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Smart home buying guide

How to customize your own smart home

In this article: A rundown of easy ways to smarten up different areas of your home — along with some advice on how to make it all work together ...

  1. Voice assistants
  2. Smart home hubs
  3. Smart lights, plugs, and switches
  4. Smart home security
  5. Smart home monitoring
  6. Smart locks
  7. Smart thermostats
  8. Smart health devices

... plus some tips on securing your home network and a few IoT devices I'm excited about.

The Internet of Things is growing. And that’s cool. There are so many ways to make our homes safer, more efficient, and more fun.  We can now lock our doors, control our lights, and talk to our dogs even when we are miles from home.

It’s almost overwhelming how many opportunities we have to smarten up our homes with app- and voice-controlled devices. Fortunately, there are some easy ways to dip a toe in the home automation waters to see if it’s right for you. And if you’re already all in on Smart Home, I’ll share some of my favorite gear for every budget.

Getting started

Think about what would make your life a little easier. For me, it was being able to turn the lights off from bed when I’m stuck under a cat. Fortunately, lighting is a super-easy entry point into the smart home realm. All it took to achieve my dream of lights out with zero cat displacement was a relatively inexpensive bulb with app control.

But when I got a taste for it and started adding more smart gear, I was bummed to realize that my first bulb only worked with HomeKit and not the Alexa devices I ended up adding. So even if you are just starting out, it’s worth considering the ways you might want to later expand your system.

Ask for what you want

Voice assistants are a great way to start building a smart home system. And if you start there, it’s fairly easy to make sure you stick with devices that are compatible. With the vast array of gadgets available now, it’s kind of nice to narrow your focus to one path.

Amazon Echo Dot
Google Nest Audio

Google Assistant or Amazon Alexa — it's a choice you'll have to make (or not, as loads of devices are compatible with both).

And good news — if you’ve got a smartphone, you’ve probably got a voice assistant already — which means you don’t necessarily need to buy a separate device for voice control. Most Android phones have the option to use Google Assistant and some have Alexa Built-in. iPhones, of course, have Siri.

If you want to build an Apple-based ecosystem, you’ll want to look for smart gear that’s HomeKit compatible. I'm an iPhone user, and I love that I can control most of my smart lights right from my lock screen if I don't feel like talking to Siri. One downside is there just aren’t as many compatible devices so it’s not a bad idea to buy devices that are also compatible with Alexa or Google Home — just in case.

And if you want a basic standalone voice assistant for the house, both Amazon Alexa and Google Nest offer reasonably priced entry-level models.

Google Nest Hub, showing the video from a doorbell camera

You can also get voice assistant devices that provide helpful visual feedback.

If you want a voice assistant so you can ask for your favorite tunes, then make sure the one you choose works with the sound system you have. For example, I can ask my Alexa device to play songs on my Sonos speakers. If you don’t already have a system in place, check out the growing number of smart speakers with built-in voice control.

Do you need a smart home hub?

Short answer: probably not. Standalone smart home hubs used to be a common requirement if you wanted to control gear from multiple manufacturers, but that’s not really true anymore.

If you stick to devices that work with your chosen voice assistant, then controlling everything seamlessly should not be a problem. In this scenario, your voice assistant essentially acts as a hub that can operate various devices that connect directly to your Wi-Fi.

You can also use a cloud-based platform, like IFTTT, to create automations. IFTTT lets you choose all kinds of triggers (if this) to enable almost endless actions (then that) across a wide variety of smart home devices. For example, you can have your smart hallway lights come on when you unlock your smart lock.

I haven't gotten too into automations, but I appreciate that I can control most everything with Alexa or my Brilliant Smart Home Control (more on that shortly).

Upgrade your lights and more

There are so many ways to smarten up your lighting — bulbs, plugs, standalone fixtures, switches. I've tried them all, and they vary greatly in their ease of setup. Adding bulbs and plugs is a cinch, while wired fixtures and most switches require some electrical DIY skills. 

Smart bulbs

Swapping out your old bulbs with smart ones is how most people start a smart lighting system and for good reason — it's as easy as changing a light bulb. As I mentioned, I tried a cheap and simple “smart” bulb first, but it didn't have the range of compatibility I was looking for.

Since then, I’ve also added some hub-based Hue lighting to my home. I got a starter pack that included the required bridge along with three bulbs that are part of Hue’s “White and Color Ambiance” collection. There are some extra steps in this scenario — setting up the bridge, creating an account, adding all the lights. But now I’ve got app- and voice-controlled smart home lighting that can display my choice of 16 million colors — pretty cool.

