To turn your house in to a smart home, think simple – Houston Chronicle

To turn your house in to a smart home, think simple – Houston Chronicle
13 Aug
8:05

For Christmas 2014, I received a surprising present. My lovely wife, who is the Amazon Prime member in our family, got an invitation to try out a then-new voice assistant called the Echo. Because it was beta, she got it at a substantial discount, and figured I might like to have one.

She was absolutely right, but she had no idea what she'd started.

Today, the Echo sits in a prime spot on our kitchen counter. My wife mostly uses it to set timers for cooking. But I have turned it into the hub of a smart home. Sometimes using voice via the Echo’s Alexa to control the lights in our modest swankienda drives her nuts, but it has become a geek's delight for me.

In fact, using voice controls with assistants such as the Echo, the Google Home or Apple's HomePod is the simplest way to get started adding some smarts to your home. I’ve boiled the process down to five steps.

Step 1: Think security

Begin by keeping in mind that smart home devices fall into the category of the “Internet of Things” — hardware that's designed to connect the internet that humans, for the most part, don't touch. These are also prime targets for hackers, who look for flaws in the devices' firmware to take control of them. There are a few things you can do to keep yourself safe.

BETTER CONNECTION: How to improve the Wi-Fi in your home

Make sure your Wi-Fi router has the latest updated firmware, software that controls how the router works.

Avoid off-brand smart home products. There are a lot of cheap Wi-Fi bulbs, outlets, switches and more out there. Stick with name brands; they'll offer regular software updates with security patches.

The smarthome devices you choose also will have firmware. The smartphone app that controls your smart home devices will alert you when there are updates. Respond immediately by installing the new code.

Step 2: Choose your platform.

As I said last week, having a voice-based assistant makes the entire process of smartening your home much easier. Yes, you can do without, but you'll find yourself reaching for your phone, computer or possibly your TV when you want to immediately control your devices. Voice control – if you don't mind Google, Amazon or Apple always listening to you – is more efficient.

If you've already got a voice assistant, you're good — look for smart home devices that work with that model. If you do not have one, Google Home Assistant and the Amazon Echo are compatible with most devices. If you use mostly Apple products — and particularly if you have a HomePod, Apple's smart speaker — you can consider devices that work with its HomeKit system. As I mentioned, I've got an Amazon Echo, and the voice recognition for it is excellent.

Step 3: Keep it simple AND stupid

If you're just beginning to add smart home devices, keep it simple and — frankly — keep it dumb. I started out with a single TP-Link smart outlet into which I plugged two standing floor lamps. They were on either side of my TV, and I wanted to be able to turn them on using the Echo with my voice when it was couch-potato time.

I could also have used Wi-Fi-enabled light bulbs, but that would have required buying two, and they are generally more expensive. Smart bulbs give you the ability to dim the lighting and change colors, though neither was a high priority. For about $25 for the one outlet, I could get started simply and cheaply.

STREAM IT: How to cut cable TV’s cord

Outlets are relatively dumb smart devices, and are easy to set up using the app that supports them. It's a great way to get used to the concept of how smart devices work before tackling more complex devices, such as video doorbells, smart thermostats or security cameras. Outlets will begin to give you ideas for other projects you can tackle later.

Step 4: Install and setup

In Part 1, I recommended smart outlets and smart switches as the best way to start out. Smart outlets are the simplest – just plug them into a standard wall outlet, download the app associated with the device and follow the prompts. In most cases, you'll establish an initial, Wi-Fi-based connection between your smartphone and the outlet, and then you'll use that connection to get the device onto your home's Wi-Fi network.

Smart switches — wall switches that replace the existing ones that control lights — are trickier. You'll need to turn off the power at the breaker box to the existing switch, remove it, install the smart switch and then turn the power back on. Most smart switches require that your home have a neutral wire, which can supply power so the Wi-Fi connection is always on. There are some smart home switches that work without a neutral wire (see The Wirecutter's recommendations to learn more), but most switches need this.

One of the reasons I like TP-Link's smart switches is that the associated Kasa app has a straightforward and understandable walkthrough for installing the switch. If you have never replaced a light switch before, it's the one I'd recommend.

(Some types of smart home devices require a separate hardware hub that connects to your Wi-Fi router. This may give your device additional capabilities, but is an added expense and complication.)

HANG UP: How to stop robocallers from flooding your phone

Step 5: Linking to your voice assistant

Once your smart switch or outlet is installed and connected to your Wi-Fi network, you can use the app associated with your voice assistant to link them up.

For example, with the Echo you'd use the Amazon Alexa app to add a device. You can tell the app to search your network for compatible devices. Once the Echo is aware of your devices, you can turn them on or off with your voice

But the real power comes when you group devices together. For example, I have a routine with the Echo in which I say “Alexa, turn on TV time.” That causes the subdued lights we use for watching TV to turn on, and all the other lights in the living area to turn off.

This may require some troubleshooting. For example, I can tell the Echo, “Alexa, turn off all the lights” and if each light isn't already on, the Echo turns ON all the lights. I say again “turn off all lights”, and then they all go off. This is the kind of thing that can drive you (and your less-techie partner!) bonkers.

But it's totally worth it. Most of the time, it works well. I'm looking forward to adding more switches and, soon, a smart thermostat. This smart home won’t stay simple for much longer.

This story appeared first in Dwight Silverman’s Release Notes newsletter. Sign up at houstonchronicle.com/releasenotes

dwight.silverman@chron.com

twitter.com/dsilverman

houstonchronicle.com/techburger

Source: https://www.houstonchronicle.com/techburger/article/To-turn-your-house-in-to-a-smart-home-think-14300042.php

« »