Everything You Need To Build A Smart House On Any Budget

Cupertino, December 20, 2021

Everyone wants a smart home, but what does a smart home even solve in a time where we're all walking around with handheld devices that have more computing power than an entire bank of vintage NASA supercomputers? When your phone can stream media, play games and communicate with others, do you even need a connected, smart house? Even in a time when we’re constantly encouraged to live more mobile, nomadic lifestyles, I'd argue yes. 

Smart devices are handy to have around, letting you keep your phone in your pocket and keeping you focused on the task at hand. They also add extra value as digital picture frames, speakers, intercoms, and more. Plus there's vacuuming robots, smart kitchen devices and more that do more of your work for you so that you can relax ...and play on your phone. 


The Best Smart Home Routers

The first step to a smart home is a network that all your devices can use. There isn't a sub-$100 entry in this category because this is the one area you don't want to skimp. A good, solid and smart wireless router is something you can build on as your smart home grows (both in number of devices and size).  

Entry-Level Option: Google Nest Wifi Mesh Router

It's hard to get mesh wireless routers that are truly smart and self-adjusting that don't cost hundreds of dollars. It can handle up to 200 connected devices and automatically adjusts to changes in network traffic. The access points are also Google Assistant-enabled, so you can easily access Google smart voice assistant features throughout your home. Plus, if you end up needing additional access points, it's simple to add them via the Google Home app.

Mid-Range Option: Plume SuperPod with WiFi 6

Plume provides magical little SuperPods with a subscription service that serves up Wi-Fi that gets faster, safer and more reliable as Plume learns your habits and the needs of your home network. Now with Wi-Fi 6, Plume's SuperPods are exactly the right device for your burgeoning smart home.

They intelligently determine how to best route traffic from every device so they won't interfere with each other. Also, with IoT protection, Plume will monitor and, if necessary, block off traffic to devices that are acting suspiciously and might be infected, allowing you to take action. It costs around $7 per month (with a three-year membership) for a HomePass membership, but it's more than worth it to have Wi-Fi that adapts to your specific home and your specific devices, no matter what changes. 

Luxury Option: Linksys Atlas Max 6E

The Atlas Max 6E is Linksys' fastest, most advanced mesh networking system. It has 4x4 MU MIMO (Mulit-User, Multi-Input, Multi-Output), meaning it has room for several different people, accessing and sending data over your network at once. It's also got a full GB of RAM, a throughput of 8.4 Gbps (more on that in a sec), and a potential coverage range of 9,000 sq. ft.

Most importantly, the Atlas Max 6E has enough power and capacity to handle over 190 devices at the same time. It can deal with multiple AR and VR streams, video calls, media streaming, online gaming, and more without a hiccup. And it can do all this even for devices that are all the way across your home.


The Best Smart Home Hub/Smart Speaker

One of the most popular categories of smart devices on the market are smart speakers and hubs that not only coordinate your smart devices, but provide their own additional benefits. 

Entry-Level Option: Your Phone

Right off the bat, I should point out that if you have a smart phone, you already own a smart hub. The Google Home app and the Home app in Apple iOS both serve as hubs to organize and coordinate your smart devices, not to mention the countless other apps specially made for their respective devices. Chances are if you buy a smart home device, you can manage it right from your phone.

Mid-Range Option: Google Nest Hub 

The current Google Nest Hub is one of my favorite pieces of tech. It's a fantastic digital picture frame most of the day, drawing from my Google Photo images to intelligently create a slideshow of recent and relative moments. But when I need it, Google Assistant is right there, showing recipes, playing music, answering trivia questions, keeping track of my schedule, controlling smart things in my home, and so much more. 

It has an easy-to-clean 7-inch touchscreen. There are three mics so that the Google Assistant is super responsive. There's no camera, just an ambient light sensor and radar sensor to detect motion and gestures. The bass is better than previous generations to make your  music sound great. There's also an ambient temperature sensor. All the sensors are there to enable the Hub's new Sleep Sense feature, giving you a rundown each morning of not just how long you slept, but how well, noting if you were snoring or appeared to have any breathing issues. It's a really nice value add for an already excellent smart hub. 

Luxury Option: Brilliant Smart Switch

If you want to truly make your home smart, then you can wire smart home controls directly into your walls. The Brilliant Smart Switch works with a wide array of smart lights, speakers, thermostats, smart plugs and more, letting you control them all with a tap.

You can also create scenes that control multiple devices, use voice assistants and use the intercom to call from one Brilliant Switch to others in your home. These switches replace your existing dumb wall switches and have the added bonus of letting anyone control your home's smart devices. Cleaner than some plugged-in hub, Brilliant is the cornerstone of the next-level smart home.


