Smart home: The best automation devices – and how to use them © Getty Images

Smart home: The best automation devices – and how to use them

We answer some of the common questions around the smart home.

So, you’ve heard about the smart home and wondered is it for me or is it just a fad? Do I really need to yell at my lightbulbs? Will automating my toaster make life better? We’re here to answer those burning questions and help you figure out whether home automation is a good fit for your household.

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Before we dive in, we should point out that while it may seem very futuristic, smart home tech is here now and will soon be standard in most every electrical household item you buy. Connecting appliances, thermostats, kettles, TVs, and lighting to each other and the internet provides an extra layer of convenience to you today, but tomorrow this Internet of Things will allow our homes to learn our patterns and respond to our needs without us lifting a finger.

The key will be the data each device collects, which a controller in our home can analyse and respond to, that will transform an automated home from a mere collection of remote-controlled gadgets and gizmos into a truly “smart” home. One that makes your everyday life easier, helps reduce your home’s use of precious resources such as energy and water, and connects it with the larger Internet of Things to enable truly exciting advancements for our world.

What is a smart home?

A smart home is one outfitted with wirelessly connected gadgets that can do things for you that make you think “Oh gosh, well isn’t that smart?” From simple actions like lights turning on when you enter a room to more impressive ones such as your house shutting itself down at night – locking the doors, closing the curtains, turning down the thermostat, and switching off all the lights.

Largely, this is still all home automation, where you need to tell the home to do these things through a pre-set trigger, there’s not a lot of advanced artificial intelligence in play – although it’s coming. The ‘smart’ in smart home actually stands for Self-Monitoring Analysis and Reporting Technology, which means a smart home is a step beyond simple automation.

Each connected device can monitor itself and report back to a central hub or control platform, which can then act appropriately. Think of it like a basic alarm system – when a door sensor is triggered it tells the alarm to make a noise – only it can do so much more.

There are several home automation platforms you can use to make your home smart, and each one uses programming – known variously as Routines, Automations, and Scenes – to help link your devices together into a smart home.

These programs can be triggered by a number of things: a voice command – “Turn on the lights”; your location – unlock the door, turn on the lights, open the garage door, and adjust the thermostat when I drive into the driveway; and time of day – turn down the heat, close the curtains, dim the lights, and lock the door at 7pm every evening.

What can I automate in my home?

Smart lighting

The easiest and most impactful place to start automating your home is with smart lighting. Lighting you control with your voice, on a schedule, or based on a door opening or closing is convenient, can save energy, and looks really cool. Smart lighting also brings tons of features to your home’s lighting scheme, without having to hire an electrician.

A smart bulb can be dimmed, have tuneable white light (go from cool white to warm white depending on whether you want to be energised or relax), and even throw in colour-changing options to really amp up the ambiance. Smart switches are another simple way to connect a whole room of existing lights, bringing dimming and scheduling features as well as voice and remote control. Finally, you can throw in a few smart plugs so that lovely lamp Aunt Iris gave you for Christmas in 1989 can enter the 21st Century unscathed. 

Smart locks

Using a phone to open a
A smart lock will allow you to unlock your door without a key, using your phone © Getty Images

A smart lock will transform the way you get into and out of your home, as well as making it much easier and more secure to let in visitors or service people like dog walkers or cleaners. You can ditch your keys – no more hiding it under the flowerpot – and instead use your phone, your fingerprint, or a code to get into your house.

You can also give this type of electronic access to others and revoke it when you no longer want them to visit (much less expensive than changing the locks). Smart locks can also connect with other devices in your home, such as lighting and heating, turning everything off when you leave and lock up, and then back on when you unlock the door and return home.

Smart heating

Intelligent control of your heating can save energy without the need for extra blankets. A smart thermostat knows when you’re home or away (by using presence sensors, geolocation of your and your family’s smartphones, and/or triggers from other devices such as your door lock) and can adjust by a few degrees to save energy automatically.

