Big names like Apple, Google, and Amazon are making moves to push the smart home into the mainstream, and a steady march of would-be startups hope to deliver the next big breakthrough device. With gadgets like the Nest Cam and Amazon Echo getting pitched as must-have holiday tech gifts, it's about as tempting a time to buy in to the connected home as we've seen.
But where should you start? After all, the smart home has never been broader, covering categories ranging from DIY security and smart lighting to intelligent energy-monitoring and cloud-connected cooking. We've covered all of it at the CNET Smart Home, our living lab for testing out the connected living space, and one of our biggest takeaways is that it's still a confusing mish-mash of platforms, products and protocols.
The solution? Start small, and look for the tech that appeals to your interests, and that will fit in best with your home and family's needs. To that end, here's a rundown of how each of us would approach building our own smart home if we were looking to buy in today.
Brian Bennett: It's all about Android (and Nest)
Simply put, the Nest thermostat is the most compelling smart-home product available anywhere, and both Google and Nest know it. A true halo device in every sense of the term, if you jump on board the Nest bandwagon chances are good you'll be tempted to purchase other Nest gadgets such as Nest Cam connected cameras and Nest Protect smoke alarms -- I know I am.
Once you succumb to the allure of Nest gear, you've essentially picked sides in the raging battle for smart home platform supremacy. That's fine with me -- I chose Google over Apple years ago, and I'm a dedicated Android fan through and through.
At the heart of my ideal smart home will reside the Nest Thermostat. Linked to this and also the Nest Android mobile application will be three Nest Protect smoke and carbon-monoxide detectors (main hallway, basement, garage). These gadgets will cover the whole house, sniffing out potential trouble, and even have the power to shut down my furnace immediately if they detect deadly CO gas.
Deploying multiple Nest Cams will also help me keep tabs on household activity. They're equipped with night vision and motion sensors, too, so the arrangement can double as a security system in a pinch. Paired with alerts from a Chamberlain Wi-Fi Garage Door Opener, I'll also be able to tell who's actually home (or not) based on what vehicle is present. I could also add in Lifx's Nest-compatible, color-changing smart bulbs. Aside from helping me alter the mood and vibe of my living areas, they'll sync with the Nest gear to provide color-coded emergency lighting.
Ashlee Clark Thompson: Smart-home skeptic
When it comes to smart-home technology, I have an attitude similar to that of Aaron Burr in the Broadway musical, Hamilton: I'm willing to wait for it. For you non-Hamilton fans out there (I hope you are few and far between), this means that I'd rather sit back and watch smart-home technology grow and advance before I introduce devices into my own home. I'm not convinced that the smart-home devices and apps available are useful enough to be worthy of full-fledged adoption.
Most of the products and apps in the CNET Smart Home add some level of convenience. Yes, it's fun to have Siri and Alexa as my digital assistants. I like turning on lights and controlling the home temperature from my phone. Right now, smart-home devices alleviate small annoyances. But I need products that will address larger concerns or at least change the way I interact with my home, such as the ability to stream movies and television on a computer instead of paying for cable. Streaming has become a must-have in my life and let me save thousands of dollars over the years I've forgone cable; none of the smart home devices I've seen have become similar game-changers.
There's a strong foundation of smart home products and apps available, and I'm sure I'll eventually see more potential for seamless integration into my life. But right now, there are just too many products with too many kinks for me to introduce them into my household. So I'll continue to wait for smart-home technology to evolve.
Ry Crist: Amazon Echo at the center
I live in a small home with an open living room and kitchen, and the Amazon Echo smart speaker has been a great fit, since I can control it with voice commands from either room. Aside from streaming music and setting kitchen timers, Amazon Echo's voice-activated artificial-intelligence Alexa can control smart-home gear, too -- that means that Alexa-compatible gadgets go right to the top of my wish list.
I already use a couple of Belkin WeMo Switches in my home, and Alexa can turn those on and off as needed. She also syncs up with the Automatic Labs driving gadget that tracks my car's location and fuel mileage. Next up on my list: Alexa-powered lighting. As of now, she can control lights synced with an Echo-compatible platform like SmartThings, Wink, Insteon, or Philips Hue, but all of those require plugging an extra hub into my router to serve as the middle man.
I'd rather skip the hub altogether and connect directly, which makes a Wi-Fi option like Lifx an especially appealing choice. The fact that Lifx bulbs can change colors makes them more expensive than standard smart bulbs, but if I'm going to splurge on voice-activated lighting, I think I want my bulbs to do more than just turn on and off.
Another key part of Amazon Echo's appeal is that it has a channel on IFTTT, a free online automation service capable of connecting it with dozens of other smart gadgets. Even better, Amazon recently upgraded that channel, giving you the power to create your own custom Alexa commands capable of triggering whatever you want. That's why I'm keeping my eye on IFTTT-compatible smart gadgets like the iSmartAlarm DIY security system, the Ecobee3 connected thermostat, and Homeboy's connected cameras.
Andrew Gebhart: The smarter apartment-dweller
Since I rent a small one-bedroom apartment for myself, my ideal smart home adds simple measures of convenience and security, with devices I can easily take with me when it's time to move. I'd start with smartening up my apartment's security. My door doesn't sit evenly in my doorframe, so I'm wary of installing an automated deadbolt, but a motion-activated camera like the upcoming iSmartAlarm Spot would seem to make sense, given that I really only need to keep an eye on one room.
