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Interested in a smart home? Here’s a guide through the maze of options

You will first need to decide on a core hub, as not all devices work with all infrastructure

The technology trade show CES has barely closed its doors and already there is high excitement about the coming generation of smart home devices.

The Las Vegas-based conference showed off smart baths that could draw the perfect temperature and water level, smart beds to help you as you age, and a robot vacuum and mop that might actually do the job better than previous iterations.

But the sense throughout was that focus is shifting from simply connecting devices to the internet to making them smart in a way that will actually benefit our daily lives.

If you haven’t yet embraced the smart home, now might be a good time to dip your toe in the water. The automation enabled by the connected devices means you return home to a well-lit, heated house in winter, or have a home that shuts down for you as you walk out the door.

The sheer volume of products can be overwhelming, however. In an ideal world, we would find a smart home system that works for us, and it would all be easy to set up and control, and from a single app.

However, the reality is that no one company is going to satisfy all your requirements, especially as the sector progresses. While one company may make smart bulbs and plugs, you might have to go to another to get a smart light switch or IP-connected security camera.

To make things more confusing, there are different standards on the market, and they don’t play well with each other.

Some devices will work with both Amazon and Google, but won't support Apple's Homekit. Others are designed purely to work with Google Home devices, while others support Samsung SmartThings.

There are a couple of wireless standards that are in use in smart home products and hubs. Z Wave, Zigbee, Thread: all are mesh networking technology, designed to be low powered. But Zigbee can connect more devices than Z Wave, and Thread is designed to offer more stable connections than its predecessors. Some companies support both Zigbee and Z Wave, whereas some support only one or the other.

The good news (possibly) is that a single standard is on the way, with Apple, Google, Samsung and Amazon all signing up to support Matter and make it easier for consumers to see what devices will work with their smart home ecosystem.

Before you invest in any smart home devices, there are a few questions you should ask yourself:

What do you need it to do?

Choose smart home devices that will fulfil your needs rather than installing technology just for the sake of it.

For example, while smart bulbs are a simple addition to your home, you could be better off with a smart light switch. The reason? There are several. First is the cost. If you have LED bulbs already in your home, smart bulbs are an added cost to bear, and they aren’t cheap. Also, if someone accidentally turns off the light switch, your smart bulbs are useless without power.

Likewise, if you only ever use lamps, you could get by with some smart plugs instead of switching out lightbulbs unnecessarily.

There is also the risk of overpaying for something to get extra features you don’t actually need. Do a side-by-side comparison; if the cheaper device fits your needs, there is no point in spending extra for features you won’t use.

What system is it compatible with?

While each device has its own app, which you’ll need for the initial set-up, you’ll more than likely end up handing over the day-to-day running of your smart home to a smart hub. This is where you need to choose wisely. There is no point in buying something that works with Google Assistant but not with Amazon if your entire system is linked to Alexa. While the arrival of Matter devices will help simplify things with a common standard that the manufacturers have signed up to, at the moment we are in a situation where some devices will work only with Google or Amazon, and others will work only with Apple. Choose which way you want to go, and buy your smart devices accordingly.

Does it allow remote access?

When you are investing in a smart home device, ask yourself if you need to access the controls when you are outside the home. If you do, check to see if your chosen device will allow that out of the box, or if it requires a hub.

As a general rule, devices that use Bluetooth will require a hub for remote access due to the range restrictions on the technology. Which brings us to the next question...

Bluetooth or wifi?

There are reasons why Bluetooth can be a better option than wifi. It’s easier to connect for one. Having too many wifi-connected devices on your network can cause issues, crowding the network. And Bluetooth has the advantage of low energy standards.

Wifi on the other hand has better range and facilitates remote access.

What about security?

Allowing connected devices into your home carries with it a certain level of risk. Anything connected to the internet runs the risk of being compromised, and while we might feel aggrieved about a virus on our laptops, the idea that someone could take over the IP-connected cameras in our homes or access security systems we have put in place would understandably make anyone wary.

