How to buy the best smart home devices
By Andrew Laughlin
From thermostats to fridges, there are many different smart home devices available to buy. We help you decide whether to make your home smart.
Your home can be controlled with just a swipe on your phone - that's the tantalising proposition of the smart home.
Activate your smart thermostat remotely to make the house toasty and warm for when you get home. Check whether everything is safe and secure from your phone via a wireless camera. Or even view inside your fridge from the supermarket to see whether you need to buy more milk.
The smart home - sometimes referred to as part of the internet of things - sounds like a dream, but how much will it cost you, and is it really worth it?
Interested in automating your smart home? Then a smart home hub, such as the Amazon Echo or Google Home, could be right for you. See all tested models in our smart home hub reviews.
We’re fast moving towards a stage when almost every household gadget is smart, or essentially network-connected, just like your phone or laptop. Watch our video above to see some of the latest developments.
Smart devices usually connect via your wi-fi and have a companion app on your smartphone or tablet, allowing you to control them remotely. There’s a huge variety of smart devices, but these broadly fall into the below categories:
- Appliances - TVs, ovens, washing machines, fridges
- Energy and lighting - thermostats, radiator valves, light bulbs, switches
- Home security - wireless cameras, motion sensors, alarms
- Health products - fitness trackers, bathroom scales, air purifiers
New smart gadgets launch almost daily, but it's important to sift out the genuinely useful developments from the overpriced gimmicks. Make a wrong decision and you could end up with an expensive toy with a short shelf life.
What is the internet of things?
The internet of things - or IoT for short - is a collective term for internet-connected devices that can access and share data between each other and online. It’s typically used when referring to wi-fi enabled fridges, washing machines and other devices we don’t usually associate with the internet. But smartwatches, tablets and smartphones are all IoT devices, too.
Being wi-fi enabled means these IoT devices can interact in new ways. They can operate autonomously or be controlled, often from an app on your smartphone. You can control them remotely as long as you have a data connection or wi-fi.
Automated functions come into their own the more connected devices you have. Having a motion sensor on your doorway can be a useful security aid by sending an alert to your phone if it detects movement, but the utility can go beyond security. It can send another message to your light bulbs so they turn on when you come through the door and another to your kettle so the water’s boiled for a brew by the time you’ve taken your shoes off.
This level of integration is the holy grail of IoT – having a house full of devices working harmoniously to the point where you barely need to interact with them anymore.
How much do smart gadgets cost?
It really depends on what you’re buying. Some gadgets are relatively cheap to buy, but go for a fancy smart fridge and you could be looking at spending thousands.
Smart home ‘starter kits’, such as ones featured in our smart home hub reviews, generally come with a main smart hub and a selection of connected items, such as motion sensors, smart lights, cameras, radiator valves or smart plugs. They can cost between £100 and £200, and then you add other compatible gadgets.
Many home hubs and gadgets are free to use so you only have to pay a one-off fee. But others, such as some wireless security cameras, offer a subscription service as an added extra. So you may end up needing to pay extra in order to store or access footage.
Are smart gadgets worth buying?
In principle, smart gadgets sound brilliant - they claim to create a more seamless home life controlled with the swipe of a finger or just the sound of your voice. But the reality is often not so harmonious.
Smart gadgets don't always work well together, so you could have to juggle multiple apps and systems. Also, many products sold as smart aren’t actually 'smart' at all.
A truly smart product is one that learns about its surroundings, such as how you use it or the layout of your home, and then adapts how it works accordingly. For example, a smart thermostat may learn when you want your heating on and then set the temperature automatically over the course of the day without you having to do anything.
However, far too many so-called smart products simply connect to the internet and add a rather modest extra layer of functionality. Then there are also products that seem to have no need to be smart at all. A kettle, for example, could be switched on via an app on your phone, but it won’t also make you a cup of tea.
Amazon Echo vs 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 with compatible gadgets, so there can be limits to what you can and can’t do.
Find out more in our in-depth Amazon Echo vs Google Home guide.
How easy is it to install smart home gadgets?
Most smart home gadgets are designed to be easily installed. You'll need to have a wi-fi connection at home, and ideally the stronger it is and the nearer the devices are to it when you get everything set up, the better.
Each device is slightly different, but generally the process involves downloading an app and then connecting up the device. 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.
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.
If you feel a product hasn't met your expectations, our consumer rights website has lots of advice on what you can do.
What happens to my data and is it secure?
Smart home devices are connected to the internet or a network, meaning they are constantly beaming out data and receiving it, too. Often they need to do this to work, but as with anything on the internet, there's often a risk that goes with the reward.
We have investigated smart devices in the past, such as smart TVs and smart thermostats, and found issues with both the scale of data they are tracking, but also how they are securing it. Weak security in devices can leave your information exposed to online criminals.
Then there is privacy. Many smart home gadgets collect your data, be that about your energy usage, your health information or even video footage of your family. Few people have time to read through reams of T&Cs to find out what's actually being done with this information.
For more on this, head to our guide to how to protect your smart home data.