Those of you who’ve been following my Smart Home Diary series will know that I’ve learned a number of lessons – some of them the hard way. But I thought it would be useful to distill these into a single piece offering my best advice for anyone planning to create a smart home from scratch today.
And that advice begins with considering whether or not creating a smart home is a smart choice for you …
Think about cost
Smart home tech isn’t cheap. Not only that, but costs have a sneaky way of adding up over time. You start with a bulb or two, and a year later you’re well into four figures.
There are two financial aspects I think worth considering at the outset:
- Available budget
- How much home automation is worth to you
If, realistically, the amount you can invest in smart home tech is very limited, then it’s particularly important to spend your money on the right things – the things that will make the biggest difference to your life.
But, ironically, it can be even more important to think about budget if you have more disposable income to play with – because there’s almost no limit to what you can do if you throw enough money at it. Which is where the second question becomes important. How much difference will a smart home make to your life?
Is waking up in the morning, saying ‘Hey Siri, Morning’ and seeing your home spring to life something that will bring you a frisson of pleasure each time you do it? Do you take the view that anything that can be automated should be automated? Do you love the thought that simply tapping a button on your iPhone when you go to bed saves you the trouble of wandering around your home switching off lights, closing blinds and ensuring the heating is off? If so, you can justify a significant spend, because it’s something from which you’ll get substantial value.
But if you think smart home tech is kind of neat but not that big a deal, you could end up investing a lot of cash in something that will make little lasting difference to your life, especially once the novelty has worn off. That money might be put to better use elsewhere.
Think too about time, effort and reliability
Take it from me: configuring and trouble-shooting a smart home is something that takes a significant amount of both time and effort. There will be swearing involved.
Smart home tech is still something I’d consider bleeding-edge technology. Neither set up nor reliability is at a level I’d yet say is ready for mass-market consumers. If you’re not willing to do battle with Wi-Fi connectivity, delay your plans to go to bed to work out why one of your blinds isn’t responding or find the ideal positioning for a motion sensor via an awful lot of trial-and-error, then you may want to wait a while.
HomeKit has gone a long way toward making things ready for prime-time, but Just Works is still some way off.
How patient are you?
The somewhat flakey reliability of smart home devices means you also need to ask yourself how patient you are in the face of things that don’t work as they should.
You will see devices report that they are unavailable. You will see things that show themselves as constantly updating and therefore unresponsive. You will find that one of the seven lights that should have turned off is still stubbornly on for no apparent reason. You will find there are times when you lose full control of something until you update its firmware.
If you are someone who will simply roll your eyes and get on with it, no problem. If, however, a piece of misbehaving technology turns you into an incandescent ball of concentrated fury, maybe now isn’t quite the right time to create a smart home.
Even if you’re the greatest technology fan in the world, and can think of nothing more interesting than the challenge of figuring out why your living-room lights don’t turn on when they should, you also need to consider the attitude of your partner and any kids or other household members.
If you have any technophobes in the home, they’re unlikely to be amused by swapping simple light switches for a Siri-controlled world that relies on you remembering the name of a particular light.
But even reasonably tech-savvy people may not share your enthusiasm for automating everything in sight. For example, my partner is more tech-aware than the average mass-market consumer out there, and she’s also reasonably embedded in the Apple world, with a Mac, an iPad and an iPhone. But she still wasn’t happy about having to use an iPhone to switch on lights.
That doesn’t mean you have to rein-in your plans, but you may have to adapt them. In our case, we added a bunch of Hue Dimmer Switches to the walls so that Steph had the option of using physical switches – even if they were Wi-Fi ones. That adds cost as well as effort.
Start by dipping a toe into the water
Ok, so you’ve decided you love gadgets and you can afford them; you’re willing to put in the work; you have a laid-back attitude to uncooperative technology; and your family is on-board. Even with all this in place, I’d still recommend dipping a toe into the smart home water first.
Take a look around at what’s out there, and see what has greatest appeal to you – but for most people, I’d say that a Philips Hue Starter Kit is going to be a good entry into the smart home world. For under $200, you’ll get either two or three bulbs (depending on which version you opt for) and the bridge that makes them HomeKit-compatible.
With this, you’ll get the experience of all the key aspects of configuring and using smart home tech:
- Setting up a bridge (needed for many HomeKit devices)
- Adding a device to its app
- Setting up one or more rooms in the Home app
- Controlling devices using the Home app
- Controlling devices via Siri
By the time you’ve done this, you’ll have a good sense of the amount of effort involved, and the benefit you see from using it.
Buy the right thing once
Whether you take my advice to start small, or jump in with both feet, the age-old advice to buy the right thing once applies. Don’t buy something cheap that you’ll want to replace further down the line, as that only ends up costing more in the long run.
Personally, I’d recommend sticking to major brands, for several reasons:
- They are likely to work reliably (for smart home values of ‘reliably’)
- The company is likely to stand by their products if they fail
- They are likely to be around for a long time
Which includes HomeKit compatibility
HomeKit support makes such a big difference to usability that I’d say you want to almost view this as a must-have.
For example, if your lights, blinds and heating are all HomeKit-compatible, then a single Siri command or button tap like ‘Goodnight, home’ can take care of everything that needs to be done before going to bed. For non-HomeKit devices, you can’t use Siri, and you’ll have to go into each individual app in turn to control their respective devices.
