Smart Home Toolkit: How Connected Devices Can Make Life Easier Around the House
Put speakers, video doorbells, vacuums, TVs, and even sprinklers to work to better organize, control, and protect your home
Our homes have been pulling double—or triple or quadruple—duty for almost a year, serving also as schools, offices, gyms, and more. But your home can work even harder: With connected devices you can automate tasks and chores so that your home actually anticipates your needs.
While smart home products can seem intimidating, they’re becoming more mainstream, easier to use, and more prolific. “Over the past few years, we’ve been evaluating more smart devices, from speakers to video doorbells to water leak detectors,” says Maria Rerecich, CR’s senior director of product testing. And prices are falling, too—Philips now sells a $13 color-changing smart bulb, and Wyze has introduced a $30 video doorbell.
Maybe you’re getting your feet wet with a basic smart speaker or looking to integrate a handful of devices. We have plenty of tips that will make it easier. To help you get started, we've organized all of our tips into four sections. If you're completely new to the smart home, we recommend you go through them in order. But if you're looking for more specific advice, feel free to jump ahead using these links:
Start With a Smart Speaker
A connected speaker can take on multiple roles in your house. Speakers from Amazon or Google can add new abilities through voice apps known as “skills” or “actions,” while Apple smart speakers work with select apps from your iPhone or iPad. Here’s a small sampling of what you can do with a single speaker or a few working together. Some tasks require minimal setup in the speaker’s app, and then they can be activated by a voice command.
• Listen to the morning news briefing from outlets such as NPR or USA Today while you make breakfast.
• With multiple smart speakers, you can ask the assistant to play a message throughout your home telling your kids the school bus is arriving soon—or that it’s time to log on for distance learning.
• Get the day’s weather forecast before you head out the door. And if you designate your office location, you can ask Alexa or Google “What’s my commute look like?” to check the traffic.
• Ask your speaker for a rundown of your calendar that day, whether you’re attending meetings in person or via Zoom.
• When whipping up an elaborate meal or cooking separate dishes for picky eaters, set multiple kitchen timers with commands like “Set a pasta timer for 10 minutes; set a broccoli timer for 7 minutes.”
• When you run out of a staple during meal prep, tell your smart speaker “Add [blank] to the shopping list.”
• Ended up burning dinner? Ask your speaker to call your favorite restaurant so you can order delivery.
Keep Tabs on an Elderly Family Member
If you have a loved one who lives alone, Amazon’s free elder care feature for its smart speakers, called Alexa Care Hub, monitors their interactions with the speaker and sends you alerts if it notices no activity for an extended period. The feature allows you to call or video chat with your family member to check in, or they can ask Alexa to call you for help, if needed. It could be a light-touch way to keep an eye on a relative who wants to maintain a degree of independence, says Justin Brookman, director of privacy and technology policy for CR. But “as with any surveillance technology, I can see potential for abuse, too," he says. "People might not understand they’re being tracked, especially if they’re not the ones setting up Alexa.”
Use It as a Security System
Thanks to its microphones and sound-detection algorithms, your Amazon or Google speaker can stand in for a basic security system. Amazon’s free service, called Alexa Guard, can alert you when you’re away if your speaker detects the sound of smoke/CO alarms or glass breaking. (Or pay $5/month for an upgraded version.) With Google’s Nest Aware service, $6/month, your speaker will alert you if it hears a smoke alarm or glass breaking. You’ll also be able to call your home’s 911 dispatcher from the Google Home app (handy if you’re out), though not from the speaker itself. Enable these services from the Alexa and Google Home apps.
Add More Devices—and Control Them With Simple Voice Commands
Your smart speaker can interact with many other devices. With each new addition, you’ll get increased functionality. The setup doesn’t need to be complex.
