So you’ve decided you want a smart home, but you don’t know your Alexa from your Z-Wave? Or you know someone who’s trying to trying to do that to their home and want to get them a holiday gift to help with that endeavor? Look no further.
“If they really want to go entry-level, people could start converting their home into a smart home for under $50,” says Steve Miller, a consumer electronics buyer for PC Richard & Son. “You could start with the Amazon Echo Dot or the Google Home Mini smart speaker. . . . Once people see even at that simple level how smart technology works, they’ll come back for more.”
There are a few ways to get started, but the most important thing you’ll need is a strong Wi-Fi router, says Phil Raghunath, a sales associate at Micro Center in Westbury.
“You need a good router to connect everything together so everything works well,” says Raghunath, who recommended brands from Asus, Netgear and TP-Link in the $100 to $200 range. Smart devices rely on constant connectivity, so having a weak Wi-Fi signal or poor range can undo even the most comprehensive setups.
The main categories that smart home aficionados are focusing on are comfort (products that control heat and air-conditioners), Wi-Fi, and security and surveillance, adds Miller. Here are some things to shop for that meet those needs — all are widely available at electronic stores such as Best Buy, Micro Center and PC Richard as well as home improvement and mass retail chains such as Home Depot, Target and Walmart.
Smart home hub
These are the translators, making sure devices can talk to one another. The Samsung SmartThings Hub ($99.99) works with a variety of devices, allowing you to control them from a single app on your smartphone or tablet. Alternatively, you could use an Amazon Echo ($99.99) or Google Home smart speaker (starting with the Mini at $29), which can control a number of smart devices via their respective accompanying apps and have the added ability of responding to voice commands.
Yes, lightbulbs. Scoff all you want, but when you’re in that nice, cozy bed, and the room is so cold, and the light switch is aaalll the way over there, well . . . Smart bulbs can be controlled via an app, or, if connected to a smart speaker, by using your voice (“Alexa, turn off the ceiling fan light”). The Philips Hue Starter Kit (one of the highest-rated brands), $69.99, comes with two standard bulbs and a wireless bridge to connect it to your network. (Other bulbs allow you to have fun with colors; red, for example, is believed to be less “blinding” when used as a night light.)
Smart plugs and switches
These connect to an outlet, giving you control over whatever’s plugged into them, such as a coffee maker that automatically turns on to brew a pot before you get up each morning, or a lamp by the doorway that’s set to go on at sundown every night so you never come home to a pitch-dark house. Plugs made by TP-Link are popular sellers, Raghunath says, and lights that are programmed to toggle on and off can make for an inexpensive burglar deterrent for when you’re away for long periods.
The Wemo Light Switch, says Miller, is a good starter product that you can time remotely by phone and can be integrated to work with Alexa, the voice-controlled personal assistant in Amazon Echo devices. Plugs $29.99 and up; Wemo switch, $49.99.
These may involve a bit more know-how — plenty of information exists online in the form of guides or videos to help you correctly wire everything — but can save you money on heating or cooling bills in the long run. Thermostats from Nest ($169 and up) and Ecobee ($249) are two top brands, and they can be set up to turn off automatically if they sense you’re away, as well as allow you to program elaborate heating/cooling schedules or to control your HVAC system even if you’re not home.