I say ‘almost’ as you may find you have to make some exceptions – especially outside the USA, where compatible devices aren’t always available. And sometimes the price difference between the same thing with and without HomeKit support can be dramatic.
For example, our heating system uses electric radiators, which can’t be controlled by the Tado system we had before. There aren’t any HomeKit-compatible ones, but it’s really not a big deal because – for the most part – they operate on timers.
With blinds, we took a bit of chance, opting for ones that are iPhone-controlled but not yet HomeKit compatible – with later support promised. Since the company’s app already supports Scenes (one-button ways to set the positions of multiple blinds), then we’re reasonably confident that it is all set for HomeKit – and in the worst of cases, it’s not a massive convenience to tap two buttons rather than one in morning and evening. The reason we did that? HomeKit-compatible ones were literally twice the price.
Smart switches are likely to be cheaper than smart bulbs
Depending on how many lights you have in your home, and how they are configured, it will generally work out cheaper to replace dumb switches with smart ones than to replace dumb bulbs with smart ones.
For example, if you have a living-room switch that controls four lights, each with two bulbs, a single switch might cost you $50 rather than spending $200 or more on eight bulbs.
In the USA, there are quite a few brands to choose from now – but always check HomeKit compatibility for the specific switches.
For light bulbs, consider color ones
Smart bulbs can do more than smart switches. For example, smart bulbs may allow you to select their color temperature, switching between bright white lighting when concentrating on something and a softer, yellower light when relaxing. They will also typically offer dimming – which smart switches do too, but don’t work with all bulb types.
However, the biggest benefit you get from opting for smart bulbs rather than smart switches is the option of color.
Attitudes to color bulbs vary. Some people are dismissive, seeing them as gimmicks that belong in nightclubs rather than homes. But many of us have come to love them.
For example, we often set the living-room floor lamps to blue or purple to provide enough light to see by without spoiling the view from the windows with bright reflections. In the bedroom, it’s nice to have the option of a warm and relaxing yellow-orange light.
The Philips Hue starter kit I recommended earlier gets you color bulbs, so you can then see how you get on with them and whether the added cost of color is worth it to you.
Philips Hue Light Strips are worth a special mention
I’m trying to keep the piece as general as possible, but I think Philips Hue Light Strips are worth a special mention, as they are so versatile.
These are long multi-color LED strips designed to provide mood lighting. You can use them for under-cabinet lighting in a kitchen, for example, setting them to white when you are cooking and a color when you just want accent lighting.
Other common uses are for TV consoles, desks and bookshelves. We even use them as wardrobe lights as a single strip provides both overhead and side lighting.
Smart plug sockets are another option
If you have floor or table lamps, another way to convert them to smart devices is to use a smart plug socket. Leave the lamp switched on, and then control the socket instead.
Elgato Eve Energy is the market leader here, and the app also monitors energy usage and costs into the bargain.
Smart thermostats save money as well as adding convenience
If you have a central heating system, a smart thermostat can be a great buy. Presence-detection means that when the system sees there is nobody home, it automatically turns down the heating to save money. With the Tado system I had before, for example, it reduced the heating bills by around 7%.
However, these probably only make sense if you’re staying put for a while. The payback time on a system saving 7% a year, for example, will be a number of years.
Smart locks are super-convenient but …
Walking up to your front door with your hands full and having the door automatically unlock when you approach it is undeniably convenient. Smart locks work by detecting your iPhone or Apple Watch via Bluetooth.
They also allow you to do things like allow timed access to specific individuals. For example, if your cleaner visits weekly on a Friday afternoon, the lock can be set to allow them in only between 1pm and 2pm on Fridays.
And if a friend is coming to stay and gets there before you do, you can grant them one-off access via a temporary code.
However, you do need to think about security. Even with HomeKit, which is designed to offer a very high level of security, there can be vulnerabilities – like the one we reported to Apple. You may consider smart locks to be one step too far.
Smart cameras too
The same applies to smart cameras. If you have young kids, for example, these can provide a great way to keep an eye on them wherever you are.
Cameras can also be set to send alerts when they detect motion, and some even have face-recognition so that they don’t bother alerting you to familiar faces.
Again, though, you have to be aware of the potential privacy risks of a camera feed that’s accessible via the Internet.
Smart speakers make a convenient interface
Finally, a smart speaker provides a really convenient way to control smart home technology. With this, you don’t need to have your iPhone or Watch with you as you wander around your home.
If everything you have is HomeKit-compatible, then a HomePod can control everything – but the cost only makes sense if you’re also looking for a decent speaker. Otherwise, an Amazon Echo Dot is a really low-cost device that will control most smart home devices – and is cheap enough that you could sprinkle a few around your home.
In summary …
Overall, then, my advice is this:
- Think about whether smart home tech makes sense for you, your budget and your family
- Dip a toe in the water first
- Adopt a ‘buy the right thing once’ approach
- Buy HomeKit-compatible devices wherever possible
- Think about whether smart switches or bulbs make most sense for you
- If bulbs, try color ones to see whether they add value
- A smart thermostat likely makes financial sense if you have no plans to move
- Think about the potential security risks of smart locks and cameras
- Consider a smart speaker (or three) as a convenient means of control
You can check out my Smart Home Diary pieces for my own experiences, and please add your own tips in the comments.