Philips Hue app on an Apple Watch

Philips Hue Filament Bulb Dimmable warm white smart LED light bulb

My Apple Watch is yet another way I can control my HomeKit-compatible smart home gadgets — like these Hue filament bulbs in my library.

Hue now offers a variety of bulbs that work with their Bluetooth app — no hub required. The downside is that there is no away-from-home control and devices are limited in both range and number. But you can always add a Bridge later to enjoy more features.

If you want Wi-Fi connected lights that don't require a hub, check out LIFX, WiZ, and Satco StarfishGE also offers a reasonably priced selection of smart lighting with either Bluetooth or Wi-Fi control options.

Smart lightstrips, lamps, and fixtures

There are a lot of smart home lighting options that have a bulb or LEDs built in. Plug-and-play models like my Hue Signe lamp are as easy as plugging into power, and they can be moved easily from room to room.  Wired fixtures are obviously a more permanent solution and require some electrical handiness. And lightstrips are a great way to add some subtle mood lighting behind your TV or under cabinets. 

Phillips Hue Play light

These Hue Play Light Bars make it easy and fun to add ambiance to any room. Add the sync box to coordinate your lights to movies and games.

Smart plugs

I also have a couple different kinds of smart plugs. They are great for instantly adding app and voice control to lamps, fans, and pretty much anything else you can think to plug in.

My Wemo smart plugs work with Alexa, so it's really easy to control connected devices. I have a turntable paired with a set of powered speakers in my library. But I found it annoying to constantly reach behind the turntable and the speakers to turn them on. So I plugged the speakers, turntable, and a set of under-shelf lights into a power strip, which I then plugged into my Wemo (named "Vinyl" in the Wemo app). Now, if I want to listen to a record, I just ask Alexa to turn it on for me. Or, I pull up "vinyl" on the screen of my Brilliant control (more on that shortly).

Keep in mind that every device you plug into a power strip this way will count toward the limit of the smart plug it's connected to — so don't overload it by plugging in a lot of power-hungry things.

Christmas lights plugged into a Belkin Wemo WiFi smart plug

I use a smart plug to turn on a set of seasonal lights every day at 4pm.

Smart switches

For me the downside of smart bulbs is that you can no longer use the wall switch to turn them off. That's why many smart home fans turn to switches. Some smart bulbs have standalone switches that you can add to your system for folks who don't want to use an app. I added a Hue Dimmer Switch to control the filament bulbs in my office, which also doubles as a guest room (and guests tend to like to control their own lighting). 

An alternative is to replace the entire wall switch with a Wi-Fi connected one. Some even add dimming functionality to the connected bulbs in addition to app control. Others — like Brilliant — can do even more.

Brilliant is a wall-mounted touchscreen that has built-in Amazon Alexa and can control loads of smart home gear and Sonos speakers. This smart home controller is a great way to share access with guests or members of the household who don’t need or want all the apps on their phones. I installed two of them in my home, so check out my full review on them here if you want to know more.

Brilliant double switch smart home controller

Lights connected to Brilliant can be controlled using the screen or the sliders.

Swapping out your wall switches is very doable if you are comfortable with some basic electrical DIY. If you’ve never looked behind your switches, definitely do it before you purchase a smart switch to make sure all the wires you need are there, especially if you have an older home. And don’t forget to turn off the appropriate breaker first!

Create a safer and more efficient home

A lot of smart devices are designed to add convenience and fun, but there’s also a large number of Wi-Fi connected gadgets that can help make your home secure.

Smart home security

An obvious way to do that is with a wireless home security system. It’s now easier than ever to keep an eye on entryways, outbuildings, and yards. Your smartphone can notify you when a sensor is triggered, helping you feel more secure even when you’re sleeping, working, or on vacation.

Ring video doorbell 2

A video doorbell is a great starting point for DIY smart home security.

If a whole-home system is more than you want or can afford right now, start with a video doorbell or wireless camera. Personally, adding a Ring Video Doorbell gave me a major peace-of-mind boost. I love knowing when someone is approaching my door — even when I’m at home. I also like being able to see when packages get delivered or when my dogs go out for their midday walks while I’m away at the office. I also added a Ring Floodlight Cam so I can keep an eye on my backyard.

