You might have heard of Mark Zuckerberg’s smart house that uses Morgan Freeman’s voice. But did you know you don’t have to be a billionaire to have a smart home? Unfortunately, Morgan Freeman hasn’t lent his voice to any mass-market smart home products yet, but maybe someday.
Smart home devices come in a few different forms. It’s a technology that’s still in its infancy. And the tech giants are duking it out trying to figure out how smart homes are going to work. Every brand has its own distinct style and interpretation of a smart home. It can be hard to figure out which one is right for you.
That’s where we come in! You’ll be a pro on home automation after your read this guide. The world of smart home systems will be easier to navigate. The best smart home systems might be more affordable and easier to use than you think.
Who is this Review For?
This review is for anyone who wants to know more about smart homes. Maybe you’ve researched one popular device and want to know what the competition has to offer. Maybe you just heard about it and want to know what smart home systems are all about.
Do you want to feel more connected to the world? Do you need better hands-free access or voice recognition than your smartphone can offer? Maybe you’re a busy parent who always has your hands full and need to stay connected. That’s where smart home automation comes in handy.
What to Look For
Let’s break down the different types of smart home systems. This can really help narrow down which one on our list is right for you. Some excel in categories that just aren’t part of other systems. All smart home systems control various connected devices in your house. But they all go about it a little differently.
Hubs – Every smart home system on our list has some sort of hub and some are only hubs. Hubs are what connect all of your enabled devices together. This allows you to conveniently control them through one channel like a mobile app or the hub itself.
Assistants – Assistants are basically hubs that you can talk to. Two of the most competitive smart home devices are assistants and we’ll compare them in a little bit. If you have a question about anything, just ask your assistant. If you want to add an appointment to your calendar, check the weather, or even play a game, assistants can help with that depending on which one you choose. These are basically small, voice-controlled computers that you can put in any room in the house.
Remotes – Smart home remotes combine old tech with new tech. They have a hub that connects your devices like any other smart house. And they’re controlled with a somewhat traditional universal remote. While we may think of universal remotes as having a million buttons and being too confusing for even the most tech savvy consumers, new ones have screens and simplified controls.
Our Top Pick Home Automation Devices
1. Best Overall: Amazon Echo Dot
Amazon Echo Dot Quick Review
Amazon helped bring smart homes into the mainstream with the Echo. The compact Echo Dot makes it easy to add the assistant to any room. The low price means you can buy multiple without making a huge investment. Just ask your assistant “Alexa” to read you the news, to turn the lights on, or to do some shopping for you. She’s always happy to help.
There are a few areas where the Echo Dot blows away the competition. It’s the best smart home hub for shopping, for obvious reasons. Amazon wants to make it easy for you to spend more money on Amazon! You can tell it stuff you want to buy and it will make a recommendation based on Amazon’s Choice. It’ll give you pricing and shipping details and even has the option to buy it via voice command. If you think of something you need, but you know you’ll forget about it next time you’re out shopping, you can tell Alexa to place an order for it and it will be on its way. It will even look at your order history when doing this. For example, if you ask it to order light bulbs and it sees that you’ve ordered light bulbs in the past, it will put in an order for those same light bulbs unless you specify otherwise.
One area where Alexa struggles traveling. You can ask it about flights and it won’t understand and can’t really provide any information. If you ask Alexa how long it will take you to get to a destination, she can tell you how many miles away that destination is. But, she doesn’t tell you how long it will take to get there. If you ask Alexa simple questions, sometimes she gets a little too detailed too. If you want a quick, simple answer, sometimes she’ll go on and on until you tell her to stop
One of the great features we liked about Echo and the Echo dot is the Alexa app. You can see what’s playing, edit your shopping lists, timers and alarms. And Amazon has a quasi open marketplace for what are called ‘Skills’. This is where it’s really cool. Third parties can create skills, and you can have access to them. Sort of like the Apple store, but they’re free. They have tons of great skills that allow you to hook up smart home devices, like a nest. Or if you just want something funny and neat, there’s tons of really creative skills that allow you to access all sorts of information, sounds, and more.
The compact design, low cost, and excellent shopping features of the Amazon Echo Dot make it a great entry level smart home device. It’s the one to get if you want to get into smart home technology, but don’t know where to start. You can expand on it as much as you want by getting other devices that can be controlled by Alexa. This includes wireless light switches and outlets. Or you can keep it simple and keep her around for shopping, scheduling, and playing music.
2. Best for Entertainment: Samsung SmartThings
Samsung SmartThings Quick Review
This is the most sophisticated smart home system on the market. It starts with the Samsung SmartThings hub, which connects to various different devices in your home. From light bulbs to home monitoring hardware, you can use it for almost anything! You can lock and unlock your house, control the lights, open and close your garage door, and even sense leaks. All from the mobile app. It can even turn off your sprinkler when it knows it’s raining. You can turn on your AC from anywhere so your home is comfortable when you arrive. Your cabinets can even text you when they’re open with wireless sensors.
There’s a SmartThings home monitoring kit that always keeps an eye on things, providing important information and security. This is a more affordable alternative to expensive traditional home security systems or subscriptions. It sends you immediate alerts of any unexpected activity in or around your home. You can add compatible security cameras, alarms, and locks to make your house a fortress whether you’re home or not.
