By Emily Peck
An automated home sounds like the stuff of the future. Or of the past, in a Jetsons kind of way. But guess what? Automated homes are not in our future - they're here now, a compilation of the latest smart gadgets to make life easier, efficient and more fun. Clever tech at home that can be controlled via your voice, motion or wirelessly using your phone, tablet or smart speaker helps to channel a simply stylish and comfortable home, after all.
Once you go smart, the choice is endless. And there are a lot of gadgets out there that are promising to improve our daily home lives.
With the right system and gadgets in place, you can check in on your home while you’re out, which can give you peace of mind. You can also use smart controls to set 'scenes' and schedules - so the lights come on in certain 'zones' of the house, or your security alarm switches on at a certain time of day, for example.
With smart gadget control you can also help improve your home’s efficiency. Being able to access your heating or lighting remotely will come in handy if you’ve left the house and forgotten to turn them off, for example. You can also install sensors in your home so that the light turns on when you walk into a room, and turns off again as you leave - spin on your heels like model Jordan Barrett on the runway just for good measure.
Choose your system carefully
‘You can buy a host of cool smart gadgets that may well enhance your life, but if you want a seamless joined up experience that’s easy and reliable that’s when you need to call in a professional,’ says Owen Maddock, home technology specialist at cinemaworks. ‘Bear in mind that if you’re buying off-the-shelf gadgets, many products are in the early adopter phase so they may not be glitch free. The well-established companies have been doing it longer, however and are all about reliability.’
Whether you choose a bespoke home-automated solution or want to set up a range of smart DIY-gadgets in your pad yourself, there are a few things to consider here.
Automated home - the things to consider when choosing to go smart
What can I automate in a smart home?
The latest smart gadgets can enhance your morning routine before you’ve jumped out of bed in the morning. Think window blinds from Swift Direct Blinds (above) that automatically rise to provide natural light so you wake up gently, while certain lights turn on in 'zones' around the house. The shower can be turned on via your smartphone while you're still in bed so its warm when you enter the bathroom, while your smart coffee machine will have an espresso that's ready and waiting for you as you enter the kitchen.
Ask your smart speaker to check the weather while you’re getting ready and you'll know whether to get your raincoat or dress for Club Tropicana that day. Then when you're off out you could say 'Alexa, my going out routine”, and the blinds and curtains will close, plugs switch off and the garage doors and gates open. Sounds nifty, huh.
Many of the latest smart-home gadgets can be used as stand-alone products and connect to a specific app on your smartphone, for example. But for a truly automated system, where the gadgets work in harmony with each other, you'll need a central hub, speaker or app that you can use to control the features - such as lighting, music, security and heating. You can even set garden jobs such as getting the sprinklers to come on at a certain time of day provided you have the reach.
Should I choose bespoke or off-the-shelf solutions?
If you're relatively technically minded Apple HomeKit, Amazon Alexa, Google Home and Samsung SmartThings work well. They let you control more than one gadget from a central hub or app on your smartphone or tablet, or by using your voice.
'These systems are designed to make it easy for you to create a smart home network so that your gadgets are connected and can be activated at the same time if desired,' says home-technology specialist James Ratcliffe from Homeplay.tv. ‘It also streamlines the tech so you only need to use one app - as opposed to having lots of gadgets running off different apps – and you can use your voice to give commands. You can also add to it as you go.’
‘When you go to buy a smart gadget for your home - such as a coffee machine or a robotic vacuum, you'll need to check whether it's compatible with the system you choose,’ continues James. ‘Maybe you're a hardcore Apple fan all the way so nothing more than Apple Homekit will do, or perhaps Google Home is more your thing.’
But while off-the-shelf systems will work well in a small home, Ratcliffe warns that they won't always work so well in a larger home that is 5,000 square foot up, for example. ‘This is because the nature of wireless smart gadgets can sometimes struggle to work reliably - particularly given some construction methods, which are not at all ‘wireless friendly’.
'For larger homes and for people who aren't keen on managing their own technology, a curated, managed system like Control4 and Lutron is a better choice as it means you can just enjoy owning the system without having to worry about the installation and configuration, the software updates and the inevitable troubleshooting, etc. It also means you can control multiple features using one control panel, app or remote control – the latter of which comes in handy if you don’t always want to have your smartphone on.'
How do I get the best smart home control?
