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Smart Home

How my new daughter totally justified blowing $1,000 on smart home tech

Commentary: Alexa can be a new parent's best friend.

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June Elise Hollister.

Sean Hollister/CNET

This is June Elise Hollister. She's two months old, and she's the love of my life.

She's also the reason my home -- my lights, thermostat, TV and video-streaming gadgets -- now responds to my voice.

I don't have to set June down and risk waking her up if I want to dim the lights, pause a movie or lower the volume. If the family's in bed and we forgot to turn something off -- or if it's a little chilly -- I can fix it all with some voice commands or a few taps on my phone.

Until about three months ago, the idea of a "smart home" was a novelty to me. An expensive one too -- one that I couldn't justify spending hard-earned dollars on. Even when I finally bought an inexpensive Amazon Echo Dot, it pretty much sat idle after the initial thrill of asking trivia questions wore off.

But when it got harder and harder for my pregnant wife to leave the couch (and when it finally sunk in that a baby was about to change my life) I wondered if a small investment in smart home tech might be worth my while.

Two different looks for the Amazon Echo Dot -- the inexpensive, voice-activated hub that ties my simple smart home together.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET


I started small, with a set of plain white Philips Hue connected bulbs to see whether a little bit of voice-activated light might help. I added our Nest thermostat -- a device we'd only previously used to help save some money on our utility bill. Soon I realized that the black hockey-puck like device under my TV set -- a Logitech Harmony Hub -- would let me control my home entertainment system with Alexa voice commands as well.

After making just three small changes, it blew my mind how quickly it became second nature to ask "Alexa" to do things. It wasn't just a parlor trick my wife and I pulled out when guests came to visit. Every evening we'd ask Alexa to "set the bedroom lights to one percent" so we could safely put June to bed without tripping over dog toys or waking her up.

The Philips Hue White Starter Kit. No fancy color changes, just some high quality, no-nonsense white LED bulbs you can dim or turn off with voice commands.

Ry Crist/CNET

That's all it took. I screwed in a few bulbs, plugged a brick into my Wi-Fi router, pressed a pairing button and logged into a few accounts through Amazon's app -- and I had a smart home, just like that. The hardest part was getting the Harmony to do everything I wanted.

Soon I bought another set of Hue bulbs for the stairway. I bought a second Echo Dot for the bedroom (they're smart enough to make sure only the closest one responds to commands). I surprised my wife with an early Christmas present by sneakily installing a set of Hue bulbs in the living room ceiling fixture.

Now, we can dim the lights for a movie, then quickly brighten them if June needs to be changed, without fumbling for a switch.

The $100 Logitech Harmony Hub can help you control your entertainment system with Alexa or your phone, but you might sometimes find a better deal on the Logitech Smart Control (a package deal with the Hub that also includes a traditional remote).

Sarah Tew/CNET


I even bought a smart lock -- though one without a motorized deadbolt inside, so I wouldn't have to hire a professional to re-align my crooked front door. Even so, the digital keypad means I can quickly open the door with just one hand, no fumbling in my pocket for a key -- which means I never need to set down June's carseat.

Realizing I could get more bang for my buck by replacing light switches (instead of each individual bulb in a light fixture), I installed a TP-Link Wi-Fi switch in the office (where the best light source weirdly didn't have a toggle near the entrance of the room), and a GE Z-Wave dimmer in the dining alcove (where the LED bulbs I'd installed had always been a bit too bright for a comfy meal).

I'd recommend the TP-Link, since it didn't require me to buy a dedicated Z-Wave hub.

Smart switches (or dimmers) might be more cost-effective than smart bulbs, but you'll have to do some wiring.

Ry Crist/CNET


If I were doing it all over again, I'd have used more smart switches. Even though I'm very happy with the Philips Hue bulbs so far, they have one simple flaw: if you turn them off with your old light switches, they don't have power, so you can't use your voice to turn them back on.

Of course, installing light switches means messing with electrical cables inside your walls. My colleague Ry Crist wrote a great primer on smart bulbs and switches, if you're not sure which might be best for you.

As of today, I've spent well over US $700 on my smart home -- call it $1,000 after tax, if you bought the same parts yourself today. (I found a bunch of sales, and a couple of friends chipped in for the switches.) Here's the full list of parts I've added so far:

Sure, that's a lot of money. But I'd do it again, in a heartbeat, now that I know just how busy the hands of new parents can be.

The first time I was able to pause a movie, raise the lights to change June's diaper, dim the lights to settle her back down to sleep, then carry her to bed with both hands free and without a single bright light shining into her eyes -- that's when I knew my smart home was worth every cent.