October 3, 2023


Home is a place where we can be happy

Everything you need to start building a smart home

These days, it’s easy to automate your entire life: You can buy a car that can drive and park itself, a smartwatch that can detect if you’ve fallen and call for help, and a robot vacuum that can map out where your home needs a sweep. And thanks to smart home setups, you can even automate your lights, the temperature, and even how you get your news.

As a tech reporter, I’m a little ashamed to admit I do not have a smart home automation system. If you’re like me — someone who could benefit from the luxuries and ease of a smart home, but isn’t quite sure where to start — I set out to create a guide that can help us all take the plunge into the smart home world. 

Also: The best smart home devices (and how they can make your life easier)

At this point, you might be wondering why you should even take that step or why you’d need a smart home setup. To provide an expert answer, I turned to ZDNET’s resident smart home guru, Maria Diaz. 

“Setting up a smart home sounds intimidating, but it’s much easier than most think, and the added convenience of using smart devices is enough to make it worth it,” Diaz said.”The great thing about smart home products is that there’s something for everyone, no matter what phone they have or what voice assistant they prefer.”

With that, let’s get into everything you need to build out a smart — or smarter — home, starting with speakers, then getting into doorbells and lighting, and working our way into thermostats and some additional items you may want to consider. (You can also check out everything you need to host a summer party.) 

A smart speaker 

The best smart speakers are a smart staple, with a ton of abilities like playing music, setting reminders, making phone calls, answering questions, and acting as a control hub for other smart devices via voice command capabilities. Here are a few of our favorites.

The Amazon Echo speaker is a great smart speaker with Amazon Alexa voice assistant capabilities, but it can also act as a smart hub. Through Zigbee and Matter integration, it can work as a smart home hub to connect to other compatible smart home devices like light bulbs, a doorbell, and more so you simply have to ask Alexa to turn on the living room lights. 

The speaker can also connect to several available services, like Sirius XM, Spotify, and Fire TV devices. Of course, you can also simply ask it questions like “What’s the weather today?” or set yourself reminders like “Add toilet paper to the grocery list.” 

Do you prefer Siri over Alexa? The Apple HomePod Mini is a small smart speaker within the Apple ecosystem. One of it’s best features is perhaps its full-bodied sound quality, so listening to music from your Apple Music playlists sound crisp and loud in your home. 

Like the Echo, the HomePod Mini also serves as a hub to connect smart home devices and control them through Apple’s smart home system: HomeKit. However, HomeKit has far less compatible devices than Amazon, Google, or other companies. Still, it makes for finding your AirPods, AirTags, or other devices a lot easier by asking Siri where they are. 

Read the review: The HomePod mini is for Sirious Apple users only

The Google Nest Audio is noticeably larger than the Echo and HomePod Mini both in form factor and in sound quality. Google also has built in tuning (Media EQ and Ambient IQ) so the sound automatically changes depending on the type of media coming out of the speaker. 

With the words “Hey Google,” you can automatically summon automated help for a number of tasks, like changing tracks and stopping the music. The device also includes built-in Nest Audio which allows you to erase your Google Assistant history and adjust the mic. You can also connect to several other products, like Nest speakers and displays and Chromecast devices. 

A video doorbell 

One of the most subtle yet effective smart home measures you can add to your home is a video doorbell, as they provide insight into who — or what — is at the door without you ever leaving your couch. Our top picks for the best video doorbells have HD video and motion detection and connect to a mobile app as well as other smart home devices, so you can ask Alexa, “Who is at the door?”

The Arlo video doorbell features an interactive light-up ring around the doorbell button, which using motion sensors, switches on as your visitor approaches the door. This comprehensive motion detection, paired with the 1536 x 1536 HD HDR video can also distinguish people’s motion from that of animals and vehicles. 

The doorbell has two-way talk and a 160-degree field of view so you can see the most important parts of your front door. It works with most smart home automation systems, including Amazon Alexa, Google Assistant, and Apple HomeKit. 

Apple users, you’ll definitely appreciate the Logitech Circle View Doorbell. It works with Apple’s HomeKit platform, which also means it has Apple’s face ID technology to use your Apple Photos library to identify if visitors are familiar. Additionally, it employs motion detection which helps for keeping an eye out for any unexpected visitors. 

The Logitech Circle View also integrates with Apple’s HomeKit Secure Video (HKSV) platform that allows you to store video in your iCloud account, eliminating the need for third party video clip transmission and increasing privacy quality. 

Amazon’s Ring, arguably one of the most popular smart doorbells, has many different iterations, but the Pro 2 is a ZDNET standout due to its 3D motion detection, 1:1 aspect ratio, and 150-degree horizontal and vertical viewing angle. 

A special birds-eye-view feature uses radar technology to show the exact path someone took when approaching your front door. At $250, it’s one of the more expensive options, but the 1536 HD+ video quality makes the cost justifiable. 

A smart lock 

Another way to protect the entryways of your home is to install a smart lock. Today’s top smart locks use fingerprint technology and customizable key combinations, making it easier to go keyless and say goodbye to the day of forgetting your overcrowded keychain. 

At $170, this may not seem like a budget pick, but compared to the overall smart lock market, the August Home smart lock is decently priced. The lock fits over your existing deadbolt and has features like hands-free unlocking and automatic locking. 

You can check to see if the doors in your homes are locked without checking the physical locks, and you can also check the traffic at your door. There is the added ability to offer your guests access via virtual guest keys, so you do not have to worry about losing physical access to your keys. 

