Everything You Need to Know About Smart Homes Smart things make us feel dumb if they're not intuitive...

In the process of reviewing products, I’ve come across and used enough smart home equipment to probably double the value of a house. Some of it is honestly fantastic, while some of it can be downright dangerous (much less useless).

A lot of it depends on how well the product was designed, but integration into our lifestyles is a factor too. Every brand these days is throwing sensors into products to create an Internet of Things (IoT).

They do it for the recurring subscription revenue and opportunities to collect and leverage our usage data. Not every brand releases truly intuitive and intelligent smart products, and price isn’t a great indicator of value.

This is why only 12 percent of people are currently using smart home technology. Of course, adoption is increasing – the smart home market was valued at $76.62 billion in 2018, and analysts forecast growth to $150 billion by 2024.

Much of this growth is attributed to growth in smart home security, but other segments are growing too. Here’s a rundown on what’s happening in each smart home sector.

Home Virtual Digital Assistants

Digital assistants will ultimately serve as the main user interface of our smart homes. By speaking (or typing) to a cloud-based services, we unlock home automation, security, and entertainment features.

Everybody is creating their own virtual assistant these days, but there are three main players. They’re embedded into devices with major market penetration, giving them a leg up on the competition. Nearly every smart home device on the market is compatible with one (or all) of the following:

Amazon Alexa

Over 100 million Amazon Echo devices have been sold to date, and Alexa is enabled and installed on a wide variety of partner devices. This gives Amazon a 75 percent share of the global smart speaker market. And because Amazon has such a large share of the ecommerce and smart home markets (among others), it has no shortage of partners to service Alexa users.

Alexa is pretty smart out the box, but she can be “taught” skills by installing apps from Amazon’s store. There are over 70,000 Alexa skills available on the marketplace as of January 2019.

Apple Siri

Long before technology entered our homes, Siri was the voice assistant that made Apple’s iPhone and iOS platform attractive. In fact nearly a decade later, Siri is still the most-used voice assistant on smartphones. And with over half of smartphone owners using voice assistants and over half of voice assistant usage occurring on smartphones, that matters.

Siri has personality. While Alexa nailed it, Google’s unnamed assistant still lacks. As with everything Apple, however, HomeKit has a much smaller smarthome ecosystem than Amazon and Google. That obviously won’t matter to the world’s 700 million iPhone users.

Google Assistant

Amazon owns the smart speaker market, and Apple has smartphone assistants on lock. But don’t feel bad for Alphabet Corp – Google Assistant is installed on over 1 billion devices as of February 2019.¬† While most of these installs are on third-party devices (predominantly smartphones and tablets), 52 million Google Home devices were sold in 2018.

Google pairs its assistant with its search engine, which accounts for about 90 percent of all internet searches. This makes Assistant the most book-smart platform, and it’s got some street smarts too, partnering with every company it can get its hands on.

Smart Home Hubs

home-automation-hubs

Even with a voice assistant, it takes a bit of time to set up a smart home. While it’s tempting to stick with one brand’s products, that’s not always optimal. GE, for example has great appliances, but its lights aren’t as good as Philips Hue, and you’ll still need door locks, cameras, etc.

You’ll inevitably mix platforms, and that’s when you need a centralized hub to avoid bogging your mobile devices down. A centralized tablet is one way to solve the problem, but many of these hubs let you activate at least rudimentary features on many smart home devices without the need of the app after the initial install.

Samsung SmartThings

SmartThings was initially developed in 2012 and the founding development team was acquired by Samsung in August 2014 for $200 million. By 2018, the SmartThings app was preinstalled on Galaxy devices, along with Bixby, Samsung’s proprietary digital voice assistant.

The SmartThings app includes the full range of Samsung’s smart home ecosystem that can be controlled via Bluetooth or WiFi. Meanwhile, the 3rd generation SmartThings hub connects your home network to ZigBee, Z-Wave, Wi-Fi, and IP-accessible devices. Samsung device owners will love the intuitive smart integration that supplements the capabilities of the voice assistants above.

