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Welcome to the Home of the Future
My new roommate wakes me up in the a.m., plays all my favorite songs, patiently answers my questions and even turns off the lights at night when I’m too tired. Her name is Alexa and she’s the brains inside my Amazon Echo wireless speaker.
Thanks in part to devices like the Echo, the long-promised “home of the future” has finally arrived. Roughly one in five U.S. homes with a high-speed Internet connection have at least one smart home device*, like a thermostat that cranks down the heat when nobody’s around or a security camera that sends a digital heads-up if a stranger rings the bell.
What makes these things smart is that they’re always connected to the Internet and can be controlled from a phone app. Many also work with voice-driven devices like the Echo or the Siri voice assistant on the iPhone and Apple TV.
It’s even better when these devices work together. But that’s where things get complicated. There are a half-dozen families of smart home products, not all of them on speaking terms. So a gizmo designed for Apple’s HomeKit may not necessarily work with Amazon’s Echo.
That’s changing rapidly. Still, for now the best strategy is to choose a single device that does something you need, then gradually add products that sync with it.
Updating your home doesn’t have to be complicated—or break the bank. Consider these user-friendly product picks, along with alternatives for different smart home systems.
*Source: Dallas-based tech market research frim Parks Associates
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As wireless speakers go, the Echo ($180) is decent. As a voice interface to the Internet and hub to run a smart home, it’s life-changing. Want a morning wake-up, news headlines or a rundown of your day’s schedule? Just ask. The device listens to everything you say, but responds only when you start your request with “Alexa.”
To get Alexa to do something new, you enable what Amazon calls “skills.” There are more than 2,000, ranging from checking your bank balance to ordering an Uber. Plus you can add skills using just your voice, which is how Alexa becomes the brains of your smart home.
Amazon also offers the second-generation Echo Dot ($50), a hockey puck–sized version designed to be used with an external speaker, and the Amazon Tap ($130), a portable model that makes you tap a button to talk to it.
After a while Alexa will seem so human, she’ll be like a member of the family.
Downside If you don’t phrase your question the right way, Alexa may not understand what you want.
Works with Dozens of Echo-enabled devices, including Nest, Philips Hue lights, August Smart Lock, Belkin WeMo Switch and Samsung SmartThings.
Others like it Google Home ($129), a very Echo-like device that can also display content on your HDTV.
Why you really want it To impress your friends. Bonus—you’ll all spend more time talking and less time staring at your phones.
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August Smart Lock HomeKit Enabled
Replace the thumb latch of your deadbolt with this baseball-sized digital lock ($229), and you can open your front door with your phone—no more frantic searches for misplaced house keys. The best part: Because each member of your family uses his or her own virtual key via the app, you’ll be able to keep tabs on everyone’s comings and goings.
Add the August Smart Keypad ($79) and you can assign unique access codes to, say, your housekeeper or dog walker. (And then secretly check how much time they’re actually at your house cleaning the house or out walking the pooch.)
Downside To control the lock remotely, you’ll need either the August Connect ($79), which plugs into a wall socket, or the August Doorbell Cam ($199), which also allows you to see and speak to whoever’s on your doorstep and remotely unlock the Smart Lock.
Works with Echo, Nest, Honeywell, Xfinity Home security systems.
Why you really want it To check whether your teens are sneaking out at night.
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Nest Cam, Indoor (shown) or Outdoor version
The Nest Cam ($199; formerly Dropcam, until Google bought it in June 2014) is easily the most popular DIY home security camera. Setup takes five minutes, and you can then view a live feed from your phone or the web. A built-in motion sensor captures 24/7 live video and sends alerts based on motion, sound or even when people pass nearby; a two-way mic lets you talk to whoever is in view. I pointed a Nest Cam at the fridge, then used the voice feature to startle the kids when they went for a late-night snack. That alone was worth the price.
Downside The live feed is free, but storing video to watch later costs $10 (for 10 days’ worth) or $30 (for 30 days’ worth) a month.
Works with Echo, August locks, Philips lights, smartwatches, sprinklers and dozens of other devices carrying the “Works with Nest” logo.