The key to a connected home is that it simplifies how you control your home fixtures and fittings, which in turn makes it a comfortable and enjoyable place to live.
‘There are lots of great smart technology solutions on the market, across a wide set of categories such as lighting, shading, heating and security to name just a few,’ says Jools Browning, director at BrownHen Solutions and CEDIA member of excellence. 'But it’s important that you consider how you will operate the technology on a day-to-day basis.
'It becomes frustrating if you need to pull your smartphone from your pocket every time you want to draw the blinds or switch the radio on. You also don’t want to just rely on voice control, which can sometimes be a battle before the voice assistant finally understands your request.
'We will all have our preferences so there is no definitive approach, but there are some useful guidelines such as opting for a smart lighting keypad to operate other items such as audio and shading. Knowing the keypad will always be in the same convenient place on the wall is useful and can usually be engraved with self-explanatory labels helping both you and your guests operate your home.'
Watch TV in style
If you already struggle to prize the TV remote control away from your partner you'll know that control is hot topic when discussing living room TV ideas. Once the kids know how to ask Alexa - perhaps using the Amazon Fire TV Cube - to turn on their favorite TV show, you'll know how frustrating it can become when everyone has different ideas on what to watch.
'Many of our homes now have multiple kit such as the TV, a streaming box, Sky, DVD player, games station, AVR etc,' continues Jools. 'Using an appropriate smart handheld remote to operate your TV and all the kit it comes with simplifies things from the comfort of your favourite armchair.
'With a simple press of a button, you can turn on all the relevant boxes so you can just relax and focus on watching your favourite show. Having a single device to change volume or navigate the guide - no matter what you're using - makes it a simple and straightforward operation.'
What smart gadgets can I add to my home?
If you'd like to find a specialist home automation integrator, you can visit CEDIA to find a list of local companies in your area. Below, however, we've included a few of the latest smart gadgets that you can incorporate to add a touch of smart control to your home set up:
1. Smart lighting
A Lutron RA2 Select runs off its own system to give you smart lighting control around your home. The system is set up so you're free to use almost any dimmable bulb so you won't need to buy smart bulbs to enjoy smart lighting. You can control them via a remote or your smartphone to set scenes and timer schedules so the lights around your home come on at certain times. You will need a Lutron specialist to install the system, however.
2. Smart window treatments
Smart electric blinds can be fitted the same way regular ones, but come with all the convenience of smart features.
Somfy electric blinds, for example, can be linked to a Somfy Smart Hub so you get smartphone control or voice activation with Amazon Alexa, Google Home or Apple Home Pod. This means you can personalise the experience and set daily routines so that when you say ‘Alexa, my going out routine’, your blinds will shut, plugs switch off and the garage will open.
3. Smart home security
There's a lot to choose from when looking at the best home security systems. Many can be incorporated easily into your set up as part of an automated solution. You can balance your security features such as smart video doorbell, alarm, door and window sensors to activate when you leave the house for example. The ERA Video Doorbell, for example, is compatible with Alexa so you can receive alerts or announcements via smart speaker when someone comes to the front door.
4. Smart heating
WundaSmart, for example, can be used to automate your heating system exactly how you like it. The app lets you control the temperature in each room individually – so you can isolate rooms such as the living room or upstairs bathroom - so that the heating only comes on in those rooms.
You can even use geo-fencing on a room by room basis so that it triggers the heating based on your location. You can set your living room heating to come on when you’re 500 metres away, for example, so the room is the ideal place to chill when you return. And that is really rather lovely to come home to on a cold, chilly night.
One of the UK's most respected tech and smart homes writers, Emily Peck also covers everything from interiors style to decorating trends. She is a contributor to Wired UK, and has also had a column in House Beautiful. She has written for publications such as Grand Designs, Stylist, Shortlist, Woman&Home, BBC, Ideal Home and House & Garden. She was once the Features Editor of Ideal Home.
Soundbar or surround sound system – which is best for my home?
Choosing between a soundbar or surround sound system is made easier with this expert guide to the best audio tech chosen to add cinematic style to your living room
By Emily Peck •
How to paint kitchen cabinets – an easy DIY to totally transform your kitchen
Learning how to paint kitchen cabinets will mean you can change the look of your space in just a weekend – just follow our easy step-by-step
By Olivia Emily •