Make Your Home Smart: A Beginner’s Guide

The holidays are over and you’re sporting a brand-new gadget. Let me guess, an Amazon Echo? Perhaps a Google Home? Maybe even an Apple TV.

All these devices are great on their own, but you noticed these Digital Assistants (DAs) can do a lot more than just set timers, tell you the weather, or imitate blue whale sounds. So where do you go from here if you want to control parts of your home with your new DA? Take a look at the sections below that interest you the most. There are always dozens of options in each category (too many for me to list), but typically just one or two that will suit your current needs the best. I’ll go over what I believe to be the most prominent and noteworthy devices.

Smart Lighting

Lighting is usually everyone’s first stop when it comes to making their homes smarter. It can be one of the easiest things to set up and depending on the size of your home/apartment, a moderately priced smart home upgrade. Here are some options to help get you started:

  • Philips Hue has one of the easiest setups. Plug their lights into existing sockets, sync them to a Hue hub, give them a name, and you’re done. Of course, you can set up scenes for specific purposes and times too.
  • Lutron Caseta is the answer to making your switches smart, or at least one of the answers. From one app you will be able to control switches and dimmers from anywhere and set up routines and scenes. Like the Hue solution, the Caseta is available as a starter kit with a hub. The Caseta has some notable features, mainly that it can make several lights smart with one ~$40 switch as compared to Hue’s $40 bulb approach. You are, however, going to have to brave wiring it.

Philips Hue has probably the highest number of integrations of any smart home lighting product, which means they will work with any of your new DAs, as well as your smart phone’s voice assistant. However, because you will likely want to replace every bulb in your home, a bulb based solution can get expensive. Bulbs range from $20 all the way to $50.

Philips Hue Smart Light

If you’ve wired a switch before, there isn’t anything new to the Caseta and you will be fine. Just remember before you go down this route to check and make sure a neutral wire is available in all the locations you wish to install them, as they will require it. Like the Hue, the Caseta hub is compatible out of the box with several smart home assistants, including Echo and Siri. As of 2017 the Caseta Hub will be supported in Smart Things. The individual Lutron switches are capable of being controlled by the Wink hub without use the Caseta Hub.

Lutron Caseta Smart Switch

You can always mix and match products as long as their communication method is compatible your Smart Home hub.

While Philips Hue will play nice with most other Smart Home hubs, the Caseta doesn’t yet, but will sometime in 2017. If you see automation in your future, Lutron’s Caseta is soon shaping up to be a good solution too. Or you can always stick with something that has Z-Wave or a Zigbee wireless network. These are the most prevalent communication types and work with a majority of the Smart Home hubs.

Devices like Aeontec’s Micro Switches and dimmers hide behind your current switches and make them smart while also monitoring energy use. These can be mixed with GE in wall switches or anyother Zigbee/Z-Wave devices to control outlets and lights throughout your home, assuming you have a hub to control them with. More on that later.

WeMo will also be launching some new in wall switches (and outlets) later this year. WeMo devices uses your existing 2.4GHz wireless network to communicate. The one huge advantage of WeMo switches is that they do not require a SmartHub and can communicate directly with Home Assistants such as Alexa, Siri, and Google Home. These are a great option for anyone looking to keep things simple. However, if you choose they can also be paired with some Smart Hubs.

Smart Thermostats

There are only three primary contenders in this category for consumer models. The Nest, Ecobee, and Lyric. None of them are bad options.

Nest is likely to be the smartest on its own. It quite literally learns your schedule and adapts to when you’re gone and home. It does, however, lack some of the more obvious integrations with Smart Home hubs as well as a majority of the Digital Assistants, with the exception of Amazon Echo.