Why you really want it To spy on the party your teens plan to throw the minute you leave town.
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Nest Learning Thermostat
The first smart thermostat, Nest ($249) learns your habits over time and adjusts accordingly. For example, it will crank down the heat or AC when it determines no one is home, or run power-hungry appliances at off-peak times when electricity is cheaper. The company claims homeowners save an average of $130 to $145 per year simply by letting Nest manage their HVAC consumption. Dozens of utility companies offer their customers a rebate for installing a Nest.
Downside Unless you’re comfortable installing a thermostat, you’ll want to hire a Nest-certified pro to do it for you.
Works with All the devices on the “Works with Nest” list.
Why you really want it To be green—and save some green in the process.
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Onelink by First Alert Smoke + Carbon Monoxide Alarm
When the Onelink smoke and carbon monoxide alarm ($110) goes off, it talks to you in English or Spanish and tells you what room the fire or CO is in, then sends an alert to your phone. A companion device, the Onelink Wi-Fi Environment Monitor ($100), measures temperature, humidity and low-level CO, and alerts you if any of these elements poses a health threat to at-risk family members, such as babies or seniors.
Both are Apple HomeKit compatible, which means you can use Siri to monitor your house when you’re away, and control them via the Apple Home app that comes with its latest iPhone operating system, iOS 10. And if you get a false alarm, you can silence it with a tap on the app.
Downside Not a ton of smart features.
Works with Apple HomeKit
Others like it The Nest Protect Smoke and CO Alarm ($99) works with Nest (duh); First Alert Smoke Detector and Carbon Monoxide Alarm ($50) works with SmartThings.
Why you really want it Peace of mind.
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Philips Hue White and Color Ambiance Starter Kit
Philips’ Hue smart lights let you customize your lighting to fit any time or mood—bright when it’s time to concentrate, dim when you need to relax, or on a set schedule so you never have to think about it.
The starter kit ($200) features three color-enabled smart bulbs and a hub that connects to your Wi-Fi router.
Aside from a wide range of brightness options (from Energize to Nightlight), the Hue bulbs let you choose from lighting preset “scenes” with names like Arctic aurora, Savanna sunset and Tropical twilight. (At night my bedroom is lit with a jazz-club-after-midnight kind of blue; in the morning it’s like sunrise over the Florida Keys.)
Because Hue is compatible with Amazon Echo and Apple HomeKit, you can use voice commands to control the lights or use the app to adjust them from a distance.
Downside It’s a bit pricey for ambient lighting.
Works with Nearly every smart home system out there.
Why you really want it To create Austin Powers–style lighting schemes. Groovy, baby.
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Samsung SmartThings Home Monitoring Kit
Samsung’s SmartThings ecosystem is the closest you’ll find to a complete smart home solution. It includes every type of gizmo you can imagine, though not from every manufacturer.
The monitoring kit ($249) contains a hub that plugs into your Wi-Fi router, a motion sensor, an outlet for controlling lamps and other appliances, and two sensors you can place on doors or windows to alert you when they’re opened or closed.
But that’s just the start. There are hundreds of SmartThings-compatible devices available from dozens of manufacturers, including security cams, smoke detectors, alarms, thermostats, fitness trackers, yadda yadda, ranging widely in price from the mid-double to triple digits. If you already own other SmartThings-savvy devices, the hub will find those and let you control them from the SmartThings app.
You stitch these items together by creating “routines”: Select the devices inside the app, then tell them what you want them to do and when. For example, my Good Morning routine turns up the lights, turns on the coffeemaker and tunes in to NPR when the motion sensor detects I’ve finally rolled out of bed. My Goodbye routine turns off the lights and sends me an alert if a door is opened or motion is detected when I’m not home.
Downside The SmartThings hub doesn’t always find devices right away, and figuring out routines requires some trial and error. You might want to have a tech-savvy teen nearby just in case.
Works with More than 200 third-party devices, as well as Amazon Echo.
Others like it Iris by Lowe’s is a competing smart home system; a Home Automation Pack starter kit runs $129.
Why you really want it Never touch another light switch or home appliance again.