As well, a connected thermostat can communicate with other things in your home like door and window sensors, smart blinds, and local weather stations to know when to turn down the heat because there’s a window open, because the Sun is warming a room, or because the thermometer is going to hit 22°C this afternoon.

Smart Security

While most of us don’t already have our home’s kitted out with CCTV cameras, the smart home makes it much easier to keep eyes on things if you want, thanks to inexpensive, wireless Wi-Fi cameras.

These easy-to-install and simple-to-use devices can be put inside or outside your home to alert you to any problems through motion-activated recording and let you see a live or recorded video of your home on your smartphone.

Many can be set to only wake up and record if they spot a person, animal, vehicle or package, or can tell you about all and any activity in its view. They can be programmed to automatically turn off when you come home or during the day so you don’t inadvertently record yourself.

This type of surveillance is handy for security, as a deterrent to burglars, and as evidence if there is a break-in. But it also has many other uses, such as keeping an eye on your pets when you’re at the office or checking in on older children or elderly relatives who are home alone. Our favourite type of security camera is a video doorbell, this dual-purpose device acts like voicemail for your front door – as whoever visits can leave a video message when you’re out – and also helps keep tabs on the main entry point to your home.

Finally, smart security cameras work brilliantly with smart security systems, which you can again easily install yourself and monitor from your smartphone. Most also offer professional monitoring of your alarm system for a monthly fee, and when tied into security cameras can allow for visual verification when your alarm is triggered, potentially helping get the emergency services there more quickly.

Smart entertainment

Smart speakers and smart TVs are already pretty ubiquitous in our homes – in fact you literally cannot buy a ‘dumb’ TV anymore – and smart speakers from the likes of Amazon, Google, and now Apple, are so insanely cheap and do so much cool stuff it’s hard to find a reason not to get one.

From playing any song you can think of on demand with just a few words, to connecting to your smart TV so you can stop worrying about finding the remote and just tell your telly to put on EastEnders, smart speakers – and the digital assistants that power them – are the fire that is fuelling the current smart home explosion.

With the artificial intelligence of Alexa, Siri, and Google in them, your speaker can tell you the weather, set a kitchen timer, find you a recipe, read you the news, call a friend, and – crucially – control any connected smart home devices with just a few words from you.

What are the benefits of a smart home?

The main benefits of putting all these connected gadgets in your home are convenience, security, and energy savings.

Convenience

By automating many everyday chores, smart home devices can help your home run more smoothly. Robot vacuum cleaners can keep the floors clean, an automated “Good Morning” routine can start your coffee maker, turn your lights on, set the radio playing to your favourite station, even get your shower running for you as soon as your alarm goes off.

Security

Via your smart home’s connection to the internet, you can always know what’s going on in your home even if you’re not there. A smart security camera lets you see a live feed from your living room or backyard on your smartphone. Smart sensors can send an alert to your phone if there’s motion in your house or when a door opens. A smart door lock can tell you who arrived home and when (handy for keeping track of latchkey kids – plus no need to worry about them losing the keys).

Energy savings

A man turning on his heating on an app on his phone © Getty Images
Turn on the heating on your way home with a smart thermostat © Getty Images

While the smart thermostat may have started the second coming of the smart home with its promise of slashing your energy use thanks to smart algorithms, ultimately the smart home is all about efficiency.

Thanks to a connection to the internet, you can manage all your energy-consuming devices easily from your smart phone. Put high-use appliances on schedules so they run only when energy is cheap, manage each room in your home so it’s only bright and warm when in use, and monitor how much energy your home is using with smart plugs so you can see where to cut costs.

How does a smart home work?

A smart home relies on wireless communication. This is what makes it simple enough to install smart devices (no need to run wires through your walls) and advanced enough to do smart things such as turn all your lights off and turn the thermostat down when it senses no one is home.

There are a few different wireless radio protocols used in the smart home. Z-Wave, Zigbee, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, and the newer Thread protocol, are the most common. Each facilitate communication both between your smart home devices and out to the internet, more commonly called the Cloud.

While some smart home devices talk to each other locally using a hub with the relevant radios squeezed in, many rely on the Cloud for processing commands and storing data, such as video footage, and send that data to the Cloud using Wi-Fi.

