HOWA SMART HOME WORKS

Un­der­stand­ing how your smart home fits to­gether will make it eas­ier to con­nect the build­ing blocks. Here we show you how ev­ery­thing works

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Build­ing a smart home is a lit­tle like build­ing a Lego model: you put the ba­sic blocks to­gether to cre­ate the sys­tem that you want. The im­por­tant thing is to know which blocks you have to play with and how they can con­nect. To start, then, we’ll show you how a smart home works, how the com­po­nents com­mu­ni­cate with one an­other and how you can con­nect ev­ery­thing. SMART HOME COM­PO­NENTS First, and most im­por­tant, are the ac­tual smart home com­po­nents. These are the de­vices such as smart thermostats, smart light bulbs, video cam­eras, smart plugs that you can turn on and off, and even ro­botic vac­uum clean­ers.

A smart de­vice is one that you can com­mu­ni­cate with via your home net­work and over the in­ter­net. Ev­ery smart de­vice is con­trol­lable via a ded­i­cated smart­phone app, giv­ing you full ac­cess to each prod­uct’s full set of fea­tures. Over the next few pages and our smart ther­mo­stat group test (see page 92), we’ll help you choose the prod­ucts that will work best for your home. OB­SERV­ING PRO­TO­COL To be con­trolled from your phone or a voice as­sis­tant, smart de­vices have to con­nect to your home net­work. For some that means they have a built-in Wi-Fi con­nec­tion, con­nect­ing like a tra­di­tional lap­top or smart­phone. Wi-Fi is typ­i­cally used for kit that needs a high-speed in­ter­net con­nec­tion and is also per­ma­nently wired into place, such as a se­cu­rity cam­era.

In many cases, Wi-Fi isn’t ideal for sev­eral rea­sons. First, Wi-Fi is power hun­gry, so it’s no use in bat­tery-pow­ered de­vices, such as smart door sen­sors for an alarm sys­tem. Wi-Fi’s range can also be an is­sue, and some de­vices could be at the pe­riph­ery of range. Fi­nally, Wi-Fi isn’t that re­li­able, and de­vices can drop their net­work con­nec­tions.

In­stead, many de­vices use a ded­i­cated smart home pro­to­col, such as Zig­bee or Z-Wave. These pro­to­cols are very low power (bat­tery-pow­ered de­vices will last for months, if not years), have ex­cel­lent range (and many de­vices act as re­peaters to fur­ther boost range), are very re­li­able, and work ef­fi­ciently and quickly.

The is­sue is that your smart­phone and other de­vices don’t speak the same smart home lan­guage, which is where you need a bridge or hub. These boxes plug into your home net­work, usu­ally via Eth­er­net, and trans­late the com­mands from your smart­phone’s Wi-Fi into the smart home pro­to­col’s own lan­guage. Many prod­ucts have their own unique hub but some bridges, such as the Sam­sung SmartThings hub, can talk to many de­vices that use Zig­bee or Z-Wave. DI­RECT CON­TROL Us­ing de­vices that utilise a smart home pro­to­col gives you more con­trol op­tions. It’s com­mon to find bat­tery-pow­ered re­mote switches and but­tons that talk na­tively to a

smart home de­vice. For ex­am­ple, the Philips Hue sys­tem uses bat­tery-pow­ered Zig­bee light switches and re­motes that give you di­rect con­trol over your lights. This would be im­pos­si­ble us­ing Wi-Fi, as the re­mote would either run out of power too quickly or would take too long to es­tab­lish a Wi-Fi con­nec­tion, mak­ing the prod­uct an­noy­ing to use. VOICE AS­SIS­TANTS The lat­est com­po­nent for smart homes are voice as­sis­tants such as Ama­zon Alexa, Google As­sis­tant and Ap­ple Siri. Typ­i­cally, these sys­tems have a smart home speaker sys­tem that sits in your home and lis­tens for com­mands. With these sys­tems, you add ‘Skills’ that let the voice as­sis­tant con­trol your smart home de­vices. For ex­am­ple, you can say, “Alexa, turn on the lounge light”.

As voice as­sis­tants can talk to mul­ti­ple de­vices from mul­ti­ple man­u­fac­tur­ers, you can con­trol ev­ery­thing from one place, re­mov­ing the need to dive into loads of dif­fer­ent apps. Usu­ally, you can group de­vices to­gether, for ex­am­ple turn­ing off your Philips Hue liv­ing room light and your Smart Things con­trolled lamp with a sin­gle com­mand.

You should there­fore make sure that the de­vices you buy are com­pat­i­ble with the smart as­sis­tant you want to use. IFTTT Fur­ther con­trol comes from If This Then That (IFTTT), which is a cloud-based ser­vice. Us­ing sim­ple rules, you can con­trol how your smart home de­vices work. For ex­am­ple, if mo­tion is de­tected on your se­cu­rity cam­era, you can have your lights turn on au­to­mat­i­cally to scare away would-be bur­glars.

IFTTT is ex­tremely pow­er­ful and flex­i­ble, but ac­tions can take a few sec­onds to oc­cur, so it’s not very good for di­rect con­trol. For ex­am­ple, us­ing IFTTT with a smart mo­tion sen­sor to turn on your lounge lights isn’t par­tic­u­larly help­ful if that ac­tion takes up­wards of five sec­onds to oc­cur.

When choos­ing your smart home de­vices, then, look at whether it sup­ports IFTTT or not. Our re­views al­ways ex­plain what’s pos­si­ble with the sys­tem. AU­TO­MA­TION The fi­nal piece of the puz­zle is home au­to­ma­tion, which could be pro­vided through a ser­vice such as IFTTT, via ded­i­cated hard­ware sen­sors (mo­tion sen­sors, door sen­sors and the like) or even in-app. This kind of con­trol lets you per­form tasks au­to­mat­i­cally, and the scale of what you can achieve is enor­mous. For ex­am­ple, you can have your lights slowly be­come brighter to wake you in the morn­ing; a mo­tion sen­sor can trig­ger a light to turn on and off au­to­mat­i­cally; you could have a se­cu­rity cam­era turn on when you go out; or you could have your heat­ing turn off when an out­door tem­per­a­ture thresh­old is reached. Con­trol varies be­tween prod­ucts, but we’ll show you how to get started with au­to­ma­tion later in this fea­ture.

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