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How to Navigate the Age of the Smart Home

If you’re new to smart home devices, but curious enough to give something a try, the landscape may seem a little intimidating. But it doesn’t have to be. The term just refers to the category of devices that can be controlled remotely, via your smartphone or a voice control assistant (think Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri or Google Assistant), or that can be programmed to operate automatically. Most smart home devices are wireless, and while many communicate over Wi-Fi, some use other types of wireless signal like Zigbee, Z-Wave or Bluetooth (the same Bluetooth used by your wireless headphones). No matter how they communicate, their set up and use is mostly plug-and-play. If you know your home’s Wi-Fi password and know how to download an app, you can figure out a new smart home device.

The point of all that wireless communication and automatic operation is to simplify common daily tasks. Do you always turn your kitchen lights on at 7 a.m. and off at 9 a.m.? Smart bulbs can do that for you. Do you forget to adjust your thermostat when you leave the house? A smart thermostat can do that, and save you money. Do you want to automatically lock the front door when you go to bed each night? A smart lock will secure your home for you.

While you can plan out a whole-home smart system, most people begin with one device and see where that takes them. For instance, if you want to monitor your porch for deliveries, you can get a smart doorbell camera that will send alerts whenever someone comes to the door. If you want to better regulate your home heating and cooling, install a smart thermostat. As you get accustomed to the convenience of these devices, it’s easy to add others that work with them.

Not long ago, someone building a whole-house smart home system would start with a hub (a device that acts like a crossing guard for all your accessories). But now cloud-based platforms (servers and software that live in the internet) like Apple HomeKit are taking over. In fact, smart speakers like Amazon’s Echo and Google’s Nest Hub use their own cloud platforms and are largely compatible with devices from most manufacturers. That makes sticking to a single brand or system much less important than it used to be, and it makes picking the devices you like much easier. Having singular smart devices rather than one smart suite from the same brand has become increasingly common and convenient. It’s relatively easy to add to your smart device collection without worrying about them not working together.

A collection of smart devices becomes a smart home when you make them work together. Thanks to cloud-based platforms like HomeKit, Alexa and Google Assistant, it’s easier now to get devices in sync than ever before (if you want). Most platforms allow you to create simple automations, often called Routines, in which different devices work together at the same time. For instance, a motion sensor by your front door could not only turn on the light, it might also start your smart speaker playing music and turn on your air-conditioner, all at the same time. You could set up your smart speaker to turn off your bedroom lights, lock your front door and play white noise all by saying “Good night.”

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