Read this before you gift a smart home device this year

This upcoming Black Friday you'll be tempted by lots of deals on smart home devices. Read this first.

Brian Bennett Former Senior writer
Brian Bennett is a former senior writer for the home and outdoor section at CNET.
Brian Bennett
5 min read

Smart home devices make for great gifts this holiday season -- they're both fun and useful. Plus, if you keep your eyes peeled, you'll spot great Black Friday deals on them, too. 

But gifting someone a smart home product can feel intimidating, because there are a lot of factors at play. Are they Team Amazon , Google  or Apple ? Which smart devices do they already have and will this new one fit into the same ecosystem? And that's not to mention the vast and ever-growing list of smart products available for purchase: Do you gift a Google Home? An Amazon Echo smart speaker or an Echo Show display? Maybe the new wired Google Nest Cam or another home security device?

To pile on, Amazon announced several new -- and giftable -- Echo and Ring products in September, while Apple also announced three bright new colors for its HomePod Mini at its October hardware event. So what do you gift this year?

Doing your homework on the smart home can feel daunting, but don't worry. In this guide, we'll cover the right questions to ask, plus the key facts to know before you splash out. While you're at it, here are more Black Friday deals you won't want to miss and our complete CNET Gift Guide

Read more: 13 personalized gifts worth buying early

Which smart home devices make great gifts?

Smart home products run the gamut from sophisticated speakers and web-enabled displays to simple countertop toaster ovens and coffee makers.

Today's most popular smart home products include:

If your giftee doesn't have any smart home products, start with a smart speaker, such as an Amazon Echo Dot  , Amazon Echo Dot with Clock, or Google Home Mini . They take up very little room, but come with all of the same features as their full-size counterparts.

Read more10 of the best things you can do with an Amazon Echo

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A speaker that works best with Google or Amazon? It's an important consideration if it's a gift. 

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Amazon or Google?

Picking the right device to gift starts with figuring out if they require accounts with Google and Amazon and which services your gift recipient uses.

Do they have an Android phone and use Google for their email, calendar, maps and more? A Google Home speaker is a great fit and setup will be easy because they already have a Google account.

If you're buying a smart speaker for someone who shops on Amazon frequently, the line of Echo speakers is a good choice. They can use it to buy items from Amazon, plus a whole lot more.

Maybe your gift recipient has a speaker setup they love and doesn't want a new smart speaker. You can give them Alexa in the form of the Echo Input. This small device gives their existing speakers all of the same features as an Echo.

Read more: Google Home vs. Amazon Echo Show

Which phone do they have?

Smartphones play a big role in setting up and using any smart home device, so it's worth considering which phone the person you're shopping for has. A particular connected home device might not work as well on an Android phone as on an iPhone . One version of a product's app may have bugs galore, or missing features.

Check which phone the receiver of your gift has. Then confirm there's matching and problem-free, software available for your smart home gadget present.

Read moreEverything you need to know about Google Home

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It's best to buy a gift that will play nicely with other smart gadgets already in its prospective home. 

Josh Miller

Ask what's already at home

Maybe your giftee already has an Echo or Google Home speaker. Finding out what they already have can help you pick the right gift.

For instance, say they already have multiple Amazon Echo speakers and perhaps a Fire TV, then giving them a Ring doorbell is the way to go. That's because Ring is an Amazon brand and is plugged tightly into its platform of connected products.

The opposite is the case for people with various Google Home devices, including a Nest thermostat. In that case, the best smart doorbell for them is the Nest Hello.

Smart light bulbs are a little more forgiving. The two most popular brands, Philips Hue and Lifx, work with systems in both camps.

However, some lighting systems -- Philips Hue and Lutron -- require separate networking hubs to function. If a hub like this already sits at home, gifting a compatible light source makes the best sense. To learn more about which devices work with others, check out our nifty smart home product compatibility matrix.

Watch this: Apple unveils new colors for HomePod Mini

Think about their home network

A smart home device linked to bad home Wi-Fi isn't much use. Make sure that special someone you'd like to gift also has an adequate network. 

Even a basic Echo Dot or Google Home Mini can't run on slow DSL in the sticks. The same is true for weak signals in far-flung basements or upper floors.

If you know the person you're shopping for is excited about smart home devices and will keep getting new ones, consider getting them a mesh Wi-Fi system. They blanket an entire home with a strong Wi-Fi signal, so that every smart device has the reliable connection it needs to work. Google Nest Wifi and Netgear Orbi are two such systems we like. 

Read more: Black Friday broadband bargains: Don't wait until Cyber Monday for these sales!

Is privacy a potential problem?

You definitely need to be sensitive to any concerns your giftee might have about tech and privacy. If they're generally suspicious about tech, think twice before giving someone an internet-connected camera, or an always-listening smart speaker. How companies tackle this thorny issue can vary too. For example, Apple makes a pretty strong privacy argument for HomeKit devices, given its policies against storing customer data on its servers.

Amazon and Google will always say "we take customers' privacy seriously" when the topic comes up. However, they do both store customer data remotely. And while they have publicly stated polices around how that data is used, storing data in the cloud introduces an element of risk. A breach might expose customer info, their policies might change, or they could one day use peoples' details in a way that feels uncomfortable. 

At the end of the day, using any smart home product (or for that matter any home device that stores or transmits data) requires some degree of faith in the intent and capability to handle that data responsibly. And because smart home products in particular are designed to integrate with their owners' physical activity at home, they have the potential to become invasive. 

But don't forget, these gadgets are also supposed to make life easier. It'll be up to you to weigh how much your gift recipient will appreciate the benefits against the broader risks. Your best bet is to read up on the specific company you have in mind first to see how it has handled the topic. 

21 smart home gadgets that make great gifts

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More advice for this gift-giving season: 

Originally published in 2018 and updated annually with new devices.