What is a smart home?

Smart Homes: Your Essential Guide

We’re big fans of smart homes. While they’re not for everyone, we think they save enough time, energy and stress to be well worth the investment. We know getting to grips with smart homes can be be mind-boggling, so we’ve set up this jargon-busting guide to walk you through the process of how anyone can easily set one up.

What Is A Smart Home?

A smart home takes your traditionally ‘dumb’ devices (think light-bulbs and thermostats) and connects them to the internet, which allows you to control them from an app or hub. This gives people a lot more freedom and flexibility in how they manage their devices. You could, for example, set up a specific lighting colour, brightness and time setting for different rooms in your house. Or maybe you’ve realised you left the heating on at home – with a smart home you can fix that with a flick of your wrist from anywhere in the world.

How Do Smart Homes Work?

There’s typically two elements to a smart home: the connected devices and the hub.

  • Connected devices – whatever it is you’re trying to make ‘smart’ – your doorbell, lights etc.
  • Hub – this is the nerve centre of your smart home which talks to all the connected devices, and allows you to control them (usually by voice command).

Some connected devices also come with their own specific hubs. In this article, we’ll call a hub that’s included with a device a ‘mini-hub’. This is so we don’t get confused with the main home hub, which controls everything rather than just one device.

How To Make Your Home Smarter In 3 Easy Steps!

The Brainstorming Stage

The first stage is brainstorming – you need to decide what you’d like to automate inside your home. We like to go old-school for this first stage and sit down with a pad and a pen. Jot down the biggest sources of frustration in your home that you think automation could help with. For example, maybe you want to save money on heating bills by having a smart thermostat. Or maybe you travel a lot and want to be able to turn the lights on from anywhere in the world, to deter burglars. Think about what would be most useful for your lifestyle. Clever marketers would have you believe you need everything, but for most of us that’s overkill. Once you have your list of needs, it’s time to start researching the market.

Choose Your Connected Devices

While it might seem logical to start by looking at hubs, this is actually a common rookie mistake. Depending on what connected devices you require, you may not need a hub at all. For example if your needs are solely around lighting, then the market-leading Phillips Hue system has a mini-hub that can act as your control centre.

Even if the connected device you want requires a separate hub to function, it’s worth researching what hubs are supported by the device first. So always check out connected devices first – then hubs second – to come to the most informed decision about your needs. Here’s a list of the common connected devices that people employ in smart homes:

  • Smart light-bulbs – Used to switch lights on / off, control brightness, colours and more. We’ve mentioned the Phillips Hue, but IKEA also offer their own line of smart bulbs. The IKEA bulbs tend to be cheaper, but also offer less functionality.
  • Smart thermostats – A thermostat you can control via voice / app, but that also learns your habits and adapts to them. This often results in money savings as you heat your home more efficiently. The Nest tends to be the market leader here, but we’ve also heard good things about the significantly cheaper Netatmo (UK only).
  • Smart doorbell – Want to see who’s at the front door any time, even if you’re at work? It’s possible, friend – with a smart video doorbell. The smart doorbell space is getting more and more competitive, but Ring were the pioneers here and still just about shade it.
  • Smart speakers – These allow you to get the party started using voice commands. Audiophiles only really have one choice here – the Sonos One. Although if you’re not super picky about sound quality, you could get away with an Amazon Echo instead (more on that in the next step).
  • Smart plugs – Smart plugs let you use voice commands or an app to turn whatever’s plugged into them on or off. There’s only really one name in the game here – the Belkn WeMo.
  • Smart cleaners – No, we’re not talking about housekeepers with a PhD. Think robotic vacuum cleaners and floor scrubbers that you can voice-activate or run on a schedule. Although their devices can be expensive, we highly recommend iRobot.
  • And the rest – This list gives you a good idea of what’s possible, but there are lots of other smart-home compatible devices out there. Whether you’re looking for smart bathroom scales or smoke detectors, chances are that it exists or someone is working on it!

Choose Your Hub – If You Need It

Once you have an idea of which connected devices meet your needs, it’s time to decide if you want a hub to control them. Many connected devices come with their own mini-hub or smart phone app, meaning you don’t strictly need a separate hub. But having one may let you take advantage of extra functions – like being able to control the device by voice command. Let’s look at the biggest home hub players out there:

  • Amazon Echo – Definitely our pick of the bunch. The Amazon Echo accepts voice commands via it’s ‘Alexa’ assistant and is also a decent speaker in its own right. It could even serve instead of a Sonos One, if you’re not purist about sound quality and wanted to save some money. More or less every smart home device out there will offer Echo compatibility.
  • Google Home – Offering much the same functionality as the Amazon Echo, but not quite as technically smooth or with as many supported devices (yet). Fast catching up, however.
  • Apple HomeKit – While not a ‘hub’ in the traditional sense, HomeKit exists as an iPhone app which lets you use Siri voice commands to control devices. In terms of connected device compatibility, it seems to lag behind both Amazon and Google. However, since there’s no actual hardware, HomeKit is certainly the cheapest of the 3.

Remember: The most important thing when considering a hub is making sure that the connected devices you need are compatible with it. This is why we personally recommend the Amazon Echo: it has the broadest built-in compatibility of any home hub. However, if you’re already a Google or Apple person, it may make more sense to go with their branded hubs for smoother integration.

Now… To Set It All Up

So you’ve bought your hardware, and wondering how to set it all up? We wish we could help you with this bit, but this guide would have to be 100 pages long to cover every possible smart home configuration! I’m afraid you’re on your own – but fear not. Setup is usually easy, and as long as you follow the manufacturer instructions, you’ll be off and running in no time. And while it may be frustrating to spend time doing it, just think of all the time and hassle you’ll save once your home is on autopilot!

We hope you enjoyed this introduction to the world of smart homes. What are your favourite uses of smart home technology? We’d love to hear about them in the comments. And don’t forget to check out the rest of our blog for all the latest Tiny Living developments.

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