Smart home systems: Everything you need to know

Your complete guide to the best smart home ecosystems

Smart home ecosystems explained

Setting up your smart home is easier than ever, but choosing which smart home system to unify your devices and get them talking together is a huge factor. A couple of years ago you'd have had to be pretty tech savvy, or use apps like IFTTT, to get your connected kit talking to each other – but nowadays the big boys are making life easier.

Apple, Google, Nest and Amazon are all major players in the smart home arena now, with their ecosystems and smart assistants on hand to not only make controlling your connected tech easier, but to make home automation a doddle. Then there's the likes of Samsung SmartThings, Wink, Zigbee and Honeywell, who also do their best to make setting up your smart home system a doddle.

The good news is you don't really need to choose a smart home system and stick with it. This isn't iOS versus Android, or PC versus Mac, all over again – you'll find smart home kit that works with multiple ecosystems and you'll even find native devices from one major platform that sync up and plays nicely with rival systems.

Confused? You needn't be – you just need to look out for the 'Works with…' sticker on the box of the smart home tech you're splashing the cash on to see if it will slot into your existing home setup.

And, if you're starting from scratch – or thinking of jumping platforms – read on for our guide to the biggest and best smart home ecosystems. What's more, check out our guide to the best smart home hubs for everything you need to know about bringing your ecosystems together.


Smart home ecosystems: Everything you need to know

Amazon Alexa

Alexa arrived on the original Echo smart speaker and has spread her wings to numerous speakers and devices since, and not just Amazon branded ones either. Sure, you'll get the best Alexa experience if you use a native Echo speaker, but Alexa is popping up across multiple brands now – including on major players like Sonos.

The premise of Alexa is pretty simple: you ask her questions or command her to control the devices in your home and she'll try and get you the information you need, or talk to the connected devices.

There are two types of Alexa device – smart speakers and devices with Alexa built right in, and devices that simply work with Alexa, which usually means they can be controlled using your voice. It’s an important distinction. For the latter, look for products marked with the 'Works with Amazon Alexa' tag.

Amazon's assistant uses Skills – essentially apps built for the system. For example, using the TuneIn radio skill, Alexa can play your favourite station, the BBC News skill can read you the headlines and by using the Spotify skill you can select your favourite tracks.

The smart home side of Alexa is where you’ll see compatible devices Alexa has discovered on your home network. Adding new connected kit is a much more straightforward process than with Apple's HomeKit – you simply tap 'Add Device' from the Alexa app and, if a new device on the same Wi-Fi network is found, it will add it to the list – you can also just ask Alexa to discover new devices. The range of kit that works with Amazon's platform is staggering and is growing by the day.

You can also create groups of devices: all your downstairs lights, for example, making it easier to turn everything on and off with a single command. And the new Routines function acts like HomeKit's Scenes feature, whereby you can automate actions across multiple devices.

Have a look at our extensive Alexa guide for a deeper dive into Amazon's smart home system.


Smart home ecosystems: Everything you need to know

Apple HomeKit

HomeKit is a software framework that is baked into iOS, and the idea is simple – instead of having a bunch of different smart home apps on your smartphone that don’t necessarily sync with one another, HomeKit brings them all together, offering control front and centre on your devices, as well as via Siri. Well, the Home app on your iPhone or iPad does.

There are, in fact, two elements to Apple HomeKit. HomeKit itself is a standard, a background software technology that devices need to comply with to get access to the club (it's super secure, Apple takes encryption very seriously). The element of HomeKit that you'll see on your iOS device is called Apple Home.

Home interacts with your 'Works with HomeKit' devices in three main ways. 'Home' lists all your smart home devices, with your selected favourites up top; 'Rooms' groups devices in locations around your house; and 'Automation' allows you to automate smart home behaviours. For example, you can have the lights turned off, the alarm set and the heating turned down when you leave home.

These automations can be grouped together into 'Scenes'. The scenario mentioned above could be called 'Away', for example, or you could have a 'Game Time' scene that turns off the main lights, switches the mood lighting on and gets your Xbox fired up (using a smart plug). These scenes can be activated from your iPhone or iPad's Control Center or by using Siri.

Obviously Apple has Siri built into the iPhone, Mac, Apple Watch, Apple TV and the HomePod speaker as well, meaning a Siri device is never far away. HomePod, in particular, really helps to put Apple's platform on a par with Google and Amazon's voice-based setups.

Pairing compatible devices to Apple's smart home platform isn't the easiest – there's some faffing to be done with scanning codes using an iPhone – but HomeKit has definitely come on leaps and bounds in the last few months and it's clear that the home (and the Home app) is far more than a side project from the Cupertino tech giant.

The selection of devices that works with HomeKit isn't as comprehensive as the others in this feature, but quality kit is being added to the list all the time.

Check out our comprehensive Apple HomeKit guide for more info.


Smart home ecosystems: Everything you need to know

Google Assistant

Google's answer to Alexa landed with the Google Home speakers in 2017 and, like Amazon's market leader, is expanding beyond devices built in-house. There are three Google Home speakers powered by Assistant on sale now: regular, Mini and Max, and we've also seen speakers from the likes of JBL, LG, Sony, Panasonic and Mobvoi announced.

Like Alexa, there are two types of Google Assistant devices – those with the Assistant built right in and those that can be commanded by it.

Based on the same Google Assistant you'll found built into your Android smartphone or your Android Wear smartwatch, you can control your music as well as get news and weather on the Home speakers; control other smart home gadgets and appliances, set timers and reminders and even take calls. You can link the speakers for multi-room audio and set up as many as six different users on one Home, for personalised calendars and music playlists.

Google Assistant is configured in the Google Home app, with features generally split into two groups: AI butler and smart home controls.

