How Smart Should Your Home Be?
It can be tough to know when to buy, when to hold off, and when to save your money altogether. Let’s go room by room and talk about what’s worth the investment right now—and what’s worth waiting on.
The Jetsons-style homecoming starts before you even hit the welcome mat. Whether you’re coming in the front door or through the garage, a few smart gadgets can make your life easier—as long as your Wi-Fi signal is strong enough.
Pros: With a smart doorbell, your phone’s screen shows you who’s at the door—be it the UPS driver or a neighbor. Not only that, but you can talk to visitors when you aren’t home and, thanks to a fish-eye lens, check on your garden while you’re out of town.
Cons:?Many smart doorbells require existing doorbell wiring. (If you don’t have wiring set up, you can use a battery-powered doorbell, like Eufy or Amazon’s Ring.) There’s also an ongoing debate about whether we really want cameras plastered everywhere.
Bottom line: Go for it if you’re looking for added security, but otherwise it’s not a necessity. Call it a “maybe someday” purchase.
Our pick: Eufy’s video doorbell offers a good balance of price, image quality, and features. TO BUY: Eufy Security Battery-Powered Wireless Video Doorbell, $170; amazon.com.
Pros: The right smart lock can be a game changer, letting you open the door without fumbling for your keys. Some unlock automatically as you arrive home; others unlock via a code or the touch of your finger. You can also create temporary codes to allow your dog walker or mother-in-law in when you aren’t there.
Cons: To enable certain features, like Alexa, you need to integrate most smart locks with a home hub. While some smart locks connect to the internet via their own Wi-Fi hub, others, like Z-Wave locks, require a separate purchase, like Samsung’s SmartThings hub. Most also require replacing your existing deadbolt, which might not be ideal for renters.
Bottom line: Once you start unlocking your door by touch, taking out your keys feels archaic and time-consuming. If you access your front door often, this is well worth the money. Of course, the lock can also go on the back door, or the door from the garage—whatever you use most.
Our pick:?The Ultraloq U-Bolt Pro, a newcomer to the scene, lets you unlock your door in six ways, including via a fingerprint scanner.?TO BUY: Ultraloq U-Bolt Pro + WiFi Bridge, $180; homedepot.com.
Alternative suggestion:?If your landlord won’t OK replacing the deadbolt, August’s smart lock is a retrofit option that will work on your existing hardware.?TO BUY: August Wi-Fi Smart Lock, $250; amazon.com.
Pros:?Back in the 1970s and ’80s, the remote control garage door opener was the gateway to smart home tech. Now you can open the garage from your phone, whether you’re in the kitchen or miles away. LiftMaster even has an agreement with Amazon allowing delivery drivers to put packages in your garage. Most importantly, these openers alert you when the door has been opened by someone else.
Cons:?If you’ve never done work on your garage door opener before, it might be intimidating to pick a product and set it up. You may need to hire a pro if you’re replacing the opener entirely.
Bottom line: If you are the forgetful type—or just get peace of mind knowing the garage door is closed—this is a great piece of tech to have.
Our pick:?LiftMaster’s MyQ series includes door openers as well as add-on kits for existing garage doors. Pro installation is required.?TO BUY: LiftMaster WLED Garage Door Opener with MyQ Smart Technology, from $449 with installation; liftmaster.com?for dealers.
People tend to huddle around the television, so there’s a lot of opportunity for smart gadgets here. Smart TVs are now widely available, and you can augment their features with a few other gizmos to create the perfect movie night.
Pros:?Standalone streaming boxes are usually better than the smart software built into your TV. They’re often faster and easier to navigate, and they continually get software updates for increased efficiency.
Cons:?It may be hard to justify the added cost of a box when your TV can already stream your favorite shows. Plus, you have to figure out an attractive setup (plugging a box into a wall-mounted TV can be especially tricky). You also still have to pay the monthly subscription fee for HBO, Netflix, or other streaming services.
Bottom line:?It’s not an imperative, but a streaming box can enhance your TV-watching experience, especially if your TV’s smart system is slow and clunky—which is often the case with older or lower-cost sets.
Our pick:?If you’re an Apple household, consider the Apple TV for a familiar interface and easy integration with your other devices. Everyone else can try the Roku.?TO BUY: Apple TV 4K, from $179; apple.com. Roku Premiere, $39; amazon.com.
Pros:?As TVs have gotten thinner and lighter, their speakers have gotten smaller (hence those 70-inch monsters you have to strain to hear). A soundbar is a compact speaker that raises volume, sharpens sound, and creates more immersive action scenes.
Cons:?Soundbars introduce more complexity to your setup. While they’re much simpler to install than a receiver with individual speakers, you may still have to fiddle with cable configurations and settings to get everything working. Plus, unless you have a universal remote, you’re stuck with one more clicker.
Bottom line:?After you try a soundbar, you’ll never go back to relying solely on TV speakers. The clearer dialogue alone makes this a must-have.
