Smart Home

We asked our tech expert how to build a smart home

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Smart home technology isn’t exactly new, but it did take a while to become truly mainstream. Now more than ever, there’s a wide variety of smart home products that are reliable, easy to use and, in many cases, compatible with different smart hubs and voice assistants.

To get a firm grasp on the best way to turn your home into a smart one, we sat down with technology expert Jaime Vazquez for tips on all kinds of setups, from simple lighting and security add-ons in small apartments to extensive permanent installations in family homes.

First priority: lighting

You can go one of two routes for smart lighting. Smart bulbs from big names such as TP-Link Kasa and lesser-known, budget-oriented companies including Govee have the advantage of customizable color and warmth, although there are some great simple dimmable bulbs available as well.

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The disadvantage of using smart bulbs is that they will eventually burn out. Instead of bulbs, TP-Link also offers smart switches and smart plugs that add automated wireless control to any room or outlet. If you’re not willing or able to install electrical components, the Wemo V3 smart plug is another excellent choice.

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Vazquez recommends you start with a distinct plan for what you want out of your lighting. You probably only need one smart bulb in each room. Make a clear list of how you want to control your lights, what rooms need certain capabilities (smart dimmers in bedrooms, for example) and then shop based on your real-world needs.

Try to stick to one brand of smart home products

If you like to control everything using a voice assistant, then it can be easy to integrate multiple brands. If you like to use the powerful custom apps that some brands offer, though, make sure to stick with smart devices from that one brand. As Vazquez notes, “It can be a real pain to integrate a smart home while thinking, ‘oh, my bedroom lights are from GE, but the bedroom lights are WeMo and the bathroom is all from TP-Link.’”

Apple users: take note of Siri’s limitations

Unlike the most widely compatible Google and Alexa assistants, dedicated fans of the Apple ecosystem need to make sure their smart home hub works perfectly with Siri for the smoothest operation.

The Hoobs Home Wi-Fi Connector is one of the most dependable smart home hubs. It offers in-depth programming capabilities, a powerful web-based control scheme and cross-platform compatibility in case not every member of your home uses an iPhone. After closely evaluating it, our tech expert agrees that it’s the most versatile choice for Apple users as there’s pretty much nothing it can’t communicate with.

Alternatively, if you’re comfortable with DIY tech, you can consider building your own Homebridge smart hub using a Raspberry Pi 4 single-board computer.

Don’t forget about music

For the most streamlined music setup (and the ability to utilize whole-home audio), make sure that all your smart speakers are part of the same platform. If you prefer the Google smart home ecosystem, invest in some Google Nest Audio speakers or the more compact Google Nest Mini . Amazon’s offerings are arguably a bit better, with the Amazon Echo Studio smart speaker delivering some of the best audio fidelity on the smart home market, according to Vazquez.

It’s all about making your life easier

Ask yourself which electronics and areas of your home life you deal with frequently enough to bother automating. For example, if you’re one of the many to experience package theft on your front porch, a Ring video doorbell can be a game-changer. If you’re renting or just don’t want to put a new hole in your doorway, there are some great wireless video doorbells worth considering.

Smart locks can make opening doors easy if you’re carrying armloads of groceries or need to let a guest in while you’re away. You can set them to automatically secure your home at a certain time every night and some models can be installed on top of traditional locks for added convenience. Smart locks aren’t perfect, though: There are chances of errors during operation and possible hacking, although the technology is advancing quickly and does a good job of mitigating both. Smart locks can also be touchy for families with young kids, due to management and access issues.

One of the best models is the Level Keyless Entry : “Level’s smart locks are my favorite because they don’t look like smart locks (which are often bulky, gaudy or both). This one has the advantage of working with Apple Homekit, and the upgraded model has a fingerprint reader,” according to Vasquez.

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Other suggestions for parts of your home to integrate include smart garage door openers and Smart TVs compatible with Alexa. Also check appliances like your washer and dryer to see if they’re compatible with smart home hubs.

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Smart thermostats

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Generally reserved for homeowners, smart thermostats can not only make your life easier but also help to cut down on wasted energy and save you money on bills. While they were once a little tough to install and configure, they’re getting better and better. The Ecobee 4 is one of the best on the market, though you may prefer the Ecobee 3 Lite if you don’t need or want Alexa voice control. The Honeywell Home Smart Thermostat is another top choice that, while not as aesthetically pleasing, offers tons of functionality.

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You might be OK with installing a smart thermostat if you’re handy, but it’s recommended to work with a professional. Keep in mind that some setups are even eligible for rebates from the energy company, but experts including our own agree that you shouldn’t sign up for any services that give the gas company access to changing your thermostat.

Take advantage of routines, scenes and programming

The best way to get the most out of your setup is to automate your most common tasks and adjustments. Vazquez explains, “When you get home you can say, ‘Siri, we’re home,’ and have lights turned on to a specific brightness, music start playing and the voice assistant offer a greeting, and that’s a fun automation to build. You can build another routine that detects when you’re 10 feet away from your garage door and opens the garage door, unlocks the door to the house, activates the fireplace and turns on the lights.

“When I was on the Alexa platform, I used to walk into our home theater and say, ‘Alexa, TV time,’ and she would dim the lights, turn on the TV and then play the Star Trek noise of the engines booting up. Then she would say, ‘Alright, let’s do this,’ and it’s things like that that really set the mood and add to the convenience.”

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Govee Smart Bulbs

They’re color-changing, reasonably priced and compatible with both Alexa and Google Assistant.

Sold by: Amazon

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TP-Link Smart Bulb

It’s highly reliable and has an above-average lifespan.

Sold by: Amazon

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WeMo Smart Plug

This compact plug can turn just about any small appliance into a simple smart appliance.

Sold by: Amazon

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Hoobs WiFi Connector

It’s the perfect bridge between your iPhone or iPad and nearly any smart home device on the market.

Sold by: Amazon

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CanaKit Raspberry Pi Extreme

If you want to build and program your own smart home controller, start with this versatile DIY single-board computer.

Sold by: Amazon

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Google Nest Smart Speaker

In addition to convenient voice control, it offers surprisingly good sound quality for its size and price.

Sold by: Home Depot

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Amazon Echo Studio

While costly, the Echo makes music sound better than nearly any other smart speaker and there’s an optional matching subwoofer.

Sold by: Amazon

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Ring Video Doorbell Pro

It’s one of the most advanced smart doorbells as well as one of the easiest to use.

Sold by: Amazon

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Level Smart Lock

This versatile keyless entry system adds wireless functionality without the bulk or unusual design of its competitors.

Sold by: Amazon

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Ecobee 4 Smart Thermostat

As one of the most comprehensive models, it can add convenience and help save energy.

Sold by: Amazon

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Honeywell Home Smart Thermostat

This one offers some of the most in-depth home climate control possible and lets you set schedules and custom-programmed routines.

Sold by: Amazon

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Donovan Larsen

Donovan is a columnist and associate editor at the Dark News. He has written on everything from the politics to diversity issues in the workplace.

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