Future Tense

Should This Thing Be Smart? Toothbrush Edition.

If you have been looking for an oral surveillance device, this might be the toothbrush for you.

The Colgate Connect E1 smart toothbrush.
The Colgate Connect E1 smart toothbrush. Photo illustration by Slate. Image via Colgate.

Welcome to Should This Thing Be Smart? Each month, Justin Peters examines a smart object and tries to determine whether there is any good reason for its existence—and how likely it is to be used for nefarious reasons. Previously on Should This Thing Be Smart?: the $60 smart fork, the $199 smart socks, the $80 coffee mug, and the $99 button.

Product: Colgate Connect E1 Toothbrush

Price: $99.95

Function: The Colgate Connect E1 is a Bluetooth-connected “smart” toothbrush that monitors and analyzes its users’ oral hygiene habits in hopes of improving them. 3-D sensors and an accelerometer keep track of the toothbrush’s position in the user’s mouth, while a paired smartphone app offers personalized feedback as the user brushes: “Stop brushing so hard; your teeth are not a dirty pot,” for instance, or “Time to get reacquainted with your molars!” (These are not the actual messages, thank goodness; it mostly just keeps track of how thoroughly you have brushed each “zone” of teeth.) You can also deploy the app’s “Family Mode” to track the brushing performances of other members of your household, perhaps to prove conclusively that your sneaky children have, in fact, just been wetting the bristles. If you have been looking for a $100 toothbrush that is also an oral surveillance device, then the Colgate Connect E1 toothbrush might be the toothbrush for you.

The case for the smart toothbrush: The Colgate Connect E1 is a very interesting toothbrush! It exists to mitigate the tragic long-term consequences of our generalized disinterest in home tooth care. Be honest with yourself: Do you brush mindfully and methodically, or do you speed helter-skelter through your regimen as if you were late for a train? Do you brush for a full two minutes each time, like your dentist recommends? Do you even brush for a cumulative two minutes over the course of a week? I rest my case. We all do a terrible job brushing our teeth.

The Colgate Connect E1 is Colgate’s bid to impose some structure and rigor on your haphazard toothbrushing routine so that your teeth do not rot from your head like old fruit on a dead tree. It is basically a toothbrush, dental hygienist, and life coach compressed into one hand-held, bristly package. When you use the Colgate Connect E1, a Bluetooth connection sends real-time brushing data directly to a paired smartphone app. The app divides your mouth into separate quadrants, and then again into separate zones, and prescribes the appropriate brushing time for each one. Moreover, the app keeps track of every single tooth in your mouth and knows which ones need more attention (hello, bicuspids!) and which ones could use a break. (Go to hell, incisors!)

Once you’ve finished brushing, the app’s Coach+ mode offers feedback on your immediate and longitudinal performance, along with areas for improvement. Unlike a real coach, the app will never make you run punishment laps or deprive you of a water break for no good reason. (This column’s disdain for real-life coaches has been well established.) In the process, the smart toothbrush tacitly corrects your ingrained brushing errors, while obviating many of the basic oral-hygiene questions that you are perhaps too embarrassed to ask your dentist, like, “Is it best to go from back to front?” and “How much brushing is too much brushing?” and “Who am I? How did I get here?” Not only will this toothbrush clean your teeth, it will also resolve many existential quandaries.

Though the Colgate Connect E1 is pricey, it may well save you time and money in the long run. Corrective dental work is very expensive, and, even worse, it requires you to spend untold hours stretched out in a chair underneath a looming dentist. That dentist will insist on chatting with you throughout your visit, even though he knows that you cannot easily respond, because his hand is in your mouth. The Colgate Connect E1 will save you from the horrors of dental small talk.

The Colgate Connect E1 can be used by the whole family. There is no need to buy separate E1s for your spouse and children, unless you want to. The brush head detaches from the handle so that others in your household can attach their own brush head to the same device. Don’t worry: The smart toothbrush can differentiate between the various users. In fact, the app’s Family Mode can track and compare users’ performance over time. This may well prompt lively household conversations and good-natured intramural brushing competitions. You will have no need to join a rec league with the Colgate Connect E1 in the house.

The smart toothbrush turns brushing your teeth into a game. Literally! The game is called “Go Pirate!” and it is accessible via the Colgate app. In it, you, the humble brusher, become a buccaneer who collects gold coins by brushing in a given quadrant for an appropriate length of time. This is probably not as fun as plundering actual ships for actual gold, like a real pirate, but then again most real pirates have terrible teeth, so we can probably call it even.

The smart toothbrush is a toothbrush with a mission statement. “The ideal toothbrush should do more than just brush. It should make your life and your health better,” the product website says. I can only assume that the Colgate Connect E1 makes your life better by instilling feelings of superiority over those plebes who settle for the free toothbrush their dentist gives them every year. Indeed, the Colgate Connect E1 is a status item. You can buy it at the Apple Store! It features the same streamlined, stark white design as most Apple products. If you cannot afford a Tesla but still want to manifest your smug techie bona fides, you could do worse than to purchase this toothbrush and to tote it around ostentatiously throughout the day.

The case against the smart toothbrush: The Colgate Connect E1 does not address the fundamental reason why people do a bad job brushing their teeth: Brushing is very boring and is a huge hassle. This thing makes it more of a hassle. I will routinely use the same toothbrush for months at a time just because I can’t be bothered to walk two blocks to the store and spend $5 on a new one. If even that easy task is too much for me, then I seriously doubt that I would use this smart toothbrush’s many time-consuming features enough to create long-term gains.

