Home Automation buying guide

Dreaming of automated smart-home bliss, but unsure of where to start? You've come to the right place.

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Home automation is nothing new, but a recent boom in smart-home tech has thrust it straight into the spotlight. Smart-home kits, sensors and gadgets have been a dominating presence at CES for the past two years, with big names like Apple, Google, GE and Microsoft right there in the thick of it. That's not surprising, given that market experts predict that the smart home's market share will be worth tens of billions within the next few years.

All that action adds up to a rapidly growing number of things in the "Internet of Things," along with a variety of platforms competing to control them all. That might make the idea of getting your smart home started a little bit overwhelming, but don't worry. It's actually easier than ever to start automating your home -- provided you know your options.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

What kinds of 'things' can I automate?

"Smart home" is a pretty broad term, covering a huge number of connected gadgets, systems and appliances that do a wide variety of different things. "Home automation" is slightly less broad, referring specifically to things in your home that can be programmed to function automatically. In years past, those automations were pretty basic -- lamp timers, automated holiday lighting and so on -- but that's fast been changing thanks to the recent sprawl of smart-home tech aimed at mainstream consumers.

The possibilities are immense, ranging from lights and locks to cameras and coffee makers. The common denominator is automation, and a promise that these devices can save you time, save you money or make your life a little easier. An automated lamp might turn on by itself as soon as you walk into the room. An automated thermostat might turn the heat down when it detects you've left for the day, then back on when it thinks you're on your way back.

To cut through all of it and figure out what's most relevant to you, imagine a typical day at home. Are there any devices you regularly turn on and off? Do you regularly adjust your home environment depending on what you're doing? Those regular habits and activities are typically the best candidates for automation. Figure out which ones are most important to you, and you'll have a much better idea of what to look for in the smart home space.

Some of the most popular categories along these lines are lighting, home security, climate control and kitchen automation. In the coming weeks, we'll be exploring all of these in greater detail through a series of additional features, so stay tuned for those.

Mind you, those categories are far from exhaustive. With so much competition, manufacturers are getting increasingly creative in order to stand out from the crowd, which is one of the main reasons that the smart home has diversified as quickly as it has.

Shop around, and you'll find gadgets designed to help you sleep better , devices that promise to smarten up your home entertainment system and even connected tools for more intelligent gardening . We've even reviewed a smart-home piggy bank . Sure, some of these devices come with an extra-high novelty factor, but if they're automating something you care about, then they might merit consideration all the same.

This motion detector from Belkin can trigger your smart-home gadgets when it sees you enter the room. Ry Crist/CNET

How does home automation work?

Think of the automated home as a human body. It needs to be able to sense things, process information and react accordingly. Different smart-home devices do different things, but all of them fall under at least one of those those three functions.

The first function, sense, is arguably the most important, which is why you'll see so many smart-home gadgets with built-in sensors for things like motion and temperature, as well as gadgets dedicated exclusively to monitoring them. These devices are the nervous system of the smart home -- they're able to sense the environment around them in some way, providing vital context for the decisions your automated home is going to make.

You can automate this Lifx smart LED to turn on, turn off or change colors. Tyler Lizenby/CNET

The devices that make those decisions and actually do things are the muscles of the smart home. A motion detector might sense you stepping out of bed in the morning, but it's the automated coffee maker that reacts to that information, starting a brew that'll be ready right as you're getting out of the shower.

Larger, more elaborate setups with lots of different "nerves" and "muscles" might need a separate device or accessory to manage and process all of that information, especially if the different devices aren't able to work directly with one another. Smart homes like these need more than just muscles and nerves -- they need a brain. That's where hubs come in.

A smart hub like the ones from SmartThings and Wink can serve as your smart home's brain. Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Smart hubs are designed to control multiple devices, even ones from different manufacturers. A good one will integrate every smart thing in your home into a single, seamless home automation experience, and offer consolidated controls within a single app.

Typically, a hub will include multiple radios for popular smart home protocols like Z-Wave and Zigbee -- the wireless "languages" of smart-home gadgetry. This allows the hub to "talk" to everything in its native language, then translate that info into a Wi-Fi signal that you (and your router) can understand and put to use. With the right hub, you'll be able to expand your system dramatically without things getting too complicated.

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Another way to give your automated home a brain is to unite your devices behind a singular software platform. That's what Apple's attempting to do with HomeKit, an iOS-based software architecture that'll let you manage multiple third-party devices through your iPhone, with voice control via Siri. You could also make the case that Google's Works with Nest initiative falls into the same category, with a growing number of devices tailoring their own software to mesh well with the high-profile Nest Learning Thermostat .

One other smart home platform you might have heard something about is IFTTT. An acronym for "If This, Then That," IFTTT is a free service that lets you craft automation recipes that link smart gadgets, web services, and online tools. Select a cause ("if this") and an effect ("then that"), and the recipe will run automatically. A social networking recipe might automatically save your Instagram photos to a Dropbox folder, for instance. Once you start adding smart-home gadgets into the mix things get even more interesting, and more and more are joining IFTTT's ranks all the time.

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OK...so how do I get started?

