Confused by smart home tech and unsure how to begin your adventures in home automation? Our complete guide will help you get started
Just how ‘smart’ is your home? You have broadband, right? Wi-Fi? Maybe you already watch BBC iPlayer or stream Orange Is The New Black on Netflix? You might own a tablet too, listen to your favourite music on Spotify and play games on a net-connected console.
Any of this is a good start. But your home can be so much smarter.
- What is Apple Homekit?
- Smart hubs made easy
- What is Amazon Echo?
- Samsung SmartThings – is it any good?
Imagine lights that switch on when you walk into the room; a security camera that notifies you if it detects movement when you’re out; a smart heating system that you can control over the Internet; and a front door that you can unlock just by walking up to it.
How about a device that tells you when your plants need watering; an audio system that plays music in every room; or a tabletop personal digital assistant that can answer your questions and remind you of important calendar events?
These connected technologies might sound like the stuff of science fiction or available to only very high end buyers, but they are all available today, to anyone with a broadband connection, at increasingly affordable prices. Between them, they paint a picture of what a smart home (aka digital home, connected home or smart house) might look like, a home that can help you improve your security or save time through automation.
The good news is that it’s easier (and cheaper) than ever before to build one.
You’ll need broadband, of course. An always-on Internet connection, a phone or tablet, and a Wi-Fi router are the core components of any smart house, into which you’ll be able to integrate hubs and sensors, smart plugs and security cameras, not to mention wireless speakers, boiler controllers, smart light bulbs, door locks, plus all manner of connected appliances and gadgets.
Sound daunting? Let’s run through a few potential projects to illustrate explain everything we’ve just talked about.
1. Improve your home entertainment system
The television is still the centre of most people’s home entertainment systems and it’s getting smarter all the time. The newest Ultra HD TVs are now 4K-compatible, capable of displaying content in a resolution that’s four times more detailed than current high-def sets. Hook a smart telly up to the Internet (via cable or Wi-Fi) and you can enjoy catch-up TV services like BBC iPlayer or download apps like Amazon Instant Video, YouTube and Netflix.
That’s not to say that you can’t make your existing TV smarter. Alongside traditional set-top boxes from the likes of Sky, BT, Talk Talk and Virgin Media, you can add smart TV apps and digital catch-up services to your gogglebox with cheap Fire TV, Chromecast and Roku streaming sticks. The Xbox One and PlayStation 4 consoles also have a similar array of entertainment apps, opening up a world of on-demand TV shows and pay-per-view movies.
In a smart home, you can increasingly watch what you want, when you want and on whatever device you want.
But it’s not all about video. Music is smarter too.
Rather than a standalone hi-fi and a physical album collection, our music listening is increasingly mobile and digital. Multi-room audio systems allow you to enjoy your favourite tracks piped throughout your home via wireless speakers, song choices effortlessly controlled by an app on your tablet, smartphone or computer. These streaming music products will give you a decent start.
2. Beef up your home security
A smart home can be more secure home. Not only that, with the right systems in place, a smart home will be able to warn you if anything is wrong.
Wireless security cameras can be plugged in anywhere, enabling you to watch your home (day and night) via your smartphone. They will typically alert you to any movement they detect, recording a video clip and/or capturing a photo for you to view later. If you can’t afford an £800 burglar alarm, a £150 smart camera can be a decent alternative.
Battery-powered smart sensors allow you to add another layer of reporting to a home, with notifications pinged to your smartphone and email inbox when certain conditions are met.
Infrared motion sensors will track movement, perhaps switching a light on or sounding a siren; door/windows sensors will tell you whether you’ve left anything open (or if somebody tries to break in); while smart smoke alarms will sniff out the signs of a fire and connected moisture sensors will warn you of potentially catastrophic water leaks.
Wireless smart locks are also starting to appear, enabling you to ditch your house keys in favour of PIN pads and fingerprint sensors. Some use digital keys that are stored securely on your smartphone — all you need to do is walk up to a smart locked door and wait for it to wirelessly connect with your mobile and recognise your key.
