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Is 2020 the year to smarten up your home?

If you’ve got access to the internet and wi-fi in your home, there are myriad smart gadgets you can use to bring your home bang up to date

Is 2020 the year to smarten up your home?

by Sandra Vogel and Tom Morgan

The best smart products on the market make your most-used appliances more accessible than ever. Is now the time to upgrade your home with some internet-enabled gadgets?

As the ‘Internet of things’ phenomenon continues to gather momentum, we’re seeing more and more products that let you control lights, cameras, heaters and security systems while you’re away from home.

To help you make sense of the growing number of smart home products hitting the shelves, we’ve rounded up some popular picks below.

Find out everything you need to know about setting up a smart home

How you can smarten up your home

Smart lights

Investing in some smart bulbs means you won’t need to get up off the sofa to dim the lights. You can turn them on or off from your smartphone and, depending on the bulbs you go with, you might be able to get creative and play around with colour.

Some sophisticated smart bulbs use built-in sensors that turn on the lights automatically when you walk into a room. The Philips Hue lights can even be controlled while you’re at the supermarket – ‘Out of home control’ will let you adjust the lights from anywhere.

As an added security measure, you can schedule lights to turn on and off while you’re away on holiday. Doing so creates the illusion that you’re still at home.

To save you having to manually adjust each light bulb in your home, you can set up whole room systems or zones that let you control multiple bulbs at a time. The Philips Hue app comes with pre-installed lighting profiles that create unique looks for rooms that feature more than one smart bulb. Arctic Aurora, for example, picks colours inspired by the dazzling Northern lights in Norway.

For more details on the Philips Hue range and some cheaper alternatives, have a read of our guide on Philips Hue vs other smart lighting systems.

You can also find out what we think of these smart bulbs in our expert reviews:

Smart doorbells

These internet-enabled gadgets make answering the door convenient and easy. Smartphone notifications will alert you when someone is knocking and you can see who’s there with the doorbell’s camera before you decide whether to answer or not.

We’ve seen some smart doorbells with integrated smart locks, which means you can let someone in remotely.

While some smart doorbells will store footage locally, others use cloud services to keep your data backed up. In this case, there might be a monthly fee to take on alongside the initial cost of the doorbell. To help make your buying decision easier, consider cloud storage space when picking between models.

When shopping for a smart doorbell, it’s worth checking whether or not you’ll need a professional to install it. Keep an eye on the video quality and check for night vision support if that’s important to you.

See our expert review of a popular smart doorbell:

Smart thermostats

These nifty devices will let you control the temperature remotely and set varying temperatures in different parts of the house.

Brainier smart thermostats will automatically adjust the temperature based on your whereabouts. The £200 Google Nest Thermostat E, for example, flicks on ‘eco temperature’ when you’re away from home by syncing with your smartphone’s location.

As is the case with any smart home product, you’ll want to run a couple of checks before investing. For starters, check whether your preferred system is capable of controlling your underfloor heating.

While these smart thermostats promise to save you money, make sure you’ve done your research before you spend. The feature list of a smart thermostat will have an impact on how much money it could potentially save you.

In some cases, you’ll need a professional to install the system which will have you digging even deeper into your wallet.

See our expert reviews of popular smart thermostats:

Smart plugs

Wi-fi support sorts the ‘normal’ plugs from the smart ones. By plugging an appliance into a smart plug, you’ll be able to control it wherever you are using your smartphone or tablet.

These affordable tech accessories can usually be found for less than £30, with popular picks including the Amazon Smart Plug (£25), TECKIN Smart Plug (£22) and Ikea TRÅDFRI (£8).

Smart plugs are handy in all kinds of situations. You can use them for security, scheduling lights to turn on while you’re away on holiday. They can pair with a slow cooker so you can prepare a meal ahead of time, or team up with a fan that automatically turns off once you’ve drifted off to sleep.

Some smart plugs support voice commands, too. Simply saying ‘Alexa, turn on plug’ to a compatible smart speaker which is linked to your smart plug will do the job.

To find out more about the powers of a smart plug, see our story on seven things you didn’t know about smart plugs.

Home security systems

Cheap, smart home security systems can be self-installed and serve as an alternative to traditional systems. Effective setups can mix sensors, sirens and motion-activated video recording.

The best home security systems support custom notifications, which alert you via your smartphone if an alarm has been triggered. Footage captured by indoor and outdoor cameras can be uploaded to the cloud in case the device itself is damaged by an intruder.

If you have an animal wandering around at home, make sure you shop for a pet-friendly security system that won’t be triggered by your furry friend. Note that both battery and mains-powered systems are available. Battery-powered options are more flexible in terms of where you can place them.

See our expert review of a popular smart security system:

Appliances

Your kitchen might benefit from the introduction of a couple of smart products. Some cheaper gadgets include a smartphone-controlled kettle or a smart speaker that doubles as a radio sitting on the kitchen shelf.

We’ve also seen smart washing machines such as Samsung’s Ecobubble which can pair with the Smart Check mobile app to let you monitor system defects and diagnose problems.

Samsung’s Family Hub fridge freezers use built-in screens to help you manage your food. Internal cameras let you check on your phone what’s inside your fridge, while you’re in the chiller aisle. The display can also be used to generate recipes and play music, or you can jot down a to-do list.

But be warned – smart features for kitchen appliances don’t come cheap, with prices for Samsung’s smart fridge freezers going as high as £2,800. We also recommend you don’t operate some smart appliances, such as washing machines and tumble dryers, remotely, because of the potential safety risks.

See our expert reviews of smart appliances:

Making the right smart home choices

Which voice assistant is your favourite?

There are a number of things to consider when it comes to choosing a voice assistant.

You might have a preference in terms of the search system it’s powered by (eg Google), the voice of the assistant itself, and the availability of options to train it to become smarter (eg Alexa Skills).

Smart products with Google Assistant can sync with your favourite Google services, such as Google Calendar and Google Mail.

Alexa is the brains behind Amazon’s family of smart products and fits nicely if you want an assistant that can manage your Amazon online orders.

Another major consideration is whether the voice assistant is compatible with the other smart products you’d like to introduce to your home. All smart home products should have a badge displaying what voice assistants they work with.

Find out more: Amazon Alexa vs Google Assistant: which voice assistant should you get?

Choosing a device

Smart home technology can be expensive, so compare different products. List the functions and features available, and decide which you think you need the most. For example, do you want something that’s easily portable or a model with more powerful speakers to do justice to your favourite tunes?

Our expert reviews will help you sort the brilliant Best Buys from the dreaded Don’t Buys.

Keeping your network secure

Always be mindful of security when shopping for, setting up and using smart products. That means changing default network passwords after unboxing an internet-enabled device and making sure the firmware is up to date.

 

Home security systems and the law

It’s good practice to ensure your smart security cameras only function within your own property’s boundary. If your camera covers areas beyond that, you might have to comply with data protection laws.

So long as you’re not using a camera to spy on tenants or neighbours, your camera is unlikely to come within GDPR’s scope.

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