodates AX WiFi speeds up to 6Gbps. The RAX120 features a multi-gig Ethernet port (5G/2.5G/1G) and an optimized 64-bit 2.2GHz quad-core processor that is well-suited for smart home applications like 4K UHD streaming and online gaming. Of particular importance to me is the router’s Orthogonal Frequency-Division Multiple Access (OFDMA) capability that substantially increases network capacity (compared to today’s WiFi) and reduces latency for an improved WiFi experience. While the name of this feature seems to have been conjured up by a frustrated Star Trek screenwriter, the function does indeed do what it’s supposed to do.

Since PCs with integrated WiFi 6 support are not expected to show up until the fall, I had to conduct my testing with 2 Nighthawk A12 units connected in “bridge mode”—one router connected to my iMac and one connected to the upstairs modem. While this usage scenario would be cost-prohibitive for most consumers, my test results were telling. I saw average sustained speeds of around 700Mbps between my iMac and router, a remarkable increase over the ballpark 400Mbps speeds I generally see with my Orbi mesh setup. Most importantly, ping performance was consistently in the 8ms range—I was able to streamYouTube and Netflix  vitually without any buffering.

Routers like the Netgear Nighthawk AX12 nicely demonstrate the potential that WiFi 6 has in the home. While much of the industry chatter is focused on 5G right now, WiFi 6-based routers will play an essential role in flooding the house with high-bandwidth, low-latency Internet access as more ISPs provide gigabit and multi-gigabit “pipes” to the home. I expect most major PC OEMs will start including WiFi 6 capability in their desktops and portables this coming fall and holiday season, which will really turbocharge the interest in WiFi 6-based routers.

A “brilliant” solution for the smart home

If you’re looking for a unified solution to manage functions like lights, locks, and thermostats inside of your home, look no further than Brilliant. It’s essentially a touch panel, available in various sizes, that replaces the traditional mechanical switches on your wall to allow smart control of your home. It is voice and motion-activated, and features integrated Amazon  Alexa functionality.

Brilliant Home Panel showing video chat and function modes
 BRILLIANT

I tried out Brilliant’s two-switch panel (4.76” X 5.3”), which features an LCD touchscreen with a very readable 720 X 1280 resolution and two indented sliders that work as dimmers. I appreciated that the panel was only slightly larger than the conventional regular light switch panel I was replacing. I decided to install it in my home office, as that room has an overhead dimmer light that I rarely used. A caveat: you need a 120-volt double switch gang box that is grounded, and it must be wired in compliance with the National Electric Code.

Brilliant has both Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity. Once I physically installed the unit (which was much easier than I anticipated), I downloaded the Brilliant app and easily added my Wemo-enabled lights, Ring doorbell, Nest Thermostat, and Sonos speakers. I found the ability to watch my Ring doorbell camera feed on the Brilliant panel to be especially useful. Additionally, it’s nice to be able to control Brilliant supported lights (from the likes of Philips Hue, LIFX, and Lutron Caseta) with the panel’s Alexa functionality. For large homes with multiple Brilliant panels, the product even features room-to-room video chat functionality.

In my opinion, as a convenient, modern-looking wall solution, Brilliant fills a glaring hole in the smart home market. Unfortunately, Brilliant is not inexpensive; its prices range from $199 to $449 MSRP depending on the number of switches, so it will add up if you’re going to outfit your home with multiple Brilliant panels. Cost aside, Brilliant is a stylish control solution for your smart home that is both intuitive and highly useful.

Creative SXFI Air Headphone takes a swing at “holographic” audio

If you thought that the wireless headphone category was running out of ways to innovate, think again. Creative’s new SXFI Air headphones are the industry’s first to provide integrated support for Super X-Fi technology, the company’s innovative take on what is being called “holographic” audio. Holographic audio is a technology that essentially turns stereo sound into an immersive 3D-like audio experience.

The admittedly grandiose mission of the SXFI Air is to move beyond the traditional conventionality of headphone listening. The SXFI Air offers a comprehensive app-based suite of features for playing music over Bluetooth, and even via an integrated microSD card slot.  From a design standpoint, these over-the-ear headphones are big and not conducive for using on a plane or a commuter trip like the popular BOSE QC35. At almost 12 ounces, they’re even a bit heavy for their intended home use. However, the earpads are made out of breathable memory foam that allows heat to disperse, making them quite comfortable to wear.

Creative SXFI Air Headphones
 CREATIVE

The headphones claim a battery life of 10 hours—not bad, though other competitive wireless Bluetooth headphones have battery life in the 15-20 hour range. The SXFI Air does not offer active noise cancellation. However, the ear pads themselves blocked enough external sound that the lack of active noise cancellation wasn’t a dealbreaker for me.

On to the real question: how do they sound? While I cannot say that music sounded distinctively better than my trusty Bose QC35, it was a decidedly different experience with movies and games. The SXFI Air shines by rendering sound in a highly realistic (and immersive) way. I streamed The Dark Knight on Netflix, and the action and dialogue seemed with the SXFI Air than my Bose QC35 headphones. Moreover, my favorite baseball game, MVP The Show 19, on my Sony Playstation 4, was a totally different experience with the SXFI Air. The crowd noises, umpire calls, and all the other game audio sounded more realistic and distinctive.

At $160 MSRP, the Creative SXFI Air are not the most expensive headphones on the market, nor the least costly. I believe they represent an important step in making audio a more powerful element of the gaming and video entertainment experience. There are more portable solutions on the market, but if you’re a gamer or want a top-flight immersive experience while watching action movies, the SXFI Air may be just the ticket for you.

Honorable mention

GilletteLabs Heated Razor
 MARK N. VENA

Before I conclude this column, I wanted to give a quick shout-out to a product that I received a few weeks ago from Gillette. The GilletteLabs Heated Razor, while not a smart product in the traditional sense, has changed the way I shaved in just a few weeks. I’ve only experienced the barbershop “hot towel” treatment a few times in my life, and but I believe many would agree that softening the whiskers with a heated towel makes for a closer, less irritating shave. The problem is that heating a towel is messy and not very convenient.

I’ve been using the product for the past two weeks, and while I was skeptical at first, I’m pleased to report that the product actually does work at advertised. The battery-powered razor consistently produced a noticeably closer shave than my standard Gillette 5-blade Proshield razor. Its single button activates the heating mechanism, and it takes less than a second to heat up. While it is definitely warm to the touch, I never felt that I might inadvertently burn my face.  While it is waterproof and can be used in the shower, I found it a bit heavy. The razor’s battery is rechargeable via a chic, space-efficient powered stand.

The GilletteLabs Heated Razor is one of the more indulgent consumer products I’ve used. The catch is that the starter kit (which includes the charger) is $200, and a replacement pack of 4 blades costs $25 ($8 more than Gillette’s current ProShield blades). I can’t say that it will change your life, but it does get your day started on the right note.

Wrapping up

That’s it for this week’s smart home product roundup. Over the next few weeks, I will opine on a few topics that several readers have asked for my perspective on, including a column that addresses several common myths surrounding the smart home, and another that focuses on some important developments in the cord-cutting space. Stay tuned.