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Smarter Home Guide: What You Need to Know (and Buy)

Make Your Home Smarter

Do you want to make your home "smart," but don't know how to begin? The good news is there are myriad ways to start, and making your home smart doesn't have to cost a lot, either. At its most basic definition, a smart home can mean any device or appliance connected to the internet that you can control using a smartphone or whose function you can automate.

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. 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.

For less than $50, you can test the smart home waters with a smart plug. Connect this device to a floor lamp, and you can set the plug to turn the lamp on automatically when it gets dark outside.

From there, you can get into ever-more complex setups, linking multiple devices together so that activating one causes all the others to switch on or off, depending on your needs.

Here are some of the different components that make up a smart home, what they do and our favorite pick for each category.

Smart lights

What they will do for you: For starters, smart lights can lower your energy bill. All smart lights are LEDs, which consume far less electricity than incandescent and even fluorescent bulbs. However, smart lights can also be controlled via your smartphone, and you can set schedules for when these lights turn on and off.

Credit: Philips

(Image credit: Philips)

Our top pick: For most, the Philips Hue White A19 Starter Kit is a good place to begin. It includes two bulbs and a bridge to connect the lights to your router. The bridge can support up to 50 lights, which can be dimmed. Plus, they work with a wide range of smart home systems, including Alexa and Apple HomeKit.

Our budget pick: Sengled's Element Starter Kit costs less than Philips' and does nearly as much. While it can't connect to as many other smart home systems, it still lets you turn your lights on and off using Alexa and Google Home.

Sengled Element Starter KitView Deal

Smart speakers

What they will do for you: Rather than taking out your phone to control your smart home devices, a smart speaker lets you merely speak commands to get your gadgets to do your bidding. More than that, though, smart speakers can tell you the news and weather, read you recipes, even order a pizza or a Lyft. Oh, and they'll play music, too.

Our top pick: The Amazon Echo was the first smart speaker, and it's second-gen model, which is smaller and more attractive, is still be best. It produces good enough audio to be the primary speaker for an apartment or living room. And the Alexa voice assistant can do more than the competition, thanks to its thousands of third-party skills and the vast array of Alexa-compatible smart home devices you can control.

Our budget pick: The Amazon Echo Dot gets you all of Alexa's capabilities in a product that costs less than $50, and is no larger than a hockey puck—it sounds pretty good for its size, too. If you're into Google Home, check out the Google Home Mini, which looks and sounds better, but has less functionality.  

Amazon Echo Dot (3rd Gen)View Deal

Smart plugs

What they will do for you: A smart plug or switch is the easiest and cheapest way to make any appliance in your home "smart." Connect, say, a lamp to the smart switch, and then plug the switch into the wall, and voila, you'll be able to control the lamp from your phone. You can also set schedules for the plugs to turn on and off and link them to other smart home devices.

Our top pick: There are a lot of good smart plugs on the market, but our favorite is the TP-Link HS105. It works with Alexa, Google Home, Apple HomeKit, Samsung SmartThings and Nest. Plus, it has a Home and Away feature which turns your lights on and off to make it look like you're home.

TP-Link Smart Plug Mini HS105View Deal

Home security cameras

What they will do for you: A security camera lets you keep an eye on your house and keep tabs on who's coming and going, all from your phone, tablet or laptop. The better cameras will also have night vision and can be linked with other smart home devices. That means the camera will start recording when you leave home and stop when you return.

Credit: Netgear

(Image credit: Netgear)

Our top pick: The Arlo Q has excellent video quality and motion detection, flexible scheduling and an intuitive user interface. Plus, Arlo offers a generous seven days of cloud recording of events for up to five cameras for free.

Our budget pick: The EZViz Mini O 1080p costs less than $100, yet delivers a 1080p video stream (best in daylight), and its audio is good too. 

Smart locks

What they will do for you: Beyond allowing you to lock and unlock your door using your smartphone, a smart lock will also let you issue temporary passes to others and see who's using your door. Integrate the lock with other smart home devices, and you could have your lights turn on automatically when you unlock your door when returning home in the evening.

Our top pick: The August Smart Lock Pro works with Alexa, Google Home, and HomeKit, as well as a host of other devices, such as August's Doorbell Cam and keypad.

August Smart Lock Pro + ConnectView Deal

Smart home hubs

What they will do for you: A smart home hub provides a uniform platform through which you can control a bunch of smart home devices that otherwise wouldn't be able to communicate with each other. Hubs also let you automate a lot of processes.

For example, you can have your lights turn on, thermostat change temperature, music start playing, and window blinds lower when you unlock your front door in the evening. However, it's important to note that your smartphone can do many things a dedicated hub can do, and that smart speakers like the Amazon Echo are becoming the new hub.


Our top pick:
The Samsung SmartThings Hub provides the greatest number of integrations with other smart home devices and is fairly easy to set up. With the upcoming Samsung Connect Home, the company is combining its smart home hub with a mesh router, getting you two devices in one.

