Smart home technology: How to build the perfect high-tech home
A Wi-Fi kettle. Try that again in your best Peter Kay voice. “Wi-Fi? Kettle?” Yes folks, welcome to 2017, the year in which you can buy a kettle that connects to your home network so you can boil water from any room in your house, rather than having actually to be in the kitchen like some kind of bloody caveman.
While this sounds mildly preposterous – the kettle will, after all, have to have been pre-filled which involves you being physically proximate, and you’ll have to trudge to the kitchen to make the tea like said bloody caveman once the thing has boiled – this is nevertheless the moment when the long yearned-for utopian vision of the smart home is finally sputtering fitfully to life.
But how easy is it to give your home some smarts? What kinds of things can you do? And, ultimately, does any of this stuff bring genuine benefits or are we just drawn to the idea of adding a CPU and IP address to everything because we geeks just like tech?
A smart home doesn’t have to be controlled by your voice, but once you’ve used your voice to do things like turn on the heating or change the lighting, you’re going to want to do it with everything. At the moment, you have two main choices for controlling a smart home via your voice: Amazon Echo, with its Alexa assistant and Google Home, with the Google Assistant. Alexa has been around for longer and has a more mature set of ways of controlling smart home devices. Google Home is newer, arguably better looking, and has the advantage of having Google’s Assistant built-in, which makes searching for information much easier.
Echo works with a wide range of devices, including smart lighting from TP-Link, Hive and Phillips; power switches from Belkin, Wemo, and Hive; and thermostats from Nest, Hive, Netamo and many others. Google Home supports many of the same brands, including Nest, SmartThings, Phillips, and TP-Link. Usefully, it also supports Google’s own Chromecast, which, while not a smart device in itself, will be able to display information from smart devices in the future.
Which voice controller is right for you? At the moment, there’s little to choose between them. Echo has the advantage of being cheaper, if you opt for the smaller (and less loud) Echo Dot (which is available from Amazon in both white and black for the fashion-conscious). Google Home has the advantage of supporting Chromecast, so you can do things such as asking it to “Play my vaporwave playlist on the living room TV” – but as a smart home controller, it’s a little behind Echo at the moment.
Something that’s worth noting is that as Google Home is very new, meaning there are some offers to be had about it. PC World recently ran an offer which gave you a free Chromecast with one, while Maplins is currently offering both a Chromecast and three months of Google Music – so it pays to shop around.
One final consideration for iPhone users is compatibility with Apple’s Siri voice assistant. Although Apple doesn’t have a standalone smart speaker at present – you can instead talk to Siri and control things via your phone – it’s rumoured to be releasing one in the future. And Apple has a well-developed ecosystem of third-party smart devices compatible with its HomeKit system.
There are three core areas that you should look at first for equipping your smartphone: lighting, security and heating. The most simple place to start with is lighting. The first thing to note is that you can get bulbs to fit most standard fittings, so there will be both bayonet and screw versions of bulbs available from most makers.
Some systems – such as the Phillips Hue range – consist of a hub that communicates with compatible bulbs. The advantage of this is that some of the “smart” aspect can live in the hub, rather than your phone. So, for example, Phillips also makes a standalone motion sensor that communicates directly with the hub. This kind of system is designed for people who want smart lighting, but don’t want everything to be run through your phone.
Other lighting systems have the bulbs communicating directly with your Wi-Fi network, meaning you can control them directly from your smartphone or the cloud. The LIFX range is a good example of this. Bulbs like this tend to be more expensive – a single LIFX bulb, for example, might cost around £50 – but there’s no single point of failure. If your Hue hub dies, so does all your smart lighting.
The second key area you should look at when setting up your smart home is security. There’s a wide range of security-related devices, such as cameras, motion detectors, locks and more.
Setting things up can be complicated, so if you’re serious about security you might want to consider getting some personal advice from a security company or retailer. Maplin, for example, offers a Smart Home Survey, which could be worth looking at. However, if you want to go it alone, one easy option is to start by buying a kit that includes a hub and some of the devices, such as the Panasonic Home Safety Starter Kit.
The key thing is to thoroughly audit what you need to make your home secure. You’re only every as secure as the weakest point of entry, so there’s no point in having motion detectors and cameras that only cover (say) the front of the house – you’re just making it easy for someone who can gain access to the back. Likewise, if you’re installing smart locks that alert you when they’re opened, make sure you have both front and back doors covered.
The final key area for your smart home is heating. The main thing you’ll want to install is some kind of smart thermostat from manufacturers such as Nest, Hive, or Honeywell.
There are two main reasons to install a smart thermostat. First, there’s the level of remote control you get over heating in your house. Go on holiday and forget to turn the heating off? No problem – with a smart thermostat, you can do it from your phone. Want to turn the heating on just before you get home? Easy, you can even use an app on your phone to set up a geofence that turns it on automatically if you’re close by.
The second reason is the potential for saving money. If you have a regular routine, smart thermostats such as the Nest can learn it, making sure your home is warm when you’re in and colder when you’re not. Most manufacturers make claims about the amount of money you could save with their thermostat, but remember this is under ideal conditions, and depends on you training the device, and – of course – on your own previous behaviour. If you’re the kind of person who always had your thermostat set to turn off during the hours you’re usually out, you’re not going to save that much money with a smart one.