It still feels magical to light up your living room by saying “Alexa, turn on the lights.” But with all the hype surrounding so-called smart things — everyday devices that are connected to the internet — it’s easy to forget that sometimes the dumb stuff is just better.
Tech companies are adding internet connections to just about everything you can imagine so that they can be controlled with smart speakers or phones. Thermostats, surveillance cameras, mosquito zappers, coffee makers — you name it.
And smart devices are becoming more popular. In 2017, 15 percent of American households owned a home automation device, up from 10 percent in April 2016, according to NPD Group, a research firm.
But before we get carried away setting up the Wi-Fi connections on all our appliances, lights and fashion accessories, let me play Luddite for a second. Some of the most mundane devices are designed to accomplish a simple task extremely well — and in some cases they still execute those duties better than their high-tech brethren.
So let’s take a moment to appreciate some of the best dumb things. Here are my top picks.
The Apple Watch, by all measures, is a hit. The latest iteration of the Apple Watch, called Series 3, is fast, water-resistant and versatile with long battery life, making it a superb smart watch for tracking your fitness activity.
Yet a normal wristwatch is still superior at one crucial task: Telling the time.
The Apple Watch’s screen wakes up when you tilt your wrist at an angle, which indicates you are trying to check the time. That helps conserve battery life. But any Apple Watch wearer is familiar with situations where this feature gets frustrating.
While riding a bicycle, for example, you often have to let go of the handle bar and lift the watch toward your face to check the time. When you’re standing on a bus or Subway train and holding onto a pole, it is difficult to tilt your wrist at the correct angle to look at the time. Or when you’re in a meeting and want to see if you’re staying on schedule, flicking your wrist isn’t very subtle.
Until the Apple Watch manages to constantly display the time without sapping the battery, a normal wristwatch is better for telling the time in all those scenarios. That’s why you’ll see me wearing a normal watch at work but an Apple Watch at the gym.
Many cars are now equipped with a touch-screen on the console that essentially mirrors your smartphone screen. Android phone users get to use Android Auto, and iPhone users hook into CarPlay.
These smart car systems are designed to seamlessly work with your smartphone. Plugging in an iPhone, for example, loads a screen of apps like Apple Maps, Apple Music and Apple’s podcast app, which you can then control on the console or with Siri instead of fiddling with your smartphone screen.
The problem with this concept is there are a limited number of apps that work with these smart infotainment systems. For example, if on CarPlay you prefer to use Google Maps or Waze, you’re out of luck and are stuck with Apple Maps.
In addition, if your smart car system needs a major software update, some car brands are lagging in allowing you to download and install the updates yourself. Instead, they require you to bring the car to the dealer and pay for the updates to be installed there. General Motors, for example, has for years declined to offer so-called over-the-air updates and will only say it plans to support them before 2020.
Using a phone mount is a cheap and simple solution that is far less frustrating. You just attach the mount to the dash, a CD player slot or an air conditioning vent, mount your phone and plug it into a power charger via the accessories port.
Voilà, your phone has become your infotainment system, capable of running your favorite navigation and music apps and using voice controls to place calls over speakerphone. The screen is large enough to clearly read maps, and you can update the operating system on your own. What more do you need?
Amazon recently introduced the Echo Spot, a smart alarm clock with a touch-screen and the Alexa virtual assistant. A less desirable feature is a built-in camera for placing video calls.
A camera on your nightstand that is constantly pointed at your bed? It’s like asking for your privacy to be violated. You might as well shop for your groceries in your underwear or post all your smartphone photos publicly on the web.
Amazon promises the camera software on the Echo Spot can be turned off whenever you aren’t using it. But it’s an obvious feature for hackers to target with malware.
So if your primary goal is to have a device that wakes you up on time to go to work, just get an old-school alarm clock.
One of the most common uses of Amazon’s Echo is to set a kitchen timer. Just say “Alexa, set a timer for 80 minutes” while you’re busy chopping vegetables.
But there are reasons a cheap kitchen timer can be superior.
Cooking timing can vary depending on your heating element, among other factors. So if you have to check your food for doneness and change the kitchen timer, an old-school timer — either the analog variety or the type with a digital time display and two or three physical buttons — can be easier. It simply dings or beeps when the time is up and it’s quicker to add or subtract a few minutes by turning a dial or pressing a button or two.
You can also constantly see how much time is left on the timer, whereas with the Echo, you have to open a smartphone app to see the remaining time or ask Alexa to tell you how much time is left. Over the long term, using a smart speaker as a timer gets tedious.
When people buy new iPads or Amazon Fire tablets, they often give their older tablet a second life by designating it for the kitchen. There, the ancient tablet gets mounted to the refrigerator with a magnet and becomes a glorified recipe reader.
Having tried this experiment, it’s a hassle. You often have to clean the tablet after smearing food on the screen. The battery eventually needs to be recharged. And if you want to double or halve a recipe, you have to do some mental math, which makes multitasking more challenging when you are busy in the kitchen.
Printing out or jotting down a recipe on a piece of paper is just simpler. You can easily scribble additional notes, like changes and improvements to the recipe. Assuming you have decent handwriting, it’s easy to read the steps and ingredients.
And if it gets covered in food, you can just throw it away.