The Yale Assure Lock 2 has a sleek and attractive design fit to match any household style. It features a  touchscreen keypad that you can set up with different codes–everyone from your in-laws to your dog walker. The lock also can be set up with auto-lock, so you have peace of mind that you didn’t forget to lock the door. 

With the Wi-Fi module, it works with Amazon Alexa, Google Assistant, and Apple HomeKit, and you can even use your Apple Watch to unlock your door. 

Read the review: Yale Assure Lock 2 review: A genius lock… once you get it installed

This Eufy smart lock uses your fingerprint to unlock your door, promising a quick processing time of .3 seconds — kind of like smart phone. Additionally, it can also unlock from the accompanying app, your voice, a wireless keypad, and your traditional keys. The lock can store up to 100 passcodes and 50 fingerprints from multiple users.

It even works with Eufy’s video doorbell so you can see who’s at the door and unlock it all at once. If you don’t have Eufy’s doorbell, the lock also supports Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant. 

Smart lights 

Ever dream of having those old clapper lights? Smart lights function in a similar but tech-savvier way. The best smart lights let you set lighting schedules throughout the day based on when you need light the most, as well as create cool and ambient lighting effects to match a room’s vibe and purpose.

Philips may be the biggest name in the smart light game–and for good reason. The brand has a reputation in creating reliable, easy-to-use, and customizable smart lights. You can enjoy up to 16 million different colors (including 50,000 shades of natural white light) as well as dimming capabilities to instantly change the mood in the room with just a tap of your phone. 

While you’ll need a Philips Hue Hub to enjoy most of the smart perks and automations, one single hub can manage up to 50 Philips Hue bulbs, and is compatible with IFTTT, Alexa, HomeKit, SmartThings, and Google Assistant.

Also: The best Philips Hue smart lights you can buy

For those on a budget, the Cree Connected Max line of smart bulbs will set you back about $10-$20 a bulb (whereas Philips Hue is around $50 a bulb). You can use these bulbs with your smartphone, so no need to buy a hub. The bulbs offer millions of colors, including shades of white ranging from 2200K to 6500K. 

The Cree Lighting app is where the smart light capabilities come in, and you can customize scenes and routines in rooms throughout the day to change the lighting in the room as the natural daylight changes. 

Place these smart lights strips underneath your kitchen cabinets, behind your TV, or anywhere else that could use a little more ambience in your home. You can set up to 50 color zones at once with 16 million colors to choose from.

The strip itself is easily controlled through an app on your smartphone, and you can set up different automations depending on the time of day. In addition, the strips are cuttable and come with 3M adhesive backing, so you can fit them to any surface.

Also: The best light strips you can buy

A smart thermostat 

Another way to add smart home tech into your home is a smart thermostat, a device that can actually save you money on your electric bills — one study showing about $50 per year in savings. By creating automated schedules, the best smart thermostats adjust themselves to your climate schedule and offer voice control with geofencing technology. 

This smart thermostat from Google actually learns your habits and adjusts itself accordingly to match your preferred schedule. It has a wide range of compatibilty, even with homes that are old with outdated heating and cooling systems. 

An app lets you control the thermostat from anywhere in your home, and you can also receive alerts and notifications through it. Look for the Nest Leaf to know when your chosen temperature is energy efficient. 

Read the review: Google Nest Learning Thermostat review: Can new tech work in an old house? We’ve got answers

Amazon’s Smart Thermostat might skip on the touchscreen, but that doesn’t mean it lacks performance. Plus, at $80, it’s a great budget-friendly option to add automation to your heating and cooling system. The thermostat’s built-in intelligence can also detect when someone is in the house and automatically adjust the temperature as needed. 

In addition, users can set routines for the thermostat with Amazon Alexa. For instance, they can prompt the thermostat to turn down the temperature with a phrase such as, “Alexa, goodnight.”

Read the review: Amazon introduces $60 smart thermostat

The Ecobee 3 Lite can manage your A/C and heating smarter with its SmartSensor technology. It works to manage hot or cold spots and deliver enhanced comfort to the rooms that matter most. The thermostat’s sensors can also tell when a window or door is open and will temporarily pause your heating or cooling. 

A 3.5-inch color touchscreen makes it easy to control, and you’ll get free monthly reports on how much energy you used versus how much was saved. even providing insight on how you can potentially save the next month.

You might also need…

Smart speakers, video doorbells, smart lights, and thermostats are some of our favorite smart home staples, but there are other options you and your home could benefit from. Check out our picks for smart plugs, displays, robot vacuums, and more. 

While having a smart home hub is nice for connecting multiple devices, it isn’t always necessary. Diaz said that if you have little devices like motion sensors for a security system or smart bulbs, they’re typically not able to connect to W-Fi on their own, so they will need a hub to connect to. 

You don’t always need to go out of your way to buy a hub, either. For example, the Amazon Echo 4th generation is already a hub for smart home devices, so be sure to check if the device you want or have can double as a hub.

The cost of a smart home depends if you want one single device, or are looking to incorporate many devices in your home. If you want just a doorbell or a smart speaker, for example, you’ll pay about $100. However, entire systems can cost you in the hundreds, and also depend on how big your home is and what products/brands you choose. 

Nowadays, many smart home products are compatible with different hubs and/or smart assistants. When building out your smart home, it’s a good idea to choose which smart assistant/brand you want to use and stick with it so it’s easier for you to keep track of and control. 

Zigbee and Matter are two wireless technologies that allow different kinds and brands of smart home devices to connect within a single smart home automation system. Each acts as a way to connect smaller devices to a larger system.