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How to set up a smart home

By Oliver Trebilcock

Smart home products can help to streamline your everyday routines and tasks. Read our advice on how to get started and check our expert reviews which reveal the best products to buy.

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What are smart home products?

Smart home products, such as smart doorbells and thermostats, are connected to the internet giving them greater functionality than their traditional counterparts. It also means they can be linked together so you can control them from a central hub device – often a voice-controlled smart speaker or an app on your phone. You can control all smart products from one place and from a distance, even automating tasks to save you time.

 

How much do smart home products cost?

Dedicated hub devices such as smart speakers and smart displays typically cost £100-£200. Apps are typically free, and most smart home products are free for ongoing use after you’ve bought them.

The smart home products can look affordable individually, but those serious about setting up a smart home will find the costs quickly ramp up if you’re not careful.

  • Smart light bulbs tend to cost significantly more than usual bulbs.  Popular smart light bulbs can cost around £15 each, and £5 is a typical price for a standard light bulb.
  • Smart doorbells from established brands such as Ring and Nest are priced around £180-£330.
  • Smart thermostats and wireless security cameras often cost £100-£200.

Smart home device compatibility

There are currently four leading ecosystems for smart home devices – Google Assistant, Alexa, Apple HomeKit and SmartThings. They’re not inter-compatible, although many smart home products will support multiple ecosystems. Choosing which ecosystem you wish to use is one of the most important first decisions to make before you begin setting up your smart home.

Each ecosystem performs a similar role and has similar functionality. Your choice of which to choose is therefore more likely to come down to the smart home products you’re most interested in and which brand’s ecosystem they’re compatible with.

It’s also a good idea to choose a platform you have an existing relationship with. For example, if you do lots of online shopping on Amazon, Alexa is a great choice as you can link your Amazon shopping account to place orders using your voice. Android phone owners and users of Google services such as Gmail will see benefits from the integration the Google Assistant platform has with Google services, and there’s also the power of Google search behind the scenes.

You must check for the following wording on the smart home products you’re looking to buy to make sure they’ll be compatible with the smart home platform you choose:

  • For Alexa, buy smart home products that state ‘Works with Alexa’.
  • For Google Assistant, choose smart home tech that says ‘Works with Google Assistant.’
  •  For Siri, look for smart home devices that say they’re Apple Homekit compatible.
  •  For SmartThings, check for the wording ‘Works with SmartThings’.

Smart speakers, smart displays and apps: your starting point

Many choose to control their smart home products via a central hub device. This can take several forms, such as an app on your smartphone, though many choose a smart speaker or smart display to be their hub device, which allows you to control your smart hub devices with voice commands. Smart speakers and smart displays can also completely replace some devices such as egg timers and your radio – for more on what you can do with voice assistants, see our voice assistant commands guide.

Smart speakers

 

Smart speakers are like traditional speakers, but have voice assistants built-in. The Amazon Echo and Google Home are two of the biggest smart speaker brands, but there are plenty of others to choose from. These include models from top brands such as Apple, Bose, Sonos, LG, JBL and Sony.

If you’re looking to make a smart speaker the hub device for your smart home, most will also want it to also be a great-sounding speaker for playing music and radio.

In the table below, our experts have selected three of the very best smart speakers from our rigorous tests that would excel as being the hub at the heart of your smart home.

Best smart speakers

85%
£199.00
Reviewed

This Bluetooth and wi-fi smart speaker is one of the very best wireless speakers we've seen, and is proof that you don't need big brands and deep pockets to get top-of-the-range sound quality. It easily makes the grade to be a Which? Best Buy. You can control it with your voice using Google Assistant, and integrate it into a multi-room speaker setup with any Chromecast-supporting speaker including those from other brands. It delivers exceptionally detailed sound that has set a new standard for rivals to match.

79%
£399.00
Reviewed

This speaker is an outstanding package, raising the standards for smart speakers. Stereo sound is clear and detailed with excellent speech and enjoyable to listen to. Voice control means you can use it hands-free, and perform other tasks such as asking for news and weather plus much more. Multi-room built-in allows you to connect to other compatible speakers, even some from other brands.