The Best Smart Home Security 

Making sure your home is safe is easier than ever in a world of connected cameras and monitoring systems. The tiers work a little differently in this category. Entry in this case is the minimum security option, with subsequent tiers providing additional security. 

Entry-Level Option: August Wi-Fi Smart Lock (4th Gen)

August's fourth generation of its wildly popular smart lock is now Wi-Fi-enabled, and it's easy to see why this is a no-brainer home upgrade for most households. August works with your existing deadbolt, so there's no need to rekey your door or try and match your fixtures. The smart cylinder sits on the inside of your door and replaces the manual deadbolt latch. 

Since it has on-board Wi-Fi, it doesn't require a hub for connectivity—just the August app on your phone (it also works with Apple HomeKit, Google Assistant, and Amazon Alexa). Once installed and configured, August will lock and unlock the door for you as you approach. You can also share temporary access to friends or anyone who needs occasional access to your home. It can also detect if your door is securely closed and alert you if it isn't. 

Mid-Range Option: Ring Video Doorbell Pro 2

Ring is one of the most popular smart doorbell manufacturers for a good reason. The Video Doorbell Pro 2 builds on its already excellent tech and throws in a few new tricks. The Ring doorbell does everything that you'd expect—it alerts you when someone's at the door, let's you see who's there and allows you to talk to them via the two-way speaker. But you also get pre-recorded Alexa greetings, full view HD video (so you can see someone from head-to-toe), and a neat Bird's Eye View feature that let's see exactly where someone is in your yard. 

Luxury Option: Abode Iota

The Abode Iota is a fantastic all-in-one security solution for your smart home, linking with the smart security devices you already have in your home. It works with Philips Hue, Schlage smart locks, Ecobee thermostats, as well as Google Home and Apple HomeKit. You can do all your monitoring from your phone and send alerts to the right authorities (or sign up for professional monitoring). Abode also makes a wide variety of additional sensors and cameras, so it's easy to extend the utility of your system 


The Best Smart Thermostats

Smart thermostats are one of the best investments you can make in your smart home. No matter what you spend, you'll end up making that money back in savings due to less use of your system either through easy scheduling or automatic adjustments. 

Entry-Level Option: Google Nest Thermostat E

The Google Nest E shares the same distinctive round shape and outer ring of the regular Nest, but with a frosted glass face and white polycarbonate ring. If you're looking for a smart thermostat that just blends with your décor, the Nest E is a good place to start. It has the same learning algorithms of more expensive Nest thermostats, but it's more budget friendly because  it lacks the extra wiring to control HVAC accessories and doesn't light up when you walk in the room to show the current temp. 

Even "pared down," the Nest E is a pretty impressive thermostat. It does everything that the regular Nest does (minus the accessory wiring). For nearly $100 less than the regular Nest, you get a device that's smarter than just about any thermostat on the market. It doesn't have a remote sensor in the package, but that makes sense here given its price.

Mid-Level Option: ecobee lite 

If you don't have an HVAC accessory to control and aren't interested in your thermostat also being an Alexa device or streaming speaker, then the ecobee lite should be on your list. The ecobee Lite is just as capable as a smart thermostat as its "Smart" sibling that's next on the list. The only thing it loses is the eco+ mode. But manually setting a schedule is easily done from the device itself or the app.

It works with remote sensors and integrates with the rest of ecobee's ecosystem. It's a great option if you're looking for a smart thermostat, but don't need it to have entertainment or smart assistant functions. At nearly $100 less than the top of the line device, the ecobee Lite is a great bargain. 

Luxury Option: ecobee Smart Thermostat with Voice Control

The ecobee Smart Thermostat with Voice Control is a full-fledged Alexa device (no need for an additional speaker), can stream Spotify, act as a hub for ecobee's smart camera and entry sensors, works with Apple Homekit, and, oh yeah, controls the temperature of your house. You can control the device with your voice and the app is user-friendly, giving you access to all kinds of additional data, like what the temperature is wherever your remote sensors are. 

The ecobee Smart Thermostat is easy to set up and has the wiring necessary for controlling an accessory (like a whole-house humidifier). The touchscreen is simple to use if you prefer getting hands-on. If you set it to eco+ mode, it will learn your schedule and adjust the temperature automatically to conserve power and save you money. You can also set Sleep/Wake/Away target temperatures manually.

The ecobee Smart Thermostat also comes packed with a remote sensor that keeps an eye on where you are in the house, or if you're in the house, so it can ignore temperatures in a room or just not run your system when you're not around. 


The Best Smart Lights And Bulbs

OK, enough of the boring stuff. The real "wow" moment of a smart home is when your lights come on automatically on their own or respond to what's happening around you. 