Almost all devices need an app for setup and control, usually installed on a smart phone or tablet. The app is the main way you interact with the gadget, and set things like schedules, or connect it to your smart home ecosystem of choice so you can create Routines and Automations for all the smart things in your home.

How do I choose a smart home ecosystem?

While you can purchase a smart gadget like a robot vacuum or video doorbell and have it do its job all on its lonesome, a smart home sings when it’s got more than one gadget in it. But – and this is a big but – it’s important that your gadgets are compatible with each other so you can set up those handy Routines, awesome Automations, and create other cool, smart home interactions.

For this you need a smart home ecosystem – one place all your devices can connect to, where they can be controlled, programmed, and put together into useful Routines.

Currently, there are four mainstream smart home ecosystems: Apple’s HomeKit, Amazon’s Alexa, Google Home, and Samsung’s SmartThings. These can be easily set up and installed by even the most tech-challenged individual, although you can get professional installation for most devices.

If you already have a digital assistant in your home tied to one of these ecosystems, then that’s a good place to start. Another thing to consider is what you want your smart home to do most. Are you keen on lighting? Really just want smart control of your heating? Look for the device you’ll need to do that, find the ecosystem that supports it, and build out from there.

The good news is that the majority of devices work with more than one ecosystem, the hardware you need to control it (a hub or smart speaker) is relatively inexpensive, and the apps are all free. This means you can chop and change pretty easily and (if you’re feeling adventurous) even use more than one ecosystem at a time (some are actually designed to work together). This is thankfully, not a VHS versus Betamax scenario.

Here’s a quick run-down of some of the pros and cons of each smart home ecosystem.

Apple’s HomeKit

Pros

Apple’s HomeKit platform is the simplest, most reliable smart home ecosystem. It’s also very secure and a good option for those concerned about privacy and the smart home, as all data related to your home is processed locally and encrypted before being sent to the Cloud.

It works with all your Apple devices, so you can control your home with your iPhone, iPad, Mac computer, Apple Watch, and use Siri for voice control.

HomeKit uses Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, and recently Thread for its wireless communications.

Cons

There are far fewer devices compatible with HomeKit than with the other ecosystems, although the list is growing rapidly.

The Home app you use to control and set up HomeKit devices only works with an iPad or iPhone – you can’t use an Android device. You also need to buy an Apple hub to make the system work optimally, such as Apple TV or HomePod Mini – making this the most expensive option (no surprise there).

Amazon’s Alexa

Pros

Amazon’s Alexa smart home system is based around its eponymous AI voice assistant. It is the broadest, most compatible, least expensive smart home ecosystem – more devices work with Alexa than with any of the others. Now that the flagship Echo speaker has a Zigbee radio in it, alongside Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, it can work with even more devices like motion sensors and light bulbs.

Alexa itself is built into a multitude of smart speakers starting as low as £25, as well as smart displays, and even a smart thermostat and smart light switch. In short, it’s everywhere, making it really easy to set up a responsive, voice-controlled smart home. 

Cons

So many things “Work With Alexa” but not everything works well. It’s a very wide-open ecosystem that’s not tightly controlled, so you need to do your research before buying any device to make sure it works how you want it too. Alexa is also not easily accessed on a smartphone, unlike its two major competitors.

Google Home

Pros

Google Home is Google’s smart home ecosystem, and the name of the app you use to control it on your smartphone. Google Assistant is its digital assistant that lives in almost as many speakers and smart displays as Alexa does (but not quite) to use for voice control of your devices.

Google Assistant can also live natively on your Android smartphone or smartwatch, making it easy to summon its services wherever you are. The Google smart displays – Nest Hub and Nest Hub Max – also offer a touchscreen control panel for adjusting lights, thermostats locks and speakers when you don’t want to use voice.

Cons

Google is still behind in the number of smart home devices that work with it (but catching up fast) and, more crucially, in how it can control your home. Currently, you can only use voice commands, the location of your phone, or a schedule to automate your routines. It’s not possible to use sensors or other devices to trigger a routine, as you can with all of the other ecosystems.