79%
£129.00
Reviewed

Among the very best-sounding smart speakers, this Bluetooth and wi-fi wireless speaker has internet radio voice control with Google Assistant, which allows you to control the speaker hands-free plus perform tasks like setting calendar reminders. There’s also multi-room support to connect other speakers, and the beautifully warm, well-balanced sound will do justice to whatever you listen to. See how easy it is to use and what music services are supported in our expert review.

78%
£99.99
Reviewed

This is a waterproof portable speaker with a durable design. It produces well-balanced, powerful and clear sound, with crystal-clear speech. Amazon’s Alexa voice assistant is responsive, and the 10.5-hour battery life will see you through the day.

If you’re looking to add voice control to multiple rooms in your home, you may also want to consider small hub devices like the Amazon Echo Dot and Google Home Mini. These won’t be able to fill a room with full-bodied sound, but are useful if there are parts of your home out of earshot of your smart speaker.

Some smart products, such as Philips Hue light bulbs, require a smart hub or bridge to operate. This can be a separate box to your smart speaker, but if you want to avoid this, look for a smart speaker (or smart display) with a smart hub built-in, such as the Amazon Echo Plus.

There are plenty more excellent smart speakers to choose from – see our best smart speaker reviews.

Smart displays

Smart displays are like smart speakers, but also have a touchscreen offering additional functionality and making it easier to track all the different elements of your smart home. The Google Nest Hub and Amazon Echo Show are two of the most popular models. They differ from tablets in having a better-angled screen for use when standing and usually have more powerful speakers.

Head to our smart speakers page to find the best smart display reviews.

Smartphone smart home apps

Smart home apps are typically free to download or built-in to your smartphone’s operating system. On iPhones and other Apple devices, the Home app comes built-in. It’s used for Apple HomeKit-compatible smart home products such as the Apple Homepod smart speaker. But, you can also download the other smart home hub apps listed below. On Android devices, like Samsung Galaxy smartphones, you have access to all of these apps except for Apple’s Home app.

When you buy a smart speaker, it will usually use one of the following apps to control smart home functionality, even if the speaker also comes with a separate app for customising the speaker’s settings.

Google Home app

The Google Home app controls hub devices that use Google Assistant, and any smart home products that say ‘Works with Google Assistant’. Smart home products you connect are arranged by room. So by default, if you have a Google Home in the living room alongside some smart lights, telling the speaker to ‘turn off the lights’ will only turn them off in that room, rather than across the whole house. There’s a lot of functionality in the Google Home app, so it can take a while to work your way around before you’re up and running. You can download it onto your Android or Apple device via the Google Play or App Store respectively. You’ll need to sign into your Google Account during setup, or create one if you don’t already have one.

Amazon Alexa app

This is the central app for Amazon’s Alexa voice assistant, where you set up Amazon Echo devices and smart home products that say ‘Works with Alexa’. The Home screen shows your recent Alexa activity, and you can tap on the Alexa icon to talk to Alexa, and tap on the Devices icon to connect Alexa-compatible smart home devices. The Alexa app requires signing in to or creating an Amazon Account when you set it up.

Apple Home app for iOS devices (for HomeKit-compatible smart home products)

If you’ve got an iPhone or iPad running iOS 10 or higher, you’ll already have Apple’s smart home app on your home screen. It allows you to control a range of smart home products, including with your voice via Apple’s Siri voice assistant. Smart home products are arranged in tiles and listed by what room in your home they’re in. Look for smart home devices that say ‘Works with HomeKit’ to ensure they’re compatible with the app. However, it’s important to be aware that if you’re looking to buy a smart speaker as your hub device, the only one that currently supports Apple HomeKit is the Apple Homepod.