Amazon Echo Series

Echo is Amazon’s branding for smarthome speakers, screens, and hubs. The Echo lineup includes the Echo smart speaker, Echo Dot, Amazon Tap, Echo Look, Echo Show, Echo Spot, Echo Plus, Echo Auto, Echo Input, and Echo Link. Each is designed to make Alexa’s skills easier to access and control devices from Belkin, iRobot, Netgear, and more.

Because Echo devices are so popular, a lot of brands make Alexa-enabled and Alexa-compatible smart devices. You can also find a ton of third-party speakers that let you access the platform, even the Facebook Portal. If you choose Alexa as your voice assistant, look for “Amazon Alexa” on the box of any smart stuff you buy to use an Echo device as your hub. Amazon also owns a lot of smarthome brands like Ring.

Apple HomePod

HomePod is Apple’s answer to Echo, and it brings Siri out of the iPhone and into the home. Unlike Amazon (and even Google), Apple doesn’t have third-party speakers and such. This makes HomePod and your iOS mobile devices the only way to control HomeKit with Siri.

With that said, brands like Honeywell, Logitech, EcoBee, and August support HomeKit. Apple users have a smaller ecosystem, but it’s solid enough to keep everyone happy. Look for the familiar Apple logos on devices that…who am I kidding? You Apple fans already know the drill.

Wink

Wink is a startup with a 2nd generation hub that fills in all the gaps for those who piecemealed a DIY smarthome setup together. It supports over 130 smarthome devices using Bluetooth LE, Z-wave, ZigBee, Kidde, and Lutron Clear Connect, including devices from Philips, Canary, Ring, Chamberlain, and Kwikset.

The Wink hub is compatible with both Alexa and Google Home, but it’s expensive and not as solid of an ecosystem as Samsung’s. It’s more expensive and without battery backup, support, USB, and a few other tweaks. Wink is still a solid hub, and its price can be justified by the money it saves you in needing to stick to one brand’s smarthome platform.

Google Home

Home is Google’s branding for its smarthome platform and devices that access Google Assistant. Proprietary devices include the Google Home Mini, Google Home Hub, Google Home, and Google Home Max. There are also third-party devices like Lenovo’s Smart Display and the JBL Link View, and Google owns a few smarthome brands of its own like Nest.

Sengled, GE, LG, and Vivint are among the Google-compatible brands. Look for the “Works with Google Assistant” logo on smart devices that will easily integrate with your Google Home devices. A Wink or SmartThings hub could easily supplement a Google system.

Logitech Harmony

Harmony is Logitech’s smarthome platform, which all boils down to a universal remote. Logitech is a long-known brand for computer control devices like the mouse and keyboard, along with accessories like webcams, gaming headsets, speakers, and more. It’s only natural it found an intuitive device to control our entire smart home.

While not cheap, Harmony is capable of controlling your smart devices from Apple, Sonos, Amazon, Sony, Roku, Lifx, and more. Whether you use your smartphone or get a Harmony remote, this is the most intuitive smarthome control I’ve seen so far.

IFTTT

IFTTT (If this, then that) is a stop-fix that fills in any gaps in your home automation and smarthome routines. These applets set event-based triggers that combine hardware and software across devices, hubs, and platforms to make magic happen both inside and outside your home.

For example, if you were a complete social media addict, you could set your smartlights to flash anytime someone liked your Facebook video. That’s a great example of the capabilities but a terrible thing to do in real life. The point is you can make anything happen that’s not possible in the native apps and hubs using IFTTT.

Smart Home Entertainment

nvidia-shield-tv-4k

Smart TVs and speakers are helping push smarthome technology into the mainstream. Our TVs used to be passive devices at the whim of cable providers, but modern TVs almost exclusively come with smart TV platforms built-in. Streaming services and apps like Netflix, Spotify, Hulu, and Pandora forever changed the way we view our TVs and speakers.

Now they not only access streaming services on their own, but the above-mentioned digital assistants and smarthome features can be accessed with our voice as we walk around the home. There’s a balance of usability versus privacy, but if you’re willing to take the leap, these devices are changing how we access computers.

