It depends, but we've got plenty of suggestions, and everything you need to help narrow them down.
Ry CristSenior Editor / Reviews - Labs
Originally hailing from Troy, Ohio, Ry Crist is a writer, a text-based adventure connoisseur, a lover of terrible movies and an enthusiastic yet mediocre cook. A CNET editor since 2013, Ry's beats include smart home tech, lighting, appliances, broadband and home networking.
ExpertiseSmart home technology and wireless connectivityCredentials
10 years product testing experience with the CNET Home team
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. In recent years, 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. In 2018, a GfK study 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?
Disclosure: CNET may get a share of revenue from purchases made through the links on this page.
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.
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.
Alexa? HomeKit? Google Home? These gizmos work with all three
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.
I'll add that each platform has its own security certification process designed to keep insecure, vulnerable hardware out of the mix -- that means that a product that works with multiple platforms has essentially gotten multiple passing grades from names like Apple, Amazon, Google and Samsung, all of which have a lot at stake when it comes to keeping their respective platforms secure.
Here are a few quick suggestions that fit the bill:
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.
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.