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Smart starts for a connected home

Home automation has never been more accessible, but with lots and lots of intriguing ways to smarten up your living space, where's the best place to start?

If you're a newbie who wants to jump in, but you're overwhelmed by all of the options, don't worry. We've got tons of suggestions for the best gadgets you can buy to get your smart home started off right. Scroll on through and I'll walk you through them.

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Philips Hue White

If you're trying to narrow your options down, think about the things you use in your home each and every day, because those are often the best targets for automation.

Lights are a great example, and the Philips Hue White Starter Kit, which was named an Editors' Choice here on CNET, is a terrific pick. At $70 for a two-bulb kit that includes the all-important Hue Bridge, the Hue White kit is much easier to afford than Hue's color-changing kits (and you can always add color-changing bulbs to your setup later if you so choose). It's also a rock-solid lighting system that's easy to get started with and easy to build upon -- plus, Hue bulbs work with just about everything you could think of.

Published:Caption:Photo:Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Lifx Mini

If you'd rather get started with color-changing light right from the get-go, then consider the Lifx Mini. At $45, it isn't cheap, but it's a lot less expensive than the color-changing Philips Hue starter kit, which costs $200. If you just want to try a bulb out in your bedroom or in a living room lamp, it's the better pick.

On top of that, it works with just about everything that Hue does, and doesn't require you to plug a hub into your router. Just screw the bulb in, pair it with your phone using the Lifx app, and start searching for your favorite shades.

Published:Caption:Photo:Lifx

Nanoleaf Light Panels

Another option if you're feeling like something even showier -- Nanoleaf's color-changing light panels. You can get nine of them for $229, and like the Lifx bulbs, you don't need a hub to connect with them or control them. Plus, they work with Alexa, Siri, the Google Assistant, IFTTT and more.

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Lutron Caseta Smart Light Switch

If you're comfortable with a little wiring, then Lutron's Caseta smart lighting system belongs right at the top of your list. It's one of the most reliable smart-home gadgets we've ever tested, it works with everything, and the switches use their own proprietary signal to talk to one another. Translation: fill your house with these things and they won't bog down your Wi-Fi network.

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Amazon Echo Dot

At just $50, the ultrapopular Amazon Echo Dot might be one of the easiest recommendations for smart-home newbies. There are countless ways to put "Alexa," Amazon's voice-activated virtual assistant to use, and tons of smart-home devices you can ask her to control. Even if you ultimately decide that those smart-home tricks aren't for you, the Dot is still arguably worth it for the voice-activated music, podcasts, news headlines and kitchen timers alone.

Published:Caption:Photo:Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Google Home Mini

I could make the exact same case for the equally cheap Google Home Mini. So I will!

Like the Dot, the Home Mini costs just $50 and offers a veritable slew of nifty, voice-activated tricks for a smarter home. It does just about everything that the Dot does and works with almost all of the same smart-home gadgets, too. Many also prefer the fabric-bodied design. And again, literally worth it for the kitchen timers alone.

Published:Caption:Photo:Chris Monroe/CNET

Joule Sous Vide Circulator

Speaking of kitchen timers, we've seen plenty of nifty smart kitchen gadgets emerge over the past few years, a couple of which would make an excellent first gadget for a longtime foodie and aspiring techie.

For instance, this Joule Sous Vide Circulator is terrific at cooking all sorts of food to the perfect temperature, and you can control it from your phone or with voice commands for a more convenient kitchen experience. It's a favorite of CNET editor and foodie Sharon Profis, pictured here, and our smart kitchen guru Ashlee Clark Thomson swears by it, too, giving it the edge over the also-excellent Anova Precision Cooker.

Published:Caption:Photo:Josh Miller/CNET

Perfect steak

I mean, come on. Look at that steak. What's not smart about edge-to-edge perfection?

Published:Caption:Photo:Chris Monroe/CNET

Sear

Just remember to give it a quick sear after the sous vide cook is done. Fun pro tip: you can also finish things off using a butane cooking torch.

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Instant Pot Smart

Here's another cooking gizmo that our smart kitchen experts swear by: the Instant Pot Smart. With app-enabled smart features and dedicated presets that can pressure cook or slow cook just about anything you could dream up, it's a smart kitchen superstar. Everybody I know who owns one swears by the thing.