Every time I come back from the dentist, I brush with renewed vigor and ambition. “This is the year that I’ll do a better job brushing,” I tell myself, and for a couple of weeks I do. Then, my enthusiasm and precision taper off, and I inevitably revert to my old, bad habits. I call this phenomenon dental inertia, and I wonder whether the Colgate Connect E1 is novel enough to overcome it. I suspect that most people who buy the smart toothbrush will use it properly for a few weeks and will then lose interest. If you don’t have time to brush your teeth properly right now, you certainly won’t have time to lug your smartphone into the bathroom, connect to the app, and manufacture enthusiasm for its “7-Day Brushing Challenge.” The Colgate Connect E1 may well become just another expensive hygiene product purchased with good intentions and summarily abandoned.

Though the Colgate Connect E1 might be smart, some reviews indicate that it might not be a very good toothbrush, at least when compared against other products at its price point. “[I]f you want a softer brushing experience, a longer brushing experience, pressure detection, or special modes like gum care or whitening, the Colgate Smart can’t deliver,” wrote Juli Clover at MacRumors. “This was a poor excuse for a smart electric tooth brush I purchased it out of trust for Apple products- DO NOT BE FOOLED,” wrote one customer reviewer on Apple.com. To be fair, customers have also left many excellent reviews, but still: You have been warned.

This brings up an important point: You can only buy the Colgate Connect E1 at the Apple Store or online at Apple’s website. You can also only use it with iOS-compatible devices. Android users cannot yet use this device and will have to purchase a different brand of smart toothbrush—perhaps the Kolibree Ara, which is basically the exact same toothbrush. I am not exaggerating here. Colgate did not itself develop the smart technology found in its brush. Instead, Colgate licensed the technology from Kolibree. This feels sort of like cheating to me. More like the smart cheatbrush!

The smart toothbrush overstates its case. “Artificial Intelligence is embedded in the handle,” the official website brags—but “artificial intelligence” is a bit of a stretch to describe the technology that powers the brush. When I think A.I., I think Siri, or chess-playing computers, or Haley Joel Osment’s character from the movie A.I. This isn’t Deep Blue in the handle or anything. If the smart toothbrush were to challenge Garry Kasparov to a game of chess, Garry Kasparov would win.

“Go Pirate!” looks like a boring game that is clearly meant to trick recalcitrant children into thinking that brushing their teeth is fun. I do not put much stock in this trick. Children are smarter than you think, and they are perfectly capable of differentiating between games that are actually fun and games that seek to impart hygienic lessons.

If you don’t know how to brush your teeth, ask your dentist. If your dentist is unapproachable or weird, then ask the internet. If the internet is down, then go outside and ask random pedestrians. If you are agoraphobic, then just call random people on the phone until you get a good answer. My point is that there are lots of ways to get oral-hygiene tips without spending $100 on a toothbrush.

I don’t know about you, but whenever I bring a smartphone into the bathroom, I am terrified that I will accidentally destroy it by getting it wet or dropping it into the sink. I feel like this nightmare scenario would happen at least once a week with the smart toothbrush. You will end up plowing all of your dental savings into new smartphones. Buying the Colgate Connect E1 will be the first step on your road to bankruptcy court.

Security risk factor: As with most of the products I have covered in this column, the security risks with the Colgate smart toothbrush have to do with users’ personal data. “The big security risk for this device [is] more in the app,” Stacey Higginbotham, creator of the Internet of Things podcast, told me over email. “Basically, where is your data living and is it encrypted? In case of a Bluetooth weakness with the device itself, will Colgate update the toothbrush in a year if there’s a security breach?” Stanford University computer science professor Keith Winstein, an affiliate of the Secure Internet of Things Project, expressed similar concerns in an email. “[W]hat information (if any) is shared with Colgate or Kolibree?” asked Winstein. “You’d want to know this to predict the possible exposure if cloud services were breached (e.g. which family members were home to brush their teeth at what time on which days?).”

The privacy policy for the smart toothbrush indicates that Colgate does collect personal information ranging from the user’s name and gender to brushing data and “information about your mobile device including device ID and your location.” But Colgate also told me that you aren’t required to provide personally identifiable information in order to use the product—you can use a nickname—and that the app collects data about gender and handedness only to “help ensure the algorithm can work with that user’s brushing style.” This data is accessible to Colgate, Kolibree, and affiliated third parties. The company told me that the app “does not remove any personally identifiable information from the user’s smartphone. However, users have the option to provide an email address to ensure their data can be retrieved from the cloud as a back up.” I suggest that you do not do this.

Is the Colgate Connect E1 more likely to be used to solve or commit a crime? Solve a crime, for sure. Say you’re accused of murder, and that “I didn’t do it! I was home brushing my teeth” is your alibi. Well, if you’ve been using a smart toothbrush, it will be very easy for the cops to get ahold of your data and either verify or refute your excuse. The real takeaway here is that “I was brushing my teeth” is a thin alibi to begin with, especially if you are the prime suspect in a series of infamous toothbrush murders.

Should this thing be smart? This thing should be smart. I wouldn’t buy one because I am cheap—this statement is true for literally everything that I have reviewed thus far—but I actually think that a smart toothbrush is an ideal smart product. If you’re going to spend $100 on a toothbrush—and that’s not an absurd price for an electric toothbrush—you might as well buy one that offers an intelligent, personalized approach to improving your oral hygiene. Some of the reviews indicate that the Colgate Connect E1 still needs to work out a few bugs, but it’s a good idea and a good example of intelligently applied smart design. And that’s the tooth! (I’m so, so sorry for that.)