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What is a smart home?
Technology has completely changed the way we work and the way we communicate, but it's also changing the way we live. Thanks to the better wireless technologies and smaller and cheaper computing components, we're beginning to see some major investment in technologies designed to make our homes smarter.
Just like the differences between individual homes, smart home technology can be as varied and customised as the homes it's used in. But at its core, the goal is to use sensors and wireless communication technologies to make your home safer, more secure and more environmentally friendly, all while making your life more convenient and saving you money.
It sounds like a big, complicated task, but the reality is that it has never been easier to make your house a smart home, and with major technology companies Apple, Google and Amazon all investing heavily in creating the perfect smart home ecosystem, it's also never been more affordable.
What can I do with a smart home?
For many people, the pipe dream of the smart home is home automation. This concept, which has been around for years through expensive wired solutions and customised hardware, allows your home to intelligently react to the situation it's faced with. This could be anything from turning on the heat in winter when you leave work so you walk into a nice, cozy house, to automatically turning on the coffee machine when you turn off your morning alarm.
The arrival of voice control in the form of Siri, Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant takes this idea to the next level and turns the concept of a virtual personal assistant like Jarvis from the Iron Man films from science fiction into reality. By creating intelligent platforms that can integrate with voice control, you can already do things like turn lights on and off, lock your house and open and shut your garage door by simply speaking the command out loud.
But while voice control is an incredible development that will revolutionise how we live in our homes, the real smarts of a smart home setup are the things that happen without you even needing to think about it. Like the Nest smart thermostat that analyses your usage and, after discovering that nobody is home between 8am and 5pm on Monday to Friday, automatically adjusts the temperature control to save energy, and ultimately money.
Or security cameras that detect motion and start recording automatically, sending you live video feeds to your phone so you can see straight away if your home is being burgled.
The smart home ecosystem is rapidly growing and will continue to expand to support pretty much any device with a Wi-Fi connection. And with 5G connectivity launching in 2020 and set to drive a massive growth in the Internet of Things (IoT), the range of connected devices is destined to balloon, making the development of a smart home environment even more beneficial.
What are the components of a smart home?
In order to get started with a smart home setup, you'll need to upgrade some of your current devices and appliances, and invest in some new equipment. Here are some of the smart home devices you can get now:
Hubs are the brains of the smart home. Traditionally they would operate as a complete mini computer, capable of connecting to lots of different devices at once and sending commands all from a centralised place within the home. But more recently there has been a shift to enable connected communications devices like the Amazon Echo or Google Home speaker to act as a hub, leveraging the power of the Internet to control the many connected devices around your home. In some cases, you can merge the two together to create a much more comprehensive smart home solution.
Smart lighting is a mainstay of the smart home. A full lighting setup will allow you to control the lights in your home from your phone, both when you're there and remotely. When connected to a compatible voice control system like Amazon's Alexa or Google's Voice Assistant, it will also allow you to remotely control lighting by simply saying the words. Some lighting solutions also let you control multi-coloured LEDs for a dynamic lighting environment, which is perfect for parties or events.
The traditional lock and key were dying for a technological upgrade, and today's smart homes make the most of the new connected technology to make your locks even better. Smart locks can automatically unlock when you arrive home based on your phone's proximity, can be remotely opened via secure codes controlled through an app so you can let friends or relatives inside without needing to give them a key, and can even be programmed to automatically lock when you leave, so you don't have to worry about forgetting to lock the front door again. Some options also include pin codes or fingerprint scanners for additional security.
It's still early days for intelligent kitchen appliances, but the market is only going to get bigger. From smart ovens that you can turn on remotely to preheat for when you get home, to a fridge that keeps tabs on what's inside it and will send you reminders to pick up milk; then there are slow cookers which can adjust the temperature based on cook times within a recipe intelligently, or coffee machines that work with IFTTT (If This Then That) to automatically turn on when your alarm goes off in the morning.