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Behmor Brazen Connected Coffee Maker

One more recommendation for folks looking to start their smart home out with a kitchen gadget: the Behmor Brazen Connected Coffee Maker. CNET coffee expert Brian Bennett has tested all sorts of coffee makers, and tells me that this one -- which you can automate to have a morning pot o' joe ready to go as soon as you step out of bed -- is one of his favorites.

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Belkin Wemo Mini Smart Switch

Of course, you could also automate a coffeemaker -- or anything else with a plug on it -- by plugging it into the WeMo Mini Smart Switch from Belkin. Currently available for $30, it's a great low-cost option for adding a little bit of automation into your home, and it works with just about everything -- Alexa, Siri, the Google Assistant, IFTTT, SmartThings, Wink, you name it.

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iHome iSP8 Smart Plug

Another option that works with just about everything: the iHome iSP8 Smart Plug. It's just about indistinguishable from the WeMo Mini, so if you catch it on sale at a better price, give it a shot.

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Eufy Mini Smart Plug

If you just want the cheapest decent option, then take a look at the Eufy Mini. It doesn't work with quite as many platforms as the WeMo Mini, but it works with most of the major ones. Best of all, you can get it for just $25.

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iDevices Switch

Want a more premium, more futuristic feel from your smart plug? More power to you. I'd recommend the iDevices Switch -- it's a touch more expensive than the others I just mentioned, but it works great and kind of looks like a Cylon to boot.

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Ecobee4

Thinking about trying a smarter thermostat? The Ecobee4, with built-in Alexa voice controls, is one of our current favorites, thanks to a sleek design, reliable performance and an easy learning curve. It's not just Alexa, either -- you can change the temperature using voice commands with Google or Siri, too, plus a whole host of other nifty integrations.

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Nest Thermostat E

If you'd rather go with Nest, then my recommendation is to skip the stainless steel and go with the Nest Thermostat E, which is less expensive but just as smart (and just as good looking, if you ask me). Like Ecobee, Nest makes it really easy for beginners to start automating their home's heating and cooling because it learns what you like and anticipates your needs. One point of note: Nest gadgets don't work with Apple HomeKit, or with Siri.

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Honeywell Lyric T5

Available right now for just $100, the Honeywell Lyric T5 is even less expensive than the Nest E, and it offers all sorts of cool features to help you automate your HVAC (and unlike Nest, it works with Apple HomeKit, too). If you can tolerate the geeky and arguably dated design, it's one of our favorite smart thermostat value picks.

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Emerson Sensi

Emerson's Sensi thermostat is another exceptional value pick in the smart thermostat category, and its newest models look strikingly better than before.

Published:Caption:Photo:Emerson

August Smart Lock

You could also start your smart home right at the front door by upgrading to a smart deadbolt. This third-gen August Smart Lock is one of our current favorites, and it while it doesn't look quite as striking as the original, it costs less. It's a great pick for smart home newbies who want better control over who has access to their home, and when. Plus, if you ever get into bed and realize you forgot to lock the door, you can just tell Alexa or Siri to lock up for you.

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Yale Assure SL Keyless Deadbolt

Want something that feels a little fancier? Consider this keyless touchscreen lock from Yale (and don't worry, there's a really clever trick that'll let you in if the thing runs out of batteries). 

It's a good pick if you're security-minded -- statistically speaking, the keyway is the most vulnerable part of any deadbolt, and this one doesn't have one at all.

Published:Caption:Photo:Chris Monroe/CNET

Kwikset Obsidian Keyless Deadbolt

Another keyless option for you -- the Kwikset Obsidian. It's very similar to the Yale lock, and like that one, it'll work with a variety of smart home platforms in case you ever decide to expand your setup beyond the front door.

Published:Caption:Photo:Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Schlage Sense Bluetooth Deadbolt

Schlage also makes a wide variety of smart locks, including touchscreen models like the Bluetooth deadbolt seen here. Like the others, they're a good fit if you're planning on expanding your smart-home setup, because they work with a decent variety of platforms.

Published:Caption:Photo:Ry Crist/CNET

VIDEO: 10 best smart-home gadgets for newbies

The smart home has never been more accessible, so what's the best place to start?

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