Over the past few years, smart home tech has become more and more accessible. It connects to our phones and routers, it speaks our language, and it’s increasingly easy to find that you’ve bought a product that includes smart home features, without even thinking about it.
So what does a modern smart home look like, and how can you start building one? In our latest episode of Workflow, we decided to set a roughly $200 limit to see how much stuff we could get to start making your house smarter. Here’s what we picked.
Google Home Mini — $49
A smart speaker is probably your best starting point. You can use it to look up information, order pizzas, play podcasts, and tons more. More importantly for our purposes, you can also use it to control smart home gadgets and hook them all together.
I chose Google‘s Home Mini... mostly because it came bundled when I bought a new phone last year. But it‘s a good choice for anyone who uses a lot of Google products. You can’t go wrong with Amazon’s Echo Dot either. The two smart speakers largely do the same things and work with the same products. So if you prefer one company over the other, just go with that. (I’d also recommend waiting for a sale, since both products are perpetually $10 to $15 off.)
It took me a couple weeks before I really got comfortable speaking aloud to a speaker in my house. (And I’ll admit, I’m still not 100 percent comfortable having an always-on microphone listening for commands.) But the convenience of it eventually won out. When I’m going to bed or running out the door, it’s often much easier to ask Google to do something rather than going into my phone and pressing the right buttons.
Philips Hue — $100
Smart lights are something you can get a lot of utility out of without getting too complicated. The best smart lights are unquestionably from Philips. (I say that, sadly, having tried probably every major smart light out there.)
You’ll need to buy one of Philips’ starter kits first since they include a hub that communicates with the system’s smart lights. That hub hooks up to your router, and you’ll then need to sync it with your phone and give your smart assistant permission to access it. But once that’s all done, you’re pretty much good to ignore it until you want to install more lights.
At a basic level, you’ll be able to turn your lights on and off with your voice or with an app on your phone. But where it gets more useful is when you start setting up scenes and schedules. My setup is pretty simple: I have both of my lights set to turn on 10 minutes before sundown every day so that there’s always some light in the house.
Philips has three styles of smart bulb: dimmable white bulbs, white bulbs that change from a cooler to a warmer white, and color-changing bulbs. The dimmable white bulbs are the least expensive option, and they’re really the best starting place. Plus, you can find those kits on sale for $70 or less sometimes.
Chromecast Audio — $35
If you have a speaker lying around somewhere that doesn’t have smart features built in, this is a really easy way to give it some. The Chromecast Audio plugs into an aux port on a speaker or receiver, letting you stream music to it. You can then control the stream from your phone or the Google Home. It’s a really simple, single-purpose device. But that also makes it extremely easy to set up and use.
(If you went the Alexa route, you can replicate this by plugging another Echo Dot into the speaker you want to add smart features to. This works with the Echo Dot because it includes an aux port, while the Home Mini doesn’t.)
The final thing to get is a smart plug. These things are all at once really versatile and not all that smart. That‘s because they literally just do one thing: kill power to a device and then turn it back on.
But it turns out, that‘s really helpful in a lot of cases. My air conditioner, for example, automatically resumes its last state after turning back on. So I can use a smart plug to have it turn on and start cooling down my apartment before I come home from work. You could use this with a lamp or fan — anything that’s going to resume what it was doing after power returns.
I bought a pair of smart plugs from iHome a couple years ago, but they didn’t work very well, are currently broken, and the app is so bad that it’s essentially nonfunctional. So for the video, I picked up TP-Link’s Kasa plug, which worked great and has a much better app.
Do more with IFTTT
If you want to take everything a step further, install the app IFTTT — If This, Then That. It lets you hook your gadgets together in all kinds of useful (and not-so-useful) ways. The name very literally refers to how it works. For instance, I set up a command saying “if” the temperature goes above 80 degrees Fahrenheit in my neighborhood, “then” the TP-Link Kasa should turn my air conditioner on.
You can get really weird with IFTTT if you want. You could have your lights blink every time someone likes your photos on Instagram, for example. I absolutely would not recommend doing that, but the point is, there aren’t a ton of limits to what’s possible.
And that’s it. I think the best approach to smart home gadgets is to start slow and add things over time as they seem useful to you. It’ll be less overwhelming that way, and it’ll ensure you’re actually adding functionality that you'll use. But keep going, and bit by bit you’ll start to find that your home is getting a lot smarter.
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