To connect devices to your speaker, you’ll have to add them in your assistant’s app (the Alexa app, Google Home app, or Apple Home app). Not as many products work with Apple HomeKit/Siri compared with Alexa and Google. Some products use the separate Apple Shortcuts or Google Assistant apps to connect to their assistants. To get you started, here are six devices that can work with your speaker.
• Smart bulb/plug/switch: Give the lights a name in your assistant’s app, then say, for instance, “Turn on the hall lights.”
Automate Even More by Syncing Multiple Devices
To make your smart home truly run itself, you can create routines via your speaker’s digital assistant. These simple programs are usually made up of “if, then” lists that you create (as in, IF you arm the security system, THEN turn off the lights). Once they’re set up, certain conditions will automatically trigger the routines, or you can activate them with voice commands you choose. Both Amazon and Google use the term “routines,” but Apple differentiates between scenes and automations. Scenes are activated with your voice (or a button press in the Home app); automations run on their own.
Control a Few Devices With a Single Voice Command
Use the Amazon Alexa, Google Home, Apple Home, and/or Apple Shortcuts apps to create your own routines. The interface in each app is slightly different, but the process is essentially the same. You type in the command you want to give (such as “Alexa, good night”), then choose the devices you want to automate, along with the changes you want those devices to make. For example, you might select a smart plug (connected to a fan) and have it turn on. When you’re done crafting your routine, enable it so that you can use the voice command. Here are a few basics to get you started:
• “Good night”—lock the door, turn off the lights, and fire up the robotic vacuum to clean while you sleep.
• “Good morning”—turn on the lights, turn up the heat, and play the morning news.
• “It’s movie night”—dim the lights, turn on the TV, and open Netflix.
Let Your Smart Home Anticipate Certain Needs
The following routines happen automatically when certain conditions are met, but they’re possible only with Alexa and Siri. Outside of voice commands, the Google Assistant can trigger routines only at a specific time or when you leave/arrive home. Google users aren’t completely out of luck, though. There are third-party services, such as IFTTT or Yonomi, that can be used to automate all sorts of devices. (Yonomi is free; IFTTT charges a monthly fee of $4 after three free custom automations.)
• When your security camera detects motion outside at night, have your speaker’s digital assistant automatically turn on or brighten outdoor lights. This is a great way to deter potential intruders without blaring an alarm. Simply create a routine that activates when your outdoor security camera detects motion at night and have it turn on outdoor lights (or set their brightness to 100 percent). Here, a superb security camera that can do just that:
When One Device Is All You Need
Nope, you don’t have to invest in multiple products (or even a smart speaker) if you’d like to set up some targeted automations. A stand-alone device—one that’s designed to handle a single chore or task—can be surprisingly useful, with no other hardware required.
Keep an Eye on Your Home With Smartphone Alerts
Just about every connected device is capable of sending simple push notifications. Here are a few ways you can deputize these devices to keep watch over your house and your family, 24/7:
• Know exactly when the kids get home from school with an alert from a smart lock, a video doorbell, a security camera, or a security system.
• Install a security system door sensor on any door and get a ping when somebody opens it. Examples: on the patio door to guard against an adventurous child slipping outside, on the cabinet door where you keep the liquor, or on the kitchen cupboard where you keep cookies hidden from the kids.
• End your “Did I lock the door?” anxiety with a smart lock that has a door open/close sensor, such as the August WiFi Smart Lock (see below). If you’re out, you can double-check that the front door is closed and locked.
Make Your Home More Convenient and Efficient
Here are some stand-alone products that can do just that:
• Stop water leaks before they cause major damage with a water leak detector that has a shut-off valve. See one of the best models from our tests, below:
• Use a smart bulb or switch that tracks local sunset times to automatically illuminate your porch lights precisely at sunset all year long. These are available from brands such as Philips Lighting and Wemo.
• Let in guests or contractors when you’re not home with a WiFi-enabled smart lock. You can unlock the door from the lock’s app or give the visitor a PIN code that works for a set amount of time or only at certain times of day.