Not only can a smart lock open for you, but it can be configured to open for whoever you grant an access key to – your kids, other family members, that kind lady over the road who feeds your cats while you’re away. And you can always check which keys are used and when. Some locks will also send you smartphone notifications, so you always know who’s coming and going.
The technology works. It’s just a question of whether you trust it.
3. Save time (and effort) by automating your home
Home automation is right at the heart of the whole smart home idea. At one end of the smart home scale, you have expensive lighting and HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) systems from the likes of Crestron and Lutron. Installs using their technology can often cost thousands of pounds.
At the cheaper end of the scale, there are now some clever wireless equivalents. Smart thermostats like Nest or Hive enable you to control your heating using your smartphone or via the web. While traditional heating timers switch your boiler on and off at preset times, smart thermostats learn how you heat your home. This allows them to turn up the heating when you’re at home and lower the temperature when you’re not.
Philips, meanwhile, offers a glimpse of how easy it is to control your lighting. The Hue range started with Wi-Fi-enabled bayonet and screw cap bulbs that you could control via your smartphone or tablet. It has since evolved to encompass more modern GU10 halogen lights, LED lighting strips, table lamps, plus ceiling and wall lights.
Using the Hue app, you can switch bulbs on and off, dim them, set timers, even automatically activate them when you get home. No rewiring required.
Last, but by no means least, by adding smart plugs to your home you can control non-smart objects in smart ways. Plug a smart plug into a mains socket and it will control the flow of electricity to whatever is plugged into it — a heater, a lamp, a fan, etc — allowing you to switch them on/off via a smartphone app or using a web browser.
With a smart plug plugged into a lamp, you can set a timer schedule to make it look like someone’s at home when you’re out. Or use them to make certain that power-hungry appliances are safely switched off, saving you energy. Again, smart home technology is about giving you more control.
4. Upgrade to an Internet-connected appliance
What is a connected appliance? Simply put, it’s any device or gadget that’s capable of connecting to the Internet. An smartphone-operated iKettle rather than a kettle. A WeMo Wi-Fi Crock-Pot (that you can check on remotely) instead of a dumb slow cooker.
Any device or appliance could get Wi-Fi connectivity in the future. Smart ovens with integrated cameras will let you keep an eye on your food as it cooks. Smart fridges will track the sell-by dates of your food and offer up recipe ideas. Smart scales will ultimately be able to recognise the ingredients you place on them, offering up estimated calorie counts in addition to weight. Smart vacuums will merrily clean your floors for you when you are away at work.
In a smart garden, soil sensors will monitor ground conditions, factoring in local weather and working with smart sprinklers to keep the growing conditions close to perfect. Robo-mowers will keep the grass evenly cut, while electric bikes will be safe inside outdoor storage boxes, secured with key-less Bluetooth padlocks.
Any home gadget is a candidate for becoming smart, but some will prove more effective than others – connecting a toaster to the Internet, for example, doesn’t seem to have an obvious benefit. You won’t need to worry about compatibility either. Most of the connected devices you’ll encounter come with their own apps.
- Read our complete guide to robot vacuums
- And read our complete guide to smart appliances and kitchen
5. Try out a smart home system
Connected smart home ‘systems’ like Apple HomeKit, Belkin WeMo and Samsung SmartThings are starting to appear. These combine connected gadgets we’ve already covered here — like smart plugs, cameras and sensors — into a single mobile app, making them easier to control. In some cases, devices in the same system can also be linked together, so you can have a motion sensor trigger a lamp or sound a siren.
- Samsung SmartThings offers the quickest and easiest route into smart home automation. Plug in the SmartThings Hub and you can add motion sensors, smaller multi sensors (to monitor whether doors and windows are open/shut), smart plugs (to switch appliances on/off), presence sensors (to alert you when those who carry it arrive and leave the home) and moisture sensors (to alert you if there’s a water leak).
