There’s no getting away from the whole smart-home thing these days. Even if you’re not a fan, it’s getting harder to find a non-smart TV, while air-con systems and refrigerators are increasingly Wi-Fi-enabled. While you are interested in modern technology, most likely you’re already kitted out with smart speakers, remote-control electric sockets, and so on. Some of all this tech-smartness is just for fun, but many of the features really do save kilowatts, hours — and nerves. So what’s the best way to set up a smart home?
Two smart-home approaches
Before you start setting up your smart home, answer these two questions:
- Do you understand why you need one?
- How much are you willing to spend on adapting a home so it is — or becomes — smart?
If you do understand why and are ready to get stuck in, it makes sense to go for a turnkey system: study all the features, select an integrated automation system, and buy a smart-home controller and compatible peripherals. And it’s a good idea to do this during renovations or, if possible, construction.
If you have no smart-home experience yet, are renting an apartment, or aren’t quite sure whether you need a smart home, start with just some particular solutions that look useful to you. After getting to grips with them, you could then think about acquiring a more overarching system.
Let’s take a look at the pros and cons of both approaches, and illustrate them with some examples from Kaspersky employees.
Turnkey smart home
A smart home designed and built on a turnkey basis features centralized management of multiple household tasks typically combined into automation scenarios. These scenarios can be run manually or automatically according to certain criteria. For example, when approaching your vacation home in winter, you tap a button on your phone, and the house turns on the heating and garage lights, switches off the alarm, and even plays some ambient music in the lounge. At night, when the CO2 monitor in the bedroom detects stuffiness, the house switches on the ventilation automatically and heats the fresh air to the desired temperature.
Such a system requires smart controllers in the heating, lighting, ventilation, multimedia and other systems, and, most importantly, a centralized controller that receives commands from smartphones, sensors, and remotes inside the house, and sends them to endpoint devices. The controller market is populated by reasonably well-known niche players (Abode, Belkin WeMo, Fibaro, Hubitat, etc.) as well as consumer electronics and home-improvement giants (Amazon with Echo Plus, Ikea with Trådfri, Philips Hue, etc.). As a rule, the controller can be managed via remotes, smartphones, and voice assistants, but vendors also offer control options that use a local network without an internet connection.
Typically, the controller uses a dedicated smart-home protocol — such as Zigbee, Z-Wave, or Thread — but there are other ecosystems that rely mainly on Wi-Fi and Bluetooth (for example, Apple HomeKit). Hybrid options are also possible (more about them below). Zigbee, Z-Wave, and Thread sensors and regulators communicate only with systems inside the home. They have no internet access and broadcast for very short periods, so they use little power and don’t slow down your Wi-Fi.
We should also mention the new Thread-based standard, Matter, which aims to tackle the key problem of smart homes: how to integrate devices from different vendors operating on different protocols into a single system. Thanks to Matter, it’s expected that all smart accessories from most market leaders will be able to talk to each other with minimal configuration adjustments. Amazon, Apple, Google, Haier, Huawei, IKEA, Legrand, LG, Lutron, Midea, Oppo, Samsung, Schneider, and Somfy have all announced Matter support, which bodes well for its future. But the specs were approved only last summer, so a wide range of Matter devices should only hit the stores closer to end of 2023. That said, some devices have already been promised a software upgrade to Matter, such as IKEA’s new Dirigera hub. So, if your house is just being built and the electronics (and wiring in the walls) won’t be done till later in the year, keep Matter in mind. If you or the house can’t wait that long, you’ll have to choose an older technical solution.
Besides convenient automation, an integrated approach to building your smart home means the radio frequencies are less congested by a multitude of Wi-Fi devices like smart bulbs operating in a non-coordinated manner. Also, smart home cybersecurity issues can be sorted out centrally at the controller level. Lastly, you’ll save money in the long run through more efficient use of resources (like heat, water, and electricity).
The cons of this approach are the reverse side of the pros. First, you’ll have to figure out in advance what to build into your home: lighting groups, temperature control zones, air-con systems, sensors for anything and everything… Second, you need to prepare for a large upfront bill: most of the equipment will have to be bought simultaneously.
Finally, a note about the risks associated with the psychology of the different members of a household. If any are technophobes, they’ll struggle to get to grips with the workings of the smart home. To get around this problem, physical switches and controls duplicating their smart counterparts will be required. Something like a voice assistant is also desirable. Incidentally, physical switches will come to the rescue in the event of a major automation failure or cyberattack.
