The Internet of Things is growing exponentially. McKinsey predicts that there will be between 20 to 30 billion connected devices by 2020. So, before you have to deal with Siri in your toaster or use a smartphone for your lightbulbs (wait, that’s already happening), we thought it was a good idea to go over some of the Smart Home and IoT basics. If you want to gradually enhance the digital brain of your home – this is the best place to start.
We start at the entry point. Smart locks are the most important element to your smart home. If this part doesn’t work – all of the rest is in jeopardy.
1. August Smart Lock 2.0
This little gem has been the leader of smart locks for quite some time. And not surprisingly so! An easy-to-install device offers you a real and sensible alternative to usual locks. Making a case for utility, rather than pondering to IoT trend bandwagon is a great step from August. Smart locks will be overtaking the traditional locks we have and August 2.0 is a great example of why.
The looks might not be as crucial to a smart lock as it is for virtually any other tech tool we use, but we didn’t want to avoid talking about this. The product will be available in four colours – silver, grey, copper, and red. Picking up a neutral colour, or one that will match your doors might be a good idea since the August Smart Lock 2.0 is a bit bulkier than a usual door knob. Its dimensions are 3.3 by 3.3 inches, with a depth of 2,2 inches.
The manufacturer boasts an improved design of the device, that, supposedly, makes it easier to handle, install and use. We have to admit that this smart lock does look stylish and sleek.
August Smart Lock can be the first door lock you’ll install yourself. And you wouldn’t even need a DYI or a door lock installation for Dummies book. All you’ll need is a compatible deadbolt and a screwdriver. Okay, and an official August guide, just in case. The procedure is relatively simple, as you can see in the guide,
It works with Nest and Apple’s HomeKit, Logitech Harmony, Siri and Xfinity Home. This should be enough to cover your basic smart home needs and connect the right amount of devices into a singular ecosystem. Apart from integration with most home automation platforms, the August Smart Lock 2.0 has an array of great features.
Things like overlock and auto-unlock take care of the core function of this smart lock. The smartphone app helps the device sense you approaching and automatically open the door. You can generate an unlimited number of virtual keys that would grant the owners access to open the lock and manage them. If you have a falling out with someone who would occasionally drop by – not a problem anymore! Just delete their virtual key and it’s done.
Through Bluetooth connectivity, you can lock/unlock your door, as long as you stay within the range of Bluetooth signal. Remote work with the device is enabled though using one of the smart home platforms (hubs) we’ve mentioned earlier. The smartphone app keeps track of all people entering and exiting your home in a log, which you can access at any time. You can even see real-time notifications on your smart lock activity.
2. Kwikset Kevo Bluetooth DeadboltKwikset Kevo is another revamped smart lock from a couple of years back. Its main differentiator, or the most ‘flashy’ one, is the unlock mechanism. With your Kevo smartphone app running (even in the background), the smart lock will detect you and open with a simple touch. There are three colours currently available for the Kevo – “polished brass’, ‘satin nickel’, and ‘venetian bronze’. Naturally, the choice depends solely on the way your door looks, but all three options look quite pleasant. Kevo’s dimensions are 5.87 x 10.3 x 3.74 in, which is a bit bigger than August Smart Lock.
The deadbolt has this nice light strip on its radius that will flash when you lock or unlock Kevo. The colour will indicate if you’ve unlocked the door or were denied. In terms of compatibility – Kevo’s on par with August. It supports both iOS and Android devices, including wearables. While Apple Watch will only receive notifications, Android Wear can boast the full functionality of a mobile app. Kevo can integrate with Nest, Honeywell Thermostat, Skybell Video Doorbell and can be boosted through IFTTT applets and services.
The company has a wide range of products that can be added on top of the Kevo lock. With the first generation, Kwikset was adding a Kevo FOB, which is a small keychain accessory than enabled opening the door with the touch without smartphone near you.
Unfortunately, with the 2nd generation, the company stopped adding this item in the box, so you’ll have to buy it separately for additional $25. Security, arguably being the main feature of a smart lock, has been seriously improved this time. The previous device, reportedly, could be opened with brute force.
The improved metal structure of the lock lets you sleep calmly now. With Kevo you can send and manage an unlimited number of electronic keys and keep track of all the smart lock related activities in the app log. Getting this smart lock now would be perfect timing, since the free unlimited e-keys functionality and full compatibility with iOS have been introduced just recently.
