There’s never been a better time to roll out your own smart home. However, some upgrades require a lot more work than others. Screwing in a smart bulb is far easier than rewiring an entire light switch. This is especially important if you rent and don’t have the authority to modify too much in your house.
And here’s the good news —- if you want to control your lights, gadgets, and TV with your phone or voice commands, there are simple smart home upgrades that you can easily do yourself. Here are a few worth trying out.
A voice-controlled smart speaker is the centerpiece of a good smart home. There’s nothing quite like the feeling of turning off your bedroom lights from the bed or turning on the AC from the couch. On top of acting as a command center for other smart home gadgets, decent smart speakers can also serve as a whole-home audio system.
If you’re just looking for basic voice control, Amazon and Google offer similar smart speakers: the Google Nest Mini ($49.99; bhphotovideo.com) and Amazon Echo Dot ($49.99; amazon.com), both of which retail for $50, and both of which are frequently on sale for much less than that. On their own, these devices can set timers and alarms, play music or podcasts, and answer basic search questions (such as “how many ounces are in a cup?”).
While Amazon and Google’s smart speakers are good if you don’t care too much about audio quality, a high end smart speaker is really where it’s at if you want better sound. The Sonos One ($199; sonos.com) comes with Alexa and the Google Assistant built in, and can serve as a starter for your whole-house audio system. Multiple Sonos speakers can be linked together to play audio in multiple rooms of your home, or even throughout the whole house, while still working with and being controlled through the same kind of smart home voice assistant you’re used to through other speakers.
If you want to play within Apple’s smart home ecosystem, HomeKit, the HomePod Mini ($99.99; adorama.com or bhphotovideo.com) is the ideal starting point. It can act as a hub for any HomeKit enabled smart device and is on par with the feature set of a Nest Mini or Echo Dot. It levels up the sound quality and delivers a terrific audio listening experience.
Smart displays are another good alternative (or addition) to smart speakers for getting your smart home started. These serve a similar function, fielding voice commands and playing music, but also come with screens built in so you can play videos, pull up recipes, and control other smart home devices with a tap instead of voice commands.
The Google Nest Hub ($89.99; bhphotovideo.com), for example, acts as a photo frame when you’re not using it. Once you approach it, however, it shows you any of your recent reminders, provides quick controls for smart lights, locks, or cameras, and can even pull up recipes while you cook. It can also serve as a casting target for apps like Netflix or YouTube and even conduct video calls.
The similar Amazon Echo Show ($129.99; amazon.com) performs similar functions, like video calling and watching shows on the small screen. Alexa can also keep track of shopping lists, answer basic search questions, or show you your photos.
Which one you pick will largely depend on which ecosystem you live in more. The two devices are largely similar, so pick the one that works best with the services you already use.
There are plenty of smart light bulb lines out there, but Philips Hue leads the pack. You can often get a starter pack with a hub (which you’ll need) plus a few bulbs, but once you have the hub, you can add more bulbs, light strips, lamps, and more. Hue bulbs don’t need complex light switch installs to be controlled from smart home platforms, so you can just buy the lights you need, and even bring them with you when you move.
Of course, the one problem with most bulb-based smart lights is that you have to leave your light switch flipped on. If someone flips the switch off, you can’t control it with your voice anymore and you have to use a voice command or pull out your phone, even if you’re standing right next to the switch.
The Lutron smart dimmer ($39.95; amazon.com) solves both of these problems with a rather clever trick. It adds a wirelessly connected dimmer on top of your existing light switch. Not only does this hide the switch, so no one’s tempted to turn it off, it also connects to your smart bulbs so you can turn the lights up or down with a physical switch if you happen to be near one. Just make sure it’s compatible with your current switch.
Some smart home devices can help you secure your home without going to the trouble of installing an entire home security system. Replacing the lock on your home can be a bit difficult, and if you rent, your landlord might not allow it. However, the August Smart Lock ($203.55, originally $249.99; amazon.com) can work with your existing deadbolt, so you can add smart functionality to your lock without having to change keys or replace the lock unit entirely. It also has the added benefit of being invisible from the outside, so none of your neighbors will know you have a smart lock on your door.
If you want to monitor what goes on inside your home or outside it, the Wyze Cam ($25.48; amazon.com) is easily one of the cheapest, most versatile home security cameras on the market. Best of all, they work both online and offline, so you can record footage of your home or yard without having to rely on an expensive and potentially intrusive third-party cloud service. Just put an SD card inside the camera and you can record as much as your storage space allows.
Google’s most recent Chromecast with Google TV is not only one of Google’s best, it’s simply one of the best streaming sticks on the market. Its voice remote makes it easy to search for shows across all the services you subscribe to, and you can even add shows to your watch list from a Google search on your mobile phone or desktop. You can also use Google Assistant to stream content to your TV without touching the remote.
Alternatively, Roku makes a wide range of streaming sticks and boxes with its smart TV interface built in. Roku also features a voice controlled remote, and as the most prominent third-party streaming platform, it supports most streaming apps all in one place. Best of all, Roku has devices like its soundbar with the platform built in, which lets you cut down on the device clutter in your entertainment system.
The Nest Thermostat ($129.98; amazon.com) is one of the most popular smart home upgrades and for good reason. Not only does it let you control your thermostat without getting up, you can set schedules for when you don’t need the heat or AC on, and it can even learn on its own, to help save you energy. Best of all, depending on your setup, they’re actually not that hard to install! In many cases you can pull the existing thermostat off the wall, replace a couple of wires, and plug in your Nest easily. If you rent, you might need to check with your landlord before performing the swap yourself, but it’s easy to reverse when you move back out.
If you have normal gadgets you want to control with your smartphone, you can still make them smart with a Kasa Smart Plug ($26.99, originally $29.99; amazon.com). These simple devices go between your gadgets and the power outlet. You can then use a smartphone app or smart speaker to turn the power going to the device on or off. This is especially useful for things like lamps, Christmas lights, or fans.
If you want to get extra fancy with your smart home, Samsung’s SmartThings sensors let you automate your home even more. A basic SmartThings kit ($199.99; amazon.com) includes a motion sensor, a couple door sensors, and even a smart plug. With these you could, for example, automatically turn on your lights when you open the front door, or when someone stumbles down the hallway at night looking for a midnight snack.