- All of these devices are controlled by the SmartThings app. To fill product gaps in the SmartThings line-up, the system also works with Philips Hue (allowing you to control your lights), D-Link (to add web-connected home security cameras), Honeywell (to control your heating), Yale (for smart door locks) and other smart home-friendly brands.
- Belkin’s WeMo smart home automation ecosystem has been around for some time. While it isn’t as comprehensive as Samsung SmartThings, it offers Wi-Fi smart plugs (for controlling appliances), networked light bulbs (for remote/automatic lighting) and NetCam Wi-Fi cameras (for home security and monitoring). All of these devices are controlled via the dedicated WeMo app.
- Again, the appeal of the WeMo system is that it’s easy to install and easy to add to. You can start with a single WeMo Switch (controlling, say, a lamp) and grow the system from there. Belkin also sells a motion sensor option, enabling appliances to be switched on when movement is detected, e.g. when somebody enters a room.
- Apple: unlike the other manufacturers here, Apple doesn’t make its own smart home devices. Instead, HomeKit is designed to orchestrate other home automation devices and make them work together using Siri voice control and location-based activation.
- The advantage of such a system is that different devices can be linked to single commands or ‘scenes’. So rather than turning all of the lights off, locking the doors and turning off the heating when you go out, you can action all of these commands simultaneously.
- Panasonic’s Smart Home monitoring and control system is Panasonic’s answer to Samsung’s SmartThings platform, offering easy-to-use automation that’s easy to install. At the heart of the system sits the Panasonic Smart Hub, a router-like box that manages and communicates with Panasonic’s various Smart Home devices.
- These devices include smart home indoor and outdoor cameras (with motion detection), smart plugs, motion sensors, door and window sensors and an indoor siren. They connect to the Hub using DECT Ultra Low Energy (ULE) wireless signals and, unless you’re a Windows Phone owner, you can control them all via the Panasonic Home Network System app.
- D-Link’s mydlink Home offerings, meanwhile, fall into three categories — Music Everywhere, Home Automation and Home Security. Music Everywhere is a smart plug that lets you stream all your music from any smart device or computer to any connected speaker.
- The Music Everywhere gadget plugs (literally) into the company’s Home Automation line-up — the Connected Home Hub, door/window sensors, motion sensors, a Home Siren and Home Monitor web cameras. Like the other systems mentioned here, you can control it via a smartphone or tablet using the mydlink Home app for iOS and Android.
6. Mix smart home gadgets to get what you want
The most important thing to remember is that, while smart home technology is capable of some wonderful things, it doesn’t always work together. Samsung’s product line-up won’t communicate with Panasonic’s smart home gear; while standalone connected gadgets don’t usually share their data with any other devices.
That’s not to say you can’t mix and match your smart gadgets. Remember the examples from the start of this article? This is how you can create those effects.
- “Imagine lights that switch on when you walk into the room” — Combine a Samsung SmartThings Motion Sensor with a lamp plugged into a Samsung SmartThings Power Outlet.
- “A security camera that notifies you if it detects movement when you’re out” — Plug in a Netatmo Welcome Smart Home Camera to keep an eye on your home. It even features facial recognition software to identify family members and warn of strangers.
- “A smart heating system that you can control over the Internet” — Install a Nest Thermostat and a wireless boiler controller to automatically schedule your heating.
- “A front door that you can unlock just by walking up to it” — The August Smart Lock uses digital keys on your smartphone, connecting wirelessly over Bluetooth.
For everything else, there’s IFTTT, a means of making ostensibly incompatible devices work together.
Some of this smart home technology (e.g. the boiler controller for a Nest Thermostat) needs to be professionally installed. But most can simply be plugged into a mains socket — no technical knowledge required. Installing a smart lightbulb is as easy as changing a regular lightbulb. While many smart security cameras are designed to stand on shelves and mantelpieces, not be wired into your walls.
With broadband in every home, cheaper technology and speedy wireless networking, the smart home is now available to everyone. The question is: what do you need it to do? Answer that question first and then read our in-depth guides to find the best way to make it a reality.
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