I could also make good use of Belkin WeMo Switches to automate lamps and turn my entertainment gear off when I'm away from home -- plus, they're a cinch to relocate if I ever move to a new place. I'd also love to upgrade the apartment's barely-functional, stone-age thermostat. Honestly, I'd settle for one that actually works consistently, but what I'd really love is a thermostat that can cool gradually throughout the night, then warm up a bit before I wake up. The Nest Learning Thermostat can do that and a whole lot more, and that puts it pretty high up on my wish list.
And, since we're talking wish lists, how about some beer? I'm torn between the, and . Fizzics is the cheapest and the easiest to use by far, and it fulfills its promise of making bottled beer taste more like it came from the tap. It also comes without the hassle of gas canisters or kegs -- but it doesn't improve all types of beers, particularly not hoppy ones. With PicoBrew, I can actually make my own beer, but it's expensive, it's tedious to use, and the results left me less than impressed when we tested it out at the office. So instead, I'll let my undying hope for the future of beer tech be my guide and opt for Brewie, which, fingers crossed, seems to have a good shot at making automated beer brewing even better. That'll complete my otherwise simple smart home with a lavish, unnecessary expenditure and the beverages that go with it.
Dave Priest: Cautious optimism for Apple HomeKit
In my future smart home, I want the smallest distance between an idea in my brain and its actualization in my living room. I hate slogging through 10 different apps to control 10 different gadgets, and I don't like spending money on a hub to control the devices that already cost $40 or $50 each. Which leaves me looking for a system that works with my existing Wi-Fi network, and preferably that bypasses apps as much as possible. And Apple's HomeKit, at least in theory, seems to fit the bill.
I know, I know. Any HomeKit users out there will tell you the system can be a huge pain. Nightmarish user sharing, no triggers, limited remote functionality -- all of these are serious knocks against HomeKit, and worse, Apple is taking an excruciatingly long time addressing any of them.
I want a smart home to do cool stuff, and I want it to work simply. Which is why Alexa is my current favorite standalone smart home tech. I don't need to have an account to use her. I just walk into the CNET Smart Home in the morning, say, "Alexa, play Kanye West," and she does. HomeKit can capture that same magic to an even greater degree...if it hones its Siri functionality. Plus, it's got more developers making technology directly for it, which makes its future as a whole system promising.
I'm not willing to dish out the cash for any integration system just yet, but HomeKit is definitely one I'm watching. Whether it'll be retrofitting my dumb lamps using iDevices Switches, upgrading my thermostat to an Ecobee3 that works with Siri, or installing the soon-to-be released HomeKit-compatible August Smart Lock, HomeKit's got potential. For now, though, Amazon Echo is still my number one standalone device.
Megan Wollerton: Smart-home minimalist
I'm a smart-home minimalist. I like a lot of different devices in theory, especially in the DIY security category, but I don't actually want much stuff crowding my living space. That means a ton of router-connected gizmos brandishing thick multi-colored wires won't cut it. Going a step further, I really want the hardware itself to look nice, too.
Fortunately, I live in a smallish home anyway - a roughly 1,000-square-foot open concept condo with one exterior door and just a few windows that are accessible from street level - so I don't necessarily need a ton of products to transform the space into my ideal smart home.
I'd start with one of Icontrol's $279 Piper NV's, a nice looking 180-degree, 1080p high-def live streaming security camera with night vision, customizable alerts and a built-in siren. (That large field-of-view would easily cover my living room, dining area, kitchen and entryway.) Piper NV also offers free event-based cloud storage so you can keep a log of up to 1,000 video clips at a time.
From there, I'd buy a few of the cheapest Z-Wave movement sensors I could find to stick on any easy-access windows. For the front door, I'd skip the HomeKit-compatible Schlage Sense Bluetooth deadbolt in favor of the less expensive Schlage Connect Deadbolt that broadcasts its signal using Z-Wave, instead.
Do you see a protocol pattern here? The Piper NV actually doubles as a Z-Wave hub, so I could seamlessly pair the window sensors and the Schlage lock to the camera without needing a separate hub. Moving forward, it'd be easy to add accessories over time as needed.
Rich Brown: For today, Siri or bust
I currently own a second-gen Nest thermostat, the non-HomeKit compatible August Smart Lock, and Chamberlain's MyQ Garage. All of those devices met a specific need when I bought them, and at the time voice control felt too far off to factor in. It's here now, and while Amazon's Echo looks promising, I like Apple's chances at getting its device partners in line to build a coherent ecosystem of devices.
I'll need to replace my Nest and my August lock if I want my thermostat and my door lock to work with Siri, and I bought them in 2013 and 2014 when we had less of an idea about where this is all going. HomeKit, Echo, and others have given us a few more sign posts, but I'm not taking any of those indicators for granted. It could all change with a new partnership or developer kit announced tomorrow. You might remember when Apple stores carried the Nest thermostat. Not anymore after Apple announced HomeKit. Google-owned Nest doesn't support it.
For the moment I'm standing pat on buying personal smart home stuff, but my expectations for voice control are rising. HomeKit and Siri-compatibility will figure heavily into my next buying decision. Give it six months and who knows.
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