Everything seems to be ‘smart’ these days, from cars to coffee makers — but what vision does ‘smart home’ conjure in your mind?
- Is it one of a home cinema and a multi-room audio/visual experience?
- Is it of a house that responds as you wake with lighting, automatic blinds and smart heating?
- Perhaps it’s one that you feel secure in?
- Is it one you can control with your voice, phone, or both?
The truth is, it can be all of this.
The last couple of decades have seen huge changes in the smart home market, the range of options, the cost, the main players and ease of installation. But certainly, one thing hasn’t changed — it can be confusing.
If you’re aiming for a fully integrated smart home, your first port of call should be a smart home installer. Cedia is an international trade organisation that represents the smart home industry and, while it’s not a regulatory body (such as the Gas Safe Register), it offers training, education and certification, and maintains a list of registered companies you should strongly consider.
You’ll find installers that specialise in specific areas such as lighting or home audio/video (AV) and ones that can handle all aspects. Besides their experience, they’ll be able to tailor a bespoke, all-in-one home solution that delivers exactly what you require, packaged into a seamless control system.
From its 110-inch screen and Sony 4K projector to the Dolby Atmos surround sound, effective custom lighting and even the red walls with plush furnishings, this home cinema in Wandsworth certainly looks the part. Created by Philharmonic AV Ltd on a budget of £40,000, the homeowners can enjoy movie nights in style
A professional installer will also be able to leverage commercial solutions that are only really available to the trade — systems such as:
- Control4 for home-wide smart control
- Lutron for lighting installations
- Kaleidescape for AV
- KNX (an industry home-control standard) for modular wiring, signal and control
These standards and products enable a deeper level of integration, slickness in their execution and ultimately, a better end experience than the consumer-grade products on the market. The obvious downside is the extra cost.
It’s hard to pin a budget on a professional installation as there’s so many options, and even a basic home wired network design and install could cost upwards of £3,000. You’ll find a similar cost for a basic AV installation and for a multi-room audio solution. On a pragmatic level, there’s little use considering a home-wide smart lighting install that costs much less than £10,000.
At the entry level for home heating control is the Nest Learning Thermostat; it will easily wire into your combi boiler (although you can buy them just for hot water boilers) combining the bundled Heat Link wireless controller and the Nest thermostat.
The Nest Learning Thermostat is an entry-level solution that can be controlled from your smartphone (costing £280 including installation or £220 without)
- Can only handle a single heating zone (additional units are required for more than one zone
- Entire system can be controlled via most smartphones (Apple Android) using the Nest app
- Can be linked to other smart-home hubs (Amazon Alexa and Google Home)
Spun out of a trial in the UK by British Gas back in 2011, Hive is owned by Centrica and has grown to encompass more than just heating control.
The core package is a Nest-style smart thermostat, boiler controller with the addition of a Hive smart-hub bridge, which costs £249. It’s the inclusion of the Hive hub that expands its capabilities to cover individual lamp (bulb) control, basic security camera and sensor monitoring, plus plug-in socket control that extends its usefulness.
If you want integrated multi-zone heating control, including individual radiators, take a look at the Honeywell Evohome solution (from £229).
- Can support up to 12 individual zones, including radiators and underfloor heating
- Weaves in a fuller home security offering with panic buttons, contactless door controls, sensors and camera options with GPRS mobile back up – all controlled via an app
Wired vs Wireless
The solid core of a smart home is its network infrastructure. While wireless will be a key component, you can’t beat a wired infrastructure.
If you fancy a smart home lighting system at consumer level, pickings are slim.
The Philips Hue System (hub, £50, and Hue lamps, £25-50)
As with all these consumer units it requires a dedicated proprietary ‘hub’ that bridges the wireless control of the individual lights to your smartphone or tablet.
Using an industry standard called ‘ZigBee’, the £50 Philips hub promises interoperability with other compatible ZigBee lights — and at £25 to £50 for the individual Hue lamps (i.e. bulbs), you’d hope so.
IKEA has neatly sidestepped the whole issue of ‘smart’ lighting with its range of TRÅDFRI wireless (Philips Hue and ZigBee compatible) lighting solutions.
It doesn’t require a smartphone or the like to work, just neat wireless remotes (£8 and £15) and motion sensor (£16) controls. The really smart part is: add in its Smart Gateway (£25) and suddenly the system can be entirely smartphone, Alexa or Apple homekit controlled too, meaning you can control all your TRÅDFRI-compatible bulbs anywhere in the home. At this level, it’s a good, affordable solution.
A more complete consumer solution would be LightwaveRF.
