Smart home products and systems
Home automation explained
By Liz Ransome
Article 1 of 5
We explain the different types of smart home systems available, as well as the benefits and drawbacks, so you can decide whether smart home gadgets are right for you.
Your whole home controlled with just a few swipes on your phone – that's the grand promise of the 'smart' or connected home. From heating that warms the house when you're on your way back and adapts according to the weather forecast, to front-door locks, lights and security cameras that you can control and check from afar, it certainly sounds promising. But how much will it cost you, and is it really worth it?
You may have heard the term the 'Internet of Things’ or IoT in relation to smart home automation. This is the buzz phrase many manufacturers are using to mark the rise of connected products – everyday household gadgets made 'smart', usually by using your wi-fi to connect to an app on your smartphone or tablet, allowing you to control them remotely.
Many items around the home, from lighting to heating, are now being built with smart capabilities. This includes:
- Appliances, such as ovens, washing machines and fridge freezers
- Energy and lighting, such as thermostats, radiator valves, and light bulbs and switches
- Security measures, such as cameras, motion sensors and alarms
- Health products, including fitness trackers, bathroom scales and air purifiers
New smart gadgets launch almost daily, but sifting out the genuinely useful developments from those that are over-priced and ultimately useless can be tricky. There's a lot of competition in this relatively young market, and that can mean a rocky ride for the customer. Buy too early and you may end up with an expensive toy with a short shelf life.
Here, we talk you through what kinds of smart home products are out there, what the benefits and drawbacks are, and whether they’re worth splashing out on. You can also click on the links above to look at specific areas and products to learn more about how they work.
What is a smart home versus a connected home?
Many products that are sold as smart products aren’t actually 'smart'. A truly smart product is one that learns about its surroundings, such as your behaviours or the layout of your home, and adapts accordingly. For example, a smart thermostat, such as the Nest Smart Learning thermostat, will learn when you want your heating on and the temperature you set it at each day, and so will start to set this automatically.
Also, a robot vacuum cleaner, such as the Miele Scout RX1, will use a camera to map out the layout of your home so it can clean in a methodical pattern each time. This differs from some cheaper robot vacuums, which only know when to change direction after they bump into objects around your home.
It's therefore worth keeping in mind that many 'smart' gadgets are simply able to connect to your phone or each other, rather than being capable of learning and adapting.
Are smart gadgets worth buying?
In principle, smart gadgets sound brilliant – they claim to create a more seamless home life controlled at the swipe of a finger and, in some cases, save you money. But because there are now so many new products available, from light bulbs to motion sensors, it can be incredibly confusing. And they don't always play nicely together, leaving you stuck with an administrative headache.
Some products come on their own, while others will connect to paired devices, either from the same company or from partnered brands. In addition, this is a fast-moving market, in which products are regularly being updated and expanding from, say, smart heating control to home security. This means more potential confusion, as well as new products becoming quickly superseded by superior designs.
The good news is that the industry recognises that these issues are creating barriers to a seamless smart experience, and a move towards more compatible, secure and simple smart home systems is the prevailing trend. After all, the original point of the smart home is lost if you spend hours switching between various apps on your phone to control different products.
With all of this in mind, it might be worth being cautious and waiting a while before jumping on the smart bandwagon.
How much do smart gadgets cost?
Many smart home ‘starter kits’, which tend to include a main smart hub and around four or five connected items – be it motion sensors, smart lights, cameras, radiator valves or smart plugs – cost between £100 and £200. But the risk is the escalating costs as you build on it to get what you need.
For example, you might buy a security starter kit with three motion sensors and a camera for anything between £130 and £300. But will three sensors be enough to cover your whole home? At around £30 a pop for additional sensors and nearer £100 (or a lot more) for cameras, the expenses soon add up.
It's also worth thinking about ongoing costs. Many home hubs and gadgets are free to use so you only have to pay a one-off fee. But others, mainly wireless security cameras, offer a subscription service as an added extra – something that you'd probably end up needing to pay for in order to store or access footage.
For example, the SwannOne alarm costs £7.49 per month for unlimited notifications (which are capped with the free version), energy management and remote lock control.
What are the Amazon Echo and Google Home?
These rival smart home speakers are essentially hubs - they work as a central point to connect different appliances and gadgets to each other and your phone. But the difference with these is that you can control anything you connect up by using voice commands, as well as swiping on your phone.
They're promoted as your very own 'live-in assistant' - playing your favourite music, dimming lights or adjusting your heating as you tell it to. Like with other smart hubs, they will only connect up with compatible gadgets, so there will be limits to what you can do. It will also mean costs could spiral as you need to buy more to connect with them.
We've tested the Amazon Echo as a speaker to discover whether it really does offer easy listening and an easy life - read our review of the Amazon Echo to find out.
Can smart gadgets save you money?
Some smart home products claim to actually save you money and pay for themselves with the savings. Smart thermostat manufacturers claim that by enabling you to control your heating all the time, you will use less energy to heat your home and therefore save money.
However, the claimed saving amounts of around 30% they advertise are often based on unrealistically high energy usage in the first place. To find out more, take a look at our page on smart thermostats and lighting systems, or jump straight to our verdict on whether smart thermostats are really worth paying for.
How easy is it to install smart home gadgets?
Most smart home gadgets are designed to be installed easily yourself. You'll need to have a wi-fi connection first, and ideally the stronger it is and the nearer you are to it when you set up, the better.
Each device is slightly different, but generally the process involves downloading an app and then connecting up the device; our guide to setting up your smart home gives step-by-step instructions.
But, invariably, technology is often not as straightforward as we would like it to be, especially if you have a few devices you need to connect together. Many manufacturers offer support services to guide you through any problems or issues. And the benefit of a smart product is that it can often tell you what's gone wrong.
However, with new technology coming onto the market all the time, new gadgets may not easily marry with your current ones, and if your phone is relatively old, you may find that some app features don't work.
How simple is using a smart home system?
Using a smart product should be simple – once you’ve installed the app you just use that to control it or monitor your home. But because this is all so new, there are some teething issues, including a lack of ongoing support when a start-up company suddenly folds or is bought by a larger one, incompatible devices or, worst of all, security breaches.
If this happens to you, our consumer rights website has lots of advice on what you can do.
We'll be keeping our eye on what comes out, and getting our hands on products for our experts to try or sending them to our lab. We've already been testing fitness trackers, smart bathroom scales and wireless security cameras, as well as road-testing robot vacuum cleaners and smart home hubs at home.
What happens to my data and is it secure?
Because smart home devices are connected to the internet, they will pretty much all be collecting data, be it about your energy usage, your health information or even video footage of your family. Many will also store this data on a cloud-based system, i.e. remotely online.
How that data is used and whether it is safe is another question. We have investigated smart TVs, smart thermostats and more in the past, and found that some companies need to do better in protecting your data. We will continue to probe smart security as new devices launch and update this guide with more information.