Samsung is overhauling its SmartThings product line today, with two key new offerings: a brand new hub, which can now wirelessly connect to your router, and a new Wi-Fi router that includes mesh networking tech from Plume.
The router is the bigger deal. It’s a dual-band model that’s sold in a three-pack and, like other mesh routers, is meant to have units placed all around your home to deliver better Wi-Fi coverage. This is Samsung’s second try at a mesh SmartThings router, but this time around, it’s licensing mesh networking tech from Plume. Plume has a lot of buy-in from major cable companies already, so presumably the tech is well-tested and — for Samsung to have gone and paid for this integration — probably better than whatever Samsung made on its own.
And since this is a SmartThings router, it also doubles as a SmartThings hub. That’ll allow you to set up and manage a wide number of smart home devices, like plugs, switches, and lights, that connect over Zigbee and Z-Wave, two wireless protocols not typically found in routers. It’s a great perk, and really, all routers should probably start including this stuff, especially now that smart home tech is becoming more and more popular.
Samsung is calling the router SmartThings Wifi (much better than the old name: “Samsung Connect Home”). It goes on sale today, selling in a three-pack for $280 or individually for $120.
The other part of this announcement is a new standalone SmartThings hub, and it comes with a major upgrade. Previously, you had to plug the SmartThings hub directly into your router, but the new hub can work wirelessly. That means you can put the hub elsewhere in your house and reduce the immense clutter of cables that tends to grow around home routers. It’ll sell for $70.
In addition to the hub and Wi-Fi system, Samsung is also introducing new versions of SmartThings’ leak, motion, and “multipurpose” door opening / vibration / temperature sensor, as well as its programmable button and plug-in smart outlet. The products all launch today and will sell for between $15 and $35.
Samsung gave the world a first look yesterday at the Galaxy Home, its take on a high-end, HomePod-like smart speaker. And much like Apple did with the HomePod, Samsung announced the speaker well in advance of its actual availability — and well before it’s willing to share full details on how the speaker works.
Right now, there are a few things we know: the number of speakers (six, and a subwoofer); number of mics (eight); what it looks like (alien houseplant); and that it will include Bixby and Spotify support. But our knowledge of the speaker pretty much ends there.
So as we speculate on how the speaker will hold up against its many competitors, here are the big questions we’re still waiting for an answer on.
How smart is it?
This is really two questions. The first is: will Bixby be any good?
We know that the speaker has Samsung’s digital assistant built in, but we also know that Bixby hasn’t been particularly well received. Bixby sounds unnatural, it isn’t always quick to respond, and its abilities haven’t fared well compared to competitors like Alexa.
So will Bixby be smart enough to deal with all the queries and commands that people already expect a smart speaker to handle? Samsung suggested it’d have many of the features Bixby is already capable of on smartphones, and said it’s been improving Bixby to make interactions with the assistant more natural. It still has some months to go keep tinkering, but that isn’t necessarily going to be enough to win users over.
But this brings up another question: will we be limited to Bixby, or will the Galaxy Home support Alexa and Google Assistant, too? Samsung may not be eager to give its competitors any ground, but it’s possible to build multiple voice assistants into one speaker — even the new Galaxy Note 9 supports both Bixby and the Google Assistant. If Samsung takes this route, it could avoid much of the intelligence issues and provide a speaker that fits into the smart home ecosystems many people have already started building. It wouldn’t be the worst idea.
It streams Spotify, but what else?
The Galaxy Home doesn’t have an aux port, meaning that you’re only going to be playing music on this thing by streaming to it. Fortunately, Samsung announced that it’s partnering with Spotify to bring support for the streaming service across many devices and appliances, so it’s pretty clear that Spotify streaming will be included here.
That’s an advantage over the HomePod, which is locked in to Apple Music. But if the Galaxy Home doesn’t offer anything else, it’s not going to be much of an advantage. There are heavy users of radio services like Pandora and iHeartRadio, not to mention other full-on music streaming services and apps dedicated to podcasts and audiobooks. Presumably, you’ll be able to stream anything you want over Bluetooth, but the real question is whether Bixby can play these things on command.
Plus, Spotify wasn’t always Samsung’s music partner: as recently as last year, Samsung was using Google Play Music as its default app on high-end Galaxy devices. In order to work well with users of its older devices, one would hope that Samsung will build in native support for multiple services.
So far, Samsung hasn’t said anything about support beyond Spotify. And when it comes to playing audio on a smart speaker, a breadth of support is pretty important.
Does it include third-party apps?
Amazon’s and Google’s smart speakers both support all kinds of app integrations, from smart lights to ordering pizza to storytelling apps. Samsung hasn’t said what, if any, support it’ll offer for third-party apps, but it did give us one big clue.
Samsung said it would announce more details about the Galaxy Home at its developer conference in November. While companies do sometimes announce consumer products at developer events, it’d be odd to introduce a brand-new piece of hardware that doesn’t include third-party integrations at a show for developers.
So it seems likely that third parties will in some way be able to plug into the Galaxy Home. Will app makers feel like building out yet another set of smart assistant integrations just for Samsung? That’s a much harder question.
What’s with the legs?
¯_(ツ)_/¯. We don’t even know if they’re detachable, but based on the rounded bottom it seems unlikely.
When will it come out, and for how much?
Here’s the obvious one. We don’t know how much the Galaxy Home will cost or when it’ll come out. I get the impression that Samsung is targeting the end of the year. It’d be a major miss to slip past the holiday season and into next year, giving Apple, Google, and Amazon another chance to fill people’s homes with their own smart speakers.
And more importantly, Samsung has already promised to unveil more details at its developer conference in early November. It’d be odd to discuss the speaker at a second press conference without knowing when it’ll be ready to launch, so it seems reasonable to expect a release date at the end of December, if it plans to aggressively target the holiday shopping season.
As for the price, the design and known specs of the Galaxy Home pretty clearly suggest Samsung is attempting to go head-to-head with Apple’s HomePod. Apple sells its speaker for $349, so it’s likely Samsung will try to land between $300 and $400.