Five easy ways to make your home smarter

Turn up the heat, dim the lights and cue the music, all with the touch of a button or a voice command. Here’s the latest kit to connect your world

More and more of the devices in our homes come with an internet connection, hooked up to your wifi to do various “smart” things. And while the smart-home dream where everything just magically does your bidding without you having to lift a finger is still a long way away, even the most mundane devices will soon be able to do something to make your life easier.

Right now, the Internet of Things is still a bit of a mess, but with the right gear you can make your home work more efficiently to fit in with your daily routines.

Perhaps you just want the lights to come on when you’re getting close to home. Maybe you want the heating to fire up so it’s not burning gas unnecessarily but it’s still toasty when you get in the front door. Or maybe you simply want to be able to shout “Red Alert” and see every room in the house bathed in a red glow to sate your fantasies of being Captain Picard standing on the bridge of the Starship Enterprise.

Whether it’s just to free yourself from the mundane inner workings of your house or something altogether wilder, here’s a good selection of kit to get you started.

1. Samsung SmartThings, starter kit, £199

The Samsung SmartThings starter kit.
The Samsung SmartThings starter kit. Photograph: Katherine Anne Rose/The Observer

One of the big problems with the Internet of Things is that it’s often difficult to get one device to talk to another. Samsung’s SmartThings hub attempts to solve the problem by being flexible and connecting devices from disparate manufacturers across the three most common communications protocols: wifi, ZigBee and Z-Wave.

The best thing about SmartThings is its developer community. If something doesn’t work out of the box, most of the time you will find that someone has put together some software you can install on SmartThings to make it work.

The hub can then act as the middleman or the command and control server, turning things on and off, switching moods or executing complex combinations of actions on the various devices about your home. From lighting direction to making the coffee in the morning, the possibilities are almost endless.

2. Philips Hue, white and colour ambiance starter kit, £150

The Philips Hue smart bulb.
The Philips Hue smart bulb. Photograph: Katherine Anne Rose/The Observer

There are a few ways to make your lights smart. You can replace the switches, use smart plugs to switch the power on and off or you can make the bulb smart: Philips Hue takes the latter approach.

Smart bulbs, connected to the Hue hub, can change colour, dim, turn on at certain times or react to different events. The lights can fire up as you approach the house, for instance, or when a door is opened. All you have to do is swap your dumb bulb for a Hue bulb, pull out your phone and you instantly have a smart light. No electrician, DIY or coding skill required.

Hue also has physical switches that you can place anywhere in the house to control them the old-fashioned way; just don’t forget to keep the power to the bulb on all the time, otherwise you won’t be able to turn it on and off the smart way.

3. Amazon Echo, speaker, £150; Dot, £50

Amazon Dot, left, and Echo.
Amazon’s Dot, left, and Echo. Photograph: Katherine Anne Rose/The Observer

Amazon’s Echo feels like the future has just stepped into your home. A voice-enabled speaker, Echo connects you to Amazon’s virtual assistant Alexa, allowing users to request calculations, timers, alarms and so on. Ask and get answers to questions, the news headlines and play games. All you have to do is say the hot word “Alexa” and it starts listening to your commands from across the room.

It also plays music, of course, with voice control for tracks, pause and play, and volume. You can pick albums and songs from Spotify or Amazon Music. All this is possible while the music is playing thanks to an array of seven microphones in the top that block out everything but your voice.

Things get more interesting when you hook it up to other smart devices in your house. Want to adjust the heat? Just ask: “Alexa, set the Nest to 21 degrees”. She responds: “Setting Nest to 21 degrees” – and the heating fires up.

The same can be said for any device in this list, and many others linked through either the SmartThings hub, directly though Alexa’s “skills” or through the If This Then That app. You can even change the hot word to “computer” for the ultimate Star Trek homage: “Computer, lights on”.

4. Nest Smart Thermostat, Copper, £199; stand, £30

The Nest thermostat on its stand, left.
The Nest thermostat on its stand, left. Photograph: Katherine Anne Rose/The Observer

Google sibling Nest’s Smart Thermostat is a prime example of what the Internet of Things should be. It’s an easy-to-use, smart-looking, learning thermostat that adjusts to your daily patterns automatically and can be controlled via phone or hooked up to other devices.

But the best bit is that once you’ve set it up and got it learning, there’s very little need to interact with it. It’s simple, does what it needs to but nothing more, and is an excellent replacement for a traditional thermostat and heating controller. It even looks good on the wall or in a small cradle on a table top.

5. Logitech Harmony and Pop, hub, £100; Pop home switch starter pack, £120

The Logitech Harmony hub, left, and Pop buttons, bottom right.
The Logitech Harmony hub, left, and Pop buttons, bottom right. Photograph: Katherine Anne Rose/The Observer

Once you’ve got everything hooked up, the one thing the Internet of Things lacks is useful buttons to activate different things or routines. Logitech’s Pop and Harmony hubs fill that hole nicely.

The Harmony hub connects your traditional home entertainment equipment, such as your TV, sound system or anything else controlled via infrared, Bluetooth or wifi, to the Internet of Things. There are dedicated universal remotes, such as the Harmony Ultimate, which connects to the hub to control pretty much everything. But you can also control the Harmony hub with Alexa, SmartThings or your phone.

Meanwhile, Logitech Pop is a small universal button that can be programmed to control anything connected to the Harmony hub, a Hue hub, SmartThings hub and other devices. Press a button once, twice or press and hold to activate different functions, from setting the scene with a series of different coloured lights to turning off the TV, putting on a bit of Barry White and firing up the mood lights for a one-button romantic atmosphere. OK, maybe that’s pushing it, but you get the idea.


Samuel Gibbs

The GuardianTramp

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