Get started with the smart home

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Get started with the smart home

If you’ve clicked on this, you’re probably wondering what a smart home can do. If you’re already a seasoned pro, you’re in the wrong place – this is our explainer on how to go about building a smart home from scratch, and all the things you'll need to consider.

A smart home doesn’t have to mean completely new and crazy gadgets or robots – though it can if you want. Often it just means replacing gadgets, appliances and accessories with connected or automated versions of a similar thing – smart light bulbs, smart thermostats, smart security systems etc.


What is a smart home?

Connecting the tech in your home to your Wi-Fi network (and to each other) has a few benefits. First up is controls and convenience. You can control everything in real time either from an app on your smartphone or tablet, or from a voice controlled smart speaker. We’ll get to these in a minute. A lot of smart home companies are trying to sell convenience – they will make your life a little easier or save you time on a regular basis.

Second, there's information. Smart home gadgets can give you easily accessible data on things like security – say, access to a history of smart security camera feeds – to energy – smart meters and energy monitors that tell you (and your utility provider) how much electricity and gas you’re getting through.

Third is automation. If you don’t want to manually control your home gadgets all the time you can go one further and set up scenes, routines and rules. Depending on things like you entering or leaving the house/flat or sensors being triggered, you can set up certain actions as a result. The idea is that your home gets to know you and your family/friends and automatically works based on what’s happening, without the need for your input.

Lastly (and this is only really a taster), well we get to robots. The next steps up from lights that turn red when your smoke alarm goes off are autonomous gadgets that operate themselves. We’re talking robot vacuums, robot lawn mowers and laundry folding robots, all of which currently exist – but generally this category involves plenty of wishful thinking. The smart home can’t do all of your household chores for you – yet.



Get started with the smart home


Get started with the smart home

Where to start on a smart home depends on three things: your budget, time and enthusiasm. Honestly you could just buy one connected home gadget and get going with the individual brand’s app then work any additions out later. For the past five years or so that’s what plenty of people have been doing.


In the past couple of years, though, things have shifted slightly towards the decision becoming which smart home hub or which smart home system to choose. This can actually mean a lot of things. If you want to control your whole house – both manually and setting up home automation – through one all-powerful app on your phone or tablet, you can choose a hub and platform like Samsung’s SmartThings or Wink.


More likely is that you will choose to take the plunge with one of the big four smart home ecosystems:


So how to decide which smart home system is actually best for you?


Amazon’s own range is called Echo and its assistant is Alexa, Google’s series of devices is Home and its assistant is called Assistant. They're the big two, and for most people it's a case of Alexa vs Google Assistant.


Both now offer their assistants on third party speakers from brands like Sony, JBL, Lenovo and more and both offer devices with screens - Amazon has the Echo Show and the Echo Spot, Google's smart displays are also now landing Alexa and Google Assistant are both compatible with a huge range of other smart home gadgets and appliances and are very beginner friendly too.


Apple HomeKit is the obvious choice for Apple loyalists. You will be able to control everything from the Apple Home app for iOS, the Apple TV box and the Apple HomePod speaker with its own voice assistant, Siri. If you’re privacy conscious, this might also be for you – Apple has been the most vocal about protecting personal data it captures.


Also on offer is Microsoft’s Cortana smart home which can be controlled via a smart speaker like the Harman Kardon Invoke or Windows 10 on PCs and mobile devices. This isn’t as fully fledged a system though. Samsung's Bixby could also become a major player at some point too.



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Get started with the smart home


How to build your smart home system

Once you have chosen your smart home hub or controller, what’s next? A good way to think about building your system is to pick a home category then look around for products that work with the ecosystem you’ve chosen.


The most popular categories in the smart home right now are kitchen appliances, baby monitors, cameras, doorbells, garden, lighting, networking, security systems, speakers and thermostats. So a good move is to dig into one of those, see what looks like a good fit for you and then check out if it works with Amazon Alexa, Google Assistant, Apple HomeKit or Works with Nest.


That’s by no means an extensive list though. A smart TV might be top of your list, or you might be interested in smart locks, smart plugs (which connect regular appliances and gadgets) or something quirkier like smart blinds.


We’ve got a dedicated page covering what smart home devices work with Alexa, which will also give you some inspiration if you’re taking the plunge with an Echo speaker. Plus we’ve also got features on what smart home devices work with Google Assistant, Apple HomeKit compatible devices and Works With Nest devices.


While ecosystems like Google Assistant or Amazon can pull all your devices rogether, there are still ecosystems of devices – and a prime example is Nest. This is a good choice for anyone with a bit more cash who is happy to pay for a polished, all-round system – comprising a thermostat, Protect smoke alarm, Cam and Cam IQ security cameras and the Secure alarm system – all of which work with a lot of other products.


Nest is also being folded back into Google so over time, these two will become one super ecosystem. It's also likely that Google will hold some of the better features back for its own assistant, as its battle with Alexa hots up.


If one device doesn't quite play nice with another or you end up with with a mixture of compatible products, look into a smart home hub or an app based hub like IFTTT, Yonomi or Stringify. These are free platforms that are very handy for setting up automation scenes and for plugging the gaps while manufacturers get their act together and make everything work with everything.


When it comes to physical smart home hubs – SmartThings, Wink, the Amazon Echo Plus – you might also want to be aware of protocols like Zigbee and Z-Wave. All this means is that some home tech devices will 'speak' one of these 'languages' and be able to connect and communicate, while others won't.


