IoT has enabled us to achieve levels of home automation previously known only in science fiction. From Tony Stark’s voice-controlled home to Batman’s strategic headquarters, where he could oversee his domain, the technology we once envied is at our fingertips. And, even better, you can do it on your own. In this article, we’ll talk about some of the tools at your disposal when building the smart home of your dreams, including Amazon’s Alexa, Google Assistant, and the Apple Home Kit.
Smart homes used to be the stuff of science fiction. Moviegoers watched as Tony Stark controlled his mansion with nothing more than his voice, and we’ve all wished we could have the type of technology that made Batman’s life so amazing. These days, you don’t have to be a billionaire business owner or an eccentric crime fighter to create the ultimate smart home. Tools like Amazon’s Alexa, Google Assistant, and the Apple Home Kit have put home automation within reach for nearly anyone.
Smart home technology uses artificial intelligence (AI) to talk to you, respond to commands, and answer questions. For instance, you can ask Alexa to “add bananas to the grocery list” or “tell me the score from last night’s game.” Smart hubs can also communicate with other internet devices, allowing you to control all your smart home gadgets simultaneously. They can turn down the thermostat, turn on the lights, scare away burglars, and even make coffee.
Home automation is not only cool, but it’s practical, sustainable and can even save you money by reducing your utility bill. When looking to automate your home, it’s important to consider the different types of smart home ecosystems, devices and how they will work together to create a seamless experience.
What Are the Best Smart Home Ecosystems?
Home automation systems typically have three components: the virtual assistant (the AI that converses with you), the speaker (hardware), and the phone app (where you control your devices). Each system has its own instructions for pairing devices, as well as the ability to set up an automation flow that performs a series of actions. It’s important to note that not all smart hubs support all smart devices, and vice versa. To find compatible products, look in the product description for “works with…” and make sure it works with your virtual assistant of choice.
Keep in mind all home automation products use bandwidth, so no matter which type of home automation system you choose, it’s important to assess your current connectivity and network speed. Before starting, you will need to make sure the tablet or smartphone you are using is connected to the same WiFi network as your home automation hub. Also make sure that the device you’re adding is powered on.
Amazon Alexa Ecosystem
- Virtual Assistant: Alexa
- Speaker: Amazon Echo
- App: Amazon Alexa for iOS, Android, and Google Play
Alexa is Amazon’s virtual assistant, designed to answer questions, play music, read the news, “talk” to your other devices, and more. Alexa is an industry leader, and with more than 7,000 third-party smart devices supported, it won’t be hard to find home automation products that work with this option.
To ensure a device works with Alexa, be sure to look for “works with Alexa” in the product description of the gadget you intend to buy. Once the two devices are connected to WiFi, simply tap “add device” from the Alexa app and it will pair them together. You can also use your voice to ask Alexa to discover new devices.
Alexa’s “routines” feature makes it easy to automate a flow of actions across devices so they work together. For instance, you can create a group called “upstairs lights” that will turn all the lights on and off simultaneously.
Google Assistant Ecosystem
- Virtual Assistant: Google Assistant
- Speaker: Google Home
- App: Google Assistant for iOS, Android, and Google Play
Google Assistant is built into Android phones, making it a seamless experience for Android users. Google Assistant can play music, get weather updates, take calls, and control your other devices through the Google Home app. It can also answer almost any question because the technology is powered by the sophisticated algorithms behind Google search.
There are plenty of third-party devices that are compatible with Google Assistant. Look at the label for devices that “work with Google.” To sync devices with Google Assistant, make sure they’re both connected to the same WiFi network. Then, open the app, tap “home control,” and select the device you want to pair. Similar to Alexa’s routines, you can create action flows in Google Assistant using the “actions” feature, which groups connected devices to work together simultaneously.
Apple HomeKit Ecosystem
- Virtual Assistant: Siri
- Speaker: HomePod
- App: Home for iOS
HomeKit is powered by Siri, the familiar iPhone assistant. HomeKit has less compatible gadgets available than its competitors, partly because Apple’s encryption has made it closed to developers until recently. The extra encryption is a bonus for those concerned with privacy, but users report that it can be a headache to set up.
HomeKit has a “rooms” feature that allows you to group devices by room, while the “automation” feature allows you to create a flow of commands, for instance, turning on lights and playing music at the same time.
To sync devices with Apple HomeKit, open the app and click the plus sign to add a new accessory. You’ll need to scan the device’s QR code or enter it manually. Because of Apple’s encryption, it’s especially important to make sure the device you choose is HomeKit-compatible.
What Are the Best Smart Home Devices?
Smart home devices/accessories/gadgets are designed to work with a smartphone app to pair them with your home ecosystem of choice. There are plenty of smart home accessories on the market today to suit a variety of household functions, including entertainment, cooking, pets, security, energy conservation and more.
Best Smart Home Devices for Entertainment
Since most modern TVs, stereos, and entertainment devices are already WiFi-enabled, your living room is a natural place to start building your smart home ecosystem. There are plenty of smart home devices to tie your home entertainment experience together, like the Sonos Soundbar, a smartphone-controlled speaker that sits right under your TV. Pair it with subwoofers for a truly immersive home theatre system.
