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How to get started with home automation

Diving into home automation can feel overwhelming, but the learning curve isn't as steep as you might think.

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If the term "smart home" fills you with confusion, you aren't alone. It's a fairly nebulous tech category that can cover everything from voice-controlled thermostats to app-enabled ovens . But forget about all of that for now.

At the most fundamental level, smart home products are just trying to make your life simpler. Now, not every device succeeds at that, but the particularly well-executed few really will work wonders.

And instead of focusing on smart-home buzzwords like IFTTT, ZigBee and Z-Wave , just think about some of the mundane day-to-day tasks that you'd love to never think about again -- turning off your lights, adjusting your thermostat , wondering if you locked your front door (after you've already left the house).

We'll start with just one smart home product here that's especially well-suited for beginners, but there are a lot of excellent devices out there that can help automate all sorts of functions in and around your home. And, if this captures your interest, we'll show you how to take your automation savvy to the next level.

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Replace that analog light timer with a Belkin WeMo Switch. Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Gateway to the smart home

You have probably already automated your home at one time or another without even thinking about it. For instance, you may have used an analog timer, like the one pictured above, to program a lamp to turn on or off at set times when you're on vacation, or even to control holiday lighting. The same sort of dial-timer is also commonly used to schedule sprinkler systems.

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The green light means that your device is currently on. Press the power button to turn it off from anywhere you have an Internet connection. Screenshot by Megan Wollerton/CNET

One of the easiest ways to get started in the smart home is to upgrade from this classic, but comparatively clunky and tough-to-use timer to a smart plug, like the $50 Belkin WeMo Switch (£35 in the UK, AU$58 in Australia). The Belkin WeMo Switch is a pretty significant step up from the old-school analog timer, but it isn't difficult to set up or use.

It takes the same basic scheduling feature, but also gives you control on your phone or tablet. Not only that, but Belkin WeMo Switches aren't limited to lamps. You can plug in pretty much any small appliance you want -- an iron, a space heater, a fan, a coffee maker -- and, if you can't remember if you turned your iron off before you headed out to work for the day, you only have to check the app and press "off" on the digital power button.

Setting it up is easy, too. Download the Belkin WeMo app on your Android or iOS device, open it up, and select Belkin WeMo Switch/Motion (the motion portion isn't relevant here). Plug in the WeMo Switch, open your phone's settings, select the WeMo Wi-Fi network, return to the app, enter in your personal Wi-Fi details and you're ready to plug something into the Switch, create schedules for it and, if needed, turn it on or off from anywhere with the app (as long as your phone has a Wi-Fi or cellular connection).

What's next?

There are a lot of directions that you can go after trying out something like a smart plug. One Belkin WeMo Switch might max out your home-automation needs, but someone else may want to pick up another smart-home device , try out an IFTTT recipe, or even expand to a multiprotocol hub. Consider reading this post if you're interested in the next steps, but we'll give you fair warning now -- you might get hooked.