Some people get to start their smart home from scratch with a new house. They can decide where all the wires go, install anything they like β with the nod from housemates and family, of course β and not have to worry about moving anytime soon.
For the rest of us who are renting, or just not sure how long we're going to be in this flat/house/sofa bed we call our own, it doesn't quite work like that.
We can't wire up a smart doorbell or a fancy smart thermostat without permission and it'd be a waste to leave it behind when we move. And smart fridges, locks and connected garden cams don't always make sense (or just aren't allowed) when you live in an apartment building.
But that doesn't mean you can't smarten up the place in other ways. Here's a beginner's guide for building a great smart apartment.
Keep it streamlined
Moving house is a real pain, so limit the number of unnecessary gadgets to take with you. Think about what will actually save you time, money and brain energy when choosing which new devices to add to your flat, house, or room if you're sharing with Luddite strangers. The whole Nest or Hive shebang can wait.
If you're living with friends, it might be a good idea to buy devices individually based on your priorities, then you can take them away when you go your separate ways.
Think simple and portable
These days you can fit a starter kit smart home in a backpack. Seriously. You want Wi-Fi devices that add on to the TVs, speakers and appliances you already own, for starters. You're not so interested in anything that needs a bridge (OK, maybe a Hue one) and proprietary cables should be kept to a minimum β these will get lost.
This is a little controversial but we also wouldn't worry too much about jumping in with one platform β Apple HomeKit/Google Assistant + Works With Nest/Amazon Alexa etc β at this stage. Especially if you're buying cheap and cheerful for now.
With easy-to-use platforms like IFTTT, Yonomi and Stringify to connect everything up, and bearing in mind that plenty of gadgets work with multiple smart home ecosytems, the only potential issue is dealing with more than one app. You'll handle it.
As we mentioned earlier, you might not be able to take advantage of every smart home gadget β it depends on your new setup, and whoever owns the building. Here are some basics we'd recommend for getting started.
The smart lights: Philips Hue
Firstly, Hue has the benefit of a wide range of bulb types including: E26/27, E12/14, B22, GU10 and PAR16 so there's more chance there will be a smart bulb for each of your light fixtures. You'll need the Hue bridge too, but it's not like that takes up a lot of space and you'll be getting a nice hassle-free smart light system, and the new generation-three bulbs offer deeper, richer colours.
With Hue, there are also standalone smart lighting options (which don't need to be installed) such as its Light Strips and the new Play and Signe light bars. Also β choose Lux bulbs if you don't need changing colours or Hue Go for a portable light β¦ bowl.
Alternative: Ikea's TrΓ₯dfri smart light bulbs (E26/27, E12/14, GU10) for those who want affordable smart bulbs without too many features. LIFX also has a wide range of bulbs β E26/27, E12/14, B22 and GU10 β second only to Hue and there's no need for a hub.
The smart switch: LightwaveRF Smart Dimmer
Rather than replacing all your bulbs, you might want to consider a smart switch instead β this can control your regular lightbulbs and it's compatible with 80% of bulbs currently in circulation. As long as you can get your landlord's permission, we recommend the Lightwave RF Smart Dimmer. Why? Because when we tested it out, we installed it ourselves and had it wired up and running within about 15 minutes.
It means your lights stay smart all of the time and you don't get that annoyance of turning them off at the regular light switch. The design is OK, though we hope to see sleeker models in the future, it makes sense for rooms with spotlights like kitchens and bathrooms and the Link Plus Hub can also connect to smart plug sockets, radiator valves and motion sensors around the flat.
Alternative: If you really aren't allowed to wire in a smart switch, there's always the Switchmate Smart Lighting Toggle Switch which now comes in a voice activated model that works with Google Assistant and the Wink Hub 2. The beauty is that you fit it over your existing light switches, no install needed.