Speaking of home theatres, Samsung offers surround sound systems that are WiFi-enabled. Roku players are streaming devices you connect to a TV with HDMI, enabling you to stream content from Hulu, Netflix, HBO, etc. Imagine walking into your living room and saying, “Alexa, play Game of Thrones,” and having your TV and surround sound turn on instantly to start streaming. Family movie nights just got better.
Best Smart Home Devices for Cooking
Imagine waking up to a pot of freshly brewed coffee every weekday, ready before you’re even out of bed. This dream can be a reality with a smart coffee maker by WeMo. Auto-program it to brew at the same time every morning, and enjoy snoozing an extra 15 minutes.
Sure, Alexa can make you a grocery list on command, but there’s nothing worse than being at the store and not being able to remember if you’re out of eggs or milk. Enter the Smarter FridgeCam—a camera that lets you see the contents of your fridge from anywhere via an app on your smartphone. This is smart technology at its finest!
Love cooking but hate taking out all your measuring tools? Drop Scale measures ingredients for you to make following recipes a breeze. If you’re more of a one-and-done person when it comes to meals, consider the smart crockpot that cooks your meal while you’re at work. This device lets you change the settings on your crockpot from anywhere via a smartphone app.
Best Smart Home Devices for Pets
Smart technology isn’t just for humans. Self-cleaning litter boxes like Litter-Robot separate the waste from the litter and monitor your cat’s litter box usage through an app. Set automatic feeding schedules for your dog or cat with Smart Feed, which you control through your phone (no Alexa integration yet).
Let your dog come and go with ease (and keep the cat in) with the Petsafe smart door, a doggy door that opens via a small “key” you attach to your dog’s collar. Smart collars like the LINK AKC are GPS-enabled to track your dog’s location from an app, giving you the ultimate peace of mind.
Best Smart Home Devices for Security
Protect your home, inside and out, with smart home security gadgets. Systems like Scout come equipped with motion sensors and alarms to scare off intruders. When the security system is triggered, it sends a notification to your phone and begins recording, catching criminals on camera. Burglars beware!
Speaking of cameras, the Logitech Circle camera helps you keep an eye on your front porch to make sure packages don’t get stolen. It can also be used indoors to make sure your small children, pets, etc. stay safe.
Forgot the keys? It’s no problem with a smart lock like the August, which lets you lock and unlock the door remotely, gain keyless entry, grant guest access and more.
Best Smart Home Devices for Saving Energy
From light bulbs to thermostats, these energy-saving smart home devices keep you comfortable while saving money on your electric bill. No more unplugging your appliances when you leave for the day. Smart outlets turn on and off automatically, saving electricity when not in use.
A smart thermostat like the Nest programs itself based on your schedule and adjusts the temperature accordingly. Is downstairs always cold? It can heat and cool individual areas depending on where you spend your time. Smart thermostats are environmentally-friendly and pay for themselves relatively quickly.
Turning off the lights when you leave a room is an easy way to conserve energy, but it’s hard to remember in practice. Enter the smart light switch, which controls the lights automatically. Similarly, smart bulbs like the Philips Hue light bulb make it easy to turn on all the lights at the same time, and they can even change colors on command.
Automate your existing shades and blinds with SOMA Smart Shades. This device is controlled through an app, where you slide your finger to the desired amount of coverage. Or, just use your voice to tell Siri to “close the blinds.” Voila!
Is your basement prone to flooding? A smart water sensor like the GROHE detects water leaks early, preventing flooding and costly structural damage to your home.
Smart Home Security and Privacy
Is your smart device eavesdropping on you? Users have raised concerns about data collection from the companies that manufacture smart home devices, especially since their privacy policies are somewhat vague. Amazon says they don’t “use customers’ voice recordings for targeted advertising,” and Google emphasizes they only store voice recordings after the device has been intentionally triggered. Still, watchdog groups are pushing for more transparency and regulation for voice-enabled smart home hubs.
Like any device that relies on internet access, smart home gadgets are susceptible to attacks, including password stealing, cryptocurrency mining and other nefarious activities. Fortunately, you can take precautions to greatly reduce the risk and keep your devices secure:
- Make your passwords difficult. Use alternating numbers, capitalized letters, and symbols to make them hard to guess, and don’t use the same passwords on different sites.
- Frequently update your software or set it to update automatically.
- Consider creating a guest WiFi network that separates your smart devices from your personal computers to increase security.
There are all sorts of gadgets, accessories, and assistants on the market today. Devices that were once clunky and unintuitive can now operate seamlessly through a smartphone app. From coffee makers to light bulbs, it makes you wonder, what will they automate next?
If you’re looking to upgrade your home’s IQ, start by choosing one or more smart devices and a smart hub, and then sync them together to create the ultimate smart home ecosystem. You’ll be talking to your house and impressing your guests in no time. The future is here.
Article original posted June 9, 2019. Updated July 17, 2020.