I wondered earlier this year whether Apple’s HomeKit system would bring home automation to the masses. The good news is that you don’t need to wait for HomeKit to start bringing smart home technology to your family and friends – and we’ve put together a gift guide covering some of the main products that might bring a smile to their faces during the holidays.
With the right gadgets, they will be able to control lighting, heating, cooking, sound systems … even have their kettle switch on when they walk up to their front door, which will automatically unlock as they approach. Best of all, you can get them in on the smart home action from just $30 …
Belkin WeMo: from $30
One of the simplest yet most useful ways to get into home automation is the Belkin WeMo system. Replace a lightbulb or light switch with a WeMo version, and you have something that can be controlled by your iPhone. Desk lamps, fans and other devices that plug into a wall socket can be plugged into a WeMo switch to allow them to be controlled in the same way.
At its simplest, you just use the free iPhone app as a remote control, switching devices on and off manually. If you want to get more involved, the free app allows you to create rules to switch devices on and off automatically – with an optional WeMo motion-detector one of the things that can trigger those rules. And if you’re buying for a home electronics whiz, you can even get the WeMo Maker to allow them to control home-built electronics.
Only the plug socket switch and motion-detector were available when we carried out our detailed review back in March, but that will give you a good idea of how the system works.
The cheapest option is a single LED lightbulb for $29.99, ranging up to $149.99 for a socket switch and netcam bundle. You can, of course, also put together your own gift packages from the full range of WeMo products – and you can typically save between $10 and $25 per product by buying on Amazon.
For an extra personal touch, if you can sneak access to their iPhone before they unwrap their gift, you could set it all up for them so that they can begin using it as soon as they open the empty box.
Check out the full range of WeMo products on Amazon.
Philips Hue mood-lighting: around $200
If you want to gift a more sophisticated smart lighting system, Philips Hue offers LED lightbulbs which controllable colors, providing almost infinitely adjustable mood lighting.
A companion iPhone app allows you to select colors directly, or choose from a range of preset combinations with names like Relax, Concentrate and Energize.
Hue bulbs can be set to come on and off automatically, as a home security measure, and there are IFTTT recipes to allow you to use the lights to signal anything from a VIP email arriving to a weather alert.
A starter-pack of wifi bridge and three bulbs retails at $199.99, but Amazon again allows you to save $11 or $12.
The starter pack is currently available on Amazon for $188.99.
Mr. Coffee (US) or iKettle (UK): around $160
If you have someone in your life who loves both gadgets and coffee/tea, technology can deliver an infusion of their favorite hot drink on demand.
Mr. Coffee allows you to schedule coffee-making from the WeMo app on your iPhone, while the iKettle can be switched on from the Smarter app on your iPhone, will alert you when it is boiling and then keep it on the boil until you are ready to make your pot of tea. You can check out our review of the iKettle for full details.
Belkin Crock-Pot Smart Slow Cooker: $150
Still in the kitchen, slow cookers have grown increasingly popular, allowing you to start cooking dinner before you leave for work and return to find your meal ready to eat. But while cooking times are not critical, you can still end up with over-cooked food if you end up having to work late or plans change.
The Belkin Crock-Pot Smart Slow Cooker takes care of this by allowing you to use the WeMo iPhone app to adjust either cooking time or temperature from wherever you happen to be. And if you find yourself putting a meal on and then forgetting you’ve done it, the app can also alert you when the food is ready.
The pot has a six-quart capacity, making it suitable for large family meals, including roasts and large cuts of meat.
The Crock-Pot Smart Slow Cooker is currently available on Amazon for $129.99 ($20 off), with free shipping.
Veetop HiFi AirMusic Box: from $46 / Sonos wifi music systems from $199 to $1796
If you just want to stream music from an iDevice a short distance to a speaker, there are shedloads of Bluetooth speakers out there, from the budget to the premium (take your pick from Bose, Ultimate Ears, JBL and Cambridge Audio Minx). But if you want to stream to speakers that are more than a few feet away, and especially if you want to connect to an existing hifi system, WiFi is the way to go.
There are two routes you can take here. If you’re buying for someone with an existing hifi system, then all they need is a WiFi audio receiver. Sonos will happily sell you one – the Sonos Connect for a cool $349 – but you don’t need to spend anything like that kind of money. The Veetop HiFi AirMusic Box does the same job for an official price of $90, and is currently available on Amazon for $46.