Home automation can conjure Jetsons-esque images of fully mechanized, highly intelligent living spaces. That's a fun ideal, but it's not a terribly practical frame of reference as you start smartening up your home. The better approach is to start small, with one or two things that you'd like to automate.

If you've got a specific vision for want you want your home automation setup to accomplish, all that's left is to study your options, narrow them down, and give one a shot. Our smart-home reviews are designed to help you do exactly that (and our Best Smart Home Gadgets list might help you cut to the chase).

If, on the other hand, you're still a little uncertain, don't worry. There are plenty of smart, affordable entry points that offer surprisingly high levels of functionality, making it easy to experiment and figure out what you want from your connected home.

Keep it simple

The majority of home automation boils down to things turning on and off on their own. To this end, a smart switch capable of controlling anything you plug into it makes a very sensible connected home starting point. There are plenty of options available now from names like Belkin , D-Link , Monster and Quirky , not to mention the soon-to-be-released HomeKit-compatible iDevices Switch .

For now, my pick is the Belkin WeMo Switch , which offers a mature, well-developed system, tons of use scenarios, fairly wide third-party compatibility, and best of all, a price point below $50. Upgrade to the $80 WeMo Switch and Motion package, and you'll get a dedicated motion sensor, too -- a nerve and a muscle to get you started with home automation.

Automating a lamp is a good first step. In my home, I keep my bedroom lamp plugged into a WeMo Switch, with a WeMo Motion Sensor hidden under my wardrobe. In the WeMo app, I created a rule that turns the light on when it's dark out and the motion sensor sees me walk in. A minute after the motion stops, the lamp turns off automatically.

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Once you've got the hang of automating a lamp, you can try automating other things, as well. Coffee makers, desk fans and space heaters all work well with WeMo. You can even plug a power strip into a WeMo Switch, then automate several devices all at once -- a handy way of shutting down TVs, game consoles, and other electronics that can leech power even in the off position.

You can also control the WeMo Switch using IFTTT, with recipes that take your automation capabilities to the next level. You could, for instance, craft a recipe that turns your lamp on whenever your phone enters the area around your home. Or, you could set the light to flash whenever the boss emails (just don't tell him about it, lest he decide to troll you at 4 a.m.)

Try something new

Whether it's a switch or something else, there's a good chance that you'll want to build your smart home's starting point into something a little more complex. If you're adding something to your system, the key is compatibility -- you want something that'll play well with the rest of your system, rather than buying into a separate, walled off ecosystem.

Maybe that means buying an additional device from the same brand as your original purchase, but it doesn't have to. In general, smart-home manufacturers see the value in keeping things at least somewhat open, and many go out of their way to embrace third-party hubs and smart-home platforms as a means of providing compatibility with other gadgets. Understand which systems your existing tech works with, and you'll be able to shop for new toys that'll fit right in.

IFTTT is helpful here, too, as you can sync various gadgets up without needing to spend any extra cash on a hub. Browse the list of supported services and devices -- IFTTT calls them "Channels" -- and you're likely to start getting some fun new ideas for your setup.

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You can also find ways of experimenting with home automation that don't cost anything at all. Many smart devices offer demo modes within their apps that'll let you get the gist of things before you buy anything. Taking things for a test-drive can help you decide whether or not the product fits your needs, and it might also inspire a few new ideas for how you can put it to use.

Some devices go even further, offering full-fledged features within their apps that go way beyond demo territory. The video above is a great example of how you can automate your gardening routine without needing to buy anything.

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Staples Connect sells starter kits that package the hub with compatible smart devices. Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Consider a kit

If your automation ambitions stretch further than a single device, you might consider shopping for a smart home starter kit. Most of the major smart hubs offer at least one kit -- some offer multiple varieties designed to meet different needs. If you're already envisioning a smart home with multiple devices, the chances are good you'll want a hub anyway, so these kits can make for an attractive way to dive right in.

Some kits, like the ones you'll find from SmartThings , include a hub and a collection of proprietary sensors. Others, like kits from Wink and Staples Connect , come packaged with the hub and a variety of compatible third-party gadgets. If you're willing to buy in at a much bigger level, you could even consider whole-home automation packages from high-end subscription services like Control4 or Savant. Whichever way you go, you'll have a lot more options right out of the box than you would if you tried to build your setup one device at a time -- just be careful you don't buy more than you actually want or need.

Colin West McDonald/CNET

The bottom line

Automating your home doesn't need to be daunting. On the contrary, the barrier to entry has never been lower. Today's tech is clamoring for mainstream approval, with an emphasis on ease of use. Competition is bringing prices down, and legitimate platforms are starting to emerge. In sum, it's a great time to give home automation a shot.

With a little research and perhaps a bit of trial and error, you can build a fairly comprehensive smart-home setup if that's what you want. That said, there's nothing wrong with just picking one or two devices that make sense to you and leaving it at that -- for now, at least. For many consumers, that sort of simple, scaled-back approach makes far more sense than a larger, more elaborate setup. Understand your needs, find the devices that meet them, and you'll have an automated home that's smart in more ways than one.