Explainers: What is Zigbee? & What is Z-Wave?


In each of our comprehensively tested buying guides, we give you pointers for what to consider when you're buying each type of device, plus our top five recommended products and any others that might work for you. You can see which ecosystems each device works with as well as pros and cons.



Get started with the smart home

Design and planning

Here at The Ambient we care about design and how your home looks and feels. That’s why we have an Inspiration section where you can see how companies, designers and other people lay out and personalise their smart homes.

When thinking about how to design your smart home, you need to consider how you will style, showcase and store home tech and gadgets. Some will look identical to the thing they are replacing, others are intended to be more of a statement piece.


Get started with the smart home


The rise of the statement design TV is one of the biggest style trends we've seen in the smart home this year and last, for instance. You can steal ideas from movie smart homes, luxury home automation properties, Instagram feeds and Pinterest boards and even connected hotels.

Think about the room as a whole – kitchen, living room, bedroom, office – and if systems can work in multiple rooms, that’s worth planning out too. If you have the luxury of starting from scratch, for instance if you're moving home, wiring and networking – taking into account what you need in each room – should be your absolute first priority before you get to aesthetics.


Get started with the smart home


Smart home privacy explained

When it comes to privacy, the main thing to note when you start connecting your home is that you are sharing data about your home habits, and those of your family/flatmates/friends/pets, with tech companies big or small. There's no getting around it.

The transaction is that in return for access to this data, you save time or money, get a convenient way to control your gadgets, find out how much energy you're using etc.

What the companies do with your data – which can include audio and video recordings from speakers and cameras – very much depends on their approach to making your information anonymous; their privacy policy, which you should try to skim through before you agree; and their business model. For instance, Amazon and Google make money from selling you things and advertising you things; Apple makes money selling hardware.

The tech company who makes the product or service you are using might also choose to share your data, for example with third party app developers. Or they might explicitly state that this will be anonymous or they may never sell it.

You might feel more comfortable limiting what information you give to smart home devices, or which rooms they are in. You might also be happier sharing data with a smaller startup who is putting privacy first over a large corporation. That's a decision for everyone to think about individually or as a household. Plus expect to see public policy and laws catch up with the tech in the next few years.


What about smart home security

We're not talking about tech that prevents burglaries – we're referring to hackers breaking in via your smart devices, using them to spy on your home or, in some cases, steal identity or money. It may sound far-fetched, but it's a real thing.


It's something we've been exploring on The Ambient as we've seen a number of hacks recently. Often these hacks relate to the security of the Wi-Fi network the tech is connected to, so this is something to consider – making sure not to connect to public networks, considering VPN (virtual private network) software, going through the steps to encrypt and update your wireless router after news of the widely publicised KRACK attack late last year which affects all Wi-Fi networks.


Again, aside from some security upkeep it's up to you what you feel okay connecting to the internet – you might be all for a smart TV but not so hot on the idea of a smart lock. Check out some of our explainers below:



Get started with the smart home


Jargon buster

Here are a few terms we think you might like explained, to get you started. Let us know in the comments if there's anything else you'd like us to cover.

Actions - Pre-set series of smart home controls mapped to one voice command, delivered via Alexa or Google Assistant.

AirPlayAirPlay is Apple's protocol – a kind of gadget language – that allows you to transfer audio and video between devices using Wi-Fi.

Bluetooth LE – Another one of those protocols, Bluetooth LE connects devices which are near to each other (e.g. in the same room) once it is activated and they are paired, such as wearables and speakers. The LE stands for low energy as it requires very little power.

Controller – How you control your smart home devices. This could be a smartphone app, a voice powered speaker or a universal remote control.

Geofencing – A virtual fence which can be used to let your devices know you're close to home, walking in the front door or leaving. It uses GPS or RFID technologies to send an alert when a device, for example your smartphone, crosses a geographic boundary.

Group – When you collect devices together to control them as one group. For example, everything in the bedroom could be switched off with one action such as a voice command or swipe in a phone app

Hub – This one is up for dispute but at its core a smart home hub connects various different devices, which might be compatible with different protocols, and gives you control over everything via one app, voice assistant or screen based system.

HVAC – Easy. Heating, ventilation and air conditioning.

Internet of Things – Also known as IOT, this is the concept of connecting objects to the internet, including smart home devices and sensors but also in industry, business and smart cities etc.

Multi-room audio – One speaker system which can play the same music, from your phone or another media source, in more than room. This used to require drilling and wiring but now works via your Wi-Fi network.

Scene (or Routine) – Getting into home automation, a scene allows you to send more than one command to more than one device. An easy example is a smart lighting scene could have one green, one purple and one yellow light but scenes can also be used across different categories such as 'Home', 'Bed' and 'Holiday'. Sometimes has different names.

Sensor – A useful piece of the smart home puzzle, a sensor is anything which can detect or measure change in its surroundings. This could be movement as in a window sensor but also temperature, humidity, air quality, light and noise.

Voice assistant - The proper name for Alexa or Google Assistant, which are basically interfaces you talk to, rather than use via a screen.

Zigbee and Z-Wave – Two popular smart home protocols. These are a mechanism for different tech devices to communicate, like speaking the same language. Zigbee is known for its speed and low energy use; Z-Wave for its mesh network which boosts Wi-Fi performance. Other protocols include Insteon, X10 and LightwaveRF.



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