Making Sense of Your First Smart Home: How to “Level Up” with Home Automation

On the surface, a smart home sounds great: automating annoying, repetitive tasks around the home? Saving money, electricity and improving efficiency? Sign us up!

In reality, though, building your first smart home can be a pretty overwhelming challenge—especially if you don’t eat, sleep and breath technology. If you’re hoping purchase more than one device, you’ll need to make sure they’ll all play nice with each other and with your current smartphone, TV and other networked appliances. You’ll also want to make sure that the items you purchase are easy to use and actually fulfill all the functions you need them to. Today we’re here to take the guesswork out of the whole process and give you some ideas for how to get project smart home off the ground.

woman controlling smart TV with phone

Team Google Assistant or Team Alexa?

Before you can turn off lights with your voice, you’ll need to pick your poison, specifically whether or not you fall into Camp Google or Camp Amazon. There are other voice assistants out there, most notably Apple’s Siri and Microsoft’s Cortana, but at this point in time, Google and Amazon are well ahead of them in terms of device integrations. So if you’re really loyal to Siri or Cortana, you may want to wait and see how the whole smart home thing shakes out.

Amazon definitely leads the pack, both in the number of compatible accessories and their share of the market. But Google’s assistant has come a long way in the past two years, and has been steadily narrowing the gap between the two.

In general, Amazon makes the best choice for a non-techie—if you just want to get your system up and running fast. It might also be your first pick if you find yourself turning to Prime for everything. Amazon recently integrating Prime purchases into their Echo and Echo Dot devices (the speakers that power Alexa) and even features special sales for Alexa users.

Google, on the other hand, has one of the highest success rates for correct responses, so it’s a better choice if you want to make commands seamless and frustration-free. It also works with your existing Google applications, so if you use Google Mail or Google Calendar, you’ll be able to check your email and manage your schedule directly through your Google Home device. However, users report that the app access isn’t as useful as you’d probably like it to be: for instance, while you can check your calendar through the device, you won’t be able to add new events unless you jump on your phone or your laptop. So point, Amazon.

The Accessories: What You Can Do With Your Devices

Next it’s a matter of researching devices and seeing which ones fit your needs and are compatible with your assistant. Here are a couple of items around the home you can automate with smart products.

  • Heating and Cooling

    Smart thermostats allow you to program your heat and AC, a proven energy-saving technique that can have a significant impact on your utility bills. Many have built-in machine learning features that track your habits and automatically generate a schedule that makes sense for your household needs—while keeping your units efficient. The most popular devices include the Nest, the Ecobee and the Honeywell Lyric.

  • Lighting

    There are several ways to manipulate lighting controls, but one of the more popular routes is simply to install WiFi-enabled light bulbs, since it doesn’t require any additional electrical work or wiring. For these, the Philips Hue is overwhelmingly the top choice. However, another option is to install smart light switches. Philips makes one of these too, complete with a dimmer feature, as does Lutron and Belkin. For lamps, try a wall outlet switch, like the Belkin WeMo Insight Switch. Once you install the switch or bulb, you’ll have to ask Alexa or Google to look for new devices, then name them as “lights” or “living room lights.” Then you’ll be able to turn your lights on and off with voice command.

  • Controlling Appliances

    Outlet switches are also useful if you want to turn important devices off an on, like your existing oven or TV. However, you won’t be able to manage more advanced functionality, this way, so no “Alexa, turn oven to preheat” for instance.

  • Security

    This is one of the most powerful features for your smart home. Smart locks, alarms, security cameras, smoke and carbon monoxide detectors and sensors can help you keep your home protected, even when you’re miles away. Security systems come in two flavors: DIY and professionally managed. DIY security can automatically lock doors—and alert you if an alarm is triggered—but can’t get you on the line with a security professional in the event of an emergency. Of course, generally, these services are much more expensive, with a monthly or yearly payment commitment in exchange for installation, support and emergency services.

Of course, there are lots of other devices too, meant for more niche tastes and interests. And with new smart products released every day, you’ll find plenty of ways to get your new, connected home started. Now, don’t you look smart?

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