How to buy the best smart devices to automate your home
An introduction to home automation, and how you can use it to make your life easier.
Turn your dumb dwelling into a clever castle.
Picture this. It's evening, you're walking home, and as you approach the driveway the kitchen lights switch on, the TV comes to life, and the oven starts to warm up. You open your front door with a single tap of your finger, before walking inside and flicking on the heater with your smartphone. It may sound like something you'd see in an 80s sci-fi movie, but creating this kind of scenario isn't too tricky. In fact, you can do it in almost any household using off-the-shelf home automation gadgets.
How does home automation work?
In days gone by, automation was largely limited to simple commands such as turning things on and off, setting temperatures, alarms and so on. These functions were also only available in a handful of proprietary products.
Today, almost any new appliance you can think of from big name brands such as LG, Samsung and Sony, has some form of "smart" (aka automation), technology built in. This, combined with the advent of smartphones and tablets that are used to control smart products, has made home automation much more accessible to the average person. In some ways, home automation is largely plug and play.
You can use home automation in three key ways:
- You can control multiple products in your home from a single device, such as a smartphone or smart speaker (via a digital assistant).
- You can program your home to automatically complete scheduled tasks such as turning on the lights and heater before your morning shower.
- You can monitor and control devices while you're outside your home, such as security cameras, the oven or a washing machine.
Older setups required hard wired connections around the house. Now, almost all automated products communicate via Ethernet or Wi-Fi. Products communicate in one of three ways:
- Directly, from the control device to the product (e.g. turning a lamp on and off via an app)
- Through a central hub that connects to your router, then sends the automation signals around your house by piggybacking onto your network.
- Sequentially, when you line up a series of instructions that tell one product to do something after another (.e.g. "turn on the lounge room" will activate lights followed by your TV)
This makes it much easier to retrofit smart devices into the average home.
The smart speaker revolution
Smart speakers with inbuilt digital assistants, such as Google and Alexa, have become an integral element of home automation. Like your smartphone or tablet, a smart speaker can be used to control other smart devices. You simply make a statement such as "turn on the television," and the smart speaker will tell your smart TV to turn on.
Almost all brands integrate at least one of these assistants:
- Google Assistant
- Alexa (Amazon)
- A proprietary alternative. Samsung has developed Bixby, and LG has ThinQ, for example.
Aside from Samsung, most companies with proprietary systems also support Google, Alexa or both. This gives consumers the freedom to control a range of smart products from different brands, with a single speaker.
Manufacturers are gradually adding these assistants to other devices as well. New release TVs can accept the same commands as your phone or smart speaker, through a microphone in the remote control. One good example of this tech in action, involves telling Google to put a live feed from your front door security camera, on the TV so you can see who's at the door. These assistants will also arrive in cars in the coming years.
How much does home automation cost?
Like most things, the price of home automation depends on how far you want to go.
- Simple - around $100: If you want to walk into your room, tap a button on your phone and watch a couple of lamps turn on at once, you can retrofit smart switches to so-called "dumb devices" (products without inbuilt automation. These typically add simple on/off functions and cost around $50 per switch.
- Intermediate - $500 - $1000: This is where things start to get a little more advanced, but are still generally limited to basic commands. Here, you're buying devices that can connect to an automation network piggybacking on your Wi-Fi, to do things like dim lights, turn on speakers or schedule a heating cycle. This price increases based on the number of rooms.
- Advanced - $5000+: At this point, things get expensive and a lot of fun. In addition to issuing simple commands, you gain the ability to monitor devices from a smartphone or smartwatch. You can check the washing, see how long it will be until your roast is done and even ask Google to suggest recipes based on the expiration dates of foods in your fridge. Direct commands can become colloquial - e.g. you can say "Alexa, it's cold" and she will know to set your heater to it's optimum temperature. Dig a little deeper and you can set entire rooms to respond to a single command. "OK Google, I'm going to bed," can turn off all the electronics in your loungeroom, while activating lights in the bedroom. After a while, high-end products can even pick up on your habits and routines. That morning command to turn on the heater in winter can become automated.
