Expert tips for building a smart home or apartment

Setting up a smart home is often thought to be an expensive, complicated undertaking. Luckily, it’s more affordable and straightforward than you would think. To get a feel for what you can expect, we asked our tech expert, Jaime Vazquez, for advice on setting up a smart home system, choosing the best virtual assistant and saving money along the way.

What is a smart home?

Smart homes use technology to automate and improve everyday tasks. According to Vazquez, “When people hear ‘smart home,’ they think of a robotic home from the future. In reality, a smart home is just a house that acts as a digital housekeeper.”

In many cases, smart homes work best with a virtual assistant at the core. These voice-enabled assistants aren’t required, but they make your smart devices work more smoothly.

How to choose the right virtual assistant

Before you buy any smart devices, you’ll likely want to choose a virtual assistant. You can use multiple virtual assistants, but it isn’t recommended since they don’t always communicate with each other and use different wake words. 

According to Vazquez, “We’re getting to the point where the question is ‘which is best,’ and the answer is ‘yes.’ Alexa is the most mature and has the best market integration. Google Home has exceptional voice recognition. If you’re an Apple fan or want an assistant with a good privacy track record, go with Siri.”

Is it expensive to set up a smart home?

You can spend less than $100 for the basics. If you intend to use Amazon Alexa as your virtual assistant, you can buy an Echo Dot for $40 or less. Smart plugs cost about $10 and let you power certain devices on and off with voice controls. Smart bulbs are another affordable way to begin using smart devices.

Once you’ve set up your first few devices, you can slowly add more plugs and smart speakers to your system. Eventually, you may consider adding devices that save you money over time. Smart thermostats, for example, can result in significant energy savings over time. Sometimes, your energy company may even offer discounts for using smart thermostats. Still, according to Vazquez, it’s essential to read the fine print on these agreements. You may inadvertently give your energy company permission to control your thermostat.

How to set up a smart home system

The easiest way to get started is to allow your virtual assistant to make recommendations. For example, your assistant may suggest turning your lights on when the sun rises and turning them off at night. 

If you want to get more involved, you can begin setting up your own routines; this can feel intimidating at first, but once you get the hang of it, it opens a world of possibilities. Vazquez said, “We were selling our home last summer and wanted to make a good impression with buyers. We set up a sign that told potential buyers to say, ‘Alexa, we’re here to see the house.’ I created a routine that turned on a few lights and played light jazz music. Alexa would then greet them and say, ‘we’re glad you’re here. Welcome to your next home.’”

Are smart devices easy to hack?

You’ve undoubtedly seen at least one story about a smart device getting hacked. These stories lead many to believe these hacks are an inevitable part of using Wi-Fi-connected devices, but they aren’t as scary as you may think. 

When asked about smart device hacks, Vazquez said, “It certainly happens, and the info-sec community does a really good job of testing, identifying and addressing vulnerabilities. Many vulnerabilities require proximity, so that gives me peace of mind. In general, consumers need to be aware of a few key things. It’s a good idea to put these devices on a guest Wi-Fi network; this quarantines them to not overreport on your technical environment. It’s also essential to know how to disable smart technology. The most important thing is to take advantage of privacy controls. There is some risk, but it’s all manageable.”

Smart home products our expert recommended

Echo Dot 3rd Generation

Echo Dot 3rd Generation

This device is an excellent choice if you’re looking for an affordable way to start using a virtual assistant. You can use voice controls to turn your devices on and off, listen to music, set alarms and more. 

Sold by Amazon

Google Nest Mini

Google Nest Mini

The Google Nest Mini is easy to set up and features top-notch voice recognition. They don’t take up much space and are relatively inexpensive. These speakers are compatible with numerous smart locks and other devices.

Sold by Home Depot

TP-Link Kasa Smart Plug Four-Pack

TP-Link Kasa Smart Plug Four-Pack

These are easy to set up and are compatible with Alexa and Google Home. They are small enough that they don’t block the outlet above or below. The four-pack includes enough plugs to integrate smart technology into several rooms in your home.

Sold by Amazon

Govee Smart Light Bulbs

Govee Smart Light Bulbs

These bulbs have tuneable white settings and over 16 million color options. They’re compatible with Alexa and Google Home. Some were disappointed with the bulbs’ privacy controls, but most were thrilled with the functionality.

Sold by Amazon

Level Bolt Smart Lock

Level Bolt Smart Lock

Installation is straightforward, requiring only a screwdriver. You can unlock your deadbolt using the Level app, Apple HomeKit, or geofencing technology that opens it automatically when you’re within range. It has a 15-foot range, but you can extend it by using your Apple TV to communicate with the lock. 

Sold by Amazon

Eufy Security Video Doorbell Kit

Eufy Security Video Doorbell Kit

Expanding your system with additional cameras is straightforward. Unlike other video doorbells, this doesn’t require a monthly subscription. It’s easy to set up and provides 2K-resolution videos stored locally. You can use this in addition to your old doorbell or replace the old one entirely.

Sold by Amazon

 

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Cody Stewart writes for BestReviews. BestReviews has helped millions of consumers simplify their purchasing decisions, saving them time and money.

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