Our pick:?Vizio has a huge selection of quality soundbars, ranging from 20-inch models to large, multispeaker surround-sound setups with big subwoofers.?TO BUY: SB2020n-G6 20" 2.0 Channel Sound Bar, $70; amazon.com.
Pros:?If you’re constantly adjusting the blinds to keep the sun from shining in your eyes, motorized shades might be worthwhile. You can set them to open and close on a schedule, or control them with your voice using Alexa or Google Assistant. You can even create a single voice command to turn on the TV and lower the blinds at the same time.
Cons:?Smart blinds can get very costly, especially if you need custom sizes and professional installation.
Bottom line: If your blinds are a pain point in your day, smart shades could be worth the price—and they might even lower your energy bill.
Our pick:?Lutron’s Serena system offers a number of styles and colors, along with custom options.?TO BUY: Serena Shades by Lutron, from $349; serenashades.com.
Alternative suggestion:?Ikea’s Fyrtur shades are more affordable, though they don’t come in as many styles and colors.?TO BUY: Fyrtyr Blackout Roller Blind, from $129; ikea-usa.com.
No Time for Wimpy Wi-Fi
Gadgets are only as good as your Wi-Fi signal: The more smart devices you have, the more robust your Wi-Fi needs to be. “Keep your router out in the open, away from any obstructions,” says Joel Crane, a certified wireless network expert. “If you still experience connection issues, then a home mesh Wi-Fi solution, like Eero, Google Wifi ($99; amazon.com), or Orbi, can fill in the dead spots fairly effortlessly.” In a power outage, some battery-operated devices may still function, though smart features won’t work if your Wi-Fi is down. When the power comes back on, most devices will reconnect automatically (if not, a quick reset should do it).
With the exception of water-saving options, the cost of smart kitchen appliances makes them harder to recommend than gadgets in other areas of the home.
Pros: You can turn on a smart faucet with a wave of your hand (helping you wash up without spreading germs to the hardware). You can also use your voice to dispense a certain amount of water, so you can fill a pot without waiting at the sink.
Cons: Some of the highest-end smart faucets can cost about seven times as much as the basic pull-down faucets, and about three times as much as the least expensive hands-free models.
Bottom line: In this age of germ and water-waste sensitivity, it might be one of the best smart home upgrades you can make.
Our pick:?Kohler’s Setra is the model to beat right now.?TO BUY: Setra Touchless Kitchen Faucet with Kohler Konnect, $419; homedepot.com.
Pros: High-end models let you check the refrigerator contents, even while you’re at the grocery store; glance at your calendar on the door’s touch screen; and control the temperature from your phone (not that you’d ever necessarily need to).
Cons: Smart fridges can be costly—starting at roughly 20 to 30 percent more than regular models. Considering most people don’t upgrade their refrigerators on a whim, that’s a hard sell.
Bottom line: This should live in the “low priority” category. But if you’re renovating your kitchen and in the market for a fancy fridge, the one you choose may come with a few smart features anyway.
Our pick:?Samsung has a wide variety, from top-of-the-line models with a touch screen to midrange options with basic temperature controls.?TO BUY: 28 Cu. Ft. 4-Door French Door Refrigerator with Touch Screen Family Hub in Tuscan Stainless Steel, $2,799; samsung.com.
Pros: Some models connect to Wi-Fi so you can control them with your phone or voice (imagine preheating the oven from your lounge chair on the back deck). You’ll even get a phone notification when your meal is ready.
Cons: Safety features can limit the convenience of these products. Having to press a button on the oven before you turn it on with your phone sort of defeats the purpose.
Bottom line: If you do a lot of baking, the Wi-Fi connectivity is pretty useful for preheating—though certainly not necessary if you’re on a tighter budget.
Our pick:?Samsung offers a number of gas and electric ranges with Wi-Fi connectivity.?TO BUY: 5.9 Cu. Ft. Freestanding Electric Range with Flex Duo & Dual Door in Stainless Steel, $1,199; samsung.com.
Please Say a Command
When your hands are full or your phone is out of reach, voice control really brings smart homes to life. Voice assistants, like Amazon Echo and Google Home, are must-haves for any smart home—and with smaller units available for $50 or less, you can position a few throughout your space.
This hardworking space may be small, but it’s ripe for smarter tech and Wi-Fi-enabled shortcuts.
Pros: You can start and stop cycles remotely, get notified when the laundry is done, and receive reminders when your appliance needs maintenance (such as filter changes or tub cleaning).
Cons: Upgrading from your current washer and dryer is a $1,000-plus investment, which is rather costly.
Bottom line: The notifications are convenient, and if you need a new washer and dryer anyhow, many of the newest options have standard smart features. But if your current laundry machines work fine, there’s no need to upgrade—just use Alexa or Google to set a timer instead.
