What if all the devices in your life could connect to the Internet? Not just computers and smartphones, but everything: clocks, garage doors, speakers, lights, doors, windows, window blinds, door bells, hot water heaters, appliances, you name it. And what if those devices could all communicate, send you information, and take your commands? It’s not science fiction; it’s the Internet of Things (IoT), and it’s a key component of home automation.
Home automation is what it sounds like: automating the ability to control items around the house—from window shades to pet feeders—with a simple push of a button (or a voice command). Some activities, like setting up a lamp to turn on and off at your whim, are simple and relatively inexpensive. Others, like advanced surveillance cameras, may require a more serious investment of time and money.
Still, imagine monitoring your home using an interface on your computer, tablet, or smartphone, or even panels mounted around the house. It’s like going from using the Clapper to beaming up to the U.S.S. Enterprise.
Home automation is going mainstream. Your house is going to get smart, no matter what. Get in on the ground floor and become the family home automation expert. Here’s how to get started.
Before you buy a bunch of home-automation products, it helps to understand the technologies involved in setting up and using them. These products use many different communication protocols. Some are wired, some wireless, and some are a combination. Try to stick with one protocol when buying products, or get a hub/gateway that supports multiple protocols.
This granddaddy of home automation protocols dates back to the 1970s and has gone from power line-based to wireless. X10 is not known for robust speed or great communication between units on the home automation network. It is, however, typically inexpensive.
ZigBee is a wireless 802 standard from the IEEE, which is to say, a bunch of gearheads came up with it before an outside group (the ZigBee Alliance) made up of vendors created products that use it. One of the key elements in IEEE 802.15.4 (its real name) is that it makes a mesh network so that most of the devices communicate equally. It’s also very low power. (You may also hear about Thread, a new wireless protocol that uses the same radio chips and frequency at ZigBee, and connects up to 250 devices in a home to the cloud.)
Another wireless home automation protocol, Z-Wave is owned by one company, Sigma Designs, which makes all the chips for other vendors to make Z-Wave-capable products, known as the Z-Wave Alliance.
This may be the best of all protocols because it combines a wired power line-based protocol with wireless. Both work as a mesh; all nodes on an Insteon home automation network are peers that can communicate when in proximity. If one fails, the other mesh can take over. You can buy Insteon devices at Smarthome.com, which is run by SmartLabs, the developers of Insteon. It’s compatible with X10.
This is the networking protocol we’re all used to for sharing an Internet connection among laptops, game consoles, and so much more. It’s super-fast and ubiquitous. So, of course, it’s inevitable that some vendors would make home automation products to take advantage of it. The other protocols use less power and bandwidth but Wi-Fi’s reach can’t be understated, even if it is overkill to use it to turn a lamp on and off.
A staple of every PC, smartphone, and tablet, Bluetooth is better known for connecting items at a short range like keyboards, mice, headphones, and earbuds. But a lot of new products use the Bluetooth 4.0, aka Bluetooth Low Energy, aka Bluetooth Smart. It doesn’t require purposeful re-connection all the time, making it a good solution for select IoT items.
Top-Rated Home Automation Products
Just as there are many home automation protocols, there are many product categories, so you can control everything from lights and temperature to locks and security in your home. Here’s a quick rundown of our favorites.
Samsung SmartThings Hub
Our current Editors’ Choice for home automation hubs, the Samsung SmartThings Hub$99.00 at Amazon box works with devices that use Z-Wave, Zigbee, Bluetooth, and Wi-Fi. It got major improvements after Samsung bought SmartThings, including support for video surveillance cameras. Get it as a standalone box or as a $249 starter kit with monitors for temperature and vibration. There are 200 products that work with SmartThings.
Icontrol Networks Piper nv
Piper nv$272.98 at Amazon is surveillance camera you can watch remotely from an iOS or Android device, perfect for keeping an eye on the house, the pets, even as a baby monitor. But it’s a lot more than that. It’s also a Z-Wave controller, monitoring all sorts of sensors to give you household control no matter where you are. The camera is excellent, with pan, tilt, and zoom functions plus sharp night vision and two-way audio.
