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How to Transform Your House Into a Smart Home

Photo-Illustration: The Strategist; Photos: Retailers

You don’t have to be a tech wizard to turn your house into a smart home. And you certainly don’t have to be a tech wizard to benefit from it. Indoor cameras give you added security — and let you check in when you’re away. Smart plugs let you quickly turn on anything from a lamp to a TV without finding the remote or getting up from your seat, and a smart thermostat can learn when you go to bed and automatically lower the temperature to make you more comfortable. While some of these amenities can be complicated to install, there are quite a few things — the things in this list — that take no prior knowledge to set up. In fact, most of them simply require you to plug them into a power outlet. Just like that, your house is 10 percent smarter. The other piece of good news is that, over the last few years, smart home tech has gotten a lot more affordable. So dipping your toes into the smart home world doesn’t take much financial commitment.

The following products are a mix of things that I have tested, that have been recommended to me by experts, and that we have written about previously. They’ll all make your home smarter — and you just a little more cozy and relaxed.

Smart speakers

The smart speaker is the brain of your entire smart-home operation. It plays music and gives you news and weather updates, but, most important, you can use it to control your other smart-home appliances. All you have to do is be within earshot of your speaker and say, “Alexa (or ‘Hey, Google,’ if you prefer the Google ecosystem), turn on the lights.”

The sound quality is not quite as good, but a Dot or Mini gives you the same functionality as the Echo or Home in a more discreet package. You can easily tuck them into a corner so that your smart speaker is less of a focal point in the room.

If you prefer a speaker with a little more oomph, Jade Baker, partner and assistant buyer at the British department store John Lewis, likes the Sonos One, which has Alexa and Google Assistant built in. He calls the One “the classic starter speaker for your multiroom collection” and says, “With the ability to link up to all other Sonos speakers in the range, you can kit out your whole house with room-filling sound.”

There’s also the Echo Studio, which gives you an immersive audio experience that can fill larger spaces, thanks to its five internal speakers. And, of course, it’ll still connect to your smart lights, smart doorbell, and other smart accessories for hands-free control.

The HomePod Mini works best if you’re already hooked up to the Apple ecosystem. If you can ignore Siri’s shortcomings (like supporting only Apple Music) and you already own a MacBook, an Apple Watch, or an iPhone, the HomePod Mini’s setup will feel seamless. As with the Amazon and Google offerings, you can control all of your home’s smart devices from your speaker. Add items to a grocery list, play songs on Apple Music, and send out an intercom message if you have a HomePod Mini in another room.

This Alexa-enabled smart speaker should appeal to anyone with an appreciation for retro tech. It has a volume, bass, and treble knob for easy analog adjustments, or you can use the Marshall app and adjust the settings on your phone.

Smart displays

Amazon Echo Show 8
$80

This device has all the features of the Echo but with a screen, which allows you to do things like cook along with recipes, watch TV and movie trailers, and take video calls. If you’re worried about Bezos constantly listening in, there’s a button to turn off the camera and mic whenever you want.

For a larger screen that is more conducive to video calls, try the Echo Show 10. Amazingly, the screen can swivel and automatically follow you around the room, keeping you centered as you cook meals and chat with your friends and family.

The Hub has similar features to the Show but is going to be much more familiar and easy to use if you’re accustomed to Google’s ecosystem.

Smart plug

$20 for 2

“The Wyze lets you set up simple daily on-off schedules,” says Strategist contributor Kyle Schurman. “You can have the Wyze turn on any time one of your other smart devices is activated. For example, if someone approaches your video doorbell, you could have a lamp in the window automatically turn on to make it look like someone is home.” Schurman also says the Wyze plug is quite large compared to other models, but its price is hard to beat.

Smart thermostats

Smart Thermostats get better with every iteration. They can now learn your habits and adjust your cooling and heating options depending on the time of day you wake up and when you go to sleep. “This 3rd Generation Learning Thermostat has an easy-to-read, well-organized screen, with a control system that’s familiar to anyone who’s ever used a traditional round thermostat: Just spin the outside ring,” Schurman says.

Schurman also likes this Ecobee Thermostat, which comes with a remote sensor. (You have to buy them separately with the Nest.) Why do you want a remote thermostat? If, for instance, your bedroom is always too hot but your thermostat is in the living room, put the sensor in your bedroom and the AC won’t cut off until the bedroom is cool too.

Smart lock

This is the top-rated smart lock on Amazon, with more than 8,393 ratings, 85 percent of which are five-star. Reviewers praise its ease of use. “The lock was installed and operational in less than 15 minutes,” one says. “The software application has a simplistic user interface that allows you to manage users, lock and unlock your door remotely, and set auto-lock features so your door locks behind you,” according to another. With a smart lock, you can lock and unlock your door from your phone — and never again have your heart jump out of your chest because you suddenly can’t remember if you locked up before you left home.

