Over this Christmas we took the plunge into the smart home craze. This started with the purchase of a Google Home, which I bought as soon as it was available. We ended up loving it so much that we bought a second one during a Black Friday sale. We then ventured into getting a smart thermostat, a smart door bell, smart switches and smart lights. About a month into everything I’m mostly satisfied with our purchases, although I would say that few have crossed the line of “luxury” into “necessity”.
There’s still a lot more we can do to smarten up our home, but here are the products I got to dip my toe into the water (in the order they were purchased):
- Google Chromecast (+ Chromecast Audio)
- Google Home
- Belkin WeMo Switches
- Lowes Iris Switch
- Ecobee3 Thermostat
- Ring Video Doorbell
- Philips Hue Lights
Google Chromecast (+ Chromecast Audio)
We actually began the journey with the Google Chromecast audio last spring, when we bought a device to put into our kitchen. We love having music on while we’re cooking, which was previously powered by bookshelf speakers I mounted on the wall, then ran off the desktop computer through speaker-wire running through holes I drilled into the adjacent office. When the office was transformed into Clara’s room, we needed a replacement for the desktop and found Chromecast to be a great solution.
The Chromecast audios, combined with a set of speakers and a digital amplifier similar to this one, makes a good poor-man’s version of the Sonos. We ended up buying a second Chromecast Audio and have it running from another amplifier to outdoor speakers on our back patio. The beauty of the Chromecast is that you can push audio from most major services/apps (like Spotify, Pandora, podcast players) and create zones inside your house that synchronizes that audio. This has been awesome for parties we host, or those summer nights when you’re cooking outside and in the kitchen.
Enter the Google Home. I was intrigued by the Amazon Echo and had multiple family members who raved about the device, but I held off getting one because it didn’t have the one killer feature I wanted – the ability to play music to the Chromecast. After going to the trouble we did to find the Chromecast Audio, I didn’t want to have to choose between decent speakers and not-so-good speakers coming from the Echo. We bought the Google home as soon as it came out almost on the sole basis of the ability to direct audio to Chromecast. It’s great to be able to tell google to “Play (my playlist) in the kitchen” and watch it go to work. I think Alexa is still an excellent product, but I’m wiling to bet on Google’s AI and ability to interpret voice, as well as it’s openness in having an API that can integrate with technologies. So far that is starting to pay off, with Google now working with WeMo, Philips Hue, but most importantly, IFTT (If This, Then That) enables us to use voice commands to control the devices around the house (as well as customize Google’s responses).
Home is really handy for setting timers (which we use frequently with parenting), add items to our shopping list (it’s great when you’re cooking and can simply call out the ingredients), as well as answer random questions throughout the day. We ended up getting a second Google and put one in the kitchen with the other on our bedroom. I think most people could get by with one, but it has been handy to have the other one to provide news in the morning and play music during bath-time.
I still have a lot of wish-list items for Google Home, however. It really can only be associated with one account, which doesn’t make much sense for a family device. We’ve tried to get around this by setting up a family account and porting data from both of our accounts, but it still has a lot of kinks. Google still doesn’t support reminders/tasks or random notes. The Chromecast control for Spotify is pretty decent, but the Video Chromecast leaves a lot to be desired. I would be over the moon if somehow Plex could get integrated with the Chromecast voice commands.
Belkin WeMo Switches
I bought a single WeMo switch the last time it went on sale and use it to control our living room lamps. The switch was really easy to set up, and with Google Home integration it does it’s job really well. It was easy to set up and does support setting schedules (which we do when we’re out of town).
The only problem with the WeMo switch is that I don’t have many other appliciances or devices that would be handy. Lamps make a lot of sense since they can remain in an “on” state and allow the switch to control the flow of power, but most other devices are too smart to just remain on all the time. Ideally I would love to have a WeMo that would control the TV setup so we can have it randomly turn on while we’re on vacation. I know there are a lot of other WeMo devices that may support this, but it’s not a big priority.