Roku Ultra 4k HDR

Smart TVs

Many of the companies above also has a smart TV platform. Google has Chromecast and Android TV, Apple has Apple TV, and Amazon has Fire TV. These platforms are competing with Roku for market share of our television viewing time, and each has a range of first- and third-party devices to turn a normal TV into a smart one. They also all make TVs with the platform built-in.

I personally use a Toshiba Fire TV with a Chromecast built-in. I choose it because Android TV is too buggy for my tastes and Roku won’t let me customize channels. With Fire TV, I have access to the Roku Channel, Kodi, and everything else I ever want to watch. I’m also a long-time Amazon Prime member, so video recommendations are overall tolerable.

In addition to smart TVs, small-screen devices like Facebook Portal, Google Home Hub, and Echo Show act as standalone videophones and TVs. These are meant to be used in auxiliary places, like in the kitchen or bedroom, on the porch, in the office, etc.

Amazon Echo Dot

Smart Speakers

For those who don’t like the idea of a lot of screens around the house (they suck up a lot of electricity, after all) smart speakers provide all the same features as a smart TV or screen but without the video. Just think of it as surfing the internet blind, because it’s probably not much different. Every voice assistant developer has a smart speaker, and it’s becoming the new industry standard.

Access streaming services with your voice by just asking your speaker to play a song. Then ask it to tell a joke, set an alarm, call a friend, send a voice text, play the news, and get fully addicted to the new normal. There isn’t much you can’t ask a smart speaker to do, especially with compatible smart appliances.

Smart Security

Security Camera Faceoff

While the cameras and mics attached to video game consoles and smart screens make privacy advocates squeamish, some people prefer having data in their homes for security purposes. We used to rely on companies like ADT to keep us safe, but that’s no longer the case – everyone from internet service providers (ISPs) to tech enterprises and startups are focused on letting us monitor our homes.

And these systems connect to our smarthome devices too, providing data on open doors/windows, who’s coming/going, and more. If you have a virtual assistant and some smart devices, these pieces can take things to the next level.

Cameras

Companies like Swann, Zmodo, Ezviz, TP-Link, Canary, and Panasonic make indoor and outdoor security cameras with a host of smart features. Some require monthly subscription services for cloud-based features, while others work as IP cameras on your local network. Some are hardwired to your home, while others can be placed wirelessly. Whatever your needs, there’s a security camera for you.

Personally I love the Panasonic HomeHawk’s local storage and expansion capabilities. Of course, the system is wireless, so it takes extra care, but it keeps my apartment relatively safe from intrusion and provides documentation in the event I need it for insurance purposes. Motion sensors, night vision, two-way audio, and facial recognition are among the features you’ll find in smart security cameras.

Locks

Brands like August, Schlage, Kwikset, and Lockly make smart locks that increase security by replacing (or retrofitting) standard lock-and-key systems with Bluetooth-, Z-Wave, WiFi-, and biometrics-enabled locks. And it’s not just the standard lock or deadbolt replacement – they also make keypads, doorbell cameras, and other complementary products to make answering your door easier whether you’re home or not.

Amazon is taking things further by pushing to enable in-home delivery through its Amazon Key platform. This would enable Amazon delivery drivers to open your front door and place packages inside your locked home to reduce the temptation of theft. It’s a great service if you trust Amazon’s third-party contractors more than your own neighbors.

Sensors

Abode, Leeo, Roost, Halo+, Kangaroo, and Airthings make a variety of sensors to feed data on motion, temperature, and air quality into your smarthome. These sensors give you an idea of what’s happening in and around your home that cameras and microphones may not pick up and automate appliances to resolve the issue.

For example, your thermostat can find detect open windows, the air filter can detect smoke in the air, motion can be detected if a security camera is disabled, and more. When combined with IFTTT, these sensors are the foundation of powerful home automation features.

Full-Suite

While many companies focus on doing one thing well, some are focused on creating a full smart security ecosystem. Companies like Ring, Honeywell, Nest, Netgear Arlo, Netatmo, and Geeni make smart cameras, sensors, locks, thermostats, and everything else they can. Turn your home into a data network capable of reacting to the world around it with a full suite.