Smart lighting is probably the most fun smart home element to have. It’s easy to understand why – we rarely appreciate a door lock, while light is a completely different thing. We adjust it to our mood, our activities, time of the day, weather and so on – and manufacturers know this all too well. Smart lightbulbs aren’t only beautiful and easy-to-use, they are quite efficient, too. Some smart light bulbs offer over 25000 hours of an average lifecycle.
There are many players in this market right now, but since we’re talking about a smart home for beginners, we’ll start with the entry level offers in terms of ease of use and price tag.
1. Philips Hue Smart Lighting
One of the pioneers and current smart lighting champions – Philips Hue is the place to start. Despite its somewhat high price tag, the starter kit they’re offering would be great for a novice. And this is why.
We’ll take the Philips Hue White and Color Ambiance Starter Kit 3rd generation for the test drive. What you get in the box is three light bulbs, that are able to change the 16 million supported colors and a hub, sorry, a ‘bridge’. As seen in the photo – the hub is pretty nice-looking and almost barely noticeable in the household. It has LED indicators (which aren’t really needed, since all the operations will be done from the app) and a push button used to connect bulbs.
You do have to hide the wires, as the bridge has to be plugged into the power socket, as well as to the Internet cable. The smart bulbs themselves aren’t anything special, really. But only until you turn them on.
The different regimes and color patterns are so vast, that it would be hard to list them all. Especially, given that there are dozens, if not more, 3rd party apps – both free and paid. You can adjust the lights to fit your needs in a particular room almost perfectly. The kitchen can have this energetic bright bluish light (or daylight simulation light) and the bedroom can have a lighting mode most accommodating for reading or snoozing your alarm for an indefinite number of times.
You can even create ambient light for a movie you’re watching using an app, or video game that you are playing.
Timers, wake-up and sleep modes are all available from the original application and they are worth of trying out. Imagine, you’re cooking something or waiting for a sports game to start, simply set a timer on the app and lights will start flickering when the time runs out.
That’s pretty neat, isn’t it? If you want to go even further and super geeky – IFFFT offers some amazing applets for Philips Hue, like the one making your Philips Hue bulbs start a color loop when the ISS passes over your location! Another one simply changes the lights to blue colour, when it starts raining. As I’ve said – smart light and smart locks are in a different weight category.
On the other hand – it’s understandable why you wouldn’t want your doors to unlock every time ISS passes over. The bulbs have an unimpressive 800 lumens. So, you’ll be unable to perform high-precision surgery with this setting. But this is well compensated by the different modes you can switch between when using your Philips Hue. Philips claims the bulbs to last for 25000 hours, which is quite good.
The upgradable bridge offers constant improvements and the ever-expanding market for apps and applets guarantees new cool things you’ll be able to do with these smart bulbs. Compatibility with Nest, Amazon Alexa, Harmony, Samsung SmartThings and HomeKit make it a no-brainer as your first smart light system.
2. C by GE
GE is this up-and-coming startup tech company trying to get into the trendy market of IoT. No, on a serious note, this mammoth, established in 1878, is now offering the expertise, quality, and experience of a 140-year company to a very new trend in consumer electronics. And this is a very appealing point to start with. So, what are they offering with the C?
You might have already guessed that the lightbulbs do look pretty much the same across the board. What you’ll find in the C by GE, which is a smart lighting starter kit, is 4 bulbs – two for any room and two for the bedroom. Named C-Life and C-Sleep, these bulbs are designed to recreate natural light and provide the best lighting adjusted to your sleeping patterns.
As expected, C support both iOS and Android platforms. It does not require additional hubs, as is the case with the Hue, and you connect to the bulbs directly via an app. However, the maximum amount of bulbs you can manage is 50, just like with the Hue. So, just in case you were thinking of getting OVER 50 bulbs for some reason, you might have to do some manual tweaking of the app or devices used for it.
The coolest thing that GE is marketing in their bulbs is that they are super adjustable to your daily (and nightly) needs. Yes, C does not have color change and all the palette that Hue is offering, but you can get any level of brightness from your C-Life bulb. “From working to cooking to kicking back”, as said on the official website. This bulb should recreate almost perfectly the natural daylight, which is beneficial for health – psychological and physical.
With all the perks that the color change in the Hue gives you – you don’t want to sit under the acid green strobe light for all day long, do you? That wouldn’t feel right. So, jokes aside, it really does make sense for someone not sure about the whole smart home thing to start with C by GE – simple and efficient, nothing over the top. Speaking of efficient – GE says, that the bulb will last for 20 years.
With a small footnote, that says “based on 3 hours per day usage”. Well, still pretty good if you ask me. The C-Sleep is basically the same bulb, but one that is configurable to automatically change light based on the daytime and your sleep cycles. You’ll get a dimmed light in the evening and an energetic bright one in the morning..