This provides smartphone-controlled solutions for:
- light switch dimmerssmart heating
- power sockets
- radiator valves
- boiler controls
It ties in directly to Amazon, Google and Apple kits plus additional services such as If This Then That (which opens up basic programming logic for the system).
Available through ScrewFix and other suppliers, it utilises standard wiring and plumbing, and is operated by its own wireless hub and smartphone app. A single gang wireless dimmer starts at £33 and a 2-gang wall socket starts at £40.
Sonos was the original company to release a practical multi-room audio solution back in 2002 and has since iterated and improved its offering to a point where its consumer-level speakers remain among the best available on the market. What’s more, Sonos is efficient enough to be able to support up to 32 devices.
The beauty of Sonos is its flexibility. Utilising your Android or Apple phone, you’ll use the app to connect speakers to your network. You can then assign speakers to rooms, configure them to be controlled via TV remotes, and assign your favourite streaming services, including:
- Apple Music
- Amazon Music
- Google Play Music
- Soundcloud — the list goes on
It’ll also stream music from a local server or laptop.
Sonos offers a range of audio products which allow homeowners to stream music via WiFi (Sonos speakers can be hard-wired too), and build a network of speakers throughout the house and garden
There’s a range of speaker options from Sonos, too:
The core Play:1/3/5 speakers (£149, £249, £499 respectively) are well complemented by the range of dedicated TV audio options available, which include: Playbar (£699) and Playbase (£699) which both offer a two-in-one experience of cinema and sound for your TV with the ability to also stream music; and Sub (£699) that connects to any of your Sonos speakers for a deeper bass without the vibration.
It has most recently added Amazon Alexa support with the Sonos One speaker (£199), offering voice control and the ability to manage other smart devices.
The Sonos Connect bundle (£349), meanwhile, attaches to your HiFi and allows you to stream your LPs and CDs to Sonos speakers throughout the house.
Sonos doesn’t have the market to itself however, and there are certainly higher-end options but it’s at the lower end where all the interest seems to be.
All offer multi-room audio with ‘smart’ extras bolted on. Whether any of those are better for pure audio than the Sonos is highly debatable.
The Google Home system also offers multi-room audio and costs £130
There is a lot of snobbery regarding home entertainment installations, but TV technology has advanced so much that any recent HD TV is going to deliver the smart, connected experience most people will be happy with.
Devices like the Google Chromecast or its latest 4K (referring to a high-definition resolution of 4,000 pixels) Chromecast Ultra are tiny wireless devices that plug directly into any empty HDMI port in the back of your HD TV, instantly transforming it into a Smart TV.
Controlled with your Android or Apple phone or tablet, it can also beam your photos, music and streaming services – think Netflix, Amazon, BBC iPlayer, YouTube, NowTV et al – to your TV.
Google Chromecast (£30, or £70 for the 4K Ultra)
Google isn’t the only streaming show in town. If you like your Apple devices, the versatile Apple TV 4K box (£199 for the 64GB model) delivers the same functions and ties into your existing iTunes account.
Meanwhile, Amazon offers its Fire Stick, which ties into Amazon Prime Video and Music accounts.
The Amazon Fire Stick (£40, or £70 for Fire TV 4K Ultra) can be plugged directly into your TV for streaming
For a subscription service, Sky TV with Q Multiscreen is an ‘out of the box’ solution that supports 4K Ultra HD on the main Q box, and Full HD on up to four additional Q mini boxes, all around your home. The main Q box offers all of your traditional Sky programming, the ability to pause and record programmes plus the ability to pause and carry on watching in another room.
If you are after a subscription service, Sky TV’s Q box offers a multi-room solution
The wireless Q mini boxes can also work independently, so everyone at home can enjoy their own programmes or pick up recordings from the main Q box. You’ll need a base Sky subscription and an additional £12 per month Q subscription.
Sky supplies the Sky Q box and a Q mini, with additional Q mini boxes costing £99.
If you like to have more control over what you watch and listen to, then you’ll need a system to store your content on. The installer’s choice is typically a Kaleidescape media streaming solution (from around £5,400) that can store and stream hundreds of DVD or blu-rays.
A Smart Alternative
A smart alternative is to choose a NAS (Network Attached Storage) box that’s capable of local 4K HDMI playback and network streaming. One option would be the QNAP TS-453mini with 16TB of storage, costing around £985.
Utilising the supplied Plex Media Centre software, it can stream locally stored films, TV, music and photos to any device on your network (or over the internet) that supports the Plex app, including most smart TVs, Android, Apple iOS devices and the Google Chromecast.
About the Author
Neil is a technology expert and editor of Linux Format magazine