Using one platform makes it financially viable to actually pay for a subscription service like Nest Aware. For one price, you gain access to a powerful suite of features. Of course, saving Nest videos locally can be a pain, so you’ll find pros and cons in every smarthome solution.

Smart Lights and Outlets

beon-security-bulbs

Smart lights and outlets are my favorite smarthome upgrade. Using smart lights, you can set the perfect mood for any occasion, set alarms, reduce electricity usage, and automate your home while you’re away to make it difficult to tell when you’re actually home. Because they’re LED bulbs, they use last forever and generate less heat too.

Of course, you don’t have to replace the bulb – you can replace the switch or even the electrical outlet to create the same effect with whatever light bulbs you’re already using. Some companies even make smart electrical strips that let you control multiple devices in one place.

I have a plethora of smart lights collected over the years, and each platform has its good and bad. Overall, it doesn’t matter which platform you use. A handful of them (Philips Hue, for example) need a hub, while others don’t. They can easily be mixed and matched either way. I personally use the full-spectrum color lights in most my sockets, but C by GE and others that adapt to daylight and circadian rhythms are also great.

smart-lights

Here are some of the more popular brands on the market these days:

  • Belkin Wemo
  • Lutron Caseta
  • Fluxsmart
  • Philips Hue
  • Kasa
  • Sengled
  • Sylvania
  • Eufy
  • Lifx
  • Xiaomi
  • Insteon
  • Nanoleaf
  • GE Connect

Not all smart lights are created equal – Nanoleaf and Lifx, for example, have very different takes on LED light art. Even among the same brand, there are differences – a Gen 3 Philips Hue bulb, for example, has more colors than a Gen 2.

Still, smartlights can transform your home for every season and time of day. I highly recommend them if you don’t already have them installed in your home. They’re useful even with just the voice assistant on your phone, and they’re easily the smarthome tech I’ve spent the most time using in the five years I’ve been playing with it.

Smart Home Renovations

curb-electricity-monitor

Of course, not every smarthome device is easily to install on your own. Some require a professional installation because they deal with two parts of your home you’re not qualified to work on – plumbing and electricity.

Moen and Delta, for example, have automated sink and shower systems that can offer precise temperatures, voice control, and water usage data. Installation needs to be in the plumbing itself, however, which is technically a home remodel. This can be worthwhile just for the ability to set every family member’s preferred shower temperature individually though.

Meanwhile companies like Curb and Sense hookup directly to your electrical fuse box to monitor electricity usage at the source. Instead of individually controlling each device with a smart outlet, you can simply turn things on and off directly in the house wiring itself.

Don’t perform one of these smarthome renovations unless you’re absolutely sure you’re ready to make the commitment. You’ll likely be very pleased with the results if you do. Seriously, do you even know what temperature you shower at?

Smart Home Appliances

Haier Smart Washing Machine

And let’s not forget smart appliances – with something like a stove, for example, you need to do more than just turn the power on and off to truly automate the experience. Heat needs to be dynamically adjusted during cooking, etc. If you want a truly smart home, you’ll need to install everything above and upgrade your appliances.

We’re not just talking major appliances like the dishwasher, refrigerator, oven, and washing machine (although you’ll want to replace those too). You can find smart coffeemakers, beer brewers, mirrors, ceiling fans, blinds, air filters, and more. I even have an almost-magical smart bed (a huge step up from the hellishly terrifying smart pillows).

At this point, your entire home can be upgraded with products that let you talk to your voice assistant and activate advanced features. Sometimes it’s intuitive and smart (i.e. Caavo’s universal remote or Whirlpool’s all-in-one washing machine), and sometimes it’s gimmicky and useless (i.e. Pantelligent’s “smart” pan or Brita’s smart water pitcher).

So long as you understand what you want, you can find the right smarthome gear to automate, secure, monitor, or just enjoy your home more.

Versability

Brian Penny is a former Business Analyst and Operations Manager at Bank of America turned whistleblower, troll, and freelance writer.

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