The smart-home starter kit

Last Updated November 2019

Smart homes are definitely the future: as technology has evolved to make our lives easier, the home has become the new arena for gadgets that solve problems we didn’t even know we had. Whether you’re curious about getting into so-called Internet of Things (IoT) devices, or you just want to spruce up an older house with the latest tech, we’re here to help you find the best gear to get your smart home off the ground.

What you’ll need to get started

The biggest benefit of having a house filled with smart-home devices is the amount of control you get — whether you want to set the temperature to a specific degree setting, turn off all of your lights at the same time each night, or rock out with your favorite streaming music, smart-home devices give you enough control to design your own personalized experience.

To get that experience, however, you’ll need a way to interact with your smart-home devices. Most people do that with either a digital assistant or a smartphone.

  • A digital assistant like Amazon’s Alexa or Google Home is an internet-connected speaker that can accept voice commands. Digital assistants are great on their own — we love using ours for playing music and providing news updates — but they become even more powerful when paired with smart-home devices. If you’re thinking about buying smart-home tech, and you want to be able to control it with your voice, you’ll want to pick up a digital assistant, stat.

  • Our favorite digital assistant: While it’s a tough call to make since they’re all so good, we prefer the Google Home smart speaker, as it offers the best price-to-sound-quality ratio.

  • A smartphone can be used to control most smart-home devices, and since you probably already own one, it’s also the least expensive way to it. Most smart-home device manufacturers provide a free app for controlling them over WiFi — and while that may not be as convenient as using voice commands with a digital assistant, you never have to repeat yourself for an app.

  • Our favorite smartphone for smart homes: Any iPhone is a smart choice for working with smart-home products — most manufacturers use Apple devices for their own quality testing, because iPhones make up such a large portion of the market. With an iPhone (even an older one like the iPhone 6S), you can rest easy knowing you’ll have a reliable experience with your smart-home devices.

Where to get started

One of the simplest ways to start building your smart home is with smart lighting — so you can schedule and automate the lighting in your home, or simply control it from your phone or digital assistant. There are two different ways to approach adding smart lighting to your home: with smart bulbs, or with smart light switches.

  • Smart bulbs look and act like regular light bulbs, but include connectivity so they can be programmed or remotely operated over a WiFi network. Smart bulbs are easy to use, and work in just about any home, no matter how old it is. Just be forewarned: while smart bulbs are surprisingly affordable, like regular light bulbs, they eventually burn out, so costs can add up over time. If you live in an apartment or want an inexpensive way to try out smart lighting, smart bulbs are the best choice.

  • Our favorite smart bulb: The TP-LINK LB120 is a 60-watt bulb equivalent that checks all of the boxes — it works with Google Home and Amazon’s Alexa digital assistants, it has built-in energy monitoring, and will even let you fine-tune the glow you get from the bulb. If you need a smart bulb that “just works,” this is the strongest candidate available. (And if you need a dimmable version, pick up the TP-LINK LB100.)

  • Smart light switches move the “smart” part away from the light bulbs and into the switch panel itself. Smart light switches operate almost identically to smart bulbs, with one key difference: they don’t need to be replaced every time a bulb burns out. Smart light switches are pricier, and definitely more difficult to install — but the result is a permanent investment in your home that will save you more money over time.

  • Our favorite smart light switch: Belkin’s WeMo family of smart home products has some outstanding light switches, and we particularly love the WeMo In-Wall Smart Switch (and the equivalent model for using with dimmers). It’s worth getting a licensed electrician for installation — but once it’s setup, it’s a breeze to use both at the wall and with Belkin’s WeMo app.

While most smart home products rely on WiFi connectivity, others rely on less popular standards like Zigbee or Z-Wave. If you encounter a smart home product that doesn’t operate on WiFi, it will typically say “hub required,” to indicate that you’ll also need to purchase a separate hub that can translate Zigbee or Z-Wave commands into WiFi commands for specific smart home devices.

Our picks for smart home security

It’s important to keep your home safe — and that’s a lot easier to do with smart home technology. There are a few different approaches to upgrading your security, so it’s best to figure out which you’ll prefer (or if you want both) before you start shopping.

  • Smart locks are exactly what they sound like — replacement locks for your exterior doors that let you control access from your smartphone. Smart locks are great for managing access to your home, but also require maintenance: between software updates and changing batteries, you’ll be interacting with them fairly frequently.

  • Our favorite smart lock: We love the Kwikset Kevo 2nd Generation Bluetooth Smart Lock, mainly because it provides all of the convenience of a smart lock while still working with traditional keys (in the event that you lose your phone, the Kevo will still work with a physical key).

  • Smart security systems typically include one or more cameras that you can connect to your WiFi network and monitor from your phone. Whether you want to keep your home safe from a break-in, or simply see what your pets do while you’re at work, a smart home security system is the most straightforward way to monitor what’s going on.

  • Our favorite smart security system: the Arlo Pro Security System from Netgear comes in a variety of form factors, and they can be mixed and matched interchangeably, so you can scale your security over time.

Our picks for temperature control

Need to make temperature adjustments from wherever you are? Ready to set up schedules for your HVAC unit to keep costs down? Smart thermostats for controlling your local climate are affordable, easy to install, and live up to their cost-saving promises.

  • Our favorite smart thermostat: The Nest Thermostat E is the no-frills version of the company’s flagship model. It’s just as fast and easy to use as the standard version, but only comes in white and has a screen that’s not as sharp.