How to Get Started with Smart Home Automation

Introduction

In This Guide
You'll Learn:
  • What the major Smart Home Platforms are, and what they provide.
  • What the major Smart Home Technologies are, and what they provide.
  • What the major Smart Home Hubs are, and what they provide.

1 Technologies

The following technologies are commonly found in use for Home Automation equipment.

Wi-Fi
Wi-Fi Logo. Wi-Fi; the same technology you're used to using to connect your laptop, smartphone, and home entertainment systems to your home network.
  • Benefits
    • Most people already have a Wi-Fi router in their home, providing no need to purchase extra equipment.
    • Your familiarity with the technology and how it works.
  • Drawbacks
    • Requires a lot of power, due to how fast the data rates are. Wi-Fi is designed for you to browse or watch movies.
    • Must connect to your router, limiting the distance your home automation devices can be from a single, central location.
  • Examples
    • Your smartphone, tablet, and smart television all can use Wi-Fi, and are integral parts of your smart home setup.
    • Various smart bulbs, such as those made by Lifx use Wi-Fi.
    • Most smart speakers use Wi-Fi.
ZigBee
ZigBee Logo. ZigBee is a very low-power personal network technology at a very low-cost. Used not only in home automation tasks, but also in industrial, scientific, and medical fields.
  • Benefits
    • The antenna assembly does not require much power at all; meaning you can have devices powered by small batteries that last a very long time, or even no battery at all; pushing the switch generates enough power.
    • ZigBee devices automatically create a 'mesh network', meaning they pass data along to each other, so you can have devices quite far from the originating signal device.
    • In most cases, data sent is encrypted and all of that is determined automatically via a simple push-button system, so you don't have to memorize another password.
  • Drawbacks
    • Most people don't have ZigBee base units or antennas already in their home; a separate device, often called a 'hub', has to be connected to a home network to translate normal network data to the ZigBee network.
    • Data rates are very low. Normally this isn't a problem; "turn on" and "turn off" aren't long messages to lights, for example, but when a device needs a firmware update it can take a while.
    • It can take time for a device to re-join a network if it disconnects.
    • Works in the 2.4Ghz signal band, just like Wi-Fi. If there's a lot of 'noise' in this band such as from a lot of Wi-Fi routers, or an object that blocks Wi-Fi such as a large fish tank or metal wall, it can have problems.
  • Examples
    • Philips Hue and Ikea Tradfli both make smart lighting that uses Zigbee.
    • Samsung SmartThings has a wide range of products, including an entire home security system.
    • Yale makes a line of smart locks that use Zigbee.
Z-Wave
Z-Wave Logo. Z-Wave is a low-powered mesh network system designed specifically for home automation.
  • Benefits
    • Operates in the 800-900 Mhz signal band. For the most part, this is far away from most other consumer wireless technology, meaning the signal is clear to all devices.
    • Because it's a lower frequency, it reaches farther; up to 300 feet in a clear area is not uncommon.
    • Z-Wave is also a mesh-network technology; meaning it will pass data from device to device, further extending its reach. It's not uncommon to have Z-Wave reach 100 feet between devices, or more.
    • Very low power, enabling devices to go for a very long time between battery changes.
  • Drawbacks
    • Z-Wave is the least-popular type of wireless communication mentioned here, so you will end up needing to purchase a hub to talk to Z-Wave devices.
    • Low and slow data rates. While a bit quicker to connect, updates to devices firmware still takes a long time.
  • Examples
    • GE makes a line of Z-Wave in-wall light switches based on Z-Wave.
    • Schlage and Kwikset make Z-Wave deadbolts and door locks.
    • Trane makes a line of Z-Wave home thermostats.

Hubs

Recently, a few companies have begun offering simple 'hubs' or 'routers' that provide all the antennas you may need for these disparate technologies.

These are a second box that you connect to your home router, and provides a single, integrated 'on-ramp' to a diverse range of different Zigbee, Z-Wave, and Wi-Fi home automation products in a single place.

