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The "Before You Buy Guide" For Your First Smart Home System

The 'before you buy guide' for your first smart home system

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Taking your first steps towards building a smart home can be daunting. There are hundreds of products to choose from, different systems to consider, and entire new technologies to get your head around.

In this article, we answer the first five questions you should ask yourself when giving your home some extra connectivity and intelligence. After this, you'll be well on your way to building your first smart home.

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How reliable is your Wi-Fi?

Stick image of a wifi router, smartphone and laptop

The strength of your Wi-Fi could affect the connection of smart home devices

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This refers to both the speed of your connection, but also the range and stability of your wireless network. A lot of smart home devices connect directly to your Wi-Fi router, so you'll want to ensure there is a good signal throughout your home.

In smaller and newer properties this shouldn't be an issue, and even the standard router you get from your internet provider should be fine. But if you have a large home, or live in an older building with thick walls, you may need to consider purchasing a better router, a mesh network, or a set of network extenders.

You can quickly test this by starting up a new video stream on YouTube or Netflix on a smartphone or tablet. Repeat this with a different video in each room of the home, and if the stream starts every time, you should be good to go. If, however, you find a black spot, consider buying a mesh network, which comprises of several Wi-Fi routers to be placed strategically across the house.

Or, you could buy network extenders which plug into wall outlets. They take the internet from your router via an Ethernet port, then sent it through the power cables of your home from one outlet to another (in a room with poor Wi-Fi), then broadcast the connection over fresh Wi-Fi.

What smart devices do you need?

Illustration showing a smart home full of connected devices

There are hundreds to pick from, so many your choices carefully

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It is easy to become overwhelmed by the sheer breadth of smart home devices now on offer. For many, the journey to a complete smart home will begin with a hub or a smart speaker, like an Amazon Echo or Google Home. After that, there are several defined product categories to explore: These are, but by no means limited to, lights, door locks, plugs, cameras, window blinds, doorbells, sensors, and media streaming devices. Of course, you can also add more smart speakers into the mix, too.

It really depends on what you want your smart home to do. Would you like to automate your lighting, and maybe have Alexa control it? Then you'll want to start with an Amazon Echo speaker and a smart lighting kit such as those from Philips Hue, Ikea or Lifx

As a general rule of thumb, the best smart home devices are those which take an ordinary 'dumb' device and add functionality without causing confusion. The Ring Video Doorbell 2 does this very well, by adding functionality (a webcam, microphone, speaker and Alexa integration) while still working perfectly as a doorbell.

Ring Video Doorbell 2 available on Amazon

Where do you charge your smartphone?

Wireless chargers are convenient but charge more slowly than a cable

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This may seem a strange question to ask, but a lot of smart home control is done on your smartphone. This is where all of the apps live for control not only the devices (lights, locks, cameras etc) but also the platform apps, like Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant.

While you can of course control most devices by speaking to an Amazon Echo or Google Home smart speaker - which can be placed in multiple rooms throughout the home - you'll want to have a charged smartphone at your side for the rest of the work. It's there's a good idea to have a phone charger by your bed - or try a wireless charging pad - plus one in the kitchen, and one in the living room.

Some devices now come with integrated wireless chargers, including a range of tables and lamps from Ikea, and new wall outlets can also be bought with integrated USB ports. So there's really no reason to have a low smartphone battery in your smart home.

(Check out The GearBrain, our smart home compatibility checker to see the other compatible products that work with Google Home and Home Mini as well as Amazon Alexa enabled devices.)

What type of home do you live in?

Stock photo of US residential houses

Larger homes may require a Wi-Fi booster, while apartments could limit what devices you can install

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We partially covered this in the first question with regard to the size of your property and thickness of the wall, but it is worth delving further here.

Obviously, if you live in a rented property your landlord is unlikely to give you permission to install a new smart thermostat like the Nest Learning Thermostat. Similarly, if you live in an apartment block with centrally-controlled climate, you won't be able to install a smart thermostat either.

The same goes for smart door locks like those from August; your landlord will likely be unamused if you install one.

August Smart Lock Pro available on Amazon

If wishing to install smart lighting, you'll need to check what bulb types are currently fitted, and if Philips, Lifx, Ikea, Wiz or another smart light company makes compatible bulbs. You should find ones that fit your existing system, but you may find that having fitted Hue bulbs in one room, Philips doesn't make smart bulbs for another room of your home.

This can be worked around, but will require extra work - and is something you're not likely to do in a rented property.

Also, smart wall switches can be tricky to install if houses with old wiring, and the same can be true of smart doorbells too.

If installing smart cameras, you'll want to think carefully about where these will go and what they can see. You don't want them looking out over someone else's property, or through their doors and windows. If you live in an apartment complex with shared corridors, a video doorbell could also be an issue, as its camera might be able to see into another property when their door is opened.

A lot of this is common sense, but it is worth thinking about carefully before buying smart equipment you are either unable to install, or which requires more work (like re-wiring) than you had initially accounted for.

Philips Hue Starter Kit Available on Amazon

What smart home systems do you trust?

Image of Google Home and Amazon Echo smart speakers

Will you be using an Amazon or Google system, or something else?

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When starting your smart home, you will be faced with a choice regarding which companies you want to let into your home. Do you want to control everything with a Google Home or an Amazon Echo? Or would you rather opt for a hub from Wink, or Samsung SmartThings?

When it comes to cameras, do you want one which uploads all footage to the manufacturer's server, or do you want a system which records footage either locally to an SD card, or to your own Dropbox account?

After answering these questions, you need to start planning ahead. When you inevitably purchase more smart home equipment, you'll want everything to play nice with your older purchases. This is where the GearBrain can help - this is our system for checking which smart devices work with Alexa, and which work with Google Assistant. There is a lot of crossover but some don't work with both systems.

You may also want to consider compatibility with Apple's HomeKit, too, as this is becoming an increasingly popular option among smart home device makers, thanks to Apple's strong track record when it comes to security.


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See which products "work with" either Google Assistant or Amazon Alexa by clicking on the device below.