One could not go talking about smart lighting and avoid mentioning LiFX. While the company doesn’t offer a ‘starter kit’ (well, a pack of 4 bulbs can be technically called a starter kit), the LiFX bulbs are definitely worth mentioning. Let’s take the standard LIFX – you get 1100 lumens of brightness, 16 million colors and 1000 shades of grey. No, that’s not it – 1000 shades of warm to cool whites! And all of this will last for 22 years (again, based on a 3-hours/day usage).
LIFX offer a bunch of product similar to Hue (like the lighting strip) and all of them can become a viable competitor for the Philips and GE products. One more thing – no hub is needed for the LIFX bulbs! The bulb itself is a hub with WiFi onboarded.
1. Amazon Echo
Amazon Echo came out of the blue and immediately got everyone’s attention. This was the first real (arguably) attempt of creating a product that has been envisioned for decades. Remember the Computer from Star Trek? Incidentally, the new wake word for the Alexa Echo and Echo Dot is “Computer”. So, what made the product so popular and why you should care to buy it?
We’ll take the newer product in the Amazon Echo family – Echo Dot 2nd generation.
The first thing that you’ll notice is the price tag – it’s currently set at $49.99 which is super low when you compare to all the other stuff that’s in the IoT market. What can it do for the 50 bucks? Imagine a better version of Siri or Google Now and you’ll get Alexa, which is the name of this virtual assistant.
There’s a bunch of stuff you can do with it and Amazon provides updates weekly on the new features they’re adding. So, here’s a quick list of the main features.
Music streaming-Just pair it with Amazon Prime Music, Pandora, Spotify, iHeartRadio or TuneIn and you’re good to go. Using the Dot as a speaker is not perfect. It’s definitely not going to give you a nice clear loud sound. But if you’re not looking for the best sound experience. – it’ll do.
News-This is one of the coolest features of the device. Add the news agencies you follow and start your morning by saying “Alexa, what’s the news?” to get your briefing.
Dominos & Uber have integrations with the device and you can manage your preferences through the mobile app, something you might use every once in a while.
Control of your lights-It integrated with Philips Hue, LiFX, and GE bulbs, among others. While simple turn on/off commands for Hue is working fine, advanced voice controls, like color change are not really easy to use.
Smart home devices-The August Smart Lock must be mentioned here. While you can’t lock or unlock the doors through Alexa (which might be a smart approach here) you can check on the status of your lock, which can come in handy.
Heating-Alexa is the champion here, boasting integration capabilities with all the big guns of the market – Nest, Honeywell, Ecobee3, you name it.
Miscellaneous-We’ll put adding notes to Evernote via Alexa, stopwatch and simple random fact checking here. Alexa is great when you need to learn something on the spot and don’t want to turn on your PC or pick up your tablet. Alexa is always on and it can do a basic google search nice and easy. Stopwatch function is pretty straightforward and working with Evernote demands time to get used to. Also, you can just say “Alexa, good morning!” and hear the response. Today I got “Good morning to you and Happy Birthday to George Washington!”. I looked it up – it all checks.
Overall, there’s an array of awesome things Alexa can do and the list is growing thanks to the developers and the community on IFTTT. With a price of 50 dollars – it is a must-have in a smart home.
2. Google Home
Rivaling Amazon’s product, Google had released their smart speaker – Google Home. Aimed at the emerging home automation market, the thing is running a Google Assistant software, which is an upgrade of Google Now.
It can do pretty much everything Alexa is doing and the feature list of Google’s Home Assistant is neatly organized on the website into categories like Entertainment, plan your day, Control Your Home and so on. You can connect and vocally manage your Nest, SmartThings, Philips Hue with Google Home. IFTTT will remain a never-ending source of cool new features. While price and a number of available features, services and applets are still on the side of Echo Dot, there are two great advantages to Google Home.
First one – it’s smarter. There is a number of tests you can find on Youtube, where a series of questions is put forward for the digital assistants to answer, and Google’s product scores a bit higher across the board. Travel directions, next games, recipes, conversion of ounces into grams and so on. The second one is the design.
This might be just a matter of taste because the looks of these two devices are really different. Google Home’s top surface is a touchpad which enables you to control it with gestures.
The emerge department of the Internet of Things systems has been the pioneer of the whole smart home movement. The ones to watch here are Nest and Honeywell Lyric.
1. Nest Thermostat
“Nest” is already a household name in the smart home business. Already in its third generation of Nest Smart Thermostat, the company is exploring other domains of smart home systems, debuting on the home security cameras market last year. However, it’ll be difficult to shrug off the association with thermostats they’ve become famous for.
