Whether you’re looking to simplify your life, boost your energy efficiency or just because it’s really cool, setting up a smart home can be a very smart move. However, before you start, you need to choose how you’re going to make your smart things work in harmony by selecting a smart home ecosystem. The good news? This is not a daunting task.
An ecosystem in nature involves how its inhabitants interact with the physical environment, and it’s basically the same for a smart home. Your ecosystem here is comprised of all your smart components, plus the digital assistant that allows them all to talk effectively to each other in order to carry out their required functions. This could be the simplest lighting switching to incredibly complicated strings of commands, or “scenes” (don’t worry, we’ll get to them soon).
MAKING A CHOICE
When choosing which ecosystem is right for your particular smart home journey, you may already have a head start. Many of us are already interacting with the likes of Google Assistant and Apple’s Siri via our smartphones and, along with Amazon’s Alexa, these are the three most popular digital helpers to serve as the brains behind smart home set-ups.
So, if you already have an affinity for any of these digital assistants, that’s likely your best kicking off point.
No matter who makes the various smart products that you invest in, your elected assistant will serve as a conduit to connect all of their individual apps in the one spot, so you can have control over them all from one place.
TAKE IT EASY
The simplest way to begin your smart home journey is with a smart speaker, which, along with its applicable phone app, will serve as the nerve centre of your setup. The Google Nest Mini and Amazon Echo Dot are currently the two most popular (and affordable) options. Both boast unobtrusive designs – some might even say that they’re attractive – and they include either Google Assistant or Alexa, respectively.
Before even adding any other smart devices to your set-up, with just one of these hooked into your home Wi-Fi network you already have access to vast knowledge resources simply by asking, everything from local weather to news, keeping track of your appointments, and answering those curly questions that kids have a habit of hurling at you… “Hey Google which would win in a fight between an elephant and a lion?”
If you’re still unsure, the reassuring news is that the vast majority of smart devices play nicely with both Google Assistant and Alexa, so you can’t really go wrong with either choice. And unlike being locked to a system like with PC vs Mac, you can easily change assistants at a later date should you wish.
Once you’ve made your initial choice, the relevant smartphone app will be your easy-to-use nerve centre for setting up any smart devices that you decide to add to your fledgling ecosystem.
WHAT CAN IT DO FOR ME?
The range of devices getting smart seems to be expanding almost daily, with some things that you may never have considered ripe for smartening up getting the treatment – even down to the humble kettle!
So, accordingly, what your smart home set-up can do for you depends upon how deeply you wish to dive in. Simply automating control of some lights may be a good start, be it for convenience or even security. From there you can branch out – for example, we can control our entertainment centre by voice thanks to our Logitech Harmony Elite remote connected to our smart home ecosystem, and set our robot vacuum to work with a simple voice command. We can also monitor what’s going on at home from anywhere in the world with the security camera that’s a part of our own ecosystem.
WHAT’S YOUR SCENE?
A “scene” when it comes to smart home automation is basically a list of commands for your smart devices that’s set up via your assistant’s smartphone app. It’s much like programming a computer – but thankfully a whole lot simpler!
For example, we have a scene that triggers when we groggily mumble, “Hey Google, good morning” each day. In turn it wishes us a good morning by our name, tells us the day’s local weather forecast, turns on our kitchen light then plays the ABC news. When it comes to sleepy time, we simply say, ‘Hey Google, good night” and it delivers a personalised message wishing us a restful sleep and then makes sure all of the lights are turned off. When you live alone it can be nice to have somebody to talk to, even if they are a machine.
Ultimately, scenes can be as simple or as complicated as you like, with the examples above easily expanded with such functionalities as controlling heating/cooling, playing your favourite tunes, turning devices such as an electric blanket on at night and off in the morning, and even setting that kettle boiling come morning coffee time.
FEATHERING YOUR NEST WITH GOOGLE ASSISTANT
Google’s range of smart products is expanding regularly, offering all the handiness of their Google Assistant with other helpful features. Whether your smartphone is Android or iOS based, the easy-to-navigate Google Home app will have your home’s IQ climbing into smart territory quick, well, smart!
Google Home serves as a one-stop shop for setting up your smart devices – connecting their apps, allocating them to rooms in your home, controlling them manually from the app and setting up automated scenes.
The first stop for many on their smart home journey, the Google Nest family offers choices ranging from the Google Nest Mini with its small but capable speaker through to the Google Nest Audio, which is made to deliver high quality sound. They also have siblings in the Google Nest Hub and Google Nest Hub Max, which add handy touchscreens to the smart assistant mix.
Just place your device somewhere central, or you can have more than one dotted about your home and they’ll all get along with each other, and better than most real-life siblings!
Why have a screen? Instead of just hearing the news and weather, you can watch it. Instead of having a recipe read out to you, you can watch how it’s done. You can also use the Nest Hub to catch up on the latest YouTube sensations, or monitor your smart home security cameras.
Fully Google Assistant compatible smart devices are also available from other manufacturers. Lenovo, for example, have a nifty range of Smart Clocks and Smart Displays. Available in various sizes, they also allow one-stop app linking to the extended range of Lenovo smart devices, including light bulbs, plugs, motion sensors and cameras.
The other popular member of the Google family is the latest Chromecast with Google TV, and it’s popular for good reason. Just plug it into an HDMI socket in your TV and it opens up a world of entertainment possibilities all in one place. Be it movies, live TV, streaming content and more, you don’t need to bounce between apps. Supporting latest TV technology including 4K and HDR, it comes with an old school remote control, but the really cool feature is that you can hook it into your Google Assistant network and use your voice to search for just the right movie or TV show.
Amazon’s Alexa offers similar levels of smart home control to Google Assistant, complete with an impressive range of smart products to make your life easier.
The Alexa app plays nice with both Android and iOS smartphones, allowing super-simple set-up of pretty much everything smart that you can think of to interface with it.
IS THERE AN ECHO IN HERE?
The fourth generation of Amazon’s Echo series is currently rolling out, ranging from the tiny powerhouse Echo Dot with Alexa through to the larger Echo with Alexa, which is made to make your streamed music sound amazing. Very snazzy-looking spheres, they’re available in a range of colours, and there’s even an Echo Dot with built-in digital clock that you can park by your bedside or wherever you like to watch time pass.
The Echo Show range adds a screen to the mix for visual as well as audio content, while the Fire TV Stick Lite is a newly-released device to make all of your entertainment viewing a free and easy experience. It plugs straight into your TV, and allows access to everything from local TV to your various streaming services all from the one place – and with the added joy of being able to ask Alexa to find things for you, rather than having to shuffle about in menus manually.
Want to take Alexa on the road with you? You’ll be wanting the Amazon Echo Auto. Interfacing directly to the Alexa app on your smartphone, its eight microphones will hear you over your music – yes, even any questionable singing – and allows voice control of audio streaming ranging from the likes of Audible right through to radio stations.
AN APPLE’S OK!
While Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa are the dominant players in the smart ecosystem space, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t alternatives.
Most notably, if you’re deep into the world of Apple then you may wish to set yourself up with their HomeKit range, which uses their proprietary assistant Siri to control your various smart items. Many smart products from other suppliers are completely happy to get along with Siri, just keep an eye out for “Works with Apple HomeKit” labelling.