Speaking of security, making sure your home is safe is a major component of the smart home. Intelligent cameras and motion detectors are readily available, which can be easily programmed to send you a notification whenever it detects movement in the house. Paired with sensors that detect when a window or door has been opened and you have a comprehensive suite of measures that intelligently help protect your home from burglary.
Smart temperature control allows you to have the most comfortable living environment at the lowest possible cost. Intelligent thermostats monitor usage, as well as where and when people are at home to monitor and maintain appropriate temperatures at all times. That means everything from switching off the aircon in the middle of the day when nobody is home, to switching on fans at regular intervals to circulate air around the home.
Robot vacuum cleaners have entertained cats and people alike for years now, rolling around the home picking up dirt by themselves. But now they can integrate more fully into a smart home environment, with Roomba and Samsung robot vacuums responding to Amazon Alexa commands as well as comprehensive app control. And as the technology expands, we can expect even more in this space from intelligent, connected lawnmowers to dedicated window cleaning robots.
While many of today's smart home hubs incorporate the ability to control your home, there's a whole market of other products that extend on this ability. After all, using voice control to manage an entire home isn't any good if you can only do it from one room in the house. There are smaller, supplementary control products, from mini microphones for voice control, to comprehensive universal remotes that combine Bluetooth, infrared and Wi-Fi to manage pretty much everything in the home from a press of a button.
Why would I want a smart home?
When it works, smart home technology is designed to try and make your life easier. The dream is a self-sustaining home that caters to your every need without requiring you to fiddle around with difficult settings or complex code.
By integrating intelligent platforms into your home, you can save money on things like energy by only using it when needed, while a smart home security system can reduce your home contents insurance premiums with some providers as well.
Having a connected smart home can also provide peace of mind, allowing you to monitor your pets while you're away from home, or keep tabs on the kids while they wait for you to get home from work. With the right setup, you can receive notifications when your kids get home. And with a smart home, you never need to worry about whether you left the stove on/door unlocked/garage open/lights on ever again.
A lot of the current smart home equipment has its history based in older home automation systems. These are designed to complete multiple activities simultaneously with a single command.
A key example would be a home theatre setup, which automatically dims the lights, closes the curtains and boots up the surround sound system when you turn on the television set. Or motion trackers that will automatically illuminate the way to the toilet for you at night.
While these setups have been available for a long time, they were traditionally expensive to install and implement. But with the rise of hubs like the Google Home speaker and Amazon's Alexa, as well as simple control platforms like IFTTT, the barrier to entry for home automation has been drastically lowered.
Now it takes just moments for all kinds of incredible home automation activities to kick off, so long as you have the right connected devices installed. You can do anything from having a blinking light when mail is put in your letterbox, to having the lights turn on in the morning when your Fitbit realises you're awake.
Smart home pros and cons
- Almost limitless possibilities. There are so many devices that can connect to a smart home now that the possibilities are huge.
- Save money in the long run. Using intelligent systems to reduce electricity consumption can save you money in the long term.
- Better security. Connect your home to a smart security system and rest easy that your home is safe.
- Save time and effort. Set up rules that make menial tasks happen for you automatically, so you can get on with your life.
- Different protocols from different providers. There are competing platforms, and not all products work with all platforms, which can get messy.
- High up-front cost. Buying all the necessary components can be a pricey experience.
- Potential hacking. Giving an Internet connection to your front door could open up the possibility of hacking.
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Nick is the group publisher for tech, telco and utilities at Finder. An award-winning journalist with over 15 years' experience writing about technology, Nick has edited some of the country’s leading tech publications, including Gizmodo, TechRadar and T3 Magazine, as well as contributing to the likes of the Sydney Morning Herald, CNET, Lifehacker, news.com.au and many more. In 2016 he was awarded the Best Reviewer title at the 14th Annual IT Journalism Awards and has been a finalist for Best Reviewer, Best Consumer Technology Journalist and Best News Journalist on multiple occasions. Nick has a Bachelor of Media from Macquarie University and finds joy in solving problems with technology.
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