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Smart Home Guide: What to Know Before You Buy

Introduction

You wake up refreshed after a good night's sleep. That's because your mattress not only adjusts itself to your ideal sleeping temperature, but also has an alarm that wakes you at just the right moment of your sleep cycle. Your living room blinds automatically open, and the coffee maker has a fresh cup brewed and waiting. Leave for the office and your lights turn off; the alarm and security surveillance systems are enabled; the thermometer has already started lowering the home temperature, not raising it until 10 minutes before you return home in the evening.

These are just a few of the scenarios that can play out in a smart home. Smart home technology can provide automation of just about any household chore, from remotely firing up a slow cooker to alerting you to water leaks.

The smart home has arrived, but many of us remain confused about what one is. That's because the devices and services that make a home "smart" will be different for every individual. In fact, whether you know it or not, chances are that you already have some type of smart home device.

To help you make smarter decisions about this rapidly evolving category, we'll answer some key questions: What are the elements that make up a smart home, and how do they connect? What are the security concerns and implications? And what does the roadmap of this much-hyped technology look like?

What Is a Smart Home?

We are way past the days of the Clapper. Simply put, a smart home is one that includes some gadget, system or appliance that is connected either to the Internet and/or to your smartphone. You can typically control and interact with these devices using an app.

Smart home products and services come in all shapes and sizes. Have a security system that taps into your Internet connection for monitoring? You have a smart home. Do you have LED light bulbs that you can dim or turn on using your smartphone? Guess what, you have a smart home. Do you own a webcam installed that monitors your windows or front door, or perhaps the baby's room? You, my friend, have a smart home. Even if you only have a wireless router connected to the Internet with a laptop or a tablet or two connected via Wi-Fi — you have the foundations of a smart, connected home.

Making a House Into a Smart Home

There are two ways to make your house smart: DIY gadgets that you install yourself, such as smart outlets, baby monitors and light sensors; or by subscribing to services such as ADT’s security systems or those of an ISPs, such as Comcast's Xfinity Home or Time Warner Cable's IntelligentHome Service.

Here's a quick breakdown of some of the most popular options.

Thermostats

No device exemplifies the DIY smart home as much as the Nest Learning thermostat ($249 on Amazon). This gadget, designed to be installed by a homeowner, learns your habits, and then adjusts the temperature based on your patterns. But what really makes the Nest smart is that it can interact with a number of other devices in your home and perform a set of actions without you having to lift a finger. For example, if the thermostat is connected to the Nest Protect smoke detector, it can automatically shut off your HVAC system if smoke is detected.

MORE: The Best Smart Thermostats for Comfort and Savings

Nest is not the only smart thermostat on the market, however. Honeywell, which has been a leading name in the home heating industry for more than 125 years, has also jumped into the home automation arena with its Lyric Smart thermostats. A number of "green" tech startups, including Ecobee, also offer smart thermostats and are battling for market share.

Security Cameras

To date, the most popular type of smart home device, as a category, has been security cameras, also known as IP cameras. A number of companies, including D-Link, TRENDnet, Linksys and Belkin, have developed Web cameras that integrate with their traditional products. For instance, the TRENDnet Wireless Cloud Camera TV-IP751WC ($39.95, Amazon) works with TRENDnet's cloud service and routers to allow for easy remote viewing of the camera's video stream.

Now owned by Nest, Dropcam made a name for itself by making cameras that are easy to view and control from your smartphone. The $199 Dropcam Pro's 3-megapixel, 130-degree field-of-vision camera provides home surveillance as well as video-recording to the cloud.

MORE: Top-Rated Wireless Home Security Cameras

Baby Monitors

One offshoot of security cameras are baby monitors, which are  more customized to checking in on your child remotely. Compared to general security cameras, baby monitorshave features such as pan and tilt capabilities, push-to-talk and built-in music files, to better soothe an agitated child.

MORE: Baby Monitors: Our Top Picks

Plugs and Switches

Smart plugs sit between your electrical outlet and the appliances in your home (smart or not). The plugs then connect to an app on your phone, allowing you to remotely turn those appliances on and off, such as with the Belkin WeMo Insight Switch ($59.99). Some plugs, such as the MeterPlug ($49), will even monitor how much energy an appliance uses. 