Smart thermostats

What they will do for you: One of the most obvious benefits of a connected thermostat is that it will let you remotely set the temperature in your house using your smartphone. However, when linked to other smart home devices, such as motion sensors and lights, it will also save you money in the long run by reducing your heating and cooling costs, as you won't be using energy when you're not at home.

Credit: Ecobee

(Image credit: Ecobee)


Our top pick: Based on our extensive testing, the best smart thermostat is the Ecobee (5th gen). Its best feature is its ability to work with remote sensors, so that your entire home is heated or cooled to the right temperature. And it's Alexa-enabled, so accessing Amazon's voice assistant will be easier.

Smart light switches

What they will do for you: If you have a lot of light bulbs in your home, replacing them all with smart bulbs can quickly become expensive.

A more cost-effective solution could be to install a smart light switch. It works like a regular switch but can also be controlled from your smartphone and connected to other smart home devices. However, unlike with most of the other products in this guide, installing a light switch requires some basic electrical knowledge, so you may need to hire an electrician.

Our top pick: We like the Leviton Decora. It doesn't require a hub, supports three-way switches, has a pretty robust app, and works with Alexa, Google Home, and IFTTT

Leviton Decora DimmerView Deal

Our budget pick: For those who already have Philips Hue lights, its $25 dimmer switch is easy to use and install.

Philips Hue Dimmer SwitchView Deal

Video doorbells

What they will do for you: You'll never have to guess who's at your door when you have a video doorbell, which sends a live feed to your smartphone or tablet when someone pushes the button at your front door. Plus, it acts as an intercom, helpful for those who have trouble getting to the door quickly. Just keep in mind that a really good security camera could help monitor your front door as well.

Our top pick: The Nest Hello had the best video quality out of all the doorbell's we've tested. It can also recognize faces, and announce them to you, too. 

Nest HelloView Deal

Smart smoke detectors

What they will do for you: If there’s smoke (or fire) in your house, a connected smoke detector can alert your smartphone, wherever you are. Plus, they can automatically turn on smart lights, making it easier for you, or whoever’s in your house, to get out safely.

Credit: Nest

(Image credit: Nest)

Our top pick: The Nest Protect detects both smoke and carbon monoxide, will let you know in what room a fire is burning, and works with a wide range of smart home services.

Nest ProtectView Deal

Our budget pick: The Roost Smart Battery will work in any smoke detector that uses a 9-volt battery, and will send an alert to your smartphone when the alarm goes off.

Roost Smart BatteryView Deal

Robot vacuums

What they will do for you: Make vacuuming less of a chore. You'll still have to break out the Hoover from time to time, but a robot vacuum will help cut down on the daily accumulation of dust and pet hair. And, because of its low profile, a robot vacuum can get to places you can't, like under your bed or dresser. 

Our top pick: The Shark Ion Robot R85 performed the best on our tests, picking up all sorts of pet hair, dirt, and cereal. It also works with Alexa and Google Home, and can be controlled using your smartphone.

Our budget pick: The Eufy Robovac 11s costs less than $225, yet also did very well on our tests. It doesn't have any smart-home connectivity, though.

Eufy RoboVac 11SView Deal

Universal remotes

What they will do for you: Control all of your entertainment devices — TV, stereo, cable box and more — with just one device. Plus, some universal remotes will also let you control smart home devices, such as lights and your thermostat. And these remotes can be linked to Alexa, so that you can change channels and more using your voice.

Our top pick: Logitech's line of Harmony remotes are the only ones worth considering. The Harmony Elite is the top-of-the-line, letting you control up to 15 devices, as well as a host of smart home gadgets.

Our budget pick: The Harmony 665 costs less than $50, but still lets you control up to 10 devices, and has a small display.

Logitech Harmony 665View Deal

Smart garage door openers

What they will do for you: Adding smarts to your garage door means you can control it from your phone, but more importantly, it means the door can notify you if it gets opened when you're not at home. You can also connect it with lights and smart cameras, which will activate if the door opens.

Our top pick: The Chamberlain MYQ-G0301 connects to your Wi-Fi network and works with a wide range of smart home hubs and systems. It has also received positive user reviews on Amazon, as well as from other product-review sites.

MORE: Get up to speed on the latest garage door openers.

Chamberlain MYQ-G0301View Deal

Security Concerns

With every additional device you bring into your home comes a greater risk of it being hacked. Fortunately, there are a number of easy methods to help prevent intruders from gaining access to your smart home devices. Here is our guide to prevent your smart home from getting hacked.

Have a question about how to set up a smart home, or how to connect one device with another? Leave a comment below, and we'll be happy to answer.

Mike Prospero

Michael A. Prospero is the deputy editor at Tom’s Guide overseeing the smart home, drones, and fitness/wearables categories. When he’s not testing out the latest running watch, skiing or training for a marathon, he’s probably using the latest sous vide machine or some other cooking gadget.