You don’t need to buy everything in the store to automate your lair. Here’s what to consider when starting your own smart home.

I used to think that anything categorized as a “smart home” gadget was nothing more than a gimmick to sell half-baked technology. Then I installed my first smart plug.

With the aid of an app as the central controller, I was able to both automate a light to turn on at the same time every single night, as well as link it for voice control with my existing Google Home. The setup process was smooth sailing, though I was more impressed with the convenience of the experience. Now, I can easily command the Google Home unit upstairs to turn on the hallways lights downstairs, without fear of tripping on my way to find the light switch.

The term “smart home” refers to a variety of connected gadgets and technologies, though it’s broad categorization which can be rather confusing for the novice. The good news is that it’s relatively straightforward once you choose your path.

We’ll walk you through how to start buying “smart” stuff for your house and what to consider when you’re shopping. We’ll also offer a bit of insight on how all the various connected ecosystems integrate together, as well as the type of products you can bring into your home to make it just a little bit smarter.

Getting started

First things first: Before starting your “smart” journey, consider whether you want to add a virtual assistant into the mix. If you do, then you’ll want to jump ahead to that section on choosing between Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa, the two most prominent assistants available at present. If you’d rather deal with that later, keep reading.

Perhaps the most overwhelming part of beginning the “smartening up” process is choosing which area of the home to start transforming. It’s easiest to start small, particularly in an area of the house where you or your family congregate the most so that the technology is easily accessible to everyone.

If it’s just you and a roommate, you may want to start out with simpler gadgetry in one particular room, where you can go crazy with things like smart bulbs and sensors. The bulbs can be easily turned off from your smartphone, and sensors from the likes of Samsung and D-Link can be placed on your door to log any snooping that might occur. Not that you shouldn’t trust your roommate, but isn’t it nice to know these things are readily available?

How to choose an Assistant

Smart Kitchen - Amazon Echo

Whether you’ve already set up your smart home, or you’re simply aching to turn your home into a voice-activated lair, you’ll want to choose a voice-controlled speaker from Amazon or Google to pair with your newly connected gadgets. The Amazon Echo and Google Home are both capable of playing music and podcasts, answering questions, delivering news reports, and performing simple tasks around the connected house, and you can program either one with a variety of different third-party services.

Neither the Amazon Echo nor Google Home is any more capable; the one you choose depends entirely on which ecosystem fits your usage. The Amazon Echo, which utilizes Amazon’s Alexa assistant, is platform agnostic and works with a hefty number of third-party apps and services. It comes in a variety of form factors, and you don’t need an Amazon Prime account to enjoy the full benefits of its abilities.

Google Home is also a surefire bet, particularly so if you’re an Android user or tied heavily to the Google ecosystem. Like the Amazon Echo, it can order pizza, answer questions, control your stuff, and make phone calls. It also integrates seamlessly with other Google-led devices, including the plug-and-play Chromecast ecosystem. It’s currently available in three varieties.

If you’re tied heavily to the Apple ecosystem, there’s also the HomePod. It’s not yet available, though you’ll see more popping up about it around December 2017.

How to choose a smart home hub

Best Smart Hubs | Samsung SmartThings

Samsung's SmartThings is one of the best and most established smart home hubs

If you’re going to bring a variety of connected gadgets into your home, you may consider a smart home hub to wrangle them all so that you’re not constantly shifting between apps to get devices synchronized.

Samsung’s SmartThings is one of the best and most established smart home hubs. It’s readily compatible with a broad range of third-party connected devices, including anything that utilizes the proprietary ZigBee and Z-Wave connection standard. Samsung also offers its own lineup of SmartThings gadgets, including motion sensors, water sensors, plugs, and even a security system. There are also a host of other Samsung-branded products that integrate well into this system, like appliances. If you’re feeling gung-ho about sticking to one brand, Samsung’s SmartThings can help facilitate that.

Best Smart Hubs | Wink Hub 2

If Samsung is not your thing, there’s also the Wink Hub 2. It’s compatible with a range of third-party devices, including those that support Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, Kidde, Lutron Clear Connect, ZigBee, and Z-wave Plus. If you like, there are even some bulk deals that bundle things like deadbolts and plug-in dimmers with it, so that you don’t have to shop around.

What to connect to your hub

smart home

The Belkin WeMo plug is just one of the many accessories you can integrate into your smart home.

There are plenty of gadgets that you can connect to your smart home hub, including motion sensors, Wi-Fi connected outlets, thermostats, security cameras, light bulbs, doorbells, door locks, and a variety of other sensors you may not have even realized existed. For instance, Samsung sells a water leak sensor for its SmartThings hub, which will detect leaking water in  parts of your house.

Fortunately, most companies are pretty clear about labeling what their products work with, and you can typically find their compatible formats on the box or mentioned in the description section of the online listing. We recommend that before you bring anything home, you read up on whether it’s compatible with the smart home hub you purchased and whether it works with the smart speakers you may have already placed in your home.

Outlets and light bulbs are perhaps the easiest connected devices to plug into the home without uprooting your current setup. You can easily find ones that link up with the two hubs we suggested you try, or you can choose from the hub-less variety, like Belkin’s WeMo or TP-Link‘s bulbs. There’s also the ever-popular Philips Hue lighting system, though it requires a separate hub of its own and can be quite complicated to manage in mass quantities. It’s best to start with a limited number of connected things as you figure out how the different gadgets will integrate into your newly configured smart home.

smart home

If you’d like more robust controls over your home, consider a smart thermostat like the Nest Learning Thermostat or Thermostat E. They can be installed where your current thermostat is wired, and offer large screens with readouts for the current temperature. You can easily adjust the temperature by simply turning the knob or via a smartphone app. They’re also programmable with the Amazon Echo or Google Home.

Of course, you’re not just limited to these particular gadgets. There are security cameras, connected appliances, and even smart locks you can integrate into the home. If you’re just starting out, it’s best to keep it manageable and start with the small stuff until you learn how it will all work in tandem.

To learn even more about the kinds of gadgets that can fit into your new smart home ecosystem, check out the guides below:

Where to buy it all

Not only can you buy connected gadgets online, but you can find also deals on connected gadgets at a variety of brick-and-mortar locations. If you’re aching to see what’s on display, Best Buy typically has a section all set up with what’s in stock; as do Target, Walmart, and even Costco, where you can find some fantastic bulk deals on security cameras.

There is also a smart home page available on Amazon, for those of with Prime accounts who’d rather put it all in your cart and get to work. Keep in mind that Amazon is the proprietor of the Alexa/Echo ecosystem, so much of what’s featured is meant to work with the online retailer’s family of connected speakers.

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