MORE: Best Smart Plugs

Locks

Smart locks such as the August Smart Lock allow you to control when your home is locked or unlocked, great for scheduling access for babysitters and dog walkers. A number of traditional lock makers, from Yale to Kwikset to Schlage, also offer models that work with a variety of smart home systems.

MORE: Best Smart Locks

Smart Home Hubs

Ultimately, all smart devices connect to the Internet. However, the way in which they interact with other smart devices and connect to your local network may vary. The vast array of communication methods used by different devices poses one of the biggest challenges in smart home tech — how do you make gadgets using different protocols communicate with one another and more important, how do you centrally manage them?

Owing to their low-energy use, many smart home devices (such as LED bulbs) use ZigBee, Z-Wave, Bluetooth some other technology to link to each other wirelessly. However, if a smart home device doesn't have Wi-Fi or Bluetooth, but only uses ZigBee or Z-Wave (for example), then that device must first connect to a bridge or hub, which is itself connected to your home Wi-Fi network.

MORE: Zigbee, Z-Wave, Thread, and WeMo: What's the Difference?

Some devices, such as the Philips Hue lights, ship with their own hub, but if you want to control a wider range of smart home products, you'll need a hub that supports multiple devices and protocols.

The Wink Hub 2 supports Wi-Fi, ZigBee, Bluetooth Z-Wave and Lutron. Similarly, Samsung's SmartThings Hub connects to a number of smart devices, including lamps, alarm systems, TVs and more, and centrally monitors them via a remote control or an app -- no matter the protocol the smart device uses.

There are a couple of caveats with smart hubs. Even if a smart hub supports ZigBee devices that does not necessarily mean it will work with all ZigBee smart products. Before purchasing a smart hub, you'll want to ensure that it supports smart devices you have installed or want to purchase.

Also complicating matters is the fact that if you purchase, say, a Nest cam or Philips Hue bulbs, you first must activate those devices using their respective apps and set up an account before you can link them to a hub.

MORE: Our Favorite Smart Home Gadgets and Systems

Amazon Alexa, Google Home, and Apple HomeKit

Amazon, Apple, and Google are all positioning themselves to be the center of your smart home. While not hubs in the sense that they can connect Zigbee, Z-Wave, and other devices to the internet, their offerings act as a central control point for every smart device in your home, and let you create automated actions through such services as IFTTT. So, for example, you could say "Alexa, goodnight," and your lights and TV would turn off, your doors lock, and the thermostat would lower its temperature.

Amazon's Alexa voice assistant, initially available in just the Echo, Echo Dot, and Tap, is now making its way into hundreds of different devices, from robots to refrigerators. In addition to controlling physical gadgets, Alexa can perform a number of other tasks, called Skills, which include everything from telling you the weather to ordering pizza.

MORE: The 42 Best Amazon Alexa Skills

Google Home operates similarly to Alexa, in that it's a voice-powered device that can control a growing number of smart home devices, and also works with IFTTT. However, Google Home can also be used to control any Google Cast device, from TVs to a Chromecast.

Apple HomeKit has gotten off to a slow start, but the amount of smart home gadgets that will work with it is finally increasing. HomeKit's central hub is the Apple TV (3rd or 4th generation), or you can even use an iPad running iOS 10 or later. Unlike Alexa and Google Home, though, HomeKit's range of abilities is much more limited.

Appliances

When it comes to making appliances smarter, companies such as Whirlpool and GE are seeking to discover what people want to automate. Perhaps to no one's surprise, smart appliances are a little pricier than their "dumb" non-connected counterparts. Whirlpool's 30-inch Drop-In Electric Range with smart sensors to remotely manage oven temperature is priced at $1,699. You can typically find a crockpot (or slow-cooker) on Amazon, ranging from $30-$80, but Belkin's Smart Crock-Pot, which lets you change the cooking time or adjust the temperature using your smartphone or tablet, will set you back $129.

MORE: Great Gadgets for Home Cooks

Smart Home Kits

To ease the pain for do-it-yourselfers, some companies sell prepackaged smart home kits, which bundle a number of smart devices from one manufacturer. One such product is the $179 Lowe's Iris Safe & Secure kit, which includes a motion sensor, a smart keypad, contact sensors and a hub. All of the Lowe's devices connect to the hub, allowing them to be centrally managed.

