Whether you’re looking into smart light bulbs, quasi-intelligent thermostats, Bluetooth locks, wireless cameras or any one of an assortment of sensors, the modern home automation industry is awfully confusing for first-timers. Believe it, or not, but installing all of these gizmos is only half the battle. Getting everything to work together in harmony via a single interface is an entirely different challenge. Here are a few tips to get you started off on the right foot in terms of equipment and devices. It is also worth noting that some of the following are starter kits. Some kits contain a smart home hub and a handful of devices, while others only consist of a hub without any add-on devices. Here are a few things to consider as you begin, or continue, to build your smart home system.
Best All-Around Smart Home System
Samsung’s SmartThings has you covered with both breadth and depth when it comes to their smart home products. You honestly will not find a smart home system that can a greater variety of devices than Samsung’s SmartThings. The core of the system is a small rounded box – the hub – that connects to your router. Samsung even went the extra mile with the hub. There are two ways to link your smart home system. First is the 3rd generation Hub that offers the option of wireless connectivity. The second is Samsung’s Connect Home which melds a mesh router into the hub. You can then begin adding your devices via Samsung’s simple and intuitive mobile app. The devices you can add to your smart home system range from Samsungs direct devices to any one of a number of third-party devices with the “Works with SmartThings” brand.
Seemingly every major category is covered, including the Amazon Echo and Google Home smart speakers, numerous smart lighting products (including Philips and Sylvania gear), the Ring Video Doorbell, and smart door locks. SmartThings can also integrate with your Samsung smart appliances. If there’s a gap in SmartThings’ coverage, it’s a lack of support for Nest and August smart home products; otherwise, it’s hard to find a market that SmartThings doesn’t play in. As much as we like the third-generation Samsung SmartThings Hub, we don’t recommend an upgrade from the second-generation hub because of the pain such a migration will inflict on the user.
What to Look for When Shopping
As mentioned earlier, smart home systems come in a dazzling array of shapes and sizes, from brain-dead simple to vastly complex. Features vary just as widely, so you’ll need to pay more attention than usual when you’re narrowing down the field to find the product that’s right for you. Here’s a look at some of those key decision factors. To see how each system on the market measures up to those promises, drill down into the reviews at the end of the buyers’ guide.
Some smart hubs support only a small number of devices made by the manufacturer of the hub. Others offer certification programs for third-party devices and/or offer hooks into systems developed by third parties: Amazon (Alexa), Nest (thermostats, cameras, and smoke/CO detectors), and Google (Google Assistant) are the biggies here, but Apple’s HomeKit could become important later. It’s critical to consider all the devices you already have in your home, and whether the hub will support them. If the hub doesn’t support them, you might be looking at a massive upgrade later. As well, you need to think about what devices you plan to add to your network down the line.
Many top smart home systems support IFTTT (If This Then That), the simple scripting system that lets you connect devices that otherwise wouldn’t be. For example, you could use IFTTT to turn all the lights in the house blue if a water leak is detected by your smart hub—even if it can’t speak directly to the lighting system itself. Stringify is a similar—and perhaps more sophisticated—service, but it has not yet gained as much traction as IFTTT.
Wired vs. wireless hub connection
Many smart hubs must connect to your wireless router via an ethernet cable, which limits your placement and, of course, requires a free ethernet port on your router. That can be an issue with the new generation of puck-like mesh routers that have just two ethernet ports (Eero, Google Wifi, TP-Link Deco M5, et al). A smaller number of hubs are wireless and can be placed anywhere in the range of the router, increasing your flexibility.
If your home is large or spread out, you’ll need to pay attention to the range that the hub’s sensors support. Hubs may support a wide array of connection protocols, including Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, Z-Wave, and ZigBee, all of which have very different ranges. As with a wireless router, smart hub range can also be impacted by interference and device placement, and smart home devices themselves have different specs, as well. Take the time to look into the detailed specs to be sure sensors and third-party devices will actually work with your home’s infrastructure.
If the power goes out, your smart lights might not be useful, but other smart home features, like security sensors, rely on a hub that’s always on. Many smart hubs, even those that aren’t built around security, feature battery backups (either through rechargeable cells or standard AAs). Even a short power outage can cause a significant delay while the hub reconnects, so a battery backup makes sense in many home environments. If you like everything else about a particular hub that lacks a battery backup option, consider investing in an uninterruptible power supply to plug it into.
Mobile app usability
You’ll probably be interacting with your hub primarily through its mobile app, so you’ll want one that’s intuitive and powerful, with all the key features you use front and center. App-store screenshots and, of course, our reviews can help you get a sense of what you’re dealing with on the app side of things.
This is a companion consideration to the mobile app, relating primarily to the audience for whom the smart home system was developed. Is the system geared at everyday users with limited customization needs? Or is it built with extreme flexibility in mind, to the point where the configuration decisions might overwhelm a novice user? Again, close attention to our reviews can help you gauge how comfortable you’re likely to feel with any system.
Security Focused Device Advice
A companion consideration to the device support issue above, if you’re in the market for a security-focused smart hub, you’ll want one that has support for all the sensors you need. Most security hubs only work with the sensors made by the same manufacturer, so you can’t mix and match as you would with a general-use smart hub. Some security systems offer only a very narrow range of sensor types, while others have a wide variety to choose from.
Cellular radio backup
If you could simply cut the broadband connection to defeat a security system, it wouldn’t be much good, would it? Any good security system will include a 3G cellular backup that can be used in case your broadband connection drops. You should also carefully consider the battery backup consideration above, which is essential for dealing with power outages and is a standard feature on most security hubs.
If you don’t want to monitor your own security system 24/7, you’ll at least want the option to engage with a professional security company that can keep tabs on it for you when you’re out on a walkabout. These invariably cost extra, which leads to our final consideration….
Service plan costs
Service plan costs vary widely from system to system, and many vendors offer a range of plans to choose from. Some systems will work without a service plan, allowing you to self-monitor. Some require a plan to function at all. Also note that lower-tier service plans might not include professional monitoring Price out service plans carefully before you pull the trigger.