This is a wireless bridge with a 3.5mm audio-0ut socket. Setup takes just a couple of minutes: you connect to the Veetop box via wifi and point it to your main wireless router, giving it the password. From then on, you connect to the Veetop network instead of your usual one. You still get the same Internet access, the Veetop box acting as a wireless bridge, but you can now option-click the volume icon on your Mac to direct sound output to the hifi.
A particularly cool option is to leave system sounds on the Mac, but direct iTunes output to the hifi using the button to the right of the ‘Next track’ button. That way your music isn’t interrupted by high-volume alerts.
If someone doesn’t already have a good sound system, then Sonos makes a range of high-quality speakers with built-in WiFi receivers. These start with the Sonos Play 1 for $199, with further price-points at $299, $399 and $699. If you’re feeling really generous, you can add a subwoofer for $699 or opt for a complete home theatre bundle – which includes the subwoofer – for a wallet-busting $1796.
iRobot Roomba vacuum & floor cleaners: from $260
One gift that’s bound to be appreciated on a daily basis throughout the coming year is a robot that helps out with the housework! iRobot leads the market with it’s vacuum cleaning and floor mopping robots, thanks to the clever tech inside them.
When you press the Clean button, Roomba devices start by using infra-red signals to measure the size of the room in order to calculate how long it will take to clean, and works out a path to ensure the whole room is covered.
‘Cliff sensors’ mean that they won’t fall off stairs, and infra-red wall sensors allow them to detect walls and objects. If it does unexpectedly encounter an object in its path, a bumper sensor causes it to back off, rotate and work its way around the obstacle. If you want to restrict Roomba to a specific area, you can use included ‘virtual walls’ which tell Roomba when to turn around.
If it starts running low on power, Roomba will automatically return to its charging base.
Check out the full Roomba range on Amazon. If you’re buying for someone with pets, look for the special pet versions that can cope with the fur.
Okidokeys Smart-Lock: from $190
There are a number of Bluetooth smart-locks on the market now. Where Okidokeys scores is the range of options it offers to unlock doors. If everyone in your household has an iPhone 4S or better, or an Android phone with Bluetooth LE, all you need is the lock. But you can also get a bundle that includes three different electronic keys that work on their own: a credit-card sized card, a keychain tag and a wristband.
For family members, you can set the door to unlock automatically as they approach, without even needing to take their phone out of their pocket. For less frequent visitors, like cleaners and babysitters, you can define rules that determine when they are allowed access: for example, on particular dates, days or times of the day. You can also be notified when an authorised visitor unlocks the door and be alerted to any attempted break-in.
You’ll need to check that your gift recipient has an ANSI Grade 1 or Grade 2 deadbolt; provided they do, the lock is a straight swap for the existing interior unit, with no drilling or wiring required.
Nest Smart Thermostat (US or UK) or Tado (Europe): from $249
Finally, a gadget that saves your gift recipient money has to be a winner, and that’s what smart thermostat systems are all about, aiming to save on energy bills by only heating a home when it’s actually needed.
Nest is the biggest name in smart thermostats in the US, while Tado is a popular choice in Europe. The idea behind both systems is you get a smart thermostat box to replace your dumb one, and this then controls your heating system intelligently to use energy more efficiently.
Both systems learn how long your home takes to heat up and cool down, so they can deliver the temperature you want without running the heating for any longer than required. Both systems also allow remote control of your heating system from anywhere in the world using their iPhone apps. The difference between them is the approaches taken to ensuring you are not heating your home unnecessarily.
Nest majors on learning your usage patterns, so if it sees that you turn down the heating when you leave in the morning, turn it up when you get in and then turn it down again later in the evening, it starts doing this automatically. It will also recognize patterns you might not bother programming into a timer, like the fact that the family goes out for a meal on Thursday evenings. It also notes when everyone is out, but not where they are – which is where Tado comes in.
Tado bases its control on tracking the locations of residents rather than learning patterns. It not only turns down the heating when no-one is home, but also looks at how far from home everyone is. If someone is close, and may return home soon, it only turns down the heating a little; if everyone is miles away, it turns the heat down more, turning it back up once people start heading in the direction of home. Check out our detailed review (Tado has since updated the system with an improved thermostat, which I’ll be adding to the review shortly).