Wink
WinkWink is one company that provides a single hub to connect to Zigbee, Z-Wave, and Wi-Fi technologies, as well as other, less common technologies.

In essence, the Wink Home Hub is a collection of antennas for all these different technologies, some basic processing to connect it to the Wink servers, and app.

? Would you like additional information on these major technologies?

  1. Yes, on Zigbee
  2. Yes, on Z-Wave
  3. Yes, on Wink
  4. No, let's move on

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In This Guide
You'll Learn:
  • What the major Smart Home Platforms are, and what they provide.
  • What the major Smart Home Technologies are, and what they provide.
  • What the major Smart Home Hubs are, and what they provide.

The following technologies are commonly found in use for Home Automation equipment.

Wi-Fi
Wi-Fi Logo. Wi-Fi; the same technology you're used to using to connect your laptop, smartphone, and home entertainment systems to your home network.
  • Benefits
    • Most people already have a Wi-Fi router in their home, providing no need to purchase extra equipment.
    • Your familiarity with the technology and how it works.
  • Drawbacks
    • Requires a lot of power, due to how fast the data rates are. Wi-Fi is designed for you to browse or watch movies.
    • Must connect to your router, limiting the distance your home automation devices can be from a single, central location.
  • Examples
    • Your smartphone, tablet, and smart television all can use Wi-Fi, and are integral parts of your smart home setup.
    • Various smart bulbs, such as those made by Lifx use Wi-Fi.
    • Most smart speakers use Wi-Fi.
ZigBee
ZigBee Logo. ZigBee is a very low-power personal network technology at a very low-cost. Used not only in home automation tasks, but also in industrial, scientific, and medical fields.
  • Benefits
    • The antenna assembly does not require much power at all; meaning you can have devices powered by small batteries that last a very long time, or even no battery at all; pushing the switch generates enough power.
    • ZigBee devices automatically create a 'mesh network', meaning they pass data along to each other, so you can have devices quite far from the originating signal device.
    • In most cases, data sent is encrypted and all of that is determined automatically via a simple push-button system, so you don't have to memorize another password.
  • Drawbacks
    • Most people don't have ZigBee base units or antennas already in their home; a separate device, often called a 'hub', has to be connected to a home network to translate normal network data to the ZigBee network.
    • Data rates are very low. Normally this isn't a problem; "turn on" and "turn off" aren't long messages to lights, for example, but when a device needs a firmware update it can take a while.
    • It can take time for a device to re-join a network if it disconnects.
    • Works in the 2.4Ghz signal band, just like Wi-Fi. If there's a lot of 'noise' in this band such as from a lot of Wi-Fi routers, or an object that blocks Wi-Fi such as a large fish tank or metal wall, it can have problems.
  • Examples
    • Philips Hue and Ikea Tradfli both make smart lighting that uses Zigbee.
    • Samsung SmartThings has a wide range of products, including an entire home security system.
    • Yale makes a line of smart locks that use Zigbee.
Z-Wave
Z-Wave Logo. Z-Wave is a low-powered mesh network system designed specifically for home automation.
  • Benefits
    • Operates in the 800-900 Mhz signal band. For the most part, this is far away from most other consumer wireless technology, meaning the signal is clear to all devices.
    • Because it's a lower frequency, it reaches farther; up to 300 feet in a clear area is not uncommon.
    • Z-Wave is also a mesh-network technology; meaning it will pass data from device to device, further extending its reach. It's not uncommon to have Z-Wave reach 100 feet between devices, or more.
    • Very low power, enabling devices to go for a very long time between battery changes.
  • Drawbacks
    • Z-Wave is the least-popular type of wireless communication mentioned here, so you will end up needing to purchase a hub to talk to Z-Wave devices.
    • Low and slow data rates. While a bit quicker to connect, updates to devices firmware still takes a long time.
  • Examples
    • GE makes a line of Z-Wave in-wall light switches based on Z-Wave.
    • Schlage and Kwikset make Z-Wave deadbolts and door locks.
    • Trane makes a line of Z-Wave home thermostats.