Samsung SmartThings app

Samsung is aiming to make all its products internet-connected, with the Samsung SmartThings app being the place where all this tech links up. It’s an open platform too, with products from many other brands also supported in the ecosystem – look for smart home devices that say ‘Works with SmartThings’. Simply add the product in the app. Like with other platforms, you can set up routines so multiple tasks happen at the same time, such as turning the lights and heating on when you’re about to arrive home. SmartThings is also available on some of Samsung’s larger appliances, such as its smart TVs and smart fridges.

What about dedicated smart hubs?

These are less common now, and are falling out of fashion in favour of smart speakers. However, there are still some around, with the most well-known being the Samsung SmartThings hub. While individual smart home products can often work on their own with their individual apps, smart hubs centralise this so you can control them all from one place.

However, it is yet another box to have in your home, and the introduction of voice control in smart speakers gave them the edge as a much more convenient way to manage your smart home. Many smart home products can now be interconnected through hub apps without the need for a physical smart hub.

 

Samsung calls the SmartThings Hub ‘the brain of your smart home’. This unassuming white box, roughly 12cm square, connects wirelessly with a wide range of smart home products and makes them work seamlessly with each other.

You monitor and control your smart home products using the SmartThings app (available for iOS and Android devices). While the platform doesn’t currently provide voice control itself, it is compatible with Alexa and Google Assistant smart speakers, so you could connect up one (such as an Echo Dot or Google Home Mini) to use voice commands within the SmartThings ecosystem.

It’s an open platform, supporting smart home products from a wide range of brands – look for ‘Works with SmartThings’ on the products you buy to ensure compatibility. Samsung also has its own family of companion products for the SmartThings Hub, which includes motion and water leak sensors, smart plugs and more.

Our verdict: This is one of the most complete smart hub packages, and it’s a relatively open system, meaning it’s continually improving over time as support for more devices are added. However, the momentum is clearly with smart speakers rather than smart hubs now, and there’s a question mark over how long Samsung will continue to support its hub when its long-delayed first smart speakers finally reach the market.

 

Hive is a smart home brand owned by British Gas, and is best suited to existing British Gas customers who already have the Hive Active Heating smart thermostat installed. It offers a wide range of Hive smart home devices including smart lights, wireless security cameras (like the Hive View), sensors, smart plugs and more. Philips Hue smart light bulbs are supported as well, as are Google Assistant and Alexa voice control (including smart speakers that have these). You can get your smart home products working together using Hive Action routines, such as turning on your wireless security camera when you step out the front door. It’s all controlled via the Hive app on your smartphone or Apple Watch.

Our verdict: Hive is a capable smart home platform, but you’re largely locked in to only Hive smart home products – open platforms offer more choice and competition, which could give you better value for money. However, if you connect up an Alexa or Google Assistant speaker and use that as the control device, you can use the Hive system as part of a wider setup with other devices connected through the voice assistant.

 

The Logitech Harmony Hub is an enthusiast’s choice, as it’s a very open system. The Harmony Hub turns your smartphone or tablet into a universal remote with the Harmony App, letting you control your smart home devices and home entertainment platforms.

Logitech says it’s compatible with more than 270,000 entertainment and smart home devices, including the Apple TV, Sky TV, Amazon Fire TV, Sonos speakers, Philips Hue smart lights and much more. Check if the smart home products you’re looking at will work using the compatibility tool on Logitech’s website. It even works with Samsung’s competing SmartThings platform, so you can control the Logitech Harmony Hub and connected products through the SmartThings app.

Our verdict: This platform is best for those who are technically minded and like to get stuck in – depending on what you want to achieve, it can be quite a struggle to get things to work exactly how you want it. The possibilities are enormous, but the software isn’t the most user-friendly.

Our verdict: This platform is best for those who are technically minded and like to get stuck in – depending on what you want to achieve, it can be quite a struggle to get things to work exactly how you want it. The possibilities are enormous, but the software isn’t the most user-friendly.

Smart hubs are in decline. Choose a modern smart speaker alternative with the convenience of voice control by heading to our best smart speaker reviews.

