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How to turn your home into a smart home

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Tech mavens from Nest, Amazon, and more share their tips and tricks for how to take your home into the 21st century

Mark Wickens

We’re on the cusp of a Cambrian explosion in smart home products. The speedy march of technology is churning out everything from connected bottle openers to automated window blinds, keyless locks, and security cameras that text you when someone breaks into your home.

These technologies can offer unprecedented levels of information and automation. But with so many potential places to start, it’s time to get smart about setting up a smart home of your own.

Curbed checked in with a handful of experts including Nest Platform Head Greg Hu, Canary co-founder & Chief Design Officer Jon Troutman, Amazon Alexa Director Charlie Kindel, IFTTT CEO Linden Tibbets, and LittleBits Director of Product Design Krystal Persaud—all to get their takes on the best smart home products and how to transform your dumb home into a smart one.

Start with a need, not just a gee-whiz product

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"Studies show that the most-adopted smart home products are the ones that solve real needs," explained Canary’s Jon Troutman. "A lot of people think of ‘smart home’ as synonymous with home automation—lights that turn on at certain hours, window shades programmed to go up or down. But those sort of products aren’t necessarily the most helpful or meaningful."

Getting a tweeting toaster might seem like a fun foray into smart home life, but the shine of novelty products will soon wear off. Instead, identify something that’s going to add value to your home right away.

Linden Tibbets of IFTTT echoed a similar sentiment: "The best starting place is to really think of a problem you want to solve. I have a door out on the street, but it’s down three flights of stairs, and I want to be able to see who’s down there. So having a connected doorbell or connected camera is a really useful thing."

Consider security, comfort, and convenience

It isn’t always easy to see past your dumb home’s status quo into the possibilities of available technology, but thinking about your needs in terms of home tech’s three main categories is a good starting point. Almost all of the myriad products on the market will fit into one of these buckets.

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Security is fast becoming the most popular smart home niche in part because its value is pretty obvious. "Everyone wants to feel more secure," says Tibbets.

Connected security cameras like Canary, the Nest Cam, and Nest Outdoor can send custom alerts when they see people in or around your space. You can also use IFTTT to create cool integrations like turning on a porch light when a camera detects someone in your backyard at night. Also in the security space are connected products like this texting smoke detector and connected baby monitor.

Comfort is another big realm in the smart home space, with products ranging from smart thermostats like the Nest and Ecobee, to automated window blinds like the FlipFlic. Products like these can be programmed to maintain a stable temperature in your home while cutting energy costs by optimizing controls to your habits.

On the information side of the comfort space are products like the Awair air monitor and Sleep Number C2 bed—devices that track comfort-related data and send alerts to help users breathe and sleep better.

"The best smart home starting place is to really think of a problem you want to solve."

Then there are products of sheer convenience. Troutman told us that Sonos speakers are "easy to use and the best way to get music over wifi." Several of our experts mentioned that connected light bulbs like the Philips Hue line or Lifx are a great place for newbie smart-homers to start. The technology lets you control lighting color and intensity from your smartphone, and trying out a single bulb is a relatively small and simple investment. Keyless locks and connected doorbells by companies like August and Ring are also extremely convenient, and offer a practical value.

But the world of smart home tech is wide and occasionally wild. If you’re in a more whimsical mood, LittleBits’s Persaud would have you consider a smart home’s potential for art and play, admitting, "While it might be more of an art project than a smart home product, I love the Cloud by Richard Clarkson"—it’s described as an "an interactive lamp and speaker system designed to mimic a thundercloud."

Go ahead and get an Amazon Echo

When asked for their favorite smart home products, every tech maven we spoke with named the Amazon Echo and its Alexa voice control. The device lets users ask for information, music, and news, as well as control connected devices like a Nest thermostat or Philips Hue bulb all through voice activation.

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"I’m sort of insane and have over 200 devices in my home controllable by Alexa," admitted Amazon’s Kindel. "For a long time, having a smart home meant you had to unlock your phone, open up an app, and press a button within that app just to turn on a light—at that point you might as well just have gotten off the couch and turned off the light yourself. With the introduction of Alexa and voice into the smart home, that’s changed. Now you can just ask Alexa to turn on your lights, turn down your thermostat, lock your door, or turn on your sprinklers."

While the device’s capabilities are still maturing, Nest’s Hu echoed several of the others when he said, "Voice is the next big interface, and I think Amazon Echo is a fantastic product." But if you’re not a huge fan of Amazon, Google’s Home is a voice-activated alternative, and Apple is also working to build a competitive product.

Don’t be afraid to experiment with a little DIY

"I think smart homes can be overwhelming for people at first, but they don't have to be," says Persaud. "Our goal is to make it as easy as possible for anyone—even people with no technical background—to invent solutions for their homes without needing an expert installer."

LittleBits is one of several companies now offering smart home starter kits, and the simple DIY automations—like lowering window blinds at a certain time of day or controlling your lamps with your smartphone—can be a great way to dive in if you’re more the hands-on type.

If all else fails, just wait

"Smart home tech is one of those things that’s going to be inevitable," says Tibbets. "More and more things in the home will just have connection built in."

In just a few years, any product we buy will automatically and seamlessly connect with the cloud and your other devices. It’ll be standard for your dishwasher to email you when it’s done cleaning, or for your apartment’s climate controls to automatically adjust when you’re on vacation.

So if your first couple of smart home products don’t knock your socks off, it’s only a matter of time before dumb homes—just like the flip phones of yore—become a thing of the past.


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