Nest Smart Thermostat

If you’re looking to bring your Thermostat fully into your Smart Home then it might be wise to consider the Ecobee. While it will not learn your schedule like the Nest will, it can take queues from all of your other smart products about what to do and when. Ecobee is compatible with most Smart Home hubs and digital assistants. One great feature of the Ecobee is that it comes with a wireless motion sensor that can be placed in another room in your home. This is great for larger/multifloor homes where you may not always walk by your thermostat. This gives the device two points to draw information from. The others are limited to the room they are mounted in.

Ecobee Smart Thermostat

Honeywell’s Lyric is another suitable option to integrate into your Smart Home. It, like the Ecobee, has a variety of compatibilities that will make likely to work with many of the products you already own. The Ecobee and Lyric can trade blows all day when it comes to features, so choose the one that suits your tastes.

Honeywell Lyric Smart Thermostat

Smart Hubs

This is where the magic happens. This is the thing that connects everything to everything else. When you ask Alexa to dim the lights, she is probably going to end up communicating with a Smart Hub. In a similar fashion when everyone leaves your house your Smart Hub can tell your thermostat the house is empty and to back off the heating/cooling.

Picking a Smart Hub is difficult if you don’t know exactly what you want out of it. The two major players in the consumer market are Wink and SmartThings. Insteon does make a hub, but that is a proprietary ecosystem, so you’re stuck using their products for everything.

SmartThings has built some awesome integrations with Amazon’s Echo, which means if the device is available for your SmartThings hub to control, it’s only a whisper a way from being controlled with your voice too. The same can be said for Google Home as well. SmartThings also is one of the most compatible hubs out there. It can communicate with both Zigbee and Z-Wave devices, will play nice with Philips Hue (you need the Hue Hub still), and its potential for automating is typically only limited by your imagination, especially when combined with IFTTT (If This Then That, is a website to help with automation). A Starter SmartThings kit comes with some nifty devices. The motion sensory can be used to turn on lights when it detects motion, and then shut them off when it’s gone. Door sensors can send you alerts when things are opened and double as temperature sensors.

SmartThings Smart Hub

The Wink Hub is another option. They have a very similar compatibility list at the end of the day. Wink does have some nicer looking branded devices such as their in-wall relay controller, which is just like a smartphone screen mounted to your wall for controlling your Smart Home. Google Home users may want to look elsewhere though, as this hub isn’t compatible just yet.

Wink Smart Hub

One of the easiest ways to shop for a hub is by figuring out which one will be compatible with everything you want or already have.

Smart Entertainment

This section is becoming increasingly popular. However, you will likely need another Hub in addition to any that you have already accumulated. That is, unless you have a Google Home and one of its compatible devices. Google Home can queue up YouTube and Netflix videos right to your chrome cast. If that’s not in the works, you will need to take a look at the only real option out there.

Logitech’s Harmony Hub is capable of taking voice commands from Alexa and accommodating your requests by turning on the required devices and even launching the involved apps on compatible devices (Roku and Apple TVs). While this Hub has an extensive ability to control virtually any electronic device in your home theater system, it is mired by a complicated setup process. However, like many Smart Home devices, once you do get it setup to your liking, you probably won’t be finding yourself changing it much.

Logitech Harmony Hub

Smart Speakers

Oddly enough this is one of the most difficult to accomplish. Almost every option is proprietary. Google Chromecast, Apple AirPlay and Sonos are all great options but are immediately limited by the devices you intend to pair to the speakers. While Chromecast will work great with your Google Home, it may not play so nice with Alexa or Siri.

Sonos Smart Speaker

Sonos is likely your best bet from a purely sound standpoint. While their speakers and receivers are expensive, their ecosystem is becoming vast. Future integrations have the speakers working side by side with Amazon’s Echo. Recent updates have even shown a tiny indication of playing nice with Apple’s AirPlay. Sonos already works with a variety of SmartHubs such as SmartThings, which opens up another world of options.

Jason is a self confessed technology addict and chief content writer here at smart homed. After spending years testing and reviewing smart home gadgets, Jason has established himself as a leading expert in home automation.

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