Lowes Iris Switch
When we bought our Christmas tree Lowe’s had a promotion that made the switch really cheap. It works a lot like the WeMo switch, but has a lot less features. It doens’t integrate with Google Home or IFTT, so it’s really just been relagated to running a kitchen lamp on a schedule. All things being equal, I would pay extra for the WeMo switch.
Next to the Google Home, this is probably the most useful smart device we’ve bought. While you can make your thermostat efficient by programming a comprehensive schedule, the functionality with a wifi enabled thermostats really makes it easy to manage and monitor your HVAC. In our home we only have one zone, with the Theo state located in the living room. The furnace sits below our bedroom, with the girls bedrooms on the opposite end of the house. Often during cold nights the girls rooms would often be the coldest, with us being forced to crank up the heat in our room for most of the night.
I was really nervous about the installation, but it really couldn’t have gone easier (even with installing the little power adapter on the furnace). The accompanying app has very detailed videos that walked me through the installation.
What puts the Ecobee over the Nest is its ability to have remote sensors being placed throughout the house (we put one in Mariana’s room, the coldest room in the house). The Ecobee uses those sensors to build an average (or you can configure it to make the sensor the primary temperature gage) and equate that to the heat threshold. The end result has been that our room isn’t as hot and the heat has been more consistent throughout the house. Our home energy report claims that we are extremely efficient, but it’s hard to tell how much money we have saved just yet. The Ecobee lets you control everything remotely as well through your phone. In terms of band-for the-buck, this has been the best device.
Ring Video Doorbell
This device was one of my Christmas presents. Having recently become a teleworker, my home office is deep with the bowels of the basement, where the doorbell isn’t always heard (and I’m often on calls). In addition to ringing the normal doorbell, the Ring sends notifications to the phones, tablets, and even my computer through the app. You can then choose whether you want to view a live video feed and even talk to someone through the doorbell. The Ring also has a motion sensor that lets you set the detection range, and will even capture video when the sensors are tripped (as well as sending you a notication). The Ring installation was also relatively easy, and we were able to hardware it with ease.
The only major gripe I have about the Ring is that it’s an extremely technological replacement for a very simple and archaic appliance (your doorbell). With houses not being wired to send much power to the doorbell, the Ring is limited in how much power it can use to charge. During our deep cold spell this winter, the Ring’s lithium battery wasn’t able to keep the charge and ended up requiring me to take the doorbell off and charge it in the house – so you need to be careful how often you use the “video” features, especially during cold spells.
Luckily we don’t have too many people coming to our door, so I often forget about the Ring, but it has been really handy for giving piece of mind. I would say that it’s probably the most frivolous device. I’m glad I got it as a gift because I’m not sure if I could mentally justify purchasing it.
Philips Hue Lights
We bought two Hue light bulbs and placed them in our living room ceiling lights. We’re pretty happy with having them up there, being able to set different colors and levels of brightness through the app on our phone (as well as Google Home integration). If you’re looking for a really vibrant way to feel like you’re in the future, having Hue Lights will accomplish that.
On the flip side, the lights aren’t the most practical purchase you can make. While it is convenient to tell Google Home to turn on the lights when you walk in the door, I’m not sure if it saves much more time than the light switch (especially when you’re telling Google Home for the second or third time). The cost can quickly add up, and really only pay off if you’re able to outfit all the lights in the room (which made the living room the easiest barrier to entry). Eventually I would like to buy some lights for the outdoors (and be able to change them colors at different times throughout the year, but again it’s hard to justify the cost. It’ll be quite a while before we outfit our 10 movie room lights downstairs. One thing that’s important to note is that you HAVE to buy a hub for the lights to work, so you’ll be dropping $50 before you even get any lights. I would suggest that you pay the extra to have the colored lights, the white-only lights can only do so many tricks.
While it has been a lot of fun having all these gadgets and tricks in our home, I think we’re a long way off from having a completely Smart Home. I also don’t think people who can’t afford to shell out for these devices should be afraid of missing out. If I were to recommend one device, I would suggest getting the Ecobee – especially if you have tempterature consistency issues in your house. If you’re looking for a device that makes you feel like you’re in the future, get the Google Home.
What about you? Have you outfitted your house with any smart devices? I’d love to hear your story!