The Nest Learning Thermostat will wow you first with its nice look. The device owes its design to the guy who is known as one of the ‘fathers of the iPod” and its immortal design. You can even kind of spot the similarity with that wheel-as-a-control mechanism on both devices.
The biggest change this year (the Nest launched in 2011!) is the display. While previous versions would wake up when detecting you approach – this iteration of Nest uses a technology called Farsight, which, basically, means – it’s always on and you can easily see the temperature status from any point in the room. The main function of a thermostat would be (spoiler alert) the ability to control temperature. And Nest does this flawlessly.
Not only is it nice to use the wheel to set the temperature (reminiscing of the old-school iPods), the thermostat will show you how many minutes it will take to reach the set temperature. The “learning” part in Nest Learning Thermostat is responsible for adjusting to your lifestyle. Seems a bit odd, but this actually is quite simple. Depending on what temperatures you set for different times of the day – Nest will literally learn your rhythm and will start switching to your usual temperatures automatically.
Another important element to having a smart thermostat is to save energy. Nest makes it extremely easy for the user to understand when it’s in the energy-efficient mode. There’s a little leaf icon, that will light up when you’re saving energy. Nest has motion sensors to detect its user. While the previous versions needed this in order to activate the screen for the approaching user, this time around you are able to try what is called “Auto-Away” feature.
Basically, if the device does not detect any motion for 2 hours it will go into an energy-saving mode, under the assumption that you’re gone. Again, this feature will kick in even faster, when the thermostat will learn your daily regime and learn your working hours.
With Internet of Things, we’re all about connecting device. Naturally, Nest is well aware of this. Connecting your thermostat with Alexa is one of the biggest additions this year. If this is too much for you – simply connect to Nest from your mobile app. Remotely managing a thermostat might not be something you’d be super excited about, but it does come with benefits. For one – now you can see how much energy you’ve saved. And these savings might be a nice thing to juxtapose the price you’ll have to pay for Nest.
2. Honeywell Thermostat
Honeywell has a stunning array of smart home products – from doorbells to UV purifiers. The one we’ll take a look today is Honeywell Lyric Round Wi-Fi Thermostat 2nd Generation.
It looks suspiciously like the Nest, but that’s okay. The look is cool and we can excuse companies ‘borrowing’ designs from market leaders. Honeywell Lyric has touch screen controls and illumination based on motion-sense detectors.
One of the few things that Honeywell got right, while Nest might be a bit short on is geofencing. Yes, Nest will turn to energy-saving mode when you’re away for over 2 hours, but Honeywell tracks your mobile phone location and switches to energy-saving mode when you’re away. You can set up the radius in your app, which is neat and a step forward from the previous version of Honeywell thermostats which had only two range options for this feature.
Mobile-centricity is at the core of what Honeywell offers. You can use it with Android or iOS and receive notification when the temperature has spiked or decreased dramatically or when the humidity is out of control at your place. Potentially, it can work as an element of home security. For example, when you see a sudden drop in temperature it might mean that the door or window is open. The device integrates with HomeKit platform, so you can control the thermostat with Siri, as well as with the Samsung SmartThings and Amazon Alexa.
The smart part of this thermostat manifests itself mainly in terms of assessing the temperature ‘feel’. So, it calculates the humidity and shows you how warm or cold does it actually feel in the room. In this case, 72 will definitely feel like 72, and you won’t have to adjust anything. The company also offers you to calculate potential savings with their product. Just plug in your zip code and expenses on the heat in the calculator on their website and you’ll be able to see how much Honeywell Lyric can save you.
It is difficult to overestimate the importance of a smoke alarm system. Making them smarter makes a lot of sense, since a malfunction in this department can literally cost someone’s life. A functioning smoke alarm system doesn’t really need any fancy IoT additions, however, there’s one major thing you’d want to have. The traditional systems would alarm you in case of smoke, but only if you’re in the range of the alarm sounds. Smart home systems bring a whole new addition to the table – you’ll be notified anywhere you are, simply through a mobile notification.
Two offerings on the market make our list – Nest strikes again with its Nest Protect, and also – Birdi Smart Air Monitor.
1. Nest Protect
Beloved by many mostly for its thermostat, Nest offers a pretty great smart smoke alarm. Nest Protect does not only monitor your room environment, it can also self-diagnose, when a battery is running low, so you’re always sure that the alarm is up and running.
Nest Protect is also regularly checking its speakers to function properly. The spectrum of dangers this thing will guard you against is vast – carbon monoxide, heat, humidity, room occupancy, ambient light.