Hubs

Recently, a few companies have begun offering simple 'hubs' or 'routers' that provide all the antennas you may need for these disparate technologies.

These are a second box that you connect to your home router, and provides a single, integrated 'on-ramp' to a diverse range of different Zigbee, Z-Wave, and Wi-Fi home automation products in a single place.

Wink
WinkWink is one company that provides a single hub to connect to Zigbee, Z-Wave, and Wi-Fi technologies, as well as other, less common technologies.

In essence, the Wink Home Hub is a collection of antennas for all these different technologies, some basic processing to connect it to the Wink servers, and app.
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While each individual system offers great control and convenience, the real power with modern home automation comes from tying together your various services.

For example, when your smart lock unlocks with your key, it should let the other systems in your home know to turn on the lights in the hall and living room. Performing such tasks is the job of an aggregation system.

Free Aggregation Services

There are a great many free aggregation services available. These allow you to define a set of rules that then make other actions happen. The starting action can be anything, from a change in the weather, the time of day, when someone scores for your favorite team, or when a door is opened, or light is turned on, or any of thousands of different options. It can be something as public (the weather or your favorite sports team, for example) to something more private (a smart lock, for example).

In many cases, the free aggregation services are limited; either they're not super fast, or not super reliable, or push advertising through a specialized app on your phone. 

Paid-for Aggregation Services

There are usually paid option for most free aggregation services available. They tend to have more features, better availability, and faster response times than their free counterparts.

Single-Company Systems

Some providers of home automation devices provide an extremely large range of products. Having the ability to control them all from their custom app can often provide enough devices that simply sticking to a single brand provides the level of integration you are looking for.

Home Security

A Home Security provider is often a very specialized aggregation service. They tie together cameras and sensors into a single panel in your home, but rarely have any sort of 'external connection'. You can't trigger your lights from another company, for example. But the benefits, such as a single company to work with, dedicated technicians, remote monitoring, etc., may be what you're looking for.

Platforms Versus Devices

There is an important distinction to understand before beginning. A Smart Home Platform is not contained inside a device, such as a speaker. Rather, it is a series of servers on the Internet that are accessed, in part, by a smart speaker, smart screen, smartphone or the like.

This is important, because it may be easier to choose products to purchase after you explore the various platforms, without cost, using apps on your smartphone to get a feel for each, before committing to purchase something that may or may not fit your needs. You may also already own devices that coincide with a particular Smart Home Platform, which can also affect your decision.

Platforms Available

While there are many, the 3 major Smart Home platforms currently available are Amazon Alexa, Apple HomeKit, and Google Assistant.

Amazon Alexa
Amazon Alexa
  • Integrates tightly with Amazon's other products and services, such as the Amazon store, Amazon Video, Amazon Music, etc.
  • Products are low-cost, as Amazon subsidizes them.
  • Has a range of speakers, screens, and video streaming devices available, each with access to Amazon Alexa.
  • Has apps available for both iOS and Android smartphones.
Apple HomeKit
Apple HomeKit
  • Integrates tightly with Apple's other products and services using iCloud, such as the iPhone, iPad, iPod, Mac laptops and desktops.
  • Has closest ties to iTunes for media and services.
  • Apple HomePod speaker, and Apple TV integrate with Apple HomeKit.
  • Only works with Apple devices, does not support Android devices.
Google Assistant
Google Assistant
  • Integrates tightly with Google's Android-based devices.
  • Has a range of Google Home speakers and screens, Android TV and Chromecast media streaming devices, and Chromebook laptops.
  • App is available for Apple iOS devices.
IFTTT
IFTTT IFTTT is not the same type of platform as the other choices here. It stands for "If This, Then That"; meaning it provides a way to "trigger" one action using another.
  • Platform Agnostic; IFTTT can be an 'extra layer' you add, on top of and along side other Home Automation Platforms.
  • Provides simple, easy-to-understand triggering. For example, if you unlock your smart lock, turn on the hallway light.
  • App available to integrate with your iOS or Android smartphone, providing another way to control and trigger your smart home.

