So you're adding 'smart' devices to your home and wondering what things you should consider as you purchase or add these devices? In this article, we'll describe 5 things to consider when starting your smart home journey or continuing on the path as you grow your smart home.
One of the most common pieces of advice we see from experienced smart home enthusiasts is to choose a platform that you'll connect your devices to. Many people's journey starts by picking up a single smart device – like a smart thermostat or smart plug – then later adding on additional smart devices piece by piece. If you're not careful, before you know it you have several different apps you have to open to control your smart devices and they don't talk with each other.
This is why choosing a platform which supports the devices and brands that you like is an important step in the smart home journey. Many experienced smart home enthusiasts would recommend a hub like SmartThings or Hubitat that includes support for cloud devices, wifi devices, and smart home protocols like Zigbee / Z-wave.
If you're not familiar with what all this means, don't fret! Check out the Hub or Hubless section of our Smart Lighting post.
While cloud and wifi devices might be a familiar concept, Zigbee and Z-wave may be unfamiliar terms for someone new to the smart home space. These are wireless protocols (kind of like Wi-Fi) purposely built for the smart home. There's tons of smart home devices that work with these protocols, they follow documented standards so you don't get locked into a vendor's proprietary app, and you can use a hub like SmartThings or Hubitat so devices from different protocols can all work together well!
3rd Party Integrations
When starting your smart home journey, it's often cool enough just to be able to remotely control a light or thermostat from an app. Over time though, you'll likely find yourself looking at how other apps and integrations can work with your smart home.
Common integrations include voice assistants like Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa, dashboards and rule builders like SharpTools, or even purpose-built community 'apps' for enriching your smart home.
If these integrations are important to you, make sure to pick a device or platform that works with these integrations. Hubs like SmartThings and Hubitat mentioned above provide an ecosystem of integrations and a platform for third-parties to build upon which can further enrich your smart home experience.
Ease of Use
If a product is difficult to use or leads to frustration, you'll likely stop using it. This is why 'ease of use' is a critical consideration when picking smart home products.
Some of this comes down to the platform that you ultimately end up picking. If you just use one or two smart home devices from the same manufacturer, then you might use the manufacturer's app. If you have several devices from multiple manufacturers, you'll likely bring them together either in a voice assistant (Google/Alexa), in a hub (SmartThings/Hubitat), or in a dashboard (SharpTools).
Beyond the app, some physical smart home devices might have ways to physically interact with them. For example, something as simple as a light switch can have different qualities for user experience. Most light switch manufacturers know that people are used to flipping a traditional toggle or decora light switch on and off and design around that. But some manufacturers, like Lutron, take a unique approach with adding additional buttons and features to their devices.
Much of this comes down to user preference, but you can get a feel for common praises and criticisms by checking app store reviews and product reviews on retailer websites (eg. Amazon).
Support and Updates
Often overlooked until you have a product in-hand and have an issue, support can be a critical part of the product experience. 'Support' can be a broad category of things, but we're generally referring to getting help with the product, platform, or device.
That includes both official support channels as well as community support. For the latter, you can often check if there's a community or forum hosted by the company and take a look through the discussions to see how things are handled. To be fair, some of the discussion is driven by the community itself, but in strong communities you'll also find staff chiming in and helping out.
If you have any questions before you buy a product or service, it's a great chance to reach out through the official support channels and get a feel for the quality of support you'll receive. Some companies, like Zooz, get rave reviews for their support. With other companies, you might find yourself directed to a knowledge base or their community. And that's not to downplay community support as it can sometimes be tremendously helpful – just something to consider based on your preference for support!
Updates are also a critical part of many smart home devices. This tends to be more of a consideration with platforms, integrations, and select device types. For platforms and integrations, it's important that they continue to get updated to stay with the times, add new features, and integrate with more devices (or existing devices as they change).
As alluded to in the '3rd Party Integrations' section, it's often just fun to be able to flip a light on from your phone when you're first getting started, but over time you'll likely want to start automating things.
Take for example, lights, where you might want to have a light automatically turn on based on sunrise/sunset or even based on another device – like dimming the lighting on when motion is detected. These scenarios are typically accomplished through automations or 'rules'.
Your device manufacturer or smart home hub might have some level of automation features built-in. If you stick within a device ecosystem you'll usually get at least a basic set of 'If A, then do B' type of rules for devices from the same manufacturer. If you've opted for a smart home hub, you'll generally get a slightly more capable rule system that can interact between devices.
You might outgrow the capabilities built-into your system, and this is where having the ability to use third party integrations can really help – for example, SharpTools provides a robust set of functionality in an easy-to-use interface that enables you to easily create powerful automations.