An obvious downside to all of this connectivity is cost. Just buying the hub is the cost of entry. On top of that you need to buy peripherals to make all of these extra features work. If you want to control all of your lights with SmartThings, you need to replace all of the light bulbs in your house with special smart light bulbs which aren’t as cheap as regular ones. If you really want to get into the smart home game and want the best of the best, figure out what it’s actually going to cost you before pulling the trigger on Samsung SmartThings. Also keep in mind that SmartThings devices can be controlled with other smart home hubs like Google Home and Amazon Echo Dot.
Samsung SmartThings is perhaps the most intuitive smart home system. You can walk in the door and the lights can automatically turn on. You can set your house to party mode and it will change the lighting and turn on some music. Things like that are what make SmartThings worth the cost.
3. Best for Power and Lighting Automation: Google Home
- WiFi enabled
- Multi room audio setup
- Compatible for streaming with Chromecast
Google Home Quick Review
Google Home is the chief competitor to the Amazon Echo. It acts as both an assistant and as a hub for other compatible smart devices. The strong suit of Google Home, as you might expect, is in general searching. Since Google is the top name in the search engine game and has experience making intuitive software with the Android operating systems, all of that experience and expertise is on full display with Google Home. It’s very intuitive when you ask it questions. It can even answer follow up questions. The speech is more natural and it feels more like you’re talking to a person rather than a robot.
Earlier I complained that the Amazon Echo Dot isn’t very good for traveling. This is one of the strong points for Google Home. When you ask how long it will take to get somewhere, it not only checks how many miles away it is, it factors in traffic too. It’ll give you an accurate estimate of how long it will take to get there. For flights, it gives you lots of information including prices and how long the flights take.
There are a couple of areas where Google Home falls short of the competition. It isn’t very good for shopping since it isn’t hooked into the massive Amazon marketplace. You can research products like you normally would on Google and you can get prices. But it won’t let you order anything. A very strange flaw in Google Home is that you can’t add events Google Calendar. It can give you information about your schedule from Google Calendar, but for some reason it’s unable to set reminders or appointments while the Amazon Echo Dot can.
One fun thing about Google Home is the games. You can put on a little game show for a group of friends or just for you while Google Home acts as the host. It acts as the host and has a surprising amount of personality as it puts on a little trivia game. This can be a fun feature if you do a lot of entertaining.
Google’s first shot at the smart home segment is impressive. If you want a basic, but powerful smart home assistant, Google Home is worth a look.
4. Best Remote: Logitech Harmony Elite
Logitech Harmony Elite Quick Review:
Other tech companies are competing to remove hardware from smart home automation so you only have to use your voice and your smartphone. But Logitech is sticking with an old fashioned universal remote to control your smart house of the future. There’s little old fashioned about the Logitech Harmony Elite though. When you’re using it as a remote it’s very familiar in a good way. It’s comfortable in your hand like a traditional television remote, but it does a lot more than just changing the channel.
The top of the remote is a touch screen, while the bottom serves as a simple button remote. Remember buttons?! These buttons can be customized for easy control of your key connected smart home devices. The remote connects wirelessly with the Harmony hub. You can set up through the Harmony mobile app, or on your computer at myharmony.com. If you use the mobile app, it has all of the same controls as the remote.
You can even set up activities on the remote. With this feature, at the touch of a button you can have movie mode that changes the lighting, turn on your best soundbar, brings up your favorite movie app on your 4K TV, and can even turn on your fireplace. They are totally customizable! And you’re free to control any connected device however you want. Either individually or as an activity. What we really loved about the Logitech is that not only is it a stand alone smart home device, it’s compatible with almost all of the other best smart home devices on our list! Yes, that means it’s compatible with both Alexa Echo Dot and Google Home. This gives this unit incredible expandability.
If you have a ton of remotes around the house and want to consolidate into one smart remote that can integrate with your smart house, this could be perfect for you.
5. Best Value: Wink Hub 2
Wink Hub 2 Quick Review
An improvement over the original Wink Hub, the Wink Hub 2 aims to be the most versatile of the smart home hubs. It does a good job by offering a wide variety of connectivity types from Bluetooth to Wifi and everything in between. It plays well with tons of devices from different manufacturers.
It’s also very sleek and good looking. You won’t be embarrassed to have it out and you won’t try to hide it behind a TV. It has an ethernet port to improve connectivity even further. Improved security hardware and software means it’s almost impossible to tamper with it physically or for unauthorized users to access it.
The mobile app is pretty good, but there have been user complaints about glitches and problems with setting up “robots.” Robots are sets of rules or commands that control the peripherals connected to the Wink Hub 2.
The simplicity of the Wink Hub 2 is both the best and worst thing about it. If all you want is a simple, versatile hub for connecting all of your devices, this does a perfectly adequate job of just that. However, there simply isn’t much that sets it apart from the competition. It doesn’t have any particularly exciting features that make it a standout choice for any specific reason. It isn’t the #1 smart home hub, but it’s simple and it gets the job done well.