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‘Smart intercom’ Nucleus updates an outdated form of home tech

A simple communication tool for modern families

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The home tech space is a bit of a circus right now, as heavyweights Apple, Google, and Amazon duke it out with their respective smart home hub devices and all sorts of smart lightbulbs and thermostats fight for a piece of your home.

Nucleus, a two-year-old startup that finally began shipping its product this past summer, takes a drastically Ordinary Jane approach to home tech, striving to serve not the early adopters, but those allergic to all things “Internet of Things.” How are they doing it? With the kind of technology even grandparents will understand: an intercom system for modern era.

Popularized in the mid-20th-century, original home intercom systems were wired electrically throughout the house and offered a rad new way to call kids to the dinner table. Nucleus wants to do the same for today’s families—improve communication, that is—with some modern twists. For one, the advent of Wi-Fi means that rather than having wires limit calls to within one house, Nucleus devices—or phones with the Nucleus app—can also talk to each other from across the town, state, or ocean.

Each unit, available in both black and white, can be mounted on the wall or set on a table, and is powered using a wall adapter or over Ethernet. Cost-wise, they’re going for $249 each on the Nucleus site and at Lowe’s (about $200 on Amazon), though savings can be had in multi-packs.

According to founder and CEO Jonathan Frankel, the average Nucleus customer buys three or four units, which makes sense when considering that the biggest demand right now comes from southern states, where large families in large suburban homes have plenty of rooms to keep track of. Some common uses? Checking in on kids, talking to grandma, keeping in touch with cousins, calling home from work, and so on.

So why would someone use Nucleus instead of just Skype or FaceTime? Frankel claims there’s still a lot of friction with those services, so people end up using them less frequently. He says once set up, calling on Nucleus is just a matter of one tap. Technically, it’s also a one-tap business on FaceTime and Skype (once you navigate to the app and locate the contact), but it’s certainly true that there are a lot more wrong things to press on smartphones and laptops.

Like a big button phone, Nucleus makes it pretty clear what to do. Under the camera, the screen lists all the connected Nucleus units or mobile devices you can voice or video call. Each device can also choose to be in a “Do Not Disturb” mode or privacy mode (so that it has to accept a call before the connection is made.)

While it’s a communication tool at heart, Nucleus isn’t totally eschewing the buzziest smart home trends of the moment. Indeed, the device also incorporates Alexa, Amazon’s voice-controlled assistant that can tell you the weather, play music, deliver news, and more.

On the flip side of all this connectedness is a concern about security, which is no small deal considering how an army of hacked smart home devices broke the internet last month. When asked about the security risk, Frankel mentions a two-step verification system, as well as how “everything is encrypted.” But he also admits that “nothing is unhackable,” so there’s your caveat, for basically anything smart home related.

There is, though, one concrete assurance Nucleus can offer homeowners, and that is a physical privacy shutter that can be pushed down to cover the camera—so that’ll at least save you the hassle of procuring tape.