What is the Internet of Things?
Ultimate Guide

What is the Internet of Things?

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Remember when living like the Jetsons seemed like a far-off fantasy? That imaginary world is today's reality (minus the flying cars - so far) - thanks to the Internet of Things.

We could fill pages and pages with the multitude of products making up the Internet of Things today and in the future. From smart thermostats to driverless cars, seemingly nothing is off limits.

For the purposes of this guide, however, I'm going to focus on one of the most popular and convenient uses for this technology - mobile (cellular) connection.

Internet of Things Definition

What is this mysterious, invisible entity, you ask? It's simpler than it sounds, and yet more complicated than most of us ever predicted. The IoT is the connection between devices, gadgets, appliances, even cars, that allows consumers, businesses, and the government to function more efficiently.

Chances are high that you've already been exposed to IoT technology. Ever use a FitBit or other activity tracker? These devices are part of the Internet of Things due to their internet connectivity, which is typically achieved via sensors - either integrated or added to existing products.

IoT components can be as low-tech as a simple Bluetooth tracker you attach to your car keys, or as complicated as a smart home hub controlling connected devices like your lights, security system, stereo, appliances, and more. Virtually anything that turns on and off - from your coffee maker to your washing machine - can be a smart device.

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What is the Internet of Things?

Mobile Technology and the IoT

What's the first thing that comes to mind when you think of using the IoT on the go? If you said your smartphone, it's a good guess. All by themselves, though, smartphones aren't technically IoT components. That's because they require human interaction, essentially comprising a small computer.

Mobile phones are just the tip of the iceberg. There are plenty of ways for you to take advantage of a cellular connection via IoT technology.

Add another device (and I'll cover those next) to your smartphone's "network", and now both components are part of the Internet of Things. Why? Because you're creating something known in the tech world as M2M - or machine-to-machine communication. It's just a fancy way of saying you have multiple connected devices talking to each other instead of just to you.

Mobile IoT Devices

Here's the deal: mobile connection is continually on the rise (but you already knew that).

According to the Ericsson Mobility Report, there were three million new mobile subscriptions in the United States alone during the final quarter of 2016. As if that's not drastic enough, consider this: there are actually more mobile broadband subscriptions in the U.S. than there are people, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

What's the point? Mobile phones are just the tip of the iceberg. There are plenty of ways for you to take advantage of a cellular connection via IoT technology.

Smartwatches

Wearable devices are one of the hottest - and growing hotter - areas of the smart device industry. Tech market analysis firm Tactica has projected that wearable device shipments will increase by 37% yearly, reaching 560 million by 2021. Why are gadgets like smartwatches and activity trackers so popular? They take the tasks of everyday life and make them more portable than ever.

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The two main types of IoT technology used in smartwatches are:

  1. Bluetooth: This is the connection method you're most familiar with if you use a fitness tracker like the FitBit. On the plus side, it's the most affordable smartwatch option. On the downside, you must have your phone on you in order to get full functionality.
  2. Standalone: Standalone smart watches are a fairly new entrant in the marketplace, having come onto the scene in earnest only about five years ago. Standalone means you don't have to take your phone with you to get access to your data, email, text messaging, even phone calls. This is great news if you're a jogger or other fitness buff for whom a phone can be cumbersome during exercise.

There's no question that a standalone device is the most convenient - you can listen to music, take or make calls, check your texts, even download apps on some models - all without having to carry your mobile phone. Of course, this also means that you'll need a cellular connection. This is accomplished in one of the following ways:

  • eSIM: Some models, like the Samsung Gear 3 Frontier, feature an embedded SIM card. You can either buy the device outright and link it to your existing mobile subscription, or get it from your carrier. You'll pay an additional activation fee, plus a monthly service fee of $5 - $10 on top of your regular data plan. Any data, texts, or call time you use count against your phone's data plan.
  • Removable SIM card: Choose a model like Omate and you'll have the option of adding your own SIM card. This gives you greater flexibility because you won't be tied to your carrier. You can go with a third-party service provider in order to save a little money (more on that in a minute), plus you can still hook up to your smartphone via Wi-Fi or Bluetooth if you choose.