Google Nest cameras are also easy to integrate into your smart home system.

Smart water, smoke, and carbon monoxide detectors

Ring is constantly expanding their selection of gear, and they have some cool smart home devices that are aimed at preventing major damage to your home. The Flood and Freeze Sensor detects water leaks and temperatures below 40°F. The Smoke and CO Listener will send you a notification if your existing smoke or carbon monoxide alarm goes off. They both use Z-Wave technology for a low-energy, long-range wireless connection. The downside is that you must also have the Ring Alarm System in place in order for them to work.

Standalone smart home products might cost a bit more, but they don’t require a separate hub or device in order to work. For example, Google Nest Protect is a smoke and carbon monoxide detector that can notify you of a problem via the app — or out loud in actual words if you’re at home. And if you’ve got a Google Nest Thermostat, it can turn off your gas furnace when your Nest Protect senses rising levels of carbon monoxide.

One of the coolest, most useful products I’ve seen in a while is Flo by Moen. This small Wi-Fi connected device attaches to your main water line and constantly monitors the pressure, temperature, and flow of water into your house. The app alerts you to tiny leaks that cost you money and can be early indicators of potential pipe bursts later. And if Flo detects a drastic change, it will shut off the water before it can devastate your home. It can also shut off the water if this leak detector senses excess moisture (sold separately).

Flo by Moen

The Flo app lets you track historical water usage and set goals for your family's water consumption. You can also turn your water on and off from wherever you are.

Smart locks

Smart locks let you lock and unlock the door while you’re away. You can let in out-of-town guests, dogwalkers, or contractors from wherever you are. Smart locks can often work in conjunction with smart keypads, doorbells, and cameras so you can be sure you are letting in the right people.

August Smart Lock Pro + Connect Smart lock and Wi-Fi® bridge for keyless home entry

The August Smart Lock Pro + Connect also includes DoorSense™ technology that can tell you if your door is open or closed.

Smart thermostats

When you connect your thermostat to your home network, you take direct control of your comfort. Even better, you'll find you can save money on energy bills. You can change temperature settings from the couch or the car. You can prioritize efficiency by setting a temperature schedule so the HVAC system only runs when you're home. You have complete control from any location.

Honeywell smart thermostat

A smart thermostat can help you save on heating and cooling bills.

Smart health devices

If you want to use some smart gadgets to keep an eye on your health, there are app-connected ways to track your weight, sleep, temperature, and blood pressure. And smart watches do a lot more than track your steps now.

A man using Withings BPM Connect Smart blood pressure monitor and showing the app screen

This smart blood pressure cuff can track stats for up to eight users.

The importance of a robust and secure Wi-Fi network

While some “smart” gear can be app-controlled with a simple Bluetooth connection, most devices require Wi-Fi — especially if you want them to work together in a unified way (that sort of convenience is what it’s all about after all). That means a lot of devices, bridges, and hubs will be connecting to your network, so you want to make sure that network is robust.

IoT devices are also a potential weakness in your home’s security, so you’ll want to make sure your network is as secure as you can possibly make it.

Quick tips for securing your home network:

  • Change your router’s default password
  • Name your Wi-Fi network something that doesn’t give away personal details (don’t use your address or name)
  • Use a strong encryption method, like WPA2 when you set up your network
  • Change your Wi-Fi password as often as you can stomach
  • Use strong, unique passwords for your devices, and change their default names
  • Create a guest network if your router has the option
  • Make sure the software stays up to date on all your devices
  • Check the default security and privacy settings when you add new devices — they are likely skewed to benefit the manufacturer rather than the user

Don’t open your home’s network to just anyone — make sure you are buying trusted brands. And I know it’s painful, but give their terms and conditions as thorough a read as possible (okay — at least a skim!). If your privacy matters to you, you’ll want to at least know what they are going to be doing with all your data.

IoT devices I'm excited about

Want to know how to make a smart home a little more efficient and fun? Here are some of my current favorite pieces of smart home tech.

Philips Hue motion sensor

Philips Hue Motion Sensor

Okay, so maybe this doesn't seem revolutionary, but my enthusiasm is real — the Hue motion sensor has legitimately changed my life for the better. I added it to my bathroom and set it so that between 9pm and 7am, it turns one of my Hue bulbs on at its dimmest setting for two minutes. It’s bright enough that I can see my way, but dim enough that it doesn't wake my brain up too much. I use a brighter setting on two bulbs and longer illumination time for evening hours.