On the butler side of things you can ask Google Assistant all sorts of questions and get it to complete various tasks just by talking to it. You can set up a My Day program of news, weather, traffic and calendar updates that the Assistant reads out when you ask, for instance, “Hey Google, what’s my schedule looking like?”, plus you can ask for info on commute times, flight info, weather forecasts, upcoming events, info on sports teams, unit conversions, short translations, dictionary entries and well, plain old facts.

Google Home Actions are how Google Assistant is able to interact with existing apps. They are the equivalent of Alexa’s Skills and can make it more useful when it comes to reference, productivity and getting things done with voice controls.

Your Google Assistant is also a control hub for smart home gadgets – you can set up devices by going to ‘Home Control’ and selecting the brand/device. It’s all pretty simple, and there's no scanning nonsense as with HomeKit. Depending on the tech, you can do things like turn gadgets on and off, change settings and set up routines.

You can see a selection of Google Home compatible devices here, including top smart thermostats, security cameras, lights, plugs, locks and more. Some have Assistant controls built-in, others are existing speakers which require the Chromecast Audio add-on.

Have a read of our Google Assistant missing manual for a much more in-depth description.


Smart home ecosystems: Everything you need to know

Works with Nest

Google actually has two players in this game. Nest Labs, owned by Alphabet (Google's parent company), has its own system – Works with Nest – that makes it easy to connect smart home kit to the ever expanding range of Nest products. Nest devices themselves also sync up nicely with both Alexa and Google Assistant – a perfect example of that smart home ecosystem crossover we mentioned earlier.

The 'Works with Nest' badge is a seal of approval that Nest gives to other smart home brands to indicate that their kit is easily compatible Nest products, without the need for third-party apps or skills from the likes of Alexa, Google, IFTTT or HomeKit.

Nest of course plays nicely with all of those platforms (except HomeKit), but what the Works With Nest platform means is that you don't need to get additional software or hardware to connect up different sets of connected tech.

What that means for your smart home is dependent on the Works with Nest device you select. For example, Philips Hue will talk with pretty much all the Nest kit – red lights when there is an alarm, flashing lights for a ringing doorbell, blinking blue lights when you get an email, that sort of thing. Other Works with Nest kit is a lot more limited – the Almond router just gives you an additional way to control your Thermostat, for example.

Jump into our Works with Nest super guide for much more info on the platform.


The best of the rest

The smart home systems listed above are the ones that you're most likely to encounter as you seek out kit for your connected abode, but they are by no means the only players.

Many companies have realised that people want simplicity when it comes to syncing up their smart homes and, as such, there's an ever-expanding range of software and hardware options for your consideration. Such as…

Samsung SmartThings

Samsung SmartThings is an intriguing little platform. In 2017 the Korean tech giant released its new hub, Samsung Connect Home, and also launched a revamped Connect Home app to help you manage all your devices and easily set up new ones. It also acts as a mesh Wi-Fi system, and up to five Connect Home hubs can be placed around one home.

The SmartThings Hub has radios for both Zigbee and Z-Wave and creates a wireless network to connect and communicate with all your smart home gadgetry. There are Samsung SmartThings devices on sale but the platform is also open to other brands too.

Wink

The Wink Hub might not seem sexy or futuristic but it's got the right idea when it comes to the invisible in-home communications you need to achieve any power nerd dreams.

With Alexa, Assistant and HomeKit compatibility expanding, you'll find that most of the extra devices you want to buy will be onboard with these main platforms but with something like Wink, you don't need to worry about choosing whether to live in an Apple, Google or Amazon home. The Wink Hub supports more smart home protocols than any other hub on the market: Bluetooth LE, Kidde, Lutron ClearConnect, Wi-Fi, Z-Wave and Zigbee.

IFTTT

Alexa, Nest, Homekit and Google Assistant are upping the home automation game but IFTTT has been kicking ass and taking names in the space for years, with its Applets (previously called IFTTT recipes). IFTTT allows various platforms and gadgets to trigger responses in one another that otherwise wouldn't be possible.

Many of the best IFTTT recipes are helpful workarounds for ways of using kit that haven't quite patched as out-of-the-box just yet and even the big platforms above make use of IFTTT to fill some of the gaps.

Logitech

As well as having its own devices in the smart home game, Logitech also has a few devices that specialise in making the rest of your tech more autonomous.

Its Harmony remote controls have been smartening up homes for years now, with more integrations being added all the time. And the Pop Home Switch jumps onboard your smart home's Wi-Fi and scans for compatible devices it can control, working with the likes of Lifx, Phillips Hue, Lutron, Insteon and Samsung SmartThings, and it can also can pair up with a Logitech Harmony Remote hub for extra controls such as TV power, and Netflix and Sonos playback.

Stringify

With more strings to its bow than IFTTT, Stringify allows for extra functionalities and freedoms than its better-known rival.

With Stringify you set up a trigger from a 'Thing' – the initial action that kicks it all off – and then assign Thing actions to follow after in the Flow. These Flows can include multiple parameters to trigger an action or have multiple actions triggered. This is particularly useful if you want to string together a bunch of connected tech platforms and then add extra dimensions such as time periods to the mix.

Yonomi

If you're looking for a one-stop shop for automating your smart home routines on your existing tech, Yonomi could be the solution. It offers a wider array of controls than you get with HomeKit or Alexa and has more ifs than IFTTT; making Yonomi a serious rival to Stringify, and a much simpler one to use in our opinion.

Essentially, Yonomi is a smart home hub that lives on your smartphone – both iOS and Android – where you can manage your smart home devices, getting them synced up and working together in tandem.


See also…

  1. What is Zigbee?
  2. Z-Wave explained
TAGGED   smart home

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