I planned my smart home back when I was renovating. There are eight underfloor heating zones, six radiators, and 32 light sources — all of which can be controlled locally, without an internet connection. I originally designed the system to be as invisible as possible to us living here, while also being accessible to guests who aren’t used to smart homes. Among the features are air-con and ventilation control, multiple lighting scenarios, motion sensors for turning lights on and off, sensors for a water leak (that turns the water off if one is detected), and full voice control. We’re all totally comfortable with operating the smart home, and the kids have stopped using the wall switches altogether and control the home by voice alone.
Smart home bit-by-bit
It’s also possible to build your smart home piece by piece, step by step. In doing so, the must-have devices include things like smart TVs, smart speakers with voice assistant, robot vacuum cleaner, baby monitor, doorbell with peephole cam, Wi-Fi outlets, and brightness-and-color-adjustable lights. According to our report, smart speakers (24%) and video surveillance systems with Wi-Fi (20%) are currently the most common pieces of smart kit.
It makes sense to go smart when you need the basic function of the device anyway, such as a TV or peephole cam. When making your choice, read carefully about all the smart features, and think about the everyday situations in which they might help. If everything looks good, check out the reviews of other buyers: maybe some feature doesn’t work that well after all.
First, I bought smart bulbs from IKEA, a smart speaker with voice assistant, and a Mi Home button. Then I added an infrared emitter to Mi Home to control the air-con. I also bought a breather with a CO2 sensor, which, as it turned out, doesn’t integrate with anything. We ended up turning the light bulbs and smart speaker off, while the smart remote for the air-con proved most popular.
The great thing about individual smart solutions is that they work out-of-the-box — no setup required. In most cases, they communicate via Wi-Fi with the vendor’s cloud servers and are controlled from a proprietary app on your smartphone, with no need to fork out for additional controllers.
The drawbacks, alas, are also sizeable.
- The more smart devices you get, the harder it is to manage each of them from a separate app.
- Combining them into scenarios is highly problematic. Some solutions may be able to integrate with Apple HomeKit or Amazon Alexa, but seamless operation is not guaranteed.
- Multiple Wi-Fi devices pollute the airwaves, can interfere with each other, and slow down data speeds for important networking tasks — be that gaming or video conferencing.
- Each standalone internet-connected device creates new security risks. For example: surveillance cams are accessible to outsiders; hackers can talk with family members through a baby monitor; a smart TV remote can eavesdrop on you; smart bulbs can be used to launch DDoS attacks; and а robot vacuum cleaner can take pictures of you. These problems can be partially solved through correct configuration, which we’ll cover in a separate post.
We bought a smart speaker (Yandex.Station) and some Aqara devices. I thought this would be fun, but not worth the money. I was wrong: it turned out very handy! We can switch the lights, coffee machine, and alarm on and off by voice. And we’re always talking to the smart speaker, asking for a weather forecast or music.
Some vendors like to hide a whole army of devices built on different technologies under a common name. A striking example is Xiaomi, which makes humidifiers and vacuum cleaners that go online autonomously, as well as Zigbee-enabled bulbs. It’s a similar story with Apple HomeKit, which uses a variety of technologies to control devices from the single Home app: Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, control through a home hub hidden in Apple TV, integration with Zigbee hubs like Philips Hue, and support for the new Matter protocol.
There is a definite advantage to this: you can buy and use the device separately, then integrate it into the overall automation system. The disadvantage of the hybrid approach is having to pay again for duplicate technologies in different devices, not to mention again the security risks, malfunctions, and clogging of the airwaves.
Another important point is vendor lock-in: with Apple or Xiaomi, it’s somewhat easier to “grow” your smart home from disparate solutions. But if you suddenly need a device that is not in your vendor’s product line, connecting it to your smart home will be a big problem.
Even worse is if the manufacturer of your smart home components radically changes its strategy or goes out of business and stops supporting online services or releasing updates, which has been known to happen. That’s another reason why it’s important that devices have alternative control methods, for example, physical switches.
I got rid of my Wi-Fi smart home features because they didn’t work without the internet. I switched to Zigbee gateways. I also ditched Xiaomi in favor of Tuya due to compatibility problems for different regions. The new system permitted smart two-way switches, so you can control the lighting in long corridors from anywhere without rewiring. We also have smart curtains that draw automatically when the lights go on or it gets dark, and smart outlets make it easy to turn off the iron, even if you’re not home.
What’s useful and what’s not?
Unfortunately, few people will be able to figure out in advance which smart home features they really need, and which will just be a bit of fun for a couple of weeks. As our colleagues’ experience shows, some users for example don’t need voice control at all, while others can’t live without it. Plan your smart home budget and implementation so that no scenario hits you hard in the pocket or comfort-wise: for instance, when planning centralized control of lighting and heating, don’t forget about the good old-fashioned manual switches. And, of course, get ready to protect your smart home from cyberthreats — stay tuned for more details on those in a separate post…