Buying your first smart home products

Setting up a smart home can be more complex than you might think, so it’s best to start with something simple, and build on this later. One of the most popular smart home products is smart lighting such as Philips Hue light bulbs, which you can turn on with voice commands or from an app on your phone. Smart thermostats are also popular – allowing you to remotely control your home’s temperature from the app on your phone even when you’re out of the house. And smart plugs allow you to turn on and off any device via your smartphone or voice commands.

We detail some of the most popular smart home products below.

Smart lights

Smart lights can be controlled through an app on your smartphone or through voice commands. Some, such as Hive, Osram and Philips Hue light bulbs are operated via a separate control unit, bridge or smart hub, while others such as TP-Link Smart wi-fi LED bulbs can be operated directly from your smartphone or smart speaker, without the need for a smart hub.

To find the top smart lights to buy, see our best smart light bulb reviews.

Smart thermostats

Smart thermostats offer more sophisticated control of your heating than a traditional thermostat. They allow you to control the temperature of your home remotely, so you can turn up the heating using the smartphone app when you’re on your way home.  Some even support motion sensors or GPS tracking to adjust the temperature automatically when you enter and leave home, so you don’t need to do anything.

Many also claim to learn your routine and preferred temperatures, avoiding having to schedule it yourself - they can even be responsive to the weather forecast. All this can help keep your home closer to your desired temperature, and avoid you spending money on excessive heating. Some apps will also help you to manage the costs of heating your home.

Popular brands include Nest, Netatmo, Honeywell and the British Gas smart thermostat Hive.

For the best smart thermostats, see our expert best smart thermostat reviews.

Smart doorbells and smart locks

Smart doorbells include a camera so you can see who’s at the door without the risk of opening it to unwanted strangers. You can even get notified of visitors and speak to them when you’re not at home via your smartphone, particularly useful if you’ve missed a delivery.

Leading brands include Ring and Nest, which are compatible with Alexa and Google Assistant voice control respectively. Since you don’t have to open the door, they add an extra level of security to your home. Some are also compatible with smart door locks like those from Yale, so you can even let in  a family member when you’re away from the property, without having to lend them your key.

For more on smart doorbells, the top brands and what you need to know, see our smart doorbells advice guide.

Smart home security systems, burglar alarms and wireless security cameras

Smart doorbells aren’t the only way smart home products can improve the security of your home. Smart home security systems, which combine a burglar alarm with motion sensors and a wireless security camera, can send you alerts to your smartphone when an intruder is detected, and you can even view the footage in real-time to see if it’s a concern or just the neighbour’s cat. This means you no longer have to rely on the kindness of your neighbours if your alarm goes off, and gives you the power to respond to issues straight away.

You can either buy the products in a package with a smart home security system kit, or buy the hub, sensors and wireless security camera separately. Find out more about the options available in our comprehensive guide to smart home security and monitoring. Popular brands for sensor kits include Yale, Samsung, Honeywell and Panasonic, and for wireless security cameras top brands include Nest, Arlo, Hive, Netatmo and Logitech.

Other popular smart home products

Many other popular products are increasingly getting smart functionality, allowing you to connect them to your smart home hub device for centralised control, and so you can automate routines to activate multiple devices at once. Click to go direct to what you’re looking for:

Later life and assisted living

Smart home products can prove to be even more useful as you reach later life. For example, with voice control or a smartphone app you can turn on the lights from your bed without having to move around in the dark and risk falling.

Smart home products can also help people monitor older relatives and work as a telecare system. Smart home services such as Howz home care kit include a system of smart plugs and sensors connected up to a smart hub and smartphone app that allow you to monitor what they’re doing. It gives you real-time updates, such as when they got out of bed in the morning, when they last boiled the kettle and opened the front door. You can also use it alongside telehealth and telemedicine health monitoring systems.

For more on using smart home products in later life and what’s most useful, see Which? Later Life Care’s expert smart home devices and security systems guide.

