By Dan Moren
September 30, 2016 2:06 PM PT
What I Use: Home-automation hardware
Dumb homes are so 20th century. Over the past year or so, I’ve been experimenting with smart home technology, upgrading bits and bobs here and there to really see what this burgeoning new field of technology is capable of. If you’re also thinking of exploring this area, I thought it might be helpful to run down the hardware that I’ve installed in my home in this quest for automation. (As I live in an apartment, my smart home options are a bit limited to things that I can easily install without my landlord’s help or approval.)
Philips Hue Starter Set It’s a pretty pricey way to start out, and maybe not for the faint of heart, but there’s no better and more fun way to dive in than with the Hue starter set. I installed all three of the included LED bulbs in floor lamps—two in my living room and one in my office. The included hub has to live in my entertainment center, because it requires a hardwired network connection. (Interesting note: the other night my power went out; when it came back on, the bulbs went on full power, which was pretty startling.)
There’s a lot to like about the Hue bulbs. Sure, you can control them remotely or automate them based on time or location (more on which later), but changing the colors? Just plain fun. Perhaps best of all, though, is that Philips’s API for the bulbs has made them widely accessible by a variety of home automation protocols. They work with Siri and HomeKit, the Amazon Echo, IFTTT, Yonomi, and a variety of other apps and services. (If you don’t need colors and/or only need a couple lights, the Hue White Starter Kit is also a solid option.)
Philips Hue White Bulb Two Pack Once you’ve got the hub set up, adding new bulbs is pretty easy. I put in two white bulbs in the bedside lamps in my bedroom; they work with the same hub as the starter set and at $30 for a two-pack, they definitely run cheaper than the color-enabled models.
Philips Hue Tap Switch I’ve extolled the virtues of adding a physical switch to your smart lighting setup, and the $50 Tap Switch is a nice option. It doesn’t require a battery and has four programmable buttons that you can assign to multiple lights in multiple rooms. Set up is pretty easy and it comes with an adhesive wall mount, which still allows you to detach the switch and carry it around with you.
Philips Hue Dimmer Switch If the Tap Switch is overkill or doesn’t quite do it for you, this wireless dimmer switch is also an option. Here’s what I like about it: it’s a little more elegant than the Tap Switch, comes with a mounting plate that’s got magnets on the back as well as other mounting options, lets you easily control the brightness of lights in a room, and can act as a detachable remote control. The one downside? Unlike the Tap Switch, it does need batteries.
Belkin WeMo Insight Switch If you’re not ready to make the jump to an expensive smart lighting setup, the WeMo Insight Switch is a cheap and easy alternative. I replaced my older WeMo switch with this model, which has all the same features including remote access, app integration, and the ability to automate on and off times, as well as an additional feature that lets you monitor how much juice the attached gadget is using and receive notifications based on the power status. It works great with the Echo, but the only downside is that there’s no HomeKit compatibility.
Logitech Harmony Hub Getting a good universal remote for my home entertainment setup was just the start; that’s why I upgraded to the Harmony Hub—well, that and being able to talk to my TV and other devices. Integration with IFTTT opens this device up to the Echo and other services, which is nice, though it’s still pretty limited. There is some Hue integration, but it’s pretty sparse in this model—you can only trigger lights based on what “activity” you’re doing. There’s a newer version that adds specific smart home controls, if that’s what you’re looking for.
Amazon Echo Dot HomeKit and Siri will get you access to a lot of smart home features, but honestly the Echo line opens up a lot more possibilities. With the new Echo Dot down to just $50, there’s really no reason not to pick one up. As long as you’re not playing music directly on the device, it’s totally sufficient for automation style tasks. (And for music playing, you can always connect an external speaker.)
I do have a couple of other devices with some degree of automation, in addition to the ones listed above, such as a Canary security camera (full disclosure: the company was a sponsor on one of my podcasts) and a Sonos Play:1; in both cases, I’m still seeing if there are useful benefits to their integration. But rest assured that I’m still expanding my collection—it’s only a matter of time before my smart home is plotting my demise.
[Dan Moren is the East Coast Bureau Chief of Six Colors. You can find him on Twitter at @dmoren or reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. The latest novel in his Galactic Cold War series of sci-fi space adventures, The Nova Incident, is available now.]