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5 rules for buying smart-home devices with no regrets

A no-nonsense guide to buying a smart-home device you're going to love.

Having a home that's connected to the Internet can make life a lot easier. You can connect practically anything in your home -- your front door, garage, kitchen, lights, and more -- and control it from just about anywhere in the world. But there are some things to consider before diving in and creating your own smart home.

1. Try the app first.

When you start connecting appliances and other products to the internet and adding new features to them, basic functions can become more complicated.

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Tyler Lizenby/CNET

For instance, installing a smart bulb isn't as simple as screwing it into the proper socket -- you also have to connect it to an application or your account. If you want it to work a specific way in different situations, you will also have to set up a series of rules. This setup process usually has a learning curve, some steeper than others.

A great way to get a feel for the setup process and see how you will be interfacing with your smart devices is to check out the applications in the App Store or Google Play beforehand. Read through some of the reviews, both good and bad, to gauge how well-rounded and easy the accompanying apps are to use and navigate. You might even be able to try apps in a demo mode before you connect any devices.

2. Do research on firmware updates (but don't always expect them).

Smart home technology is accelerating rapidly. So much so that first- or second-generation hardware is being replaced at a speedy pace.

Since connected products rely on other devices -- namely smartphones or tablets -- to work properly, compatibility issues can arise when mobile software updates outpace your smart device. This is especially true with smart hubs, growing HomeKit support, and devices like Amazon's Echo.

Most recently, Philips released a new HomeKit-compatible version of its Hue hub , leaving first-generation Hue users without HomeKit support. The same happened to August Smart Lock early adopters, and it won't be the last we hear of this type of problem.

3. Find out if you'll have to undo installation (and if it's easily undoable).

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Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Before installing a smart device, consider your current living conditions. Do you rent a home or an apartment? If so, you might want to check with your landlord before using smart products that could permanently change your dwelling.

The August Smart Lock , for example, requires modifying the existing deadbolt. While swapping out the thermostat with something like the Nest has fewer implications, some installations require modifying the wiring, which you'll have to undo when you move out.

For easy-to-install products like smart bulbs, it probably won't be an issue, but err on the safe side and check with your landlord to get permission before upgrading your locks or thermostat.

4. Accept the smart device premium.

Almost all smart products have at least one thing in common: they're considerably more expensive than their non-smart counterparts.

Non-smart LED bulbs can be purchased for between $8 and $15, while smart bulbs from the Philips Hue line, Lifx, and competing brands start around $60 per bulb.

But it's not just light bulbs. A low-tech, 12-cup programmable coffee maker by Mr. Coffee retails for around $30, while the 10-cup WeMo-compatible maker by the same company is priced at $150.

Until connected products are as common as non-connected ones, expect to see a disparity in prices. Right now, buying a smart product means convenience, not savings. Is unlocking the front door to your home with your smartphone worth a $200 investment? Is controlling every light in your house with your phone more convenient than using switches on the wall?

5. Make sure it works with your current (and future) smart devices.

As you introduce new smart products to your home, make preferences for ones that are compatible with many other smart devices (and the ones you already own). The more devices or services one smart product can communicate with, the better.

Apple's HomeKit allows you to connect a wide selection of smart devices to your iPhone, iPad, or iPod and control them using Siri voice commands. Works With Nest is a similar certification that allows your smart devices to communicate with Nest products, learn about you and your habits, and begin truly automating your home.

If your smart devices aren't compatible with HomeKit or Works With Nest, there are still some options, such as IFTTT (If This Then That), which connects many online services with several smart devices and allows you to automate with a series of triggers and actions, called recipes.

If you can connect, say, your light bulbs to IFTTT, you can create virtually endless rules for how they will act. You can have your kitchen or bedroom lights toggle off when you exit a geofence around your house. Even if your other smart products -- like a connected coffeemaker or smart locks -- are not compatible with IFTTT, it may be compatible with a hub that is.

Double-check compatibility and interoperability before pulling the trigger on a smart product. It's probably worth paying a few dollars more upfront for something that will talk and communicate with other products, rather than having to replace early investments later on with devices with broader compatibility.

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