But there are things you can do to mitigate the risk. The first is to put in place strong security on your devices, changing the default passwords on your devices to something stronger. Secondly, keep the device’s firmware up to date, as that will address security flaws.

Buying from a reputable manufacturer will also help, as potential security problems and vulnerabilities are more likely to be flagged.

Finally, if your device supports remote access but you don’t actually need it, disable it. It is one less potential entry point to your smart home for would-be attackers.

THE HUBS

Why do you need a smart home hub? Strictly speaking you don’t need one, but they can help make your smart home life simpler. A hub will allow you to control devices from different manufacturers, and bring it all into one place instead of having to go through 10 different apps.

It can also help with automation, so for example when you leave the house, your hub will tell the smart thermostat to turn down, wifi-connected lights to turn off and the smart speakers to stop playing music. It can also act as a bridge for compatible Bluetooth devices in the home so you can control them from wherever you are in the world. And it opens up voice commands for your smart home, so you can command Alexa, Google or Siri to turn up the heating or turn down the TV. It can be as simple as announcing “Alexa, goodnight” and the smart speaker will knock off the lights, turn down the heating and switch off the TV.

But which hub is best? That all depends on what you want from it.

Google

Nest devices have plenty of fans, with products that range from a smart learning thermostat to cameras. Nest has now become Google’s smart home brand, encompassing smart speakers, cameras, smoke alarms and video doorbells. That is in addition to the third-party “works with Google” products; there are more than 50,000 devices from 5,500 manufacturers that work with Google Assistant, allowing the system to act as a hub for everything from your smart plugs and bulbs to thermostats and motion sensors.

Its Google Home devices can act as a hub to control all these devices, once you link the account to your Google Home app on your phone – both Android and iOS. If you have cameras, the Google Hub, with its seven-inch touchscreen display is the ideal choice, streaming video footage when you ask, playing music or podcasts or even for casting Netflix.

If you don’t need another screen in your home, you can choose from the Nest Mini or Nest Audio speakers. Or there’s another option: build it in to your home wifi network with the Google Nest Wifi kit, which includes Google Assistant in the points you place around the house to give you stronger wifi and smart speakers in one.

Apple

Apple announced HomeKit in 2014, but it has taken off in recent years as the company made its Apple TV 4K device into a HomeKit hub and launched the Thread-supporting Homepod Mini.

Unlike Google and Amazon, it doesn't have a range of its own products much past its own hubs, but it doesn't need to. It has support from lighting experts Nanoleaf, smart-home provider Eve, home-heating company Tado and tech company Eufy, among others.

Last year Apple announced support for Home Key, a system that would do away with your household keys in favour of digital keys on your smartphone if you had a compatible smart lock. There are two options: express mode, whereby you unlock your door by holding your iPhone or Apple Watch near the lock; and a more secure mode that requires FaceID, TouchID or your passcode to unlock it.

Amazon

Of all the digital assistants, Alexa seems to have the most human sense of humour programmed into its algorithm. But that’s not the only reason why Echo devices are popular. If you have a Ring doorbell – which Amazon also owns – it makes sense to go for an Echo Show that will display the feed from your front doorbell. Likewise for the various Ring security cameras you can place around your home.

The fourth-generation Amazon Echo, which is Zigbee enabled, also replaces the hub for some devices that would require one for remote access, such as Philips Hue bulbs.

There are also a range of different devices that support Alexa, ranging from the budget friendly Flex which costs £25 and the Echo enabled Amazon earbuds, to the screen-toting Echo Show.

Alexa has also been branching out into the real world in recent years, doing deals with car makers such as BMW, Ford, Audi, Seat and Toyota, along with integrating into accessories such as Fitbit and NextBase dashcams. Speaker makers such as Sonos are also producing their own Alexa-enabled smart speakers.

Samsung SmartThings

Samsung’s SmartThings system differs from the others in that it contains both Z Wave and Zigbee antennae. That allows it to sit on the fence a bit when it comes to backing one standard. Samsung has its own smart home devices, but the system supports more than that, offering users access to August smart locks, Arlo cameras, Honeywell Home devices and Somfy smart blinds.

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