Our pick:?LG is one of the best brands in the laundry sphere, and they have plenty of ThinQ models with Wi-Fi features.?TO BUY: 5.2 Cu. Ft. Large Smart Wi-Fi Enabled Front Load Washer TurboWash, $1,800; homedepot.com. 9.0 Cu. Ft. Large Smart Wi-Fi Enabled Electric Dryer w/ TurboSteam, $1,800; homedepot.com.
Pros: While plenty of robot vacuums clean floors, some advanced models come with Wi-Fi, so you can start a cleaning cycle with Alexa and get alerted when the vacuum is stuck or needs its bin emptied. Some can even map your house for more reliable cleaning.
Cons: Wi-Fi-connected models aren’t always as cheap as serviceable competitors, and only some models can do things like clean a specific room on demand.
Bottom line: Robot vacuums are a godsend, especially if you have kids or pets—and the extra utility you get from the app and voice commands is quite useful when you’re running out the door.
Our pick:?iRobot has a number of Wi-Fi-connected Roomba models, the most high-end of which have automatic dirt disposal.?TO BUY: Roomba 675, $270; amazon.com.
Good sleep is practically a status symbol—and a few little splurges can help you rest and restore.
Pros: Controlling the lights with an app or voice command is great if your switch is on the other side of the room. Color-changing bulbs let you adjust the color temperature too. That means you can have sun-mimicking light for waking up and warmer, sleep-friendly light for reading before bed.
Cons: If you have a lot of light fixtures, these bulbs can get expensive. Smart switches might be more cost-effective—though they require more involved setup.
Bottom line: If you’re new to a smart home, start here. When coupled with a smart assistant, smart bulbs are incredibly convenient.
Our pick:?Philips’ White Ambiance bulbs have lots of features—including color-temperature adjustment—and great support from Philips.?TO BUY: Philips Hue White 2-Bulb Starter Kit, $70; homedepot.com.
Pros: Many thermostats are clunky to program, requiring confounding button-pressing sequences. With a smart thermostat, you can set a daily schedule with just a few taps. Some models even learn your habits over time and adjust themselves when you’re out of the house. Nest says it has saved its customers 10 to 15 percent on their heating and cooling bills.
Cons: Wiring a smart thermostat can be complicated, and depending on your home’s climate control system, some thermostats may not be compatible. You can usually check compatibility with different models online; contact a pro for best results.
Bottom line: If you’re picky about your thermostat schedule, a smart model is absolutely worth it.
Our pick:?The Nest Thermostat E offers the best balance of cost and convenience, though you may need to step up to the higher-priced Nest Learning Thermostat if your wiring isn’t compatible. Visit?store.google.com?to find out if the unit will work in your space.?TO BUY: Nest Thermostat E, $169; amazon.com.
Your Phone, Command Central
If a TV that requires two remotes can bring you to your knees, you don’t want that frustration multiplied in every room of the house. Apple’s HomeKit, Google Assistant, and Amazon’s Alexa will unify control of third-party products so you can manage dozens of smart devices with your phone, tablet, or voice. Look for your hub’s icon on the packaging (to date, Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa are compatible with thousands of products, while HomeKit connects with over 100 vetted items).
Your bathroom may not be the first place you’d think to bring Alexa, but the right tech can make your morning routine more streamlined—and luxurious.
Pros: Smart controllers connect to your plumbing to let you manage water temperature or even start the shower with your voice.
Cons: The controllers can be expensive and usually require professional installation.
Bottom line: If you’re looking for a truly deluxe shower setup, a controller like this can be amazing—but the cost is high.
Our pick:?Moen’s 2-outlet controller is easy to use and offers multiple options for different setups.?TO BUY: U by Moen Smart Shower Controller and Valve, $662; amazon.com.
Alternative suggestion:?Kohler’s Alexa-based showerhead may not have temperature controls, but the built-in speaker will at least give you some tunes while you rinse off in your everyday, low-tech shower.?TO BUY: Moxie Showerhead + Bluetooth Wireless Speaker, $219; kohler.com.
Pros: Wi-Fi-connected toilets aren’t exactly ubiquitous yet, but Kohler has one on the way. Right now, “smart” toilets consist of seats with warming functions, automatic lids, and bidets.
Cons: High-tech toilet seats aren’t cheap. They can also be a bit complex to install, and you need an electrical outlet nearby.
Bottom line: Once you’ve used a high-end bidet, you’ll likely never want to go without one (or worry about hoarding toilet paper).
Our pick:?Toto’s C100 Electronic Bidet Seat is feature-rich without completely breaking the bank.?TO BUY: Toto Washlet C100, $366; homedepot.com.
Alternative suggestion:?If your wallet can’t handle the full-suite seat, try a retrofit model for your current toilet. It won’t heat the seat, warm the water, or do your taxes for you, but it’s under $100.?TO BUY: Bio Bidet SlimEdge Bidet Attachment, $35; amazon.com.
This story originally appeared in the July 2020 issue of Real Simple.