$24.89 | Amazon
The smart speaker: Amazon Echo Dot
These damn lazy millennials, wanting to order anything at the push of a button or, well, the ask of a question. The $50 second-gen Amazon Echo Dot is a little puck that connects to your existing speakers via aux in or Bluetooth. You can voice control Spotify/Pandora, as well as other smart home gadgets like smart bulbs, plus order pizza, call an Uber, listen to recipes and more. It's also tiny compared to its Echo tower sibling, making it more handy when space is limited.
Alternative: Google's Home and Home Mini now do Bluetooth out so you can hook up to existing speakers, and Google Assistant has the edge when it comes to accuracy and well, knowledge. If you add a Chromecast Audio into the mix you can control existing "dumb" speakers too.
From $49.99, google.com
The smart doorbell: Ring Video Doorbell 2
Smart doorbells might be geared towards big houses but that doesn't mean renters aren't interested in seeing who's at the door, whether they're in or out of the house. Ring's Video Doorbell 2 is our recommendation here, not only because it's the device to beat but because it doesn't need wiring. (We've had some trouble getting its rival the Nest Hello, for example, past Team Ambient's landlords).
The Ring 2 is simple to install, has a removable battery option and does 1080p streaming. Plus it's reliable and has a decent design.
The smart security cam: Netatmo Welcome
Flats still get broken into, even if you're up on the fourth floor. Connected security cameras these days don't need to be hooked up and wired in around the house; just sit them on a desk or a bookshelf. We're fans of the Netatmo Welcome camera and the slightly cheaper Nest Cam IQ, both of which are portable and fast to get started with. Welcome has face recognition, Nest has 'night vision'. What might clinch it is that Netatmo is subscription free with options to record to an SD card, Dropbox account or FTP server whereas Nest's setup has monthly fees.
Alternative: The affordable 720p EZVIZ Mini HD if you're really on a budget.
The smart TV stick: Google Chromecast Ultra
The $69 4K Google Chromecast Ultra is a good shout smart TV streaming stick wise. With 4K and HDR support, it's future-proof and easy to switch between TVs. You'll get smooth streaming of Netflix, iPlayer, Now TV, YouTube, Google Play and Spotify, among other apps. We're also big fans of the refreshed Amazon Fire TV Stick, which gives you another way of accessing Alexa. Got a bit more money to splash? Go one better with the Fire TV Cube (it doubles as an Echo).
Alternative: Apple TV 4K if you want to go all in with Apple HomeKit.
The smart plug: TP-Link HS110
Think about grabbing yourself a $35 TP-Link smart plug or three. These go into your existing outlets and allow you to remotely turn kitchen appliances, speakers and, yes, hair straighteners on and off, saving you money on electricity bills in the process. These are perfect for a smart apartment setup.
Alternative: Try the Elgato Eve Energy for a HomeKit compatible smart plug that tells you energy usage.
The smart lock: August Smart Lock Pro
Obviously if you're renting, you're limited in what modifications you can make, which can be tricky when it comes to security systems. However some smart locks are ones you can add easily without having to get the drill out.
The August Smart Lock Pro is one of the best out there, giving you control of your front door wherever you are. You can even create virtual keys for friends and family, and grant access to other guests who might need temporary access (for dropping off a package, for example). More importantly, it's easy to install β with instructions via the August app for iPhone or Android plus a Philips head screwdriver, you can do-it-yourself in 10 to 15 minutes.
August also plays nice with Alexa, Google Assistant, HomeKit and even the Apple Watch. Just make sure you have a deadbolt that will work with it - it replaces the inside of your deadbolt and the outside stays in place β clever.
Alternative: Friday Labs' smart lock, meanwhile, is compact compared to its rivals, super stylish and also pretty easy to install β it fits over your existing deadbolt to lock and unlock your door.
The forever renter
Once you've got going with these basics, you can add more Amazon Echo Dots, for instance, or more security cams or smart switches as you like. And don't fret, if it's what you really want, one day you'll have a smart garden door lock to call your own.