Nearly everything in your home — air-conditioners, thermostats, lights and garage doors, among other things — today can be connected to the internet and remotely controlled with a mobile device or smart speaker.
That sounds ideal, but there’s a problem: Setting up a so-called smart home can be mind-boggling. There is a plethora of different accessories that work only with certain products, and some work better than others.
Privacy is also a concern. While big companies like Amazon, Google and Apple offer smart home controllers with strong security in mind, some third-party home accessory makers might not be as diligent about protecting your privacy.
So here’s a guide to help you sort through the jumble and become acclimated to your first smart home.First, choose an assistant
Virtual voice-controlled assistants like Apple’s Siri, Google’s Assistant and Amazon’s Alexa make it easy to control smart home products by speaking simple commands like “Alexa, turn on the lights.”
Alexa is the virtual assistant powering Amazon’s Echo products. You summon it by saying “Alexa.”
• Amazon’s Echo products are easy to set up and plug in anywhere that you need to summon Alexa.
• At $50, Echo Dot, the smaller speaker, is one of the cheapest smart home controllers on the market.
• Alexa has more than 10,000 “skills,” or third-party capabilities, making it the most broadly supported smart home hub.
• Amazon’s Alexa app for iPhones and Android phones, required for setting up some smart home products, can be clunky.
• Alexa sometimes has difficulty responding to what you ask it to do.
• The speakers on Echo products are generally mediocre.
Google’s Home smart speaker and some Android smartphones include Google Assistant. To summon it, just say, “OK, Google.”
• The Home speaker and smartphones running newer versions of Android include Assistant.
• At $130, Google Home costs $50 less than Amazon’s standard Echo speaker.
• Assistant is generally smarter than Alexa and Siri because it is powered by the brains of Google search, meaning you can ask a broader array of questions and are more likely to get a correct response.
• Saying “OK, Google” to summon Assistant gets annoying.
• Google Home’s audio quality is just mediocre.
• While Assistant is slightly smarter than other virtual assistants, it is still flawed and sometimes does not know the answers to your questions.
Apple’s iPhones and iPads include Siri, which can be summoned by saying “Hey Siri,”or by holding down the home button.
• With privacy in mind, Apple worked with home accessory makers to ensure that the data transferred between accessories and Apple devices is secure and encrypted.
• The integration of HomeKit into Apple’s mobile devices makes it easier to set up Siri with home accessories.
• Partly because of Apple’s stringent privacy requirements, it has taken longer for smart home accessories supporting Siri to reach the market, meaning there are fewer available.
• Siri sometimes has trouble understanding what you ask it to do.
• Siri is exclusive to Apple products.Next, choose hardware
After you pick your virtual assistant, you’ll be able to choose a piece of hardware that will become your primary smart home controller. Amazon’s Alexa works with Echo Dot, Echo and Echo Show; Google’s Assistant works with Google Home and newer Android smartphones; and Apple’s Siri works with iPhones, iPads and Apple Watch.
Then, the fun begins. With your virtual assistant you can set up your home in a number of ways to make it “smarter.” Here’s a rundown of the different assistants and some products that work well with them.Putting Alexa to work
To set up your Alexa product, you’ll first need to download the Alexa app onto your phone. This app allows you to add “skills” to control accessories or increase your assistant’s set of capabilities.
Controlling Your Lights: A wide variety of smart lighting is on the market. While some systems require a so-called bridge, a device that connects with a Wi-Fi router and talks to the smart light, there are also smart light bulbs with a built-in Wi-Fi connection. Lifx, a smart bulb with built-in Wi-Fi, doesn’t require a bridge — so setting it up is relatively simple.
To use Alexa to control a Lifx bulb, you will need: 1.) an Amazon Echo product; 2.) a Lifx bulb like the A19; 3.) an Apple or Android smartphone for setting up Alexa to talk to the bulb.
• Screw the Lifx bulb into the socket and flip on the light switch.
• On your smartphone, download the Lifx app from the Apple or Android app store.
• Open the Lifx app. On the screen, tap the + or Add Bulbs button and follow the setup instructions to connect the bulb to your Wi-Fi network. Give the bulb a name that is easy to understand, like “Lamp.”— Open the Amazon Alexa app. Tap the menu icon and select Skills. Search for the Lifx skill and enable it.
• Tap the menu icon and select Smart Home. Tap Devices, then tap Discover. The app will scan for devices and discover the smart bulb named Lamp.
• Test the light. Make sure the light switch is on. With your Echo nearby, say, “Alexa, turn off the lamp.” Then say, “Alexa, turn on the lamp.” Then try things like “Alexa, dim the lamp” and “Alexa, brighten the lamp.”Controlling a Fan: There are many plug-in appliances, like fans, electric water kettles and coffee makers, that you probably wish were smarter. By plugging them into a smart plug, you use a personal assistant to do things like switch the power on or off remotely.
