You have heard the term smart home. It comprises two things. First, the smart devices with specific purposes and second, the control system it and you talk to. Want to benefit from our hundreds of hours of research – read on.
GadgetGuy has spent hundreds of hours testing smart home devices – security cameras/sensors, door-bells, locks, robot cleaners, lights, home appliances, speakers, temperature/air monitors, air appliances…
I am sure it’s the prime reason for my ever-thinning pate. We also acknowledge Sam Hoffman who is the inspiration for this lengthy tome. He writes about trends in home automation and security and gave me the framework to flesh out! And, flesh out we did – from his 849 words to around 2,500 carefully researched and attributed words.
Most of the smart home devices do precisely as advertised
A security camera records security incidents, a thermostat measures temperature etc. But, the trick is getting them to work together in a meaningful way – a smart home. Regrettably, there are no DIY out-of-the-box systems yet that work well.
In 2019 the variety of smart home gadgets and control system has skyrocketed – almost every device from headphones to toilets now has some smarts.
Smart speakers can play your favourite music, but they are also the doorway to speaking with the AI machine. These include Google Assistant, Amazon Alexa, Apple Siri/Homekit, LQ ThinQ, Samsung Bixby and the host of other smart ecosystems out there. You can read more on the smart home explosion here.
Then we see the symbiosis between the smartphone (Android or iOS) that allows for geofencing (knowing where you are) and IFTTT (if this then that) programming to open the garage door on arrival, switch on the air conditioner, open your front door, play your favourite music and switch on the coffee maker.
Smart homes are about convenience – or routines
They should free up precious seconds, minutes or hours by thinking for you. The next generation of smart homes is not about using your voice to do something but about setting routines that do it for you. If you walk down a hallway, it needs to use an ambient light sensor and motion sensor to switch on and off the lights for you.
If you bid your voice assistant good night, it should lower the blinds, play sleepy music, monitor temperature to keep the room at 22° and put the rest of the home into sleep mode to save precious energy.
These are called routines. You tell the smart controller what you want to happen when you go to bed. Alternatively, when you wake up (get the weather, read the news, turn on the coffee maker). When you are rummaging through the fridge deciding what to make for dinner, it should tell you what recipes you can make with what is in the fridge and order additional ingredients for delivery in time to make the meal.
Well, you have heard those smart home promises – they are still pipe dreams. Here is what you can really do in 2019.
Here is a rundown of the smart devices we have tested and how they interface to a smart controller. All our testing has been on Google Assistant, but I am sure Amazon Alexa and Apple Siri have comparable devices.
Smart Light Bulbs
According to Forbes, investing in smart bulbs is the best way to enhance your home security.
Philips and LIFX are the closest in terms of purpose and performance. All work with Google, Alexa and Siri as well as a range of smart home controller hubs and IFTTT.
Philips uses a HUB (maximum two) that sits between the lights and the router, and that can be slightly limiting for outdoor use around the home. Still, its range of lights is impressive in Bayonet cap, Edison screw or downlight sockets.
LIFX uses direct Wi-Fi connection so you can use them wherever you have Wi-Fi connectivity from the main router or access points. It too has an impressive range.
Unless you have a motion detector on main doors or in rooms and IFTTT enabled then you only have basic voice control.
With these, you can either use the wall switch to turn them on/off (leave it on if you intend to use voice control) or say, “OK Google turn on the bedroom lights, 30% and warm white (or any of the 16.7 million colours)”.
You can also mix the systems using Philips in one room and LIFX in another – Google does not care as it simply calls these lights by their name or room name.
Bottom line: Voice control is a lazy but very effective way to switch on/off/adjust the colour and brightness of the light or lights you need. These are the easiest to retrofit, but they cost a lot more than a dumb light bulb.
Try them initially in reading lamps and special use areas. Once you see the value, you will buy more!
A smart plug is one of the most efficient means to transform an appliance into a smart device. We have tested WeMo (they are taking a small break from Australia but will be back), D-Link and various others that come with controller kits from Telstra Home, Samsung SmartThings, Origin Energy (now available Australia wide) etc.
Here you have a choice of Wi-Fi connected devices (WeMO, D-Link and soon Lenovo) or Smart Hub devices that use Zig-Bee (Telstra/Origin/Samsung SmartThings) and work via that app.
Adding a smart plug only gives the ability to turn on or off the device. It is great for our Christmas tree where the power point is behind foliage and decorations. It is great for outdoor lights (use IFTTT to set sunrise or sunset times) or devices (be careful about water ingress). And, you can use them for kettles etc.
All integrate with voice control and allow you to set routines, IFTTT, and more.
Bottom line: I prefer the Wi-Fi versions for flexibility but make sure you use the same brand with the same app to control them; otherwise it is messy. The best Wi-Fi option is D-Link that also has Wi-Fi motion sensors, sirens and security cameras as well as some of the better Tri-band AC routers for smart home control.
Security cameras allow you to keep a watch on your home and know who is coming and leaving – all from your smartphone, PC, tablet. Safewise.com says there are real benefits in installing security cameras in your home.
Again, you have so many types, resolution, night vision, hub or Wi-Fi connections, PIR detection types, recording (local or cloud) and all need power, so that means constant recharging, use of solar panels, or mains power.
- At least full HD 1980 x [email protected] or higher and in certain locations 2K or 4K may be useful where you need added definition
- Don’t believe battery life claims of several months between charges – BS. Count on regular weekly to monthly recharges especially if there are many motion events to record
- Don’t believe distance claims – cut everything by two (or more) to get useful distances from routers or coverage areas
- Local recording to a microSD card is low cost. The option of the cloud is useful but can be costly.