What Can Be Controlled

  • In most cases, your smart lighting, smart locks, smart plugs, and other smart home devices can be controlled with each.
  • Each can answer basic questions asked of it, such as "How tall is the Empire State Building?" or "What's the weather like?"
  • Each has an App available, so no extra hardware needs to be purchased to get a feel for how the assistant functions.
  • Each can be used by multiple family members, with their own individual settings for the platform, and controlling a single home's smart devices.
  • Many can also control your home media streaming devices, so you can simply say "Watch My Show in the Living Room." and your show will start playing.
  • Many also integrate with your smartphone and other communication services, so you can dictate a text message or e-mail, and send it without ever lifting your device.
  • You may also update your calendar, get the the news of the day, and many other features.
In each case, it is recommended to install the app (or, start using the app if it's pre-installed), linking the services and devices you may already have, and testing the platform out, rather than purchasing expensive speakers or other devices that may not do exactly what you want, how you want.
Amazon Alexa
Amazon AlexaAmazon's Alexa is a good match if you find yourself using the Amazon services, such as Amazon Video and Amazon Music frequently.

Amazon Alexa has excellent compatibility across Android and iOS devices, as well as most smart home devices.

Also, if you already own other Amazon devices, such as Fire tablets and streaming devices, Alexa will integrate well and is usually already available. It also has some ability to control third-party streaming devices, such as Roku.

Amazon's smart speakers are often times the lowest price as they are subsidized by Amazon, because you can also purchase other things from Amazon using voice commands directly.

More information is available on the web at https://www.amazon.com/b?node=17934671011.
You can always check this site to be sure a new home automation device you are thinking of purchasing is compatible.
Apple HomeKit
Apple HomeKitApple's HomeKit is a good match if you find yourself with a home full of Apple branded products already, such as iPhones and Mac computers.

Devices, such as Apple TV and HomePod, tend to be more expensive.

Can use some other streaming services.

Does not function well in 'mixed' environments. It has no ability to be installed or used on Android phones or other TV streaming devices outside ones provided by Apple.

Familiar, as it uses Siri for voice recognition.

More information is available on the web at https://www.apple.com/ios/home/.
You can always check this site to be sure a new home automation device you are thinking of purchasing is compatible.
Google Assistant
Google AssistantGoogle Assistant is a good match if you are already using Android phones, or have just a couple iOS devices. An app is available for iOS to allow them to use the Google Assistant.

Works well with many other streaming devices, such as Roku.

Has a huge range of speakers produced by Google, and Android TV devices made by Google and other companies that integrate well.

If you're already using GMail, Google Calendar, etc., will be able to access each of these and provide custom, personal responses to a greater variety of commands, such as "When is my next meeting?" or "Send an Email to John."

More information is available on the web at https://assistant.google.com/.
You can always check this site to be sure a new home automation device you are thinking of purchasing is compatible.
IFTTT
IFTTT IFTTT is a great addition to any of the other services mentioned here.

While you can't interact with IFTTT directly, you can write simple rules to create complex, useful, and fun interactions with your Smart Home devices.

Like the other Platforms listed here, it speaks to your various smart home devices. On top of that, IFTTT can speak to your various smart home services.

More information is available on the web at https://ifttt.com/.
You can always check this site to be sure a new home automation device you are thinking of purchasing is compatible.

We have a special guide available to give you more information on Amazon Alexa, and how it works.

Show Me How

Clicking this button will open a new guide that will provide you with steps to resolve your issue.

We have a special guide available to give you more information on Apple HomeKit, and how it works.

Show Me How

Clicking this button will open a new guide that will provide you with steps to resolve your issue.

We have a special guide available to give you more information on accessing Google Assistant, and how it works.

Show Me How

Clicking this button will open a new guide that will provide you with steps to resolve your issue.

Show Me How

Clicking this button will open a new guide that will provide you with steps to resolve your issue.

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