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Smart Home

Which smart home gadget should you buy first?

It depends, but we've got plenty of suggestions, and everything you need to help narrow them down.

Josh Miller/CNET

Smart home tech is nothing new -- hobbyists have been geeking out over home automation for decades now -- but in recent years, it's marched closer to the mainstream than ever before. High-profile connected home gadgets like the Amazon Echo, the Nest Learning Thermostat and the Ring Video Doorbell have all become breakout hits by offering attractive designs and tangible benefits, many of them at prices that aren't unreasonably high.

The result? A mainstream smart home market with an awful lot of momentum. A recent study from GfK found that over half of US households now include at least one smart home gadget -- over a third of them include two or more.

Of course, that leaves about half of us who still haven't bought in. Many might be put off at the thought of connecting everything under their roof and sharing data picked up by sensors, security cameras and microphones with Silicon Valley -- but with a wide variety of smart devices available in your local hardware store, others simply might not know where to start. To that end, here's a look at how to answer a not-so-simple question: Which smart home product should you buy first?

Plan for a purpose-driven smart home

Ask yourself: What do you want from your smart home? As a guy who listens to pitches for the latest smart home technology day in and day out, I can assure you that you've got options. Do you want to keep an eye on things with a do-it-yourself security system and camera feeds you can check from your phone? Do you want simple conveniences like voice controls for your lights and thermostats? Do you want artificial intelligence and cloud-connected appliances to help freshen things up in the kitchen?

To figure out what you want, think about the things you do at home on a daily basis and look for improvements that you'd find meaningful. Do you tend to wander from room to room before bed turning off lights that the kids left on? Smart bulbs that you can turn off with a single voice command or tap on your phone might make sense. Do you shop online a lot, and worry about thieves stealing packages off your porch while you're at work? A video doorbell with a feed you can view remotely might be a good fit.

Value versatility

If nothing specific jumps out at you and you just have a general curiosity about what the smart home might have to offer, then look for flexible, multifunctional devices that you can use in lots of different ways. A small smart speaker like the Amazon Echo Dot or Google Home Mini is a great way to see what artificially intelligent in-home helpers like Alexa and Google Assistant are capable of, and neither one will cost you more than $50. The WeMo Mini smart switch from Belkin is even cheaper, and it'll let you automate anything you plug into it -- lamps, desk fans, crock pots, space heaters, you name it.

belking-wemo-switch-mini-product-photos-1.jpg

The WeMo Mini Smart Switch from Belkin is a versatile little gadget that automates anything you plug into it. Available for just $30, it's a good, low-risk step into the smart home.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

As always, when in doubt, start small. Once you find a product that you like, you can start to build around it by adding in other, compatible gadgets capable of making it even smarter and contributing some unique appeal of their own. Our smart home compatibility tracker can be a really helpful tool to that end.

Ponder your platform options

If you're buying a new computer, you'll need to decide which operating system you'd like to use -- Mac, Windows, Chromebook, etc. Smart home tech is similar in that a majority of the most popular gadgets are designed to work within a wider ecosystem of devices -- the most common being voice control platforms like Amazon Alexa, Google Assistant and the Siri controls that come with Apple HomeKit. Control hubs from names like Wink and Samsung SmartThings offer dedicated platforms capable of helping different devices get along, too. You could also keep things working together by sticking to gadgets that work with IFTTT, a free, online automation platform.

Understanding the strengths and weaknesses of each of those options can go a long way toward helping you build out a smart home setup that makes sense for you, particularly if you're planning on using multiple types of gadgets. The smart home is just better when things work together.

That said, most devices offer their own, dedicated apps and controls, and can be used independent of any broader platforms right out of the box. That means that you don't necessarily need to make any commitments right away. On top of that, a growing number of products support multiple platforms -- starting with smart devices like those can help you keep your options open if you're undecided for now. Here are a few quick suggestions that fit the bill:

Philips Hue's white-light smart bulb starter kit is relatively affordable, and it's easy to use and build upon -- plus, it works with just about everything you could imagine.

Ry Crist/CNET

Smart lights

Smart switches

Available for $100 and packed with helpful features, the Honeywell Lyric T5 is one of our favorite smart thermostat value picks, and it works with a wide variety of platforms.

Chris Monroe/CNET

Smart thermostats

Smart locks

I'd also add that if you have any interest in voice controls, then starting off with either an Amazon Echo Dot or a Google Home Mini is one of the smart home's biggest no-brainers. Even if you ignore the smart home integrations that let Alexa or the Google Assistant control things like lights and thermostats, each device is arguably worth the $50 asking price for the voice-activated music, podcasts, news headlines and cooking timers alone.

Do your homework

The best way to pick the right gadgets for your home is to understand what all of the different options have to offer and narrow things down accordingly. With such a huge variety of alternatives battling it out in a complex arena of competing platforms and standards, doing so can get confusing in a hurry.

But hey, that's where we come in! Our product reviews, best-of lists, buying guideshow-to content, explainer posts and featured dispatches from the CNET Smart Home are all aimed at helping you understand what a more connected living space has to offer (and where it falls short). If you're looking for ideas as to how you might put a smarter home to work, we'll help you brainstorm. If you're stuck trying decide between two seemingly identical gadgets, we can help with that, too. If you want to dive deeper into privacy and security concerns before buying in, we've got you covered.

Bottom line: There's never been a better time to try your hand at home automation. Explore your options, and you'll find plenty of ways to start your smart home off right.

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