- Wi-Fi or Hub connection. Wi-Fi is easiest, but a dedicated Hub (base unit) can remove much traffic from congested Wi-Fi networks
- Select the same brand for all your camera’s otherwise; you will need multiple apps to view them.
I like Reolink for value and variety from waterproof, indoors, solar powered and up to 4K. It is a great all-rounder and has not disappointed.
Swann is also very good (and often uses Reolink cameras), an adequate solar panel, a good video doorbell/chime, and increasingly effective AI to make the camera’s smarter. Added to that it has local support and you can bag a bargain by shopping around.
Uniden is also impressive and has the best solar panel charger ever (it works), and a new range of Google Assistant devices and a new Guardian Pro app. If you were focusing on a Google Home, this is one of the best alternatives.
D-Link has a range of excellent cameras indoor/outdoor that work with its connected home devices as well as Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa. This is a pretty compelling brand with great local support.
Nest gear is nice, well made and part of the Nest ecosystem.
As for base stations.
The key benefit is that the base station keeps camera traffic off the Wi-Fi network and it can have more smarts than directly connected Wi-Fi cameras.
Arlo is the word, and unfortunately, we did not get off on the right foot with its original Arlo series. It makes good gear, but its marketing department made over the top claims that we just had to challenge.
Well, Arlo is now a separate company, its old tech replaced with the 4K Ultra series (yet to be reviewed – check back in two weeks), marketing notched back a little, and it looks great.
D-Link has its first base-station kit, and we will also be reviewing that soon.
You can lock/unlock your doors via mobile phone, grant temporarily entrance to visitors, let couriers drop parcels and know who is at your door. A smart lock needs to use a smart camera, light and doorbell for best effect.
It is a digital front door, and we have not reviewed any because these require installation to test.
Rules – must haves:
- Look for Google Home integration (or Siri or Alexa depending on what you use) and IFTTT as a minimum
- Most importantly Wi-Fi connection. Other features like voice activation, geofencing etc will depend on this
- Some locks only have Bluetooth to communicate with a keyring dongle or smartphone app if in range – convenient but don’t waste money on it
- Some locks only have Z-Wave or Zig-bee to work with a designated smart home hub. Unless you have one forget these.
- Power is an issue – no power means no lock, so you need a backup way to unlock – key or press pad
Go to Bunnings and see what is on offer. We cannot offer any recommendations yet.
Video doorbells enable you to know who is at your front door via your mobile phone or cast to a screen. It can act as an intercom – useful for those who can’t get to the door quickly.
As yet we have only reviewed the Swann Smart Video Doorbell. The review is a good read about a simple Wi-Fi video doorbell.
I won’t compare it with more complex and expensive Google Assistant, Amazon Alexa, Apple Home Kit hybrid doorbell and security camera setups like Arlo, Nest and Ring because these are far more expensive and part of an overall security system.
Smart Thermostats and smoke detectors
One of the benefits of a smart thermostat for heating or cooling is that it allows you to set and automatically monitor the temperature via a smartphone app. And, when connected to other smart devices like temperature and movement detectors, it can reduce cooling and heating expenses.
The take up of smart thermostats has been low here as they require an electrician to install and you need to ensure it works with your chosen smart home ecosystem. If you are going down this route take to a smart home expert and it looks like the winner may be Nest.
Smoke detectors can be smart too. Our review of the Nest taught us so much, and we are gradually replacing all dumb detectors. This could be very interesting with IFTTT so that when it detects smoke, it can turn off AC, open/close windows, send an email and even call the fire brigade.
In the interim you can add smarts to any air conditioner that has an Infrared control via Ambi – it works very well.
Smart speakers are the manifestation of a vast AI cloud. The speaker is dumb – all it does is listen for a watchword and present the query to an AI cloud. Oh and some have good quality sound – many do not.
We have written so much about speakers from Google, LG, Panasonic, Lenovo, JBL, Amazon Echo, Apple Siri that we are frankly smart ‘speakered’ out. Here is a brief overview of Google Assistant and Alexa.
Summary: Best Google speakers
- mono sound: LG WK7
- stereo sound: Google Max (runner up Panasonic SC-GA10 – the review is before the stereo firmware update )
- waterproof: JBL Link series are impressive and waterproof
- combo screen/speaker: Lenovo 10” followed by Lenovo 8” and the Google HomeHub
In the Alexa world (Gadget Guy info here)
If you live in the Apple ecosystem, HomeKit was a little slow off the mark and has some catching up to do.
Siri is the Apple HomePod and HomeKit voice.
We could write several thousand words on what they can and can’t do but essentially its general questions, music, voice control, YouTube and shopping.
Smart Home Hubs
A smart hub offers a uniform platform to control all smart home gadgets that do not communicate with each other or use the same apps, e.g. they replace all those apps! Smart home hubs allow you to automate many processes and take advantage of IFTTT.
GadgetGuy does not have much experience here, but Samsung’s SmartThings is a multi-protocol hub that has Zig-bee, Z-Wave (Australian frequency), Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. As long as the Hub has a certified Works With SmartThings device (read this to see the growing range), it will control it and open it up to Google Assistant and often Alexa control.
We see SmartThings as the best alternative and will be testing it soon. That is not to take away from other brand hubs but look for the devices they support before buying.
Read our article on IoT safety. Pretty well any IoT device can be hacked, and you can take five easy steps to reduce the risk.
The smart home end
Have you been planning to retrofit and make a home a smart home? The good news is that with the advice here you can DIY and get up to speed without major hair loss or blood pressure rising. But remember that getting all these things to work together is not simple. We have not even mentioned smart TV or home AV system control yet.
If you are building a smart home then talk to your sparky about wiring for a smart home and Clipsal Schneider has a lot of the issues sorted and you can fit electric blinds, smart plugs, sensors, thermostats. Lighting and more that works seamlessly together.
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