The beauty of the standalone smartwatch is that it combines internet connectivity with the functions of the best fitness trackers, giving you true freedom without losing out on important communications. Your device gets its own IP address, and most major cellular carriers even allow you to hook your mobile phone number to your wearable so that you get all notifications that would come to your smartphone.

Don't forget to check out the Samsung Gear 3 Frontier along with our other top picks in our buyer's guide to smartwatches.

Related: Need to know more about SIM cards? Check out our guide!

GPS Trackers

Trackers have undergone exciting advances in terms of machine-to-machine communication. They're nothing new, of course, but their applications have moved far beyond simply being used by companies to keep track of things like rental cars. Now, GPS trackers are improving everyday life for the average consumer by allowing you to:

  • Make sure your kids are where they're supposed to and get there safely
  • Locate pets who get out of your grasp
  • Monitor the safety and well-being of an elderly loved one
  • Locate your car or other valuable goods if lost or stolen

GPS trackers use very little data, which keeps costs very low.

There are dozens of great choices on the market today, so it's important to pick the one that meets your specific needs. Features to look for when you're shopping for trackers include:

  • Size - you don't want a bulky unit just for keeping track of your laptop, and you don't want one so small for your child that they'll lose it.
  • Durability - kids are tough on stuff, so make sure it's rugged enough. You can also choose a water-resistant model for outdoor exposure.
  • Service cost - some models, like the Amber Alert GPS, require a service plan through the company. Amber Alert's tracker, for example, costs $125 with a $15 monthly fee. There are plenty of models, however, which can take any prepaid SIM card. The good news: GPS trackers use very little data, which keeps costs very low.
  • Extra features - things like geofencing, speed limit alerts, and listen-in voice monitoring are particularly useful when it comes to keeping your kids safe.
  • Battery life - you don't want to be changing batteries every day, so make sure to check out the battery life. Your best bet is a model that uses a lithium-ion rechargeable battery, like the AngelSense.

Want total peace of mind? Choose a GPS tracker with voice-to-voice capability. Both AngelSense and Amber Alert offer the ability to actually talk to your child or other loved one via two-way cellular communication.

Other Mobile Devices

As I mentioned earlier, when considering the question "What is the Internet of Things?" you may automatically think of your smartphone or tablet. These devices aren't technically IoT components because their primary use is through human interaction with the device, however, they're still part of the mobile internet infrastructure.

SIM Cards for Mobile IoT Devices

As promised, I'm going to show you how to save money on data for your mobile devices. Unless you're using a product with an embedded eSIM, you don't have to pay your cellular carrier's high rates just to connect your activity tracker or other devices.

US Mobile

This prepaid MVNO (Mobile Virtual Network Operator) sells a wide variety of minute, text, and data buckets, allowing you to customize your plan to avoid overpaying. Prices range from $2 to $30 per month. US Mobile service runs on the T-Mobile network, so you know you're getting reliability and a great value. You can also check out our review of US Mobile cell phone plans here.

Other MVNOs

MVNOs, the smaller cellular carriers that use the big four networks, typically offer lower prices on their packages than the major carriers. This makes them the ideal choice for hooking your mobile IoT device up without having to pay pricey activation and service fees through one of the larger carriers. Still not sure about getting your SIM card this way? Read more about MVNOs here.

Recap

According to the Ericsson report, connected devices are on the way to hitting 28 billion worldwide by 2021.

Even if you aren't yet on board as far as personal IoT devices, you may soon find yourself living in a smart city - with internet infrastructure acting as an integral player in your city's operations. We make the transition easier by keeping you up to date on products and services to optimize life in an increasingly connected world.

For more information, check out our guides to connected devices, where you'll find more reviews and comparisons.

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