We live in an age of science fiction come to life. OK, we still don’t have flying cars, but we can have a home that intelligently reacts to our needs. Smart homes are more accessible than ever, and best of all, the artificial intelligences managing them are getting more sophisticated every day. Think: More J.A.R.V.I.S. (the A.I. system that controls Tony Stark’s mansion in the Iron Man movies), and less HAL 9000 from “2001: A Space Odyssey.”
But before your house can notice you waking up and change lights, heat and music accordingly, you have to build a smart home. It can seem overwhelming — you just wanted automated lights and music, and three hours later, you have 20-plus browser tabs open and are learning about voice-activated faucets.
So let’s simplify: Where do you start?
Center of operations
The hub of your smart home is a voice-recognition system tied to a computer or smartphone app. You’re probably already familiar with using one, whether you say “OK, Google,” “Hey, Siri,” ”Cortana,” “Alexa,” or something else.
A smart speaker connects users with the voice on our phones we’ve come to think of as A.I. – more accurately called an “intelligent personal assistant”— allowing them to control music, search for information on the internet and manage home appliances.
The assistant can be customized on a tablet/phone app or computer and taught to interact with a variety of smart appliances throughout the home.
Amazon Echo is the elder statesman of the smart hub, having been initially released in 2014. It’s powered by Amazon’s Alexa assistant, and a microphone-enabled remote allows for use away from the base unit.
The second generation currently retails for $99.99, though the smaller Echo Dot is an inexpensive option at $49.99 and the more robust Echo Plus goes for $149.99.
Google Home, launched in 2016, links users and Google Assistant with the voice command “OK, Google.” A feature of note is its ability to link multiple Google Home hubs together into one network, so you can control your smart home from any room in the house.
Google Home retails for $129, though like Amazon’s Echo, it has a smaller version, Google Home Mini, for $49 and a deluxe model, Google Home Max, for $399.
Apple and Microsoft are the latecomers to the smart-hub game, but the venerable giants’ offerings are no less strong.
Microsoft partnered with speaker giant Harman Kardon to release Invoke, which retails for $199, in late 2017. The speaker leverages Microsoft’s Cortana assistant and is the first smart speaker to support voice calls using Skype.
Finally, Apple’s offering, the HomePod, retailing at $349, came bursting onto the scene in early 2018. It runs off Apple’s Siri assistant.
These are by no means the only options for smart-home hubs. Apple was a force on the scene with the Apple TV ($199.99) long before it announced HomePod; Samsung’s SmartThings hub ($89.99) has entered its second generation, the Wink Hub ($99) can connect to various systems — and there’s plenty more out there.
So which of these fits your home?
Factors to consider
Start with a goal:For instance: I want to manage my music and television with voice control, as well as the lamps in my front room and the lock on my front door. With that, you could get any smart-home hub, as everything you want to do is controlled by accessories.
Balance your goal with your budget: There are smart-home-enabled devices for almost every purpose imaginable: temperature control, locks, cooking, television and stereo, lights, security cameras — you name it. Additionally, “dumb” electronics can be made to work with your smart home by attaching a smart-home-enabled adapter between the cord and the wall. Unless you know what you want, or have an unlimited budget, things can quickly get out of hand.
Multi-room support: Want to control your system from any room in your house? Choose a hub that allows multiple hubs on the network, like Google Home, or has a remote device, like Amazon Echo. Or, if you’re patient, both Apple and Microsoft say they intend to add that function eventually.
Support for your add-ons: If you already have some smart devices, make sure that your hub selection will be compatible with them (read the box first, but call the manufacturer of your device before buying a hub if you’re still not sure). The same applies to devices you buy or plan to buy post-hub: Check the box or the manufacturer to make sure they’re compatible with your hub before you buy them.
Getting set up
Don’t be ashamed to get help setting up and securing your new smart-home hub and devices. Your local computer stores and Best Buy’s GeekSquad can help, and for many devices, Amazon also has set-up services for sale. Additionally, companies like HelloTech can connect you with local professionals that best meet your needs and budget.
Relax. Breathe. You’ll be ready to go faster than Tony Stark can say “J.A.R.V.I.S., play some AC/DC while I work on this Iron Man suit.”
All prices are estimates based on data available in early 2018.