So why does the price jump so dramatically when you want to move beyond the basics? Aside from adding simple controls such as on/off, you can't really retrofit a dumb device to make it smart. In order to fully automate your home, you're going to need the latest products from major brands, and these don't come cheap. However, new technology rarely remains expensive as time rolls on, so expect to see smart appliances and technology become much more affordable in the coming years.
Is home automation difficult?
This also depends on how far down the rabbit hole you'd like to go, but unless you're into crazy advanced territory where multiple-third party devices are communicating in sequence at exactly 8:03 in the morning, you'll find that home automation isn't overly complicated.
In order to fully utilise smart devices you'll need:
- Wi-Fi or Wi-Fi extenders connected to Ethernet cables throughout the house.
- A consistent Wi-Fi signal (drop-outs sever communication)
- A smartphone, tablet, smart speaker or smart speaker enabled device (such as a new TV)
Most systems require you to connect a hub to your modem or router. This serves as the proprietary signal between the smart devices and your home network, so you don't need to worry about buying a control device that can connect to the signal. Instead, your Wi-Fi links you to the hub, which handles the transition from network to proprietary signal.
- In theory, all you need to do is install the relevant apps on your smartphone etc and connect the smart device to your home network - the tech handles the rest.
- However, networking is rarely straight-forward, so you may find yourself trouble shooting for a while until communication between the product and your smartphone, speaker and so in, is consistent.
- But it's certainly within the realm of anyone with a bit of technical knowhow.
Even operating and setting up a series of commands via apps isn't too tricky, although it can be time consuming at first. You may, for example, have to manually select all the devices you want to deactivate when you say "Ok Google, I'm going to bed.".
Communicating across different brands
Things can get difficult when you want to establish communication across different brands, though it is possible.
- If you only buy products from LG, for example, set up and communication can be simple and handled through a single app, as they're designed to play well together.
- Bring another brand in and things get tricky. It is possible however thanks to an automation system known as the Internet of Things or IoT.
- IoT is essentially an open network that lets products communicate independent of their proprietary system.
- Many companies set up official partnerships using IoT. It's worth checking company websites to see who they have partnered with. That way, you know which brands can talk to each other without any hassle.
The problem with proprietary
While sticking with a single brand can make for a simple setup, you may not get to enjoy home automation to the full degree.
- No IoT access means you're stuck with one manufacturer. Not a bad thing if you like their products, but it becomes an issue if they don't make something you need or want.
- If you do choose to branch out, you may find yourself with a bunch of different apps and settings to turn everything on at once.
- Google and Alexa have massive user bases worldwide. They use this to continually learn new commands and colloquialisms through this ever-growing pool of users. Even the best proprietary systems are unlikely to keep up, meaning you have fewer commands to work with when operating devices.
We suggest looking at companies that embrace open networks and IoT communication.
How can I use home automation?
First and foremost, an automated home is convenient. Activating an entire room with the tap of a button is so simple, but doesn't feel entirely necessary at the same time. However, home automation has some practical applications:
Cooking and cleaningIf you're washing machine, oven, microwave and so on are at the other end of the house, you can tell them to ping your phone when their cooking or cleaning cycle is complete, even if you're out of earshot. You can even download things like recipes which automatically adjust settings in your appliances for optimal performance.
External controlWe've all gone out and left the TV, lights or heating on for example, but you can remotely deactivate any smart appliance when you're out and about. Alternatively, you can use your smartphone to turn things on as your approaching your house, or you can set up automatic activation when you're phone knows you're close to home.
SecurityNetworked cameras can be monitored inside the home and remotely. Some can even alert you when they detect movement.
SustainabilitySome products can track their energy and water usage (if applicable). You can use this data to identify areas of excessive consumption, work out how to cut back, and help the environment (while saving money on your bills).