Smart Homes


Do you want to turn your home or apartment into a fancy, voice-controlled “Smart Home” but don’t know where to start? If that’s sounds like you, or if you’re just curious as to what all the hype is about with Amazon Echo and Google Home, then follow me as I dig up the most versatile and cost-effective options on the market right now.

Note: all of the devices and systems that I will be detailing will have a focus on ease of setup and low cost, so that means wireless (mostly) and no subscription fees. Let’s dig!

  1. The Assistant: This will be the face – err… voice of your smart home, and while not a vital device for your smart home, it will surely make it more personal and interactive. This is where you have probably heard of or seen commercials for Amazon Echo and Google Home. I will focus on these two as they offer the most in terms of function and usability with other smart devices and controllers.

    a. Amazon Echo ($179)– This black, futuristic, Pringles Can look-alike came to the market as the first “Always On” home assistant. It can answer questions, place your Amazon orders, and provide streaming music through its built-in speaker. It can also track your phone, manage your calendar, and perform other duties like ordering food and Uber. There is more support for services on Amazon Echo than Google Home (for now), with “Alexa Skills” that you can download, giving you the ability to do things like read your Twitter feed out loud. At the time of this writing, Amazon Echo connects to more Smart Home controllers and devices than Google Home (Nest, Phillips, SmartThings, Belkin, Wink, Insteon, Wemo, and more), but the voice search and assistant function doesn’t hold a flame to…

    b. Google Home ($129) – Arriving after Amazon started the virtual home assistant party, Google Home is by no means second fiddle. With the same abilities to stream music with its built-in speaker, take and place orders, and manage your calendar, Google Home rises above with features like synced multi-room audio. That means you can sync multiple Homes around your, well, home, and control/listen to music in any rooms you have the devices in. Google Home may not have as much support for Smart Home systems and devices (for now), but it does have support for the most common ones (Phillips Hue, Nest, SmartThings, IFTTT) and that list is sure to grow. Plus, it syncs with your Google account, so it can give you a much more integrated personalized experience, like traffic conditions to work and the ability to, say, cast pictures of cats that you’ve taken in Google Photos to your TV. Because this is a Google product, follow-up questions are no problem, as it remembers the previous question for context. Oh, and there’s built-in “Cast” ability to or from any device that has the feature.

  2. The Devices: This is where you can really let your imagination run wild (within the compatibility limitations of Amazon Echo or Google Home, if you choose one), and there is no shortage of companies and devices to choose from. For cost, I personally have SmartThings by Samsung; they offer a ton of different devices and they cover most usage cases. One thing to definitely keep in mind when looking at devices and hubs is what the primary function or purpose for the setup will be. Are you looking for lighting/temperature automation (control lights/thermostat with your voice?), are you looking for a security solution (live video feed on your phone and text messages whenever motion is detected or a door is opened?), or a blend of the two? Keeping your primary objective in mind will keep you from getting overwhelmed with all of the sensors and devices that are out there and going overboard buying things you won’t actually use; after all, you can always add more sensors/devices later.

    a. Sensors: These are the “nerves” that detect things like motion, moisture, open/closed, smoke, your proximity, etc. If you want a cheap home security system, sensors will be your best friend; buy a couple of door/window sensors, a motion detector, and boom: you now have 24/7 monitoring that texts you whenever anything changes. Add even more function like the ability to turn on lights and view live video feed from your phone with…

    b. Devices: These are what make your home smart. With dozens of options for lighting, dimmers, outlets, speakers, cameras, locks… The options really are endless, and as long as the device is compatible with the system you choose, you aren’t limited to manufacturer. The key here is generally to stick with larger manufacturers, as the smaller ones have a tendency to be more proprietary.

    c. Software: This is the cherry on top and the glue that holds everything together. The software (more than likely an Android or iPhone app) will be the tool that you use to tell your smart home what to do and when to do it. This is where you’ll give it marching orders like “When I arrive home, turn on the hallway lights and raise the thermostat temperature” or “When movement is detected while I’m at work, record video and text me.” These apps are easy to use, with a focus on simplicity (no Python or Java experience necessary), and most of them are free!

With the variety of devices, sensors, and appliances out there that are “Smart,” you can automate practically any task that you find yourself repeating on a regular basis or at least that you would do on a regular basis.

Now if only someone could come up with a washing machine and dryer that automatically folded clothes….