Entry-Level Option: Nanoleaf Essentials Smart Bulb

I love these little Nanoleaf Essentials Smart Bulbs. They're easy to set up (just screw them into a socket), easy to control from the Nanoleaf app or Apple Homekit, and are Thread devices, so they won't clog your network traffic. They've also got a crazy amount of options available, with millions of colors available, plus screen mirroring and circadian lighting. Plus, they don't need a hub—just an app on your phone. At just $20 a pop, these are the only smart bulbs you need. 

Mid-Level Option: Nanoleaf Essentials Light Strips

LED light strips are all the rage right now and there are a million different versions on the market. They generally fall into two categories—cheap strips that you control with an easily lost remote or super expensive strips that require a separate hardware hub to control. The Nanoleaf Essentials Light Strip does away with all of that. They're easily controlled via an app on your phone or connect directly to your smart home via Thread.

It's extendable as well, with available 40-inch add-on strips. With 16 million colors available, plus screen mirroring and circadian lighting features like the smart bulb, these make smart LED room accents a cinch.

Luxury Option: Nanoleaf Elements

I didn't intend for this to become an all-Nanoleaf list, but the fact of the matter is that they're making some of the most accessible smart lights on the market right now. They're also not afraid to take a chance with something a little different. Nanoleaf Elements look like a geometric wood sculpture when they're off but explode into a brilliant light show when activated. They utilize Nanoleaf's corner control technology that lights the corners independently from the rest of the panel. This makes the built-in effects like Fireplace and Waterfall look organic and mesmerizing. 

Elements are also compatible with the Circadian Lighting feature, glowing throughout the day, adjusting the temperature and intensity of the light based on time of day. You can, of course, do all the usual Nanoleaf things with Elements hexagons as well, such as syncing them to your music or creating your own custom pattern. Each hexagon is touch sensitive so you can activate or turn off individual panels with a tap. You can also discover and download user-made lighting schemes in the connected app. They're the "grown-up" version of the company's original geometric light panels that you never knew you wanted.


Extras

Got the basics? Let's take a look at some of the other devices you'll want to invest in to expand the capabilities of your smart home. 

Smart-ify Anything With A Wemo Mini Smart Plug

If I have one of these around my house, I have half a dozen. Why? Because when you can literally plug anything into your Homekit network, you suddenly find dozens of scenarios where it would be helpful.

Say you want your Christmas tree to turn on and off when you're home or away? Or you want your coffee maker to start every morning at a certain time? Or you want to control a lamp with Siri? Or maybe you want the television to activate on a certain schedule while you're away on vacation? You can do that all with the Wemo Mini Smart Plug. Plus, it doesn't take up much room, so you don't have to sacrifice two outlets just to make one smart.

If I have one of these around my house, I have half a dozen. Why? Because when you can literally plug anything into your Homekit network, you suddenly find dozens of scenarios where it would be helpful.

Say you want your Christmas tree to turn on and off when you're home or away? Or you want your coffee maker to start every morning at a certain time? Or you want to control a lamp with Siri? Or maybe you want the television to activate on a certain schedule while you're away on vacation? You can do that all with the Wemo Mini Smart Plug. Plus, it doesn't take up much room, so you don't have to sacrifice two outlets just to make one smart.

Cook Everything Perfectly And Automatically

With the June Oven in my kitchen, I use my actual oven maybe half a dozen times a year or less. The June app provides hundreds of easy-to-make recipes, letting you quickly whip up anything from gyros to lemon poke cake. But you don't have to use the app—drop just about any protein, veggie, frozen snack, or baked good into the oven and June will recognize it instantly, ask how you want it done, and expertly cook it using algorithms that have been finely tuned by thousands of cook-hours. 

The latest version of the June Oven is even smarter with precision heat control that heats up only the elements above and below the food detected by the onboard camera (say, if you've stuck a frozen waffle in the front instead of the middle). And while that's a neat energy-saving trick, I particularly like that June's been able to use this new precision power to simulate a rotisserie! The June Oven is a device that feels like a budget flex until you see how much you use it every day. Then you start to wonder how you ever cooked without it. 

Rise And Shine With Smart Blinds

"Hey Siri, open the blinds 50%." OK, so it seems like a rather small thing to involve your pocket AI in doing, but by integrating Lutron's Serena smart shades into your smart home, you can do all kinds of extremely useful things. Lower the shades at a certain time of day (when you know the front of your house gets lots of sun), use geofencing to lower and raise your shades when you leave and return to your house, or integrate them into your wake up routine with your smart lights. The Serena vertical blinds will even adjust their angle automatically based on the position of the sun to your house. They come in a myriad of designs, styles and sizes (which you can customize specifically for your home’s dimensions) and can be hardwired or powered by batteries. 

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