Get started with the smart home – a beginner’s guide

Get started with the smart home – a beginner’s guide

If you’ve clicked on this, you’re probably wondering what a smart home can do. If you’re already a seasoned pro, you’re in the wrong place – this is our explainer on how to go about building a smart home from scratch, and all the things you’ll need to consider.

A smart home doesn’t have to mean completely new and crazy gadgets or robots – though it can if you want. Often it just means replacing gadgets, appliances and accessories with connected or automated versions of a similar thing – smart light bulbs, smart thermostats, smart security systems etc.

What is a smart home?

Connecting the tech in your home to your Wi-Fi network (and to each other) has a few benefits. First up is controls and convenience. You can control everything in real time either from an app on your smartphone or tablet, or from a voice controlled smart speaker. We’ll get to these in a minute. A lot of smart home companies are trying to sell convenience – they will make your life a little easier or save you time on a regular basis.

Second, there’s information. Smart home gadgets can give you easily accessible data on things like security – say, access to a history of smart security camera feeds – to energy – smart meters and energy monitors that tell you (and your utility provider) how much electricity and gas you’re getting through.

Third is automation. If you don’t want to manually control your home gadgets all the time you can go one further and set up scenes, routines and rules. Depending on things like you entering or leaving the house/flat or sensors being triggered, you can set up certain actions as a result. The idea is that your home gets to know you and your family/friends and automatically works based on what’s happening, without the need for your input.

Lastly (and this is only really a taster), well we get to robots. The next steps up from lights that turn red when your smoke alarm goes off are autonomous gadgets that operate themselves. We’re talking robot vacuums, robot lawn mowers and laundry folding robots, all of which currently exist – but generally this category involves plenty of wishful thinking. The smart home can’t do all of your household chores for you – yet.

Get started with the smart home

Where to start on a smart home depends on three things: your budget, time and enthusiasm. Honestly you could just buy one connected home gadget and get going with the individual brand’s app then work any additions out later. For the past five years or so that’s what plenty of people have been doing. More likely is that you will choose to take the plunge with one of the big four smart home ecosystems:

  • Amazon Alexa
  • Google Assistant
  • Apple HomeKit
  • Works with Nest

So how to decide which smart home system is actually best for you?

Amazon’s own range is called Echo and its assistant is Alexa, Google’s series of devices is called Home and its assistant is called Assistant. They’re the big two, and for most people it’s a case of Alexa vs Google Assistant.

Both now offer their assistants on third party speakers from brands like Sony, JBL, Lenovo and more and both offer devices with screens – Amazon has the Echo Show and the Echo Spot, Google’s smart displays are also now landing, with Home Hub leading the way. Alexa and Google Assistant are both compatible with a huge range of other smart home gadgets and appliances and are very beginner friendly too.

Apple HomeKit is the obvious choice for Apple loyalists. You will be able to control everything from the Apple Home app for iOS, the Apple TV box and the Apple HomePod speaker with its own voice assistant, Siri. If you’re privacy conscious, this might also be for you – Apple has been the most vocal about protecting personal data it captures.

How to build your smart home system

Once you have chosen your smart home hub or controller, what’s next? A good way to think about building your system is to pick a home category then look around for products that work with the ecosystem you’ve chosen.

The most popular categories in the smart home right now are kitchen appliances, baby monitors, cameras, doorbells, garden, lighting, networking, security systems, speakers and thermostats. So a good move is to dig into one of those, see what looks like a good fit using our buyers guides:

  • Best smart light bulb buying guide
  • Best smart thermostat buying guide
  • Best smart speakers buying guide
  • Best smart security camera buying guide
  • Best smart TV buying guide
  • Best streaming sticks and boxes buying guide
  • Best smart lock buying guide
  • Best multi room speakers buying guide
  • Best robot vacuum cleaner buying guide

But if you’ve chosen an ecosystem you can use our guides to find what devices are compatible. We’ve got dedicated pages covering what smart home devices work with Alexa, which will also give you some inspiration if you’re taking the plunge with an Echo speaker. Plus we’ve also got features on what smart home devices work with Google Assistant, Apple HomeKit compatible devices and Works With Nest devices.

While ecosystems like Google Assistant or Amazon can pull all your devices together, there are still ecosystems of devices – and a prime example is Nest. This is a good choice for anyone with a bit more cash who is happy to pay for a polished, all-round system – comprising a thermostat, Protect smoke alarm, Cam and Cam IQ security cameras and the Secure alarm system – all of which work with a lot of other products

Explainers: What is Zigbee? & What is Z-Wave?

Nest is also being folded back into Google so over time, these two will become one super ecosystem. It’s also likely that Google will hold some of the better features back for its own assistant, as its battle with Alexa hots up.

If one device doesn’t quite play nice with another or you end up with with a mixture of compatible products, look into a smart home hub or an app based hub like IFTTT, or Yonomi. These are free platforms that are very handy for setting up automation scenes and for plugging the gaps while manufacturers get their act together and make everything work with everything.