How to Build a Smart Home: A Beginner’s Guide

Do you wish your home was smarter? From optimizing household security to controlling lighting and temperature, smart home technology boasts a huge amount of potential. So, how can you turn your home into a smart home? This article outlines the basics of selecting and setting up a smart home system for your specific needs.

Designing your smart home
In the 20th century, it was said that a home should be a “machine for living,” and we now have access to countless smart devices which make that statement more possible than ever before.

How much does a smart home cost?
The price of building a smart home can vary greatly. The variety of connectible devices on the market is now wide enough that you can truly put most of your home’s functions online. And maybe your ideal smart home setup would just need one or two key devices (sometimes a single device can do quite a lot), thus keeping the cost down.

However, the amount of smart devices in your home isn’t necessarily indicative of the overall cost of your smart home. While certain individual devices can be quite expensive, a multitude of others can be rather affordable. Also to consider are subscription fees for certain devices, usually required for unlocking additional features.

So, for an introductory smart home, assuming you already have a home internet router and a smartphone, you can purchase a device like the Google Home Mini speaker for about $40. A decent smart TV can be purchased for about $500, and then you’ll already have two central smart home devices that can handle many tasks, though TVs do beget subscription services. Maybe forego the expensive TV and get some useful smaller items (which we discuss later in this piece) like smart lightbulbs for under $50 or even a smart thermostat for around $250 — then expect a minimal smart home to cost you about $600 or less. A midrange smart home will be around $1,000, and on the highest end, about $3,000.

With IoT devices, you should also take into account that it’s easy to incur extra costs when you start buying add-ons. For example, many smart speakers don’t have a smart display. Once you start using the device, you may find that you’d like to see your spoken commands, the results of your voice searches, or people’s faces while video chatting. You may end up paying more in the long run if you choose to get the display separately. Likewise, many other smart devices offer optional add-ons that can start to get pricey. There is often more than meets the eye when planning a smart home setup.

Since smart speakers are the most foundational IoT item, we now take a look at a few of the most prominent options on the market so you know where to start when setting up your new smart home.

Choosing your smart home system
One of the essentials many people choose when starting a smart home is a voice-controlled speaker. This device can serve as a central hub from which many other devices can be controlled. The major tech giants like Google, Amazon, and Apple make these devices. Let’s take a look at the advantages and disadvantages of each of their products.

Google Assistant
If you do a bit of research, you will see that Google’s smart devices, which make use of the Google Assistant AI, are really impressive in certain areas, and somewhat lacking in others. Here’s a broad look at the Google Home smart speaker products.

The pros:
They have an excellent ability to answer questions and make use of Google’s massive Knowledge Graph. This means that Google Home speakers are tailored to provide factual responses to a wide array of questions, answer your follow-up questions, and understand some colloquial English. In their current version, they can recognize different user voices. In these ways, they feel more “human” and conversational than their rival products.

They are indeed speakers, so they can play music from YouTube, Google Play, and Spotify, or can send audio to other speakers in your home. Plus, they can send video from online platforms to your TV. They also support Bluetooth.

You can give commands that involve other smart devices like “turn on the living room lights”. You can make hands-free calls within the US and Canada (but the speakers can’t receive calls).

The cons:
If you’re looking to make a Google Home speaker the center of your smart home, you may want to consider that its compatibility with other products is more limited than Amazon’s (though it’s still quite huge).

There aren’t enough buttons on the simple speaker models (for that you’d have to invest in a model with a built-in display, the Google Home Hub). Yes, voice recognition is one of the marketed benefits of a smart home speaker, but sometimes seeing and typing is what you need.

Google speakers can’t send emails, which even some cars can do. If you want to act like Iron Man wandering around his cyber-mansion, shooting off pointed missives using nothing but your golden voice, well, better look elsewhere.

Amazon Alexa
Alexa is Amazon’s AI interface, which is used in their Echo smart speaker series. Echo speakers are currently rather affordable, and certain models can be had for less than $100.

The pros:
Alexa has a massive, ever-growing amount of “skills”, which are the equivalent of third party apps for things like weather, traffic reports, homework help, car ordering, and almost anything else you can think of.

You can give commands that involve other smart devices like “turn on the living room lights”. You can make hands-free calls, but will need an extra piece (Echo Connect) to receive calls.

Alexa systems are compatible with the award-winning Sonos speakers if you really want a high-fidelity, hands-free listening experience.

The cons:
Compared to Alexa, Google Assistant devices are better for quickly answering factual questions since they have that massive knowledge base. If you dream of wandering around your living room, awash in discrete bits of info, better go with the Google system. However, Alexa’s Skills compatibility does partially make up for this.

Unlike Google speakers, Amazon’s speakers have to be told to switch users so they can understand different voices.

The sound quality of many Echo speakers is considered to be lacking compared to its competitors.

Apple Siri
Apple products have a certain cachet to them, and their devoted followers aren’t going anywhere. And, since they are a major company and have released a competitor product to the Amazon Echo and Google Home, we feel compelled to compare it. However, it should be known that the functionality of Apple’s Home Pod is much smaller than the previous two mentioned.

Apple’s Siri is their AI assistant, which is part of many of their devices. Let’s take a look at what it can do within the Home Pod speaker.

The pros:
Apple HomePod is decidedly the best-sounding of the three smart speakers discussed here, plus it has volume controls on it, so it’s more of an actual speaker than the others. Its main function is to play music. If great audio is your primary need in a smart speaker, you won’t have to buy another piece like a Sonos speaker to make everything sound great.

You can create custom commands to control smart home features, but bear in mind, if you’re centering your smart home around this Apple product, then you have to be prepared to invest in the more limited array of devices that are compatible with HomeKit, which is Apple’s software for connecting various smart devices.

You can stream music from your phone to HomePod simply by putting your iPhone near the device, and it has an elegant touch-sensitive top to regulate volume. Or, if you prefer to keep your distance, the HomePod’s microphone is quite good at picking up your voice from far away.

The cons:
Limited compatibility. HomePod is the most expensive and least compatible of the three brands discussed here. While the Google and Amazon speakers are compatible with Apple phones, it doesn’t work the other way: you must use an iPhone or an iPad as displays for HomePod to work, and those will each cost you a pretty penny. Moreover, since there are currently no models with built-in displays for HomePod, you will end up paying much more than you would for a compact model with built-in display from Google and Amazon.

Limited functionality. You can’t order food or rides with it, set calendar events, or make phone calls.

If querying your smart speaker like you were a game show host is your primary interest, then probably don’t go with a Siri device: it’s reportedly not as skilled as the two competitor AI systems mentioned here. This lack of sophistication also includes not being able to discern different voices — anyone talking can activate it, which may be a problem.