Smart homes for beginners

Automate your house

Google Home

Google Home

Smart home devices like Google Home are becoming cheaper and more widely available.Google

Being able to tell your lights to dim or your curtains to close isn't some far-off future concept—you can do it right here, right now, using widely available products at reasonable prices. But setting up a smart home isn't quite as straightforward as it should be, which is why we're going to explain everything you need to know.

This guide will cover the gear that's currently available, how you can get your smart devices to talk to each other, and some of the problems you might have to solve to make your home the most well-connected building on the block.

Smart home devices

August Smart Lock

August Smart Lock

The August Smart Lock lets you access your home with your phone.August

Over the last few years, smart homes have seemed to teeter on the verge of reality—a futuristic idea that's close but not quite here yet. In fact, smart-home products already fill the shelves of online and physical stores. Welcome to the future.

Devices that you can pick up include smart lights, smart door locks, smart thermostats, smart security cameras, smart plug sockets, smart speakers, and more besides. What makes something "smart"? We're typically talking about a product with an internet connection that you can control with your phone or via a central hub. Also, smart devices often "learn" more about its users' habits as they go.

Take the well-known example of the Nest thermostat, which actually launched way back in 2011. You can control it over the web and from your phone, and it gradually picks up on your heating schedule and becomes clever enough to make adjustments automatically.

Nest thermostat

Nest thermostat

The Nest thermostat learns your heating habits.Nest

Or take the Wemo Smart Plug from Belkin, another device you can control from your phone or put on an automatic schedule. Anything connected to that plug, whether it's a fan or a lamp, will turn on and off at your bidding because you're managing the power supply. As an added bonus, you can control the plug via Amazon's Alexa digital assistant.

Speaking of speaking to Alexa, devices like the Amazon Echo and Google Home are quickly staking their claims to become the default hubs for all this smart home activity: Both devices now work with a growing number of intelligent appliances, so you can turn on the lights or unlock the door with a few words. We'll explain a bit more about these hubs later on.

Meanwhile, some manufacturers produce entire ranges of smart home equipment, like the SmartThings line owned by Samsung. The kit covers motion sensors, lights, smart plugs, door locks and more. Buying smart devices from the same manufacturer has a great advantage: It ensures that all the parts of your smart home will be happy talking to each other (at least that's the theory).

How smart homes work

Amazon Echo

Amazon Echo

The Amazon Echo, with Alexa built in.Amazon

You buy these products, install them at home, and load up the app on your phone to control them. But what's going on behind the scenes? The common denominator in most of these devices is internet access, which allows them to receive commands and software updates.

That internet access also means that devices like the Amazon Echo and Google Home can check online for answers to your queries or to see what's on your calendar for today. What's more, because a lot of the software involved lives in the cloud, these devices can learn new tricks and gain extra features without you having to replace the physical speakers and hubs in your house.

However, it's not all plain sailing. Right now these clever devices are all using different languages to communicate, so they don't necessarily work with one another. If you go out and try to buy a kit of your own, you'll find a number of competing platforms and standards, which can be confusing. We've already mentioned SmartThings by Samsung, and there are other options: Apple has HomeKit, and Amazon is building out its own range of Alexa-controlled devices.

IFTTT

IFTTT

IFTTT (If This Then That) is one third-party platform that can link your smart-home devices together.David Nield/Popular Science

Each of these companies wants you to choose its own proprietary devices for your smart home. As a result, they are reluctant to add support for their competitors' products. The slightly better news is that device makers have lost patience with all this confusion and begun putting out products that work with all the smart home platforms. Philips Hue lights, for example, can be controlled by apps from Apple, Amazon, and Google.

Unfortunately, not all gadget manufacturers support multiple standards, so it's a question of reading the small print and doing as much research as possible before purchasing a device. The smart home landscape is changing pretty rapidly, which is both good and bad news for the humble consumer. It means new integrations and partnerships are constantly being added, but it also means that your device can quickly become outdated, unable to talk to anything else in your fledgling smart home.

Apps like IFTTT (short for "If This Then That") can plug some of the gaps by connecting devices and services that don't normally communicate with each other. IFTTT lets you close your garage door on a schedule, get alerts about your Samsung washing machine, and more—but again, the number of supported devices changes on a regular basis.

Setting up a smart home

Apple HomeKit

Apple HomeKit

Apple HomeKit lets you sort your smart home devices into zones and modes.Apple

If you plan to make your own home smart, the first step is to sit down and decide what you want to be able to do: Control the lights? Beef up home security? Use voice commands to play music? Once you have a clear set of goals, pick a platform that fits most of your needs—and that you'll feel comfortable using—and base the rest of your buying decisions around that.

For example, if you like the look of the Amazon Echo, buy smart home gear that can be controlled by Alexa. If you prefer Google Home or Apple HomeKit, look for products that work with those platforms instead. If you think you might one day want to switch from one platform to another, get devices that work with as many systems as possible.

Alternatively, you can start small: Buy one TP-Link lightbulb, for example, and regardless of whether Alexa or Google or Apple dominates your home, you can control the bulb from TP-Link's own app for Android or iOS. Trying to understand how all of these smart home systems can work together is a little bewildering at first, so don't overcomplicate it if you don't have to.

Google Home

Google Home

Most smart home devices are easy to set up.David Nield/Popular Science

Most smart home products will work independently, which means you don't necessarily have to worry about creating some grand system where everything is compatible. The key benefit in buying devices that all work with one platform is that you can use a single hub (like an Echo) to manage everything in sync, rather than downloading dozens of apps to your phone. It's up to you (and your budget).

Thankfully, setting up most smart home devices is a breeze, and a lot of the time you'll just need to install an app and tell your intelligent appliance what your Wi-Fi password is. After that, you can enjoy the benefits of an app-controlled lock, thermostat, or lightbulb that learns your preferences over time.

With so many devices now on sale and several platforms to choose between, there isn't a right or wrong way to get started with your smart home. The possibilities are virtually limitless, so enjoy exploring.

For a more detailed dive into smart home tech, check out the hacker's guide to smart homes.