Is this Bluetooth speaker really all that when it comes to home automation or controls? It can be, and will only get better. Echo$179.99 at Amazon, Amazon’s voice-controlled audio concierge, pair with Web automation service IFTTT to control home devices like a thermostat or lights, via recipes you can create yourself. It might take a little work, but soon your house could be entirely controlled by the sound of your voice.
Logitech Harmony Ultimate Home
Don’t like talking and prefer to push buttons? Our review calls the Logitech Harmony Ultimate Home$215.99 at Amazon the “ultimate universal remote” for a reason. It controls a lot more than just TV and stereo. The pricey unit connects with the included Harmony Home Hub that talks via Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, or infrared (you pay a little more to add ZigBee and Z-Wave connectivity).
Heating and Cooling
Nest Learning Thermostat
The Nest Learning Thermostat $195.99 at Amazon is like a piece of digital art that controls your temperature. It was, after all, designed by the guys who created the iPod. It has built-in Wi-Fi so you can remotely control the temperature from phone, tablet, or PC. It’s not cheap, but Nest will look right at home in any smart house. Plus, Nest Labs (owned by Alphabet, parent company of Google), also makes networkable smoke and carbon monoxide (CO) detectors$99.99 at Best Buy that talk to you rather than blare alarms.
Ecobee3 Smart WiFi Thermostat
Nice as the Nest is, it’s not our top pick. The Editors’ Choice goes to theEcobee3$249.00 at Amazon. It’s a stylish device you can control remotely. Best of all, it’s not dependent on just monitoring home temperature from one spot—it checks multiple sensors in multiple rooms.
Philips Hue Connected Bulb
Want complete wireless supremacy over the lights in your home? Philips Hue $154.99 at Amazon delivers with bulbs that you control not only the intensity of the light, but also the color. It’s expensive to be sure, but the Hue ecosystem has been around long enough that it works with just about every other system out there, from Amazon Echo to IFTTT (If This Then That) to Siri (using the Philips Hue Bridge 2.0). If you want a cheaper price of entry, try the off-white-light only Philips Hue Lux Starter Kit $79.99 at Dell for half the price. The Hue apps can even control third-party smart bulbs. Philips sells a number of other Hue products, including table lamps, a suspension lamp, and the interest Philips Hue Go portable smart light.
Locks and Home Security Systems
There are a lot of smart locks/deadbolts on the market now, but our favorite is the newSense$209.99 at Amazon from longtime lock maker Schlage. It’s pricey, but easy to install, works with iPhones (via Siri voice control), and will let in only who you specify. You can also just use the touchpad on the front to unlock the door.
Vivint used to be APX Alarm Security Solutions, but now has a cool name to go along with expanding beyond security into home automation. We gave four stars to its Vivint Sky$49.99 at Vivint, which includes subscription-based remote monitoring by pros that costs from $50 to $70 per month and a panel in your home for controlling it yourself. It doesn’t beat our favorite self-installed home security system (the iSmartAlarm Premium $299.00 at Amazon), but if you want pro-installation and an extra set of eyes, Vivint is an excellent choice. It can even be controlled with the Amazon Echo.
SimpliSafe Home Security System
If you prefer to stick to a DIY approach to smartening up the home, check out the SimpliSafe system $259.95 at Amazon. While it lacks a camera, it makes up for that with reasonable prices with monthly monitoring of a wide range of sensors. It comes in five different packages, so you can get exactly what’s right for your home.
Rachio Iro Smart Sprinkler Controller
It’s not much to look at, but the Rachio Iro Smart Sprinkler Controller $249.00 at Home Depot can make sure you water your lawn only when needed—even if you’re not home. It works with IFTTT to make sure the droplets only come out when the weather calls for it.
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