The allure of the smart home is strong. You can unlock your smart door lock with your phone, walk into your house, have the lights turn on automatically, and ask your virtual assistant to make you a cup of coffee. When you’re not there, a robot vacuum will clean the place, your smart thermostat will dial down the heat to keep costs down, and you can monitor everything from your phone with indoor and outdoor security cameras.
The actual reality isn’t quite as magical as we’ve seen in various commercials, however. There’s no simple, singular solution (at least, not yet) that can flawlessly automate your entire house.
Things are at least better than they once were. Home automation used to be a complex endeavor requiring networking, scripting, and DIY skills. But modern smart homes are simple enough that just about anyone can set one up. With a few off-the-shelf products, you can control most of the gadgetry in your house from your smartphone, or—even better—with a simple voice command. But where do you start?
Building the Foundation of Your Smart Home
Many smart home devices—including notable products from Nest, Ring, and similar companies—have their own apps from which you can control their basic functions. Other devices are more generic, using popular standards such as Zigbee and Z-Wave—which are Bluetooth-esque wireless protocols for smart home devices—to communicate with a hub such as the Wink or Samsung’s SmartThings. You control those devices through the hub’s app instead.
Some products fall into both categories: You can use their apps or a larger smart home platform. But some platforms, such as Insteon and Apple’s HomeKit, limit you more than others as to which devices you can use.
Maybe you really like the idea of turning on your lights with your voice, or perhaps you want to be able to lock your door from your phone. Pick a category from the list below and do a bit of research on the available devices—you’ll probably find that you can narrow down the field considerably by the features that appeal to you and the compatibility a particular device has with other platforms.
A lot of people start with a smart home security device or several, and sometimes graduate to more sophisticated systems. A smart home security system connects to your Wi-Fi network so you can monitor and control your devices using your smartphone and an app. Entry-level systems usually include some door and window sensors, a motion detector, and a hub that communicates with these devices using one or more wireless protocols (Wi-Fi, Z-Wave, Zigbee, or a proprietary mesh network). You can add extra door, motion, and window sensors to provide coverage for your entire house and build a comprehensive system that includes door locks, garage door openers, indoor and outdoor surveillance cameras, lights, sirens, smoke/CO detectors, water sensors, and more.
For your first few devices overall, try to shoot for products with the widest compatibility you can find, so you can build up your smart home without worrying about future conflicts. Here’s a rundown of the key players in the major smart home categories:
- Lights: Smart bulbs such as the Philips Hue let you control individual lights or groups of lights from your phone and set up different “scenes” with specific brightness levels and color temperatures, so you aren’t flooding your eyes with blue light at the end of the day. They can even automatically turn on and off based on a number of different triggers. As an alternative to bulbs, you can use smart switches to control the lights already built into your house.
- Thermostats: With the Nest or Ecobee line of thermostats, you can adjust your A/C or heating based on time of day or by when you arrive home. The Ecobee even has multiple sensors you can place around your house, so you can see the temperature in more than just one room.
- Locks: Smart locks vary: Some allow you to lock your doors from your phone, some can give a friend or family member temporary access, and unique options such as the Kwikset Kevo let you unlock your door by merely touching it with your finger.
- Doorbells and cameras: Smart doorbells contain cameras so you can see who’s at the door and ignore those pesky solicitors. Doorbells from Ring and Nest can also integrate with cameras from their parent companies, so you can create a whole system that detects nearby motion, sends you alerts when you aren’t home, and saves recordings in the cloud for later access.
- Security systems: Cameras are just one aspect of home security. For those looking for a full system with door sensors, indoor motion sensors, and a siren, kits from companies such as SimpliSafe can monitor your entire home for break-ins. Some systems, such as Abode, even let you self-monitor, dispensing with the link to emergency services so you can keep tabs on your house without a monthly fee.
- TVs and remotes: You may not think of your home theater as part of a smart home, but it is—especially when you connect a smart remote such as the Logitech Harmony Elite, which can control multiple devices at once (including lights, shades, and other smart devices) and integrate with Alexa for easy, hands-free control.
- All kinds of other stuff: This is just the tip of the iceberg. Dig deeper, and you’ll find smart sprinkler systems that water automatically based on the weather, window shades that close with the touch of a button, robot vacuums that clean the house while you’re gone, kitchen appliances you can operate remotely, and smart outlets that can control just about anything that plugs into a wall.
How to Control It All
As you grow your smart home, you’ll probably want to look into getting a hub so you can integrate your devices with one another. The Wink Hub 2 and Samsung SmartThings Hub are easily the most popular options. Wink offers a simpler, easier-to-use interface, but SmartThings is much more powerful under the hood if you like to tinker. (Both work well with iOS and Android, though, so they’re pretty much platform-agnostic).