Details

  • triggers your Philips Hue lights when motion is detected
  • you can select different settings for day and night
  • integrated daylight sensor so your lights only turn on when needed

Sonos One

Sonos One

Start a smart home and a wireless multi-room audio system at the same time. The Sonos One is a great-sounding speaker with both Amazon Alexa and Google Home voice assistants built-in.

Details

  • compact, humidity-resistant design
  • can be paired with another Sonos One or One SL for stereo playback
  • built-in array of 6 far-field microphones
Nest Learning Thermostat 3rd Generation

Google Nest Learning Thermostat, 3rd Generation

I've seen a lot of "smart" thermostats, but I don't think I ever called one "beautiful" until I saw this striking copper option from Nest.

Details

  • Farsight technology senses when you're in the room, even at a distance
  • 480 x 480 pixel display
  • Nest Leaf icon appears when you turn to a temperature that's energy efficient
Meural Canvas

Meural Canvas

Add some culture to your smart home with Meural Canvas — a digital fine art display. I have two in my home, and they have really broadened my horizons. I also love using Meural to show off my own photos. It can be controlled with the mobile app, gestures, or a compatible voice assistant. You can read my full review here.

Details

  • matte anti-glare screen deflects light without distorting color
  • hang vertically or horizontally — the Canvas automatically detects its orientation and adjusts accordingly
  • includes 100 images from Meural's art library

We're here for you

Still have questions about smart home technology? Feel free to leave me a comment. Or get in touch with one of our smart home specialists.

Last updated 12/16/2021
  • Richard H Lieb from Pittsburgh

    Posted on 8/21/2022

    My wife and I are getting older (70's) and I am remodeling in phases to help. For example, lighting in master bath for night/day with dimmer and motion switch. What system would you suggest to start and then expand for a totally smart environment? I prefer automation with voice commands to modify auto mode. (i.e. Bath light(s) sense motion and light room based on ambient light but voice override to increase / decrease intensity (or color) based on need). Thanks...

    Commenter image

    Emily S. from Crutchfield

    on 8/29/2022

    Hi Richard! I'm really happy with my Philips Hue lighting system. It's a little more expensive than some others, but I've found it to work well with Apple HomeKit and Amazon Alexa for all my automation needs. I also use their motion sensor to turn on my bathroom lights very low at night.


    Sorry for my delayed reply, we were actually in the process of publishing an article I thought might be helpful to you and your wife. My colleague Ned wrote about Smart Home products for seniors. I hope it helps!

  • Mary Anne Martus from West Bloomfield

    Posted on 8/11/2022

    My wife is going blind. How can we use Alexa or anything like it to run the microwave and other home appliances like washer-dryer? Thanks in advance.

    Commenter image

    Emily S. from Crutchfield

    on 8/12/2022

    Hi Mary Anne! I'm afraid those appliance themselves would have to be "smart" in order for them to work with voice assistants. That would likely mean replacing your existing ones since they'd have to be pretty new to support it. I hope that helps. Good luck!
  • Jeff from Emmaus, PA

    Posted on 5/9/2022

    I am tossing the idea of integration of some devices in my home that are smart devices. I have only a camera system and a few Wiz bulbs but I don't want to have the voice thing. I keep microphones turned off on all my stuff no matter how much they try to convince me that Alexa is not listetto every sound in my home. I do have apps to handle the functionality of each device but would like to have them function as one unit like a "hub" but nothing that is monitoring all of my life. I don't need voice commands.

    Commenter image

    Emily S. from Crutchfield

    on 5/13/2022

    Yes, voice control isn't for everyone! It sounds like you've found what works well for you, but if you need help adding more gear to your system, feel free to get in touch with our team of Smart Home advisors. Thanks for the note, Jeff!

  • Paul from Chico, CA

    Posted on 12/28/2019

    Thank you, thank you, thank you, Emily! Very clear and inspiring, as we embark on doing a lot of this for the first time... The Brilliant Controls around, hubs, home bridges, Apple TV for Siri, using smart plugs vs. smart bulbs...What a learning curve! To know what's possible, and have your clear explanations...Terrific. You are appreciated!

    Commenter image

    Emily S. from Crutchfield

    on 12/29/2019

    Thanks so much for the lovely comments, Paul! It was definitely a learning curve for me when I first got started, too. Feel free to reach out if you have any specific questions I can help with. Take care!
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