Fitting your new smart home product

Most smart home products are designed so you can fit them yourself. However, it’s important to check what the smart home product claims to support before you buy – for example, whether the smart lock is compatible with your style of door.

Even so, in practice you may run into trouble getting some smart home products to fit or work correctly. They all rely on a strong connection to your home wi-fi, so if the wi-fi signal is weak where you want the device, you may wish to buy a wi-fi extender or mesh system.

It’s worth contacting the product’s manufacturer in the first instance if you’re having problems. If you feel a product hasn't met your expectations, our consumer rights website has lots of advice on what you can do.

There will be instances where one of our Which? Trusted Traders, who have been fully assessed by our qualified trading standards professionals, will be able to do the job for you if you’re unable or not feeling confident.

To do this head over to the Which? Trusted Traders website and search for ‘smart home’ in your area to find an engineer near you who specialises in installing smart home products. If you’re planning to refurbish a room in your home, this can be a great time for smart home installations. All traders listed on the site have passed our rigorous assessment process and follow our code of conduct.

Trusted Traders can typically help with:

  • Smart lighting and heating
  • Smart speakers and other hub control devices
  • Smart home security systems, including smart doorbells  and wireless security cameras
  • Many are willing to help with all smart home products.

Tips for setting up a smart home from some of our Which? Trusted Traders

It’s easy to run into trouble setting up a smart home and it can end up costing more and taking longer than you expect.

  • Keep it as simple as you can to start with.
  • Think about what you want to achieve, rather than getting caught up in the marketing. Think about the bigger picture and how you would like the systems to be integrated. For example, if a motion sensor gets triggered, whether you want this to trigger your security lights for optimal footage from your security cameras. Have a look at the free IFTTT site for ideas. Smart home products need to be practical and not just gimmicks.
  • A smart home is not cheap, so it’s important to do your research – check Which? reviews and ensure the products are suitable for your home and needs. Some brands have schemes which you can use to find installers accredited by them, such as hiring a Nest Pro.
  • Consider using a floodlight camera rather than a smart doorbell, as you can get more for your money.
  • You may need more than one tradesperson to help out, as smart home products cross different fields of expertise (such as a plumber and electrician).

Privacy and security with smart home products

All smart home products are connected to the internet and often run off your home wi-fi network. This brings many benefits, but risks as well. One smart home product with weak security can act as a way in for hackers to access your home network. And since smart home products collect your personal data, whether that be your energy use or security camera footage, you need to be confident that data is secure.

We extensively test smart home products to ensure their security is up to scratch. For example, all smart speaker and smart display hub devices we’ve tested from August 2019 onwards have undergone extensive penetration testing at our expert lab, to ensure they’re not vulnerable to hacking and that your personal data is secure.

There are also steps you can take yourself with your smart home to ensure you stay as secure as possible:

  • Stick to trusted, established brands. Don’t be tempted by cheap products from brands on the internet you’ve never heard of, often coming from China. Big brands spend a lot of money constantly updating their smart home products to keep them secure from the latest threats.
  • Keep your smart home software up to date, including apps on your smartphone and firmware of the smart home products.
  • Set strong, yet memorable passwords – see our guide on how to create secure passwords.
  • Take care when setting up your devices to make sure you enable extra levels of security and customise what data is collected and shared, when given the options to do so.
  • Take care where you put voice-controlled devices such as your smart speaker. If you put them close to your front or back door, it may be possible to activate them from outside the house.
    Don’t ignore security warnings that pop up. You may have read about a security issue, it doesn't automatically mean your product is affected. Go to the device manufacturer’s website and/or app and see what's going on and what you should do next. The National Cyber Security Centre or the Information Commissioner's Office may also have information. Remain vigilant about any unusual messages you receive, even from seemingly known sources. Many smart home products such as smart speakers are constantly active, waiting for your commands. If you’re worried your wi-fi network may have been compromised, the best thing to do is to unplug these devices while you investigate.

Even more smart home devices tested

There are so many smart home devices these days there’s too many to include here. To find other smart home device content across Which?, use the interactive tool below.

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