We have all been confined to the surroundings of our own home in 2020, and whilst the first lockdown during Summer gave us the freedom of our gardens and the great outdoors, the second lockdown phase in Winter has felt much more restrictive to us.
In Summer we were renovating gardens, building outside bars, and buying hot tubs. Now, everything has come indoors as the cold days and long nights set in, we are looking to fix and improve things under the luxury of a roof. For many, it has been the perfect time to introduce technology into the home for the first time, for others (like myself) it’s just another excuse to extend my Smart Home by adding more devices and more apps to control them.
How to Create a Smart Home
Over the next few weeks we will be delving into How to Create a Smart Home – looking at some of these devices in greater detail, including the benefits, the costs, how to install them and how to control them.
To begin with, we wanted to highlight the top 5 devices, at least the top 5 devices I use. Yes some may be gimmicky and probably aren’t necessary, whilst others serve a critical purpose in and around the home.
Alexa Dot, Echo and Auto by Amazon
Everyone has an Alexa these days but do you just have the one? Perhaps it’s a dot? Well in our house we have an Alexa Dot outside, one in the front room, one in the bedroom and an Echo Show 8 in the kitchen, and my Wife and I also have the Alexa Auto in our cars.
We start with Alexa in our list as you will soon find that these devices are the heartbeat of our home, with every device underneath utilising Alexa in some way or another.
All of the Smart devices in our home can be controlled by Alexa, and we create groups to assign them to (we will cover this in an upcoming article) and Skills to connect Alexa to the device that needs controlling. Groups will allow you to play music in a specific section of the house (so if you are in the hot tub you can choose the outside group, or if you are in the kitchen/living room you can choose the downstairs group).
The beauty of this is that you can also control other devices from Alexa wherever you are in the house, so whether a light needs turning off, the heating needs turning up or if there is someone at the door, you can set up your Alexa’s so you can action or hear what you need to, when you need to.
Just recently I have also invested in Alexa for the Car, a small device that allows my car to connect to Alexa and use as I would in the house. So if I have forgotten to turn the TV off, or set the heating for when I return home, or if I want to play Amazon Music, call one of my contacts, turn a light off, listen to an audiobook or even order an item that I have left in my Amazon basket – I can do these hands-free from the car.
Blink by Amazon
There are plenty of camera choices out there today that connect to your router but one that I really like is the Amazon Blink. These are great if you can get them on the Amazon Black Friday deal as you can make a substantial saving as Amazon heavily discounts their own products during November and December.
The Blink is a mini-full HD camera range with outdoor and indoor types. We actually have both indoor and outdoor cameras, and the one outside is wirelessly fixed to the the front wall overlooking our drive. The device is powered by 2 AA batteries and depending on how you set it up (which we will cover in a later article), depends on how long the batteries will last. Amazon says you can get up to 12 months but this is probably on limited settings, I tend to get 3-4 months.The device works by connecting to its own hub, that you then connect to your router. All recordings are saved to the cloud and you can control the device settings, view recordings or view live streams directly from an app on your phone. You can also chose to get notifications pop-up on your mobile if motion has been detected on your drive.
Hive by BT
A few years ago we decided to invest in Hive, which is a wireless smart hub that controls the boiler and central heating system. This device is one of the more complex on our list to install as it’s not just plug-and-play. It may result in you needing a professional to come and fit it, but either way when you purchase an official Hive you will get the option of an engender to come and install it.
Once done, you won’t look back.
The Hive Hub connects to your boiler and you also get a very fancy, futuristic looking thermostat to attach to the wall, along with an app to control all aspects of the heating system from your mobile, whether you want to set a schedule of when the heating comes on or when you want it turning off.
In our home I tend to use Alexa most of the time, by installing the Hive Skill and controlling the temperature wherever I am in the house. Whether it’s 6am in the morning, whilst I am still in bed and I want to turn the heating to 20 degrees by asking Alexa in the bedroom, or whether I want to set the heating to turn off at 11pm at night while I am in the living room, the opportunity is there.
The Ring doorbell has been an incredible addition to our home security. As mentioned above we have a camera outside that covers the front of the house and drive. Our main door is on the side of the house so the Ring doorbell covers this area but also allows us to see who is at the door and communicate with them from an app on the phone.
Again, this device connects to the home’s internet, and the app on your phone will allow you to see previous recordings when the doorbell has been triggered or view live streams where you can interact with whoever is outside. The device is charged up as you would charge a phone, using a plug and mini USB lead, and the charge usually lasts a good few months depending on usage. Settings are all controlled within the app.
Another great thing with the Ring is that we have set it up to alert when there is either motion or if someone has pressed the doorbell. So as mentioned above we have set Ring up as a Skill to notify the Alexa ‘Downstairs’ group. We also have an Alexa Echo Show in the kitchen which shows a video feed as soon as the doorbell has been pressed.
I even have the Ring app on my Galaxy SmartWatch which alerts me when I am out and about that someone is at my door (when my mobile is perhaps on silent or tucked away in a coat pocket).
>> Keep an eye out for our Ring Doorbell v3 and Security Light review currently being written by Rob Gordon
Smart Plugs and Lights
Again, these devices can be controlled by Alexa, by installing the correct Skill in the Alexa app. So if you have a TV that isn’t a Smart TV you can still set it up so that it can be turned on or off by using Alexa, the Alexa App, and a Smart Plug (again, we will show you how in an upcoming article).
With WiFi lights, they work by buying a Smart bulb, and these come in different variations. In our house we have a lamp in the front room that has a colour changing bulb (which the kids love). The bulb connects to an App on your phone that is then connected to the home’s internet wirelessly. Again, you can also add a Skill to Alexa which will then allow you to command the bulb by voice, and you can change everything from the colour, the brightness, to the schedule of when you want it turning on or off each day.
Ok, so this is more gimmicky than anything and I guess it’s a lazy device as you’ve got to top the kettle up before you boil it most of the time. But if you are like me and are home working in an office upstairs and fancy a coffee but are caught up in the middle of something, you can either get Alexa or the app to boil the kettle for you without having to go down, wait and then come back up. You can also see on the app what the current water levels are like, and you can even set it to boil to a certain temperature, so as a mother or father of a new-born it can make those night time feeds a bit more manageable.
Ok so it saves a few minutes of time I guess, but this device is perhaps more for show than anything else.
How to Create a Smart Home Summary
There we have it, some of the best devices to help create a Smart Home. Join us in our next instalment, next week, when we look at how you can setup Hive and control it from your phone whether you are at home, in the car, away on holiday or at work.
Craig Timmins is a blogger who enjoys to cover topics that encompass all things that are iOS and Android related. He can be found on Twitter most days, so if you have any questions – ask away!