Another starter kit is EnGenius' EBK1000 EnGuardian Kit ($319), which includes a high-definition IP camera and a gateway device that not only connects the camera to the Internet but also creates a wireless network.

These kits also allow you to add additional cameras and sensors as you see fit, so you're not bound by the initial package. However, they will generally only work with smart home gadgets within their ecosystem; for example, the Iris isn't compatible with the Nest thermostat. 

Smart Home Services

Smart home technology can be deployed not only through individual devices you set up yourself, but through whole-home services. These are provided by a range of companies, from security firms (such as ADT), telecoms (such as AT&T and Verizon), as well as cable companies (Time Warner and Comcast).

The difference between these services and DIY devices is that the equipment is provided and installed by the company, rather than you going out and purchasing the individual gadget you want for home automation. For now, these smart services are the way most Americans are smartening up their homes: ADT has more than 1 million "ADT Pulse" subscribers, its interactive smart home and security system.

ADT Voice-Controlled Smart Home App

With smart tech services, you typically sign up for the service and any necessary equipment deployment is done for you. For example, ADT will send one of its representatives to your home and install the security system, using your existing Internet connection for 24/7 security, fire, smoke and other monitoring. Time Warner Cable's IntelligentHome Services provide security, fire and medical emergency surveillance, as well as remote home management of lights, thermostats and other home components.

Unlike many DIY devices, which only require you to purchase the hardware, but requires more elbow grease in setting up -- these smart home platforms are subscription-based with recurring monthly fees. Time Warner Cable’s starting price for its IntelligentHome Service is $39.99 per month (if you are already a Time Warner Cable customer) plus installation fees. AT&T's Digital Life Smart Security and Home Automation service starts at $54.97 per month and requires a two-year commitment.

Security Concerns

In addition to the somewhat messy world of competing communication methods, the other main concern with introducing smart technology into your home is security. In November 2014, it was revealed that a Russian website was streaming video from more than 4,000 webcams in the U.S., including baby cameras and those in hospitals. Each stream also revealed the GPS coordinates of each camera. Hackers were able to tap into these webcam streams because people who purchased the cameras did not bother to change the default password that shipped with the cameras. 

Although it's easy to blame ourselves for a lackadaisical attitude toward password safety, the webcam news laid bare how vulnerable smart technology is to security breaches.

MORE: Best Smart Home Gadgets

"You have to design for security first and foremost,” said Mike Harris, CEO of Zonoff, a leading provider of integrated software for smart devices. "We are supplying huge companies. They can't afford that type of negative news. They make sure we don't take shortcuts. Other companies have rushed products to market. [That] gives the whole industry a bad name."

For smart tech that requires you to sign into and connect with a cloud service for remotely managing your device, many of these companies offer encrypted connections to their cloud platform — something that's wise to ask about when signing up for any cloud service. And of course, good security starts with strong passwords, not only for the smart tech you may install, but for every device on your home network, including routers.­ 

Bottom Line

If you're interested in automating your home, the best way to go about it is in steps. Try starting with smart plugs, which will convert many existing household items such as lamps into smart devices.

Also, consider investing in smart home technology that can save you money. Automating lights and appliances can result in real energy savings. Nest looked at a year of its users' data, and discovered that the Nest thermostat could save customers about 20 percent a year on home heating and cooling costs. 

It pays to crunch the numbers and do a little introspection. Are you a gadget geek who likes to explore and fiddle with tech? You can save money and make life a little more convenient by selecting DIY smart devices. If you are the type who wants a device that you set and forget, investing in an automated service may be worth the extra cost. 

Smart Home Guides and Products:
The Best Smart Home Gadgets
A Guide to Light Bulbs
The Best Smart Home Hubs
The Best Smart Door Locks
The Best Smart Thermostats
The Best Smart Switches
The Best Smart Scales
The Best Smart Appliances
The Best Smart Vacuums
The Best Home Security Cameras
The Best Baby Monitors
The Best Smart Finders
The Best Smartwatches
The Best Smart Speakers
A Guide to Smart TVs
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