Smart homes are probably the closest we can get to the futuristic dwellings seen in science fiction. The technology powering all of this can be quite complex, but putting it all together doesn’t necessarily need to be. You can also put a half-decent smart home together without bankrupting yourself.
Sure, if you’re going all out, you’re probably going to spend a fortune. And if you opt to put together your own components, technical know-how will be required. But there is another way. You can buy a bunch of reasonably priced, highly effective devices and get a lot out of the smart-home concept without breaking the bank.
As with anything, you can make a smart home incredibly complex if you want to. But it doesn’t have to be, and doing so sort of defeats the point of the whole thing. Smart homes as a concept exist to make your life easier, not add more headaches.
And it’s all going to get even easier as Project Matter begins to standardize smart home components. But even outside of Project Matter, the vast majority of smart home products will work with Google Assistant, or Alexa, or both.
So, as a rule, double-check whatever you’re buying works with your preferred voice assistant, and try to stick with a brand you’ve found that plays nicely with the rest of your smart home. If you do that, you shouldn’t run into any major headaches.
These are the backbone of any smart home. Although they aren’t technically necessary—you can control your smart devices through an app—the voice functionality they provide makes everything so much easier. Why unlock a phone or look for a remote when you can just bark a command at the box in the corner?
If you do find yourself using your phone—say you’re out of the house and want to make sure the kitchen light is off—the Google and Alexa apps can control all of your devices from one place. This is far better than having several apps specific to different devices and than having to remember which one controls that particular light. You can even group devices by type or room if you want to control all of them at once.
The various options available, but Amazon’s Alexa and Google’s Home assistants are the two main players. Smart hubs can also be used to help keep everything organized, but we’re trying to save money and, since those aren’t even necessary, your current Wi-Fi network should do the trick.
Something like the Echo Dot seems to be on sale more often than it isn’t and can be picked up for around $25 per unit. You can put one in every room, but even that isn’t always necessary. There’s every chance you can clearly communicate with your kitchen’s echo from your living room, for example. So feel free to experiment with placement.
It’s always possible to add devices, too, so you could go with one in the bedroom, one in the kitchen for now, and grab one for the living room or an office a bit later. Different types of devices are also available, so maybe you want something with a visible clock face for your bedside or something with a better speaker for a room where you like listening to music.
You can get functional smart lightbulbs for very little money. They are often on sale, and lower-end units are available for between $10 and $15 each. This is more expensive than a regular lightbulb, but you might claw a bit of that back in energy savings and from the bulb’s lifespan. LED lights don’t require much power and last a long time.
As far as installation goes, most bulbs just screw in then connect to your Wi-Fi network via a smartphone app. Once connected, they usually work with Alexa and Google without any significant issues. Although turning them off manually via a switch can cause some bulbs to disconnect and require a manual reset before they’ll hop back on the home network.
Depending on the bulb, you may have a range of color and brightness options available, which is nice. The main benefit, though, is the ability to set routines and control the lighting in any room you have a bulb installed from almost anywhere. No more flailing around in the dark trying to find the landing light or getting out of bed just before you doze off to switch off your bedroom light. Just get your smart assistant to do it for you.
A more expensive and complex option is available in the form of a smart light switch. These can’t be accidentally disconnected from your network, which is a plus. But you should really pay to have them professionally installed if you don’t know what you’re doing as mains electricity isn’t something you want to play around with.
Smart plugs and power strips allow you to turn anything in your home into a very basic smart device. Okay, so functionality is limited to on or off, but if you have something like an old air conditioner, that’s all you really need. You can turn it on before you head home and come back to a nicely chilled room for as little as $20, which is a lot cheaper than a brand-new “smart” air con.
Smart power strips are great for things like Christmas lights but can be used for anything you would use a regular power strip for. Each socket can usually be controlled individually or as a group.
Take a look around your home, think about things you might want to turn on or off remotely. If it has a mechanical switch, it’s an effortless upgrade.
Many new TVs come with some kind of smart functionality as standard. Non-smart TVs can still be purchased but are usually not that much cheaper. Roku, WebOS, Tizen, et al. will all integrate with your smart home.
Personally, I have Alexa and a Roku TV. I would describe the functionality as limited. I can turn the TV on or off, pick a particular app, and adjust the volume. Above all else, Alexa seems to be very particular about phrasing. Still, Alexa is a good backup when the remote is missing, which is roughly around 90% of the time.
Things like Chromecast, Roku, and Amazon Fire TV, can also turn a regular television into a smart home-ready smart TV for anywhere between $20 and $80.
A smart thermostat isn’t what I would describe as outlandishly expensive. You can buy one for between $100 and $200. Theoretically, it could also pay for itself by reducing the amount of energy you use.
Something like Google Nest’s smart thermostat will learn what temperature you like your house to be at and when—both automating the heating process and saving you the bother of adjusting the thermostat. This can, of course, be overridden via the app or a voice command if you’re feeling a bit chilly or leaving town for a few days.
Nothing on this list is essential, nor is any of it that expensive. The key part is tailoring your own home to your own needs. If you can get away with one smart speaker and a couple of lightbulbs, great. Your life is a little bit easier, and you probably spent less than $50. If you go for absolutely everything I’ve mentioned, you can probably keep the budget under $1,000 and have some kind of smart home functionality in every room. The key is to dump the idea of a set smart home and tailor everything to your individual needs and budget.
The modular nature of a modern smart home means you can add to it as you go. This has two benefits: it stops you from overspending on unnecessary objects and allows you to get comfortable with the technology. If you can set up an Alexa, you can set up a smart bulb. If you can set up a smart bulb, smart plugs are basically the same process. Things like light switches and thermostats may be more complex or intimidating but can be professionally installed for a small fee. And once they’re installed, they all work the same way; just say what you want and as if by magic, it will happen.