Smart cameras

At 4.6 stars on average and more than 43,000 ratings, the Wyze Cam is the top-rated smart camera on Amazon. “All you need to set up is Wi-Fi and have the camera plugged into an electrical outlet and the Wyze app downloaded on your phone,” reports one reviewer. This camera has a motion sensor and sound-recording capabilities, a 1080p livestream, and night vision. And it works with Alexa and Google Assistant. “Jeez, this camera blew my mind,” writes one reviewer.

Stephen Farrell, director of merchandising at Hammacher Schlemmer, likes Nest’s smart camera, which alerts you to any suspicious activity directly on its app and comes with built-in speakers and a microphone, technology that would have really changed the outcome of the Home Alone movies. Farrell says it helps his family feel more secure.

Smart light bulbs

Although he was skeptical about smart light bulbs, when Schurman set out to find the best options, he ended up really loving them. This bulb, which Schurman found to be “extremely easy to use and exceptionally well-made,” can be controlled with the Sengled app or a voice assistant like Alexa, and offers 16 million potential colors. “While to some that may seem like an unnecessarily vast spectrum, it has more uses than you may think: For example, you can set the light to very gradually get brighter in the morning and darker in the evening to simulate sunrise and sunset (which has purported benefits for your circadian rhythms),” he says.

Colors have been shown to affect your mood. Highly saturated bright colors can be relaxing, and warm or cool colors can actually make your body feel warmer or cooler. Plus, everybody benefits from mood lighting.

This is a great option if you’re not worried about setting the mood and are more interested in lowering the lights from the couch when you watch a movie.

The Philips Hue Play fully indoctrinated me into the cult of Hue. Like many people, before trying smart lights, I was skeptical. How many different colors do I really want my lights to be? Besides, I figured, eventually things would slow down and stop working. But then Philips let me test out the Hue Play. In just a few weeks, it completely changed my home-theater experience. The lights look like two oversize pills; they are bright but not distracting, and the setup process is simple. Now I have a new routine every Friday: While watching The Mandalorian, I’ll use my phone to change the lights to a dark-green hue, setting the mood for all the bizarre Baby Yoda, space-cowboy-inspired adventures.

Editor’s note: The Philips Hue will be back in stock at Amazon on June 9, but you can order now and it’ll ship as soon as it’s available.

You probably know Ring for its video doorbells and cameras, but the brand also makes these useful outdoor smart security lights. “Add it anywhere you need a bit of extra illumination (porch, back steps, etc.),” Schurman says, “and it activates when it senses motion.” If you already have a Ring camera or lights, the setup process is seamless. But if this is your first Ring product, Schurman warns that you’ll also need to install a Ring Smart Bridge hub ($50). But, he says, “once it’s connected, you can fully control it through the Ring app or with an Alexa voice-control system as well as receive notifications when someone or something activates it.”

Smart lamp for kids

The Glow is about the size of a football. “It can be set to a specific color, cycle through a rainbow timer, or light up with fun patterns called things like campfire, disco, and underwater,” says Strategist contributor Tobey Grumet Segal, whose tween and teen sons use the Echo to add a little light to their room at night. (Just don’t call it a night light.) “And if waking up for school is as big a problem in your home as it is in ours, you can sync it with Amazon routines so that it gradually brightens until it’s time for the alarm to go off,” she says.

Smart vacuum

The Eufy RoboVac is designed to be ignored. Just plug it in and set the schedule. But, “for the first few weeks, I didn’t ignore it at all,” says Strategist staff writer Liza Corsillo. “I stared at it lovingly as it did its work rolling underneath our couch and our bed devouring dust bunnies.” It’s smart enough to avoid ledges, it can alert you anytime it gets stuck in a certain area, and it can adapt to cleaning carpets or hard surfaces automatically. You can also control it remotely using the app or your smart speaker. So anytime you drop crumbs on the floor, you can just give Eufy a holler and watch it roll through, sweeping up your latest mess.

Smart garden

$75

This is the Strategist’s best-selling smart garden and comes recommended by several experts. It has space to grow three plant pods at a time, and you can choose from over 50 different types of plants. “Despite its petite size, the Click and Grow can hold a lot of water, meaning you rarely have to worry about refilling the reservoir,” Strategist senior writer Liza Corsillo says. The small size also means it’s easy to maintain, making it one of the better beginner smart gardens.

Smart kettle

If you’re a pour-over coffee fan, baristas say a gooseneck kettle is essential for the optimum brew because it gives you far greater control over the timing and direction of your pour. It’s also great for tea lovers, since the kettle holds water at your temperature of choice for up to an hour, and a built-in stopwatch counts the extraction or steep time.

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How to Transform Your House Into a Smart Home