For this hypothetical example, we will set up a fan to work with Alexa and a smart plug from TP-Link. You will need 1.) an Amazon Echo product; 2.) a TP-Link smart plug; 3.) a plug-in fan with a physical power switch that can stay in the “on” position; 4.) an Apple or Android smartphone for setting up Alexa to talk to the smart plug.
• On your smartphone, download the Kasa app from the Apple or Android app store.
• Open the Kasa app and register for an account. Once logged in, tap the Smart Plug icon.
• Plug the smart plug into a power outlet. Plug your electric fan into the smart plug. The light on the plug will turn amber.
• In the Kasa app, follow the instructions to connect your smartphone to the plug. Give the smart plug a name like “Fan.” Turn on the Remote Control option and follow the instructions to connect the plug to your Wi-Fi network.
• Open the Amazon Alexa app. Tap the menu icon and select Skills. Search for the TP-Link Kasa skill and enable it. Tap the menu icon and select Smart Home. Tap Devices, then tap Discover. The Alexa app will scan for devices and discover the smart plug labeled Fan.
• Now test the fan. Make sure the fan’s power switch is in the “on” position. With your Echo nearby, say, “Alexa, turn off the fan.” Then say, “Alexa, turn on the fan.”Putting Siri to Work
Setting up home accessories to work with Siri is relatively easy, partly because HomeKit is integrated into Apple’s mobile products. To find compatible products, look for accessories that are labeled “Works with Apple HomeKit” on the packaging or in the product description.
Here are steps for setting up Siri to control lights and an electric fan.
Controlling the Lights: You will need: 1.) an iPhone or iPad; 2.) a Philips Hue lighting kit that works with HomeKit.
• Follow the instructions to connect a Hue bridge with a Hue light bulb.
• Open the Home app on your iPhone. Tap the + symbol in the upper-right-hand corner and then tap Add Accessory.
• Wait for the accessory to be discovered. If asked to Add Accessory to Network, tap allow. Use the camera to scan the accessory setup code on the bottom of the Philips Hue Bridge. Follow the instructions in the app to finish setting up your light and give it a name like “Lamp.”— Now test the light. With your iPhone nearby, say “Hey, Siri, turn on my lamp.” Then say “Hey, Siri, turn off the lamp.”
Controlling a Fan: You will need: 1.) an iPhone or iPad; 2.) an iHome smart plug; 3.) a plug-in fan.
• Plug the SmartPlug into a power outlet. The green light will blink.
• On your iPhone, open the Home app. Tap the + symbol in the upper-right-hand corner and then tap Add Accessory. Wait for the accessory to be discovered. If asked to Add Accessory to Network, tap allow. Use the camera to scan the accessory setup code on the bottom of the SmartPlug. Name the plug “Fan.”— Now test the fan. Make sure the fan’s power switch is in the “on” position. With your iPhone nearby, say “Hey, Siri, turn on the fan.” Then say, “Hey, Siri, turn off the fan.”Putting Assistant to work
Though Google Assistant is included on newer Android devices, Google’s Home speaker is the simplest way to control home accessories. Here are steps for setting up Google Home to control lights and an electric fan.
Controlling the Lights: You will need: 1.) a Google Home speaker; 2.) a Lifx bulb like the A19; 3.) an Apple or Android smartphone for setting up Google Home to talk to the bulb.
• Screw the Lifx bulb into the lamp socket and flip on the light switch.
• On your smartphone, download the Lifx app. Open the app. On the screen, tap the + or Add Bulbs button and follow the setup instructions to connect the bulb to your Wi-Fi network.
• With Google Home set up, you should have already installed the Google Home app on your smartphone. Open the app and tap the menu icon in the upper-left corner. Then tap Home Control. Tap the + sign to add a device. Tap Lifx and sign into your Lifx account.
• Tap the Authorize button to let Google Assistant control the light. Assign the light to a room, like the living room.
• Now test the lamp. With Google Home nearby, say, “OK, Google, turn on the light in the living room.” Then say, “OK, Google, turn off the light in the living room.”
Controlling a Fan: You will need: 1.) a Google Home; 2.) an iHome SmartPlug; 3.) an Android device or iPhone to set up the Google Home to talk to the smart plug; 4.) a plug-in fan.
• On your smartphone, download the iHome Control app and open it.
• Plug the SmartPlug into a power outlet. Plug the fan’s cord into the SmartPlug. The green light on the SmartPlug will blink.
• In the iHome Control app, tap the Devices tab, tap Add Device and follow the directions to finish the setup. Use the app to scan the accessory setup code on the bottom of the SmartPlug. Give the plug a name like “Fan.”— On your smartphone, open the Google Home app. Tap the menu button in the top left corner. Tap Home control. In the devices tab, tap Add. Select iHome and log into your iHome account to authorize Google Assistant to control the smart plug.
• Now test the fan. Make sure the fan’s switch is in the “on” position. With your iPhone nearby, say, “OK, Google, turn off the fan.” Then say, “OK, Google, turn on the fan.”