Overall, Nest made sure to take away all the anxiety you may have when getting a smart smoke alarm system. This includes the battery and sound check-ups, comprehensive mobile notification system and the quality of sensors that come on board. The only possible downside to an overall great product might be the price..
2. Birdi Smart Air Monitor
In case you want to go above and beyond – “Birdi” is for you. An Indiegogo-funded startup offers much more than just a smoke sensor. With “Birdi” you’ll be up-to-date on the pollution, dust, soot and pollen situation in your apartment. It checks air staleness, humidity, and temperature, overall – you’ll get as much info on the air in your rooms as you might wish.
But wait, there’s more. The ecosystem that “Birdi” created enables you to know the environmental situation in general. Meaning, you can get notifications on the fires or natural disasters that can potentially impact you. And if this much information might overwhelm you or just bring you down – just turn them off! You can calibrate the type of notifications you’re getting..
Smart Cameras is probably the most oversaturated domain of the Internet of Things. And that’s a great thing! You can literally pick up a camera that will fit your needs perfectly. There are even cameras for those, who want to check up on their pets every once in awhile. Granted, people are typically looking for these kinds of devices for extra security reasons. That’s why we’ll take a look at the offerings that provide the best security.
1. Icontrol Networks Piper NV
Icontrol Networks is simply one of the best smart cameras out there. This should be mentioned upfront. However, the price for this device might be serious issues for many potential buyers. You can find the unit in black or white on Amazon for $279, which is almost double the price of our next security camera. If the price isn’t an issue for you, just check out what this bad boy can do.
This system requires no additional fees, contracts or payments. The camera itself is a high-resolution 180-degree immersive-view camera that can stream and record video. There is an abundance of sensors onboard. Motion, sound, heat, humidity, light – once one of these is triggered you’ll get an earful from the 105 dB siren. And also a bunch of notifications on your mobile app. For the beginners of smart home systems – this is a perfect fit, as the device can be installed in 2 minutes. It integrates with iOS or Android and offers super customizable app experience, with all the preferences, graphs and checks for sensors you want to use.
One of the coolest features is setting rules for different modes. Say, you spend much time on vacations, you can get a separate set of rules for your sensors on the camera to be triggered while in this mode! This is super neat, as you can balance the camera “sensitivity”, for it not to cause much commotion when it’s just you in the house..
Homeboy is a super straightforward approach for a security camera. It does have a lot of shortcomings that we’re not expecting to see in a security camera like the lack of live video streaming and the fact that the quality of the image is below par. But the benefits of having this particular camera can outweigh the disadvantages it has. First off – Homeboy battery is designed to last literally for months on a single charge. You can place it anywhere and forget about it. But only in the best case scenario, as the camera will immediately remind you of itself with a push notification in case of motion detection.
The camera also has a night vision mode and a 30-day free video storage. A built-in siren will act as an archaic substitution of a push notification or an email (that the system will send), but it can prove to be super important in your household.
The camera tracks your GPS position and can automatically go into a ‘disarm’ mode, meaning that it will not freak out and start the alarm when you’re just minding your own business around the house. Once you leave the vicinity of your home – the camera will go into the ‘arm’ mode. The way its main feature works – detecting motion is pretty simple. When an alarm is triggered by suspect motion the camera will go online and start recording video. Alongside with sending you all kinds of alerts. Homeboy’s ease of use, durability, and features make it one of the great security cameras out there..
Now, you’ve got all these different smart devices in your house. The first thing that would probably come to mind is ‘How do I make it all work together?” If all these devices comprise the ‘nervous system’ of your home, the thing to control and manage them all would be the brain, or the ‘hub’, as they are called in the smart home domain. We’ve mentioned hubs like SmartThings and Apple HomeKit a number of times. Naturally, these are precisely the hubs we’d pick for our list of the best smart home platforms.
1. Apple HomeKitApple HomeKit is not a device, which is almost uncommon for an IoT section of the Internet. Rolled out in iOS 8, HomeKit is a sort of a framework that enables iOS users to control and manage smart home appliances. Obviously, this is the go-to option for iPhone owners when it comes to operating your smart home. No hardware needed, no checking on interoperability or integration between your devices – just a pre-installed app and you’re good to go.
Using HomeKit can eliminate the need for a smart speaker since you’ll be able to control your smart devices via another AI assistant – Siri. While the ease-of-use of all HomeKit compatible devices is, as one would expect, simply great, the fact of the matter is that there are not as many devices on the market to fit into the HomeKit framework.