It also doesn’t have support for Zigbee or Z-Wave, only Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and Thread.

Samsung SmartThings

Pros

One of the original smart home hubs, SmartThings works with the largest number of smart home devices, including nearly all Samsung electronics and appliances (TVs, washing machines, fridges). It’s also the only ecosystem here that can control Z-Wave devices, alongside Zigbee and Wi-Fi.

Z-Wave is a much lower-powered alternative to the other protocols, which means devices can be smaller because they don’t need big batteries. Z-Wave, like Zigbee, doesn’t need to talk to the Cloud at all, just to its hub, so can be more reliable and faster to respond.

SmartThings also supports Samsung’s Bixby voice assistant, however you can connect SmartThings to Alexa to combine the power of both ecosystems.

Cons

SmartThings is the most complicated system to use on our list, and Z-Wave and Zigbee devices in particular can be tricky to ‘pair’ to it. But this is partly because it is the most powerful system here, with the ability to do more complicated home automations.

How do I build my own smart home hub?

If you don’t like the idea of Big Tech nosing about in your home, you can build your own smart home hub using a Raspberry Pi and some open-source software like openHAB or Home Assistant to control your gadgets.

It won’t be as smooth an experience as using some of the commercial options and is strictly for the type who likes to build their own computer. But if that’s you, it’s a lot of fun, you can build it to fit your needs, and all your data stays with you.

How do I add voice control to my smart home?

Whichever system you choose (yes, even the Raspberry Pi option), it can be controlled with your voice, which is one of the main benefits of a smart home. When you hit the couch after dinner rather than having to get up and turn the lights off just say “Alexa, lights off.” Feeling chilly in bed at night? No need to get frosty toes on the way to the thermostat, just shout “Hey Siri, turn the heat up.” Need some music to set the mood? A quick “Hey Google, play my Focus Playlist from Spotify” and you’re away.

The best experience for voice control is with a smart speaker. Each voice assistant has its own selection of speakers – Alexa has the Echo, Google has the Nest line and Apple the HomePods. As we’ve mentioned, many of these speakers have radios for the various wireless protocols used in the smart home built-in, so by adding a speaker to your smart home, you’re not only getting voice control: you’re also adding capabilities to your setup.

You can also find the digital assistants in your smartphone, tablet, smart watches and in other smart speakers from companies like Bose and Sonos. Apple’s Siri is the only one that shows up in a computer (Mac only).

The key to using voice control in your smart home is to have a speaker in every room. Most are smart enough to know which room they’re in, so when you walk in you can say lights on and it will just turn on the connected bulbs in that room.

How do I connect it all together?

Once you have your smart home devices in situ, you’ll want to start setting up those Routines, Automation, and Scenes we’ve been talking about. How exactly you do this depends on which ecosystem you are in, but overall, they use similar solutions all set up in their respective apps.

First you choose your trigger – what will cause the automation to happen. This could be location (you arrive home), a time of day (either an exact hour or sunrise or sunset), or something happening (a door opening or a light being turned on).

Next, you choose when it will happen – everyday, just on weekends, just when you are home or just when you are away. This is also known as a “condition” and in some ecosystems you can set multiple conditions – such as “when I am home and it’s a Wednesday and it’s raining and the alarm is set”.

Then you choose what will happen. It could be a camera turning on, a door unlocking, a thermostat adjusting or lights turning on – or all of the above at once. In some systems you can set up a Scene – a pre-set collection of actions – to be triggered. Scenes can also be turned on by pressing a button in an app or using a voice command – such as A Movie Scene that dims the light, turns up the heat and starts Netflix on the TV.

Some good automations to start with are setting up a Goodbye Routine, a Welcome Home Routine, a Goodnight Routine and a Good Morning Routine, each of which can be customised to your needs and based on what devices you have and which ecosystem you are using.

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The beauty of the smart home is that it is designed to work for you to make your life easier, more comfortable, more secure, and a little bit more fun.