Seems like just about everything is “smart” these days. From new refrigerators to TVs, pretty much everything is connecting to the internet and allowing you to control it from anywhere.
Whether you’re looking to put some items on your Christmas list, or you’re shopping for someone else, here’s what I’ve learned as I’ve been slowly upgrading my home.
You need a virtual assistant
Price: $30 to $300+ per device
My in-laws bought me an Amazon Alexa for Christmas in 2016. It was one of the first models that pairs with the company’s Echo devices and it was pretty darn cool. But I had underestimated its power (and that I would be buying more of them so that Alexa was available in almost every room in the house). While your house can do smart things without one of these, a smart assistant is what enables everything to work together — particularly as you add different smart products over time. It’s more than just something you talk to in your home; it can actually coordinate your smart devices.
Smart plugs are an easy “smart” starter
Price: $10 to $25 per plug (they often come in packages or two or four)
Smart plugs turn any outlet into a switch — that you can turn on or off from anywhere in the world, or just set on a timer. I bought my first smart plug because Amazon threw it in for $5 when I bought an Echo Show (I did that so I could see who was at the front door — more on that in a minute). I have an espresso machine that I use daily and it doesn’t have an automatic timer; that is, it didn’t until I connected it into the smart plug and set a timer with Alexa.
Now it turns on at the same time every day and when I’m finished, I just tell Alexa to turn it off. In addition, if I forget whether I turned the machine off, I can just check my Alexa app (again, from anywhere in the world) and turn it off from there.
Today, we use smart plugs to control our Christmas lights (inside and out) and several other devices in our home.
Price: $5 to $50+ per bulb
While you can control existing lights by plugging them into smart plugs, smart bulbs may be an even better option. That’s because smart plugs typically just have on and off functions. I like to set the mood (most lights in our house have been on dimmers for years), and smart bulbs take “mood” to a whole new level. Most allow you to do the basics, like dim them, but others allow you to change the color and set scenes as well.
You can also control smart bulbs independently. That means the eight bulbs in our chandelier don’t all have to be on at the same time, or even be the same color. It opens up a world of possibilities for mood-light geeks such as myself.
Even if you’re not into the mood lighting, smart bulbs that just do regular on, off and dim have really come down in price in recent years.
Smart doorbell and cameras
Price: $100 to $400+
A truly smart home has doors that you can lock and unlock from your phone. While I’m not there yet, it’s on my list. There are any number of smart doorbells out there. I went with the Ring video doorbell. More and more of our purchases are now delivered, so I wanted to make sure I had a camera keeping an eye on things.
Ring was an easy setup (I had it up and running and installed less than an hour after opening the box). It hooks up to your existing doorbell for power and to ring your existing chime (although be ready to check for low battery during the winter if you live in a cold climate like I do). You can also set it up to ring your smart phone and your virtual assistant. Now, we can see who is at the door and talk to that person with our Echo Show in the kitchen or through our phones (even when we’re not home).
If you do get a Ring and want to record what’s happening at your door rather than just drop in from time to time, you’ll need to sign up and pay for Ring’s subscription plan. I just have a single doorbell, so I only needed the basic plan, which costs $3.99 per month or $40 annually. If you have multiple cameras, you’ll need to upgrade to the plus plan, which costs $10 per month or $100 annually.
While I went with Ring, there are many options, including one from Nest, which makes a similar family of smart-home products, most notably the smart thermostat.
Price: $35 to $100+
This is a good one for parents. As our kids got to the age where they were old enough to be home alone for short periods of time, this was important to us. We installed a smart garage door opener, which is simply a device that connects to the internet and can open your garage door.
The opener we bought mounts to the ceiling above an existing garage door opener, connects to your home Wi-Fi and functions just like a basic door opener. The difference is now I get alerts on my phone whenever the garage door opens or closes, and I can open and close it from anywhere in the world. If the kids forget to close the door (or if I do in the haste of leaving the house), we can check it and close it.
An additional bonus with our garage door opener is that you can integrate it with Amazon and allow delivery people into your garage.
Price: $100 to $250
We went with the Nest, which is easily programable based on a time schedule but it also knows when we come and go, meaning it can be more precise about when it’s energy efficient and when it makes us cozy. And you can check the temperature in your house (and change it) from anywhere in the world — including heating it back up when you’re on your way home. You can add additional thermostats with the Nest, which allow you to see the temperatures in other rooms, and even set which room’s temperature you want the house to match.
What I also really like about the Nest was the ability to have it run our furnace fan on a regular schedule. Our basement tends to get cold. By simply running the fan for 15 minutes every hour during the day (even when we don’t need heat or air conditioning), we’ve managed to keep a more consistent temperature throughout our home.
While the Nest was the original smart thermostat, there are any number of competitors today.
Price: $150 and up
While you can certainly use your Echo or Google Assistant to play music, I’m a bit of an audiophile. I started installing Sonos speakers in late 2018. And while more and more speakers are allowing you to sync up the music in different rooms, Sonos has been doing that for years and the sound quality is great.
With my setup, I can play music anywhere (and everywhere) in the house from any device (or service) I choose. What I really like about Sonos is that it doesn’t run through Bluetooth and instead uses your home Wi-Fi.
Price: $300 and up
While most TVs are smart these days (in the sense that they connect to the internet and allow you to add your favorite streaming apps), you can also connect many TVs to your smart assistant. Given what many TVs can do, this may seem like very little value add. But being able to change the channel with your voice or turn the TV off as you leave your house might just make it worth it.
Programming your smart home
This is more important than you might think. I feel like I went from a couple smart bulbs to a list of more than 150 smart things overnight. Naming is critical! Start by choosing a name for each of the rooms in your house. Stick to each name as you label new devices in the room. The more similar (yet different – living room couch light / living room window light) the names, the better. And consult your family here. I was surprised to find that not everyone called the same rooms the same thing.
Once you name the individual devices, group them by room. That way you can tell your device to turn the living room off and everything in the room will turn off at once.
From there, you can get more and more elaborate. Our home is programmed to turn all the lights on when it senses one of our phones is returning to the house. Say goodbye to our Alexa and she turns all the lights, TVs and music off (although she waits five minutes to turn off the hall lights and the light in our garage). Ask for mood lights and, well, that’s where all the color bulbs get fully utilized.
Watch for sales
As you upgrade to your smart home, one of the smartest things you can do is watch for sales. I don’t think I paid full price for any of my smart home devices. Between Prime Days, Black Friday and many sales in between, I got almost all my smart devices on sale.
Whenever there’s a big sale, you can be sure smart devices will be included. So wait for those sales. Then enjoy dimming the lights, turning the heat down, playing soothing music or telling the door-to-door salesman that you’re not interested — and do it all without getting up from the couch.
This article reflects the experiences of the author and is not an endorsement by Northwestern Mutual of the products referenced.