Shopping for consumer electronics can be overwhelming. The staff of the The Wirecutter and The Sweethome, product review websites owned by The New York Times Company, do the hard work of narrowing down the options. We spoke with Grant Clauser, smart home editor at The Wirecutter, about how to sort through the choices for home automation.
How do I get started rigging my home to work for me?
There are two kinds of smart-home people: those who want specific gadgets to solve particular problems and those who envision a totally integrated smart home.
Most people fall into the first category, so they should think about what problem they want to solve or what daily task they want to simplify. If they want to adjust their kitchen lights from bed, then get a smart light switch or bulbs. If they want to know who’s at the front door when they’re away, then get a smart video doorbell. Eventually that person may want to add another device (rigging a smart home can get addictive, I can assure you), and at that point I’d tell the person to weigh the benefits of adding something designed to work with the first device versus something that will remain completely independent.
People in the second category, who plan to go all-in for the smart home, should probably start with an overall control system. Instead of a collection of gadgets, you are going for a system that gets them to all work together. This usually means a hub like SmartThings or Wink. These hubs work with the most popular wireless protocols (Z-Wave being the primary one), and allow users to pick from a wide assortment of compatible devices. The planning and programming phase may take some time and is best for people who like to tinker, test and try out new things.
A lot of people already have bits of home automation: a Nest thermostat, a web-connected surveillance camera, an Amazon Echo. Do they have to worry something they own won’t work with another they just bought?
Your first purchases may influence subsequent buying decisions. Having devices that work together is convenient, especially if you have a lot of devices, but if you have only a few and are comfortable opening a separate app for your smart smoke alarm and another for your smart water sensor, you’ll be O.K.
There’s really nothing wrong with having a Wi-Fi camera and a Wi-Fi thermostat that don’t communicate with each other. You may, however, be missing out on some features if they don’t. For instance, if your thermostat and camera work together, the geofencing built into your camera can trigger your thermostat to adjust the temperature when you leave the house. That might be a function you value.
What products make no sense to you?
My own rule, which I’ll probably break eventually, is that if I need to be in front of the device to take advantage of its primary use, then I don’t need it to be smart. A lot of kitchen gadgets fall under this category. There’s not much to be gained from an internet-connected toaster or internet-connected coffee maker because I need to be in the room with it to grab the toast or coffee, anyway.
What have you done in your own house?
My house is a work in progress. I’m always pulling out some device and adding another.
At one point I had seven home security systems running. Most of my lights can be controlled through Amazon Alexa devices, either via smart switches or smart bulbs. When I go to bed I can shut off the downstairs lights, confirm that the thermostat has gone into night mode and lock the front door, all with my phone. My home theater system — yes, I put in one of those, too — is integrated through a universal remote and hub, which also controls the room’s lights, and all that can be operated by voice through an Echo Dot. To watch a movie all I have to do is say “Alexa, turn on Netflix,” and the projector turns on, the system loads up Netflix and the lights automatically turn off. All of that is done with easy D.I.Y. products.
Is there anything you can’t live without?
My Amazon Echo and Dots are probably the things I use the most. They’re connected to my lights, run my home theater, keep my shopping lists, read me the morning news and play music. I’d really miss those if they were gone.
What’s your next home project?
I just ordered some motion sensors for my Hue lights so my lights will automatically turn on when someone walks in the room. That will probably annoy my family for a while.
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