Asking the right questions to find the perfect devices to raise your home's IQ.
Smart light switches and plug adapters are the building blocks of the connected home. But it can be tough to tell the difference between various devices. That's where we come in.
Not only have we used the CNET Smart Home to test tons of plugs and switches, but also we've compiled the most important information for buying them. To find out exactly which device you need, you just have to ask the right questions.
When raising the IQ of your traditional home, you can adopt a device-by-device approach -- in which you slowly replace large, dumb devices with smart ones over time -- or you can use smart switches and plugs.
If you want all the smarts of a connected TV, for instance, then a smart plug won't cut it. But if you want all the small pieces of your home -- like lights, fans, air purifiers and so on -- to cooperate, then switches and plugs are a good fit.
And if you just want smart lights in your home, then you can consider smart LED bulbs. In fact, we have a whole article discussing the pros and cons of bulbs versus switches.
You've decided a smart switch or plug really is what you need. Now the question is, which one should you get? In-wall switches, like Belkin WeMo Light Switches or Lutron Switches, are convenient because toggling them is as natural as hitting a normal light switch. Plus, you get the added smarts of remote control, scheduling and automation.
That means if you have light fixtures you want to automate, but you want to keep their normal wall-switch control too, then in-wall smart switches are what you need.
Smart plugs, like the iDevices Switch, offer many of the same features, but also increased flexibility, as you can plug in whatever device you want. And if you want to change your setup, it only takes a minute. Smart plugs also are more likely to include the power-monitoring feature that in-wall switches don't have.
Smart plugs don't always have the same easy manual toggle of in-wall switches, so they're usually better for scheduling and automating miscellaneous devices or lamps.
This is an important question to ask, simply because how well your tech cooperates can be as important as the tech itself. As a general rule of thumb, the devices you already use around the house, whether it's an iPad or Android device, Nest or Ecobee, will work better with some switches and plugs than others.
If you use Apple HomeKit-compatible products -- whether that's an Ecobee thermostat or an iPad -- it's worth checking out the iDevices Switches and in-wall outlet. If you use the Nest Learning Thermostat, check out the Zuli Smartplug. If you use SmartThings, check out GE's smart switches.
In other words, whatever technology is already part of your daily habits should work with whatever switches or plugs you want to buy. If you don't know what platform you want your switches or plugs to work with, you'll want to find out which communication protocols to use.
Wireless communication is the basic way smart home devices send data back and forth to each other and to your phone. Pretty much every major smart plug or switch will say on its packaging that it is Z-Wave, ZigBee, Bluetooth or Wi-Fi connected. These are the way devices communicate with other gadgets around the house.
Z-Wave and ZigBee are both radio protocols that require a hub of some sort, to translate the language of the device to a language your phone can understand. These plugs are often more affordable -- if you already use a platform like SmartThings or Lowe's Iris. Z-Wave and ZigBee devices fit well into larger smart home setups. If you just want one or two devices, you probably should look elsewhere.
Bluetooth and Wi-Fi both connect directly to your phone. That means they're perfect as stand-alone products. Bluetooth devices like Zuli plugs don't have the away-from-home remote control of Wi-Fi plugs. But Bluetooth technology allows for presence-reactive automation that the Belkin WeMo Insight Switch, for instance, just can't replicate.
The trick is to find the most affordable switch or plug that meets the needs of your particular setup. These devices typically include any combination of the following features: presence-sensing automation, scheduling, energy monitoring, integrated automation with other smart home gadgets, surge protection and dimming.
The more features you add to a smart plug or switch, the more it will generally cost. A low quality Bluetooth plug like the Nyrius Smart Outlet, for example, will only set you back 25 bucks. A higher quality Bluetooth plug like Zuli's will be closer to $60. But Zuli's presence-sensing feature is far more precise and reliable, and it integrates with other smart home devices.
The best affordable smart plug, with scheduling, power monitoring and remote control, is the $25 Geeni Energi. It's a solid entry point for general usage, which brings us to our final question:
If I were to add a smart plug to my entertainment setup, I would use the Tri Cascade i-Bright7x smart surge protector. It would protect my TV and PlayStation 4 from electrical surges, keep my PS4 on all the time, but allow me to separately cut power to my TV, so it wouldn't suck energy while I'm out of the house. Plus i-Bright has USB chargers, so I could charge my phone anytime I sat down to play for a few hours.
Many smart switches and plugs, like i-Bright, have specialized functions. In-wall switches will mostly reside indoors, along with most smart plugs. But some outdoor plugs, like the GE Plug-in Outdoor Smart Switch or the iDevices Outdoor Switch, are made to withstand exposure to the elements.
Knowing exactly how you plan to use a smart switch or plug can make all the difference in which product you select.
So you know whether you want a switch or plug, what features you want, what platforms and protocols you prefer, and where you plan to use your device. These should lead you in the right direction, but sometimes finding the perfect fit just isn't possible.
The good news is, smart plugs and switches are some of the most flexible devices in the smart home, so creating a personalized setup that you're happy with only takes a little time and research.