Home automation can enable you to control your heat, lighting, sound system, thermostat, and alarms, all from your Wi-Fi router. There’s even the ability to control these smart devices remotely, allowing you to get the heating on before you get home for instance. Control can come from your smart phone or a central device.
Here, we review some of the latest and most cost effective options on the market, and analyse the benefits for your home.
Amazon Echo and Dot
Amazon has become a major force in home automation solutions. It introduced the voice-controlled Dot and Echo to our homes in late 2016, and stole a jump on companies like Apple and Google.
Amazon has sold over five million of these devices, with its Dot (£50) outselling its Echo at £150. One of the key differences is that Echo has a quality built-in audio speaker and Dot doesn’t.
Effectively these devices provide an affordable ‘central core’. They don’t do anything a smart phone won’t, but they’re mains powered and more convenient for everyday use.
Both Amazon Dot and Echo are triggered by the keyword ‘Alexa’ and function at two different levels. At base level, they:
- operate as a very clever alarm clock — you can set an alarm using your voice.
- tell you the weather, dollar rate, what day a certain date will fall on, convert pounds to kilograms and many other things
- play music, using a program such as Spotify
- carry a shopping list and reminders. This makes the internet a lot more accessible — you can find information without picking up your phone or a computer. If you have an Android phone it will post ‘to-do’ lists and appointments straight to your phone, although it works slightly less effectively with iPhones.
Interfacing with Smart Heating, Lighting and Audio
At the next level it acts as a hub for the other devices in your home automation system. These include Hue, Sonos, Nest and Belkin, among others. They now interface conveniently and you can group activities together.
Once set up, on a cold morning you can be woken up by Dot, which could have previously heated your house via Nest, switched on all the lights downstairs and Radio 4 could be playing softly as you descend the staircase. It can then switch the coffee percolator on via a Belkin WeMo plug. What’s more, if you hear a suspicious noise downstairs, you can turn on the lights and play loud music to scare any potential intruder away. And thanks to the Nest camera, you could have a video record of the event.
Alexa has two extra dimensions. One is a group of skills, like an app, that can help find your phone or control your television. The other aspect is ‘If This Then That’ or ITTT. You can make a very simple three or four command line programme to lock all your doors, for example.
You also need to learn from each other. Say “Alexa”, leave a pause and then state the command clearly.
You could buy three Dots for the same price as an Echo and place them around the house. It’s a good idea to put them near door openings so they can be used in multiple rooms. (Plea to Amazon — please make a wall-mounted device for this purpose.)
Setting up the system is not foolproof and it may take several goes to make it work. There is also a tendency for it to stop working when you add a new ‘gadget’. With Sonos speakers, for instance, you have to plug them into your router to initialise them.
Hue lighting needs a small extra router box that plugs into your home router. You then need to add each new light into the Hue system and then separately into the Alexa system. You often need to type in the serial number of each lightbulb and it’s not printed on the box. It is also tiny and you find yourself trying to read it in the dark. Amazon units don’t have memory. So your device may not recognise the command to turn off a light it switched on seconds before.
£50 Dot, Echo £150
Hue lighting works well but takes a little getting used to. The system arrives as a base kit with a hub and three bulbs. You can then replace your other ‘normal’ light bulbs. The bulbs are driven by a small white box that is connected to your router. They can be controlled individually or in ‘moods’. The good news here is that in the absence of an internet signal, they still work via a standard switch.
There is a certain smugness in owning a Hue lighting system because not only can you turn on every light in your house via Alexa, the bulbs are only nine watts, so they also offer energy savings.
Nest offer a few products that are easy to integrate. The most popular is the thermostat, that you can program to switch your heating on and it can even learn when you’re not home and lower the temperature. Of course you can set the temperature via Alexa or your iPhone, but the real brilliance of the Nest range is the smoke alarm that communicates with the thermostat.
At night they illuminate when you pass them. Even better, they warn you before they trigger the loud alarm. But most importantly they turn off the boiler if they detect carbon monoxide, so they even help you sleep better.
Even in the detail their design brilliance shines through. In a ‘standard’ smoke alarm, four screws attach it to the ceiling. In the Nest there is just one.
£250 (under £90 for smoke alarm)
Sonos makes speakers that stream music so it plays over your internet. Basically you can play something in the living room and sing along in the kitchen or bedroom at the same time using slave speakers. The sound quality is awesome. Sonos 3 has a mini jack input and this is crucial to make it all work together. Currently, if you want to use voice activation via Alexa, it needs to be plugged into your Echo or Dot.
Initially the software was frustrating. You had to drag all of your music into its menu and play it from there. At the end of 2016, Sonos released a software patch that now enables you to play straight from music services such as Spotify. Another future release will allow Sonos to be controlled directly from Alexa by streaming.
Oddly, just as Sonos is due to step into the light, there are rumours about how well the company is doing. They may find themselves in competition with the speakers included in the Amazon Echo.
Sonos 3 costs around £300 and Sonos 1 costs around £110 each.