How to set up a smart home in 2023

Setting up smart home devices
Setting up smart home devices

Starting a smart home can seem daunting – but it doesn’t have to be. With a few simple steps, you can control your lights from your phone, ask for music with your voice, install a security system or remotely chat with delivery drivers via your front doorbell.

This isn’t some far-fetched idea plucked from Star Trek or Minority Report – there are loads of wifi-connected gadgets you can install for your home, and they’re consistently getting better at communicating with each other. Plan it right, and your day-to-day routine will become significantly easier.

What is a smart home?

A smart home is any property that uses internet-connected gadgets and products to control or manage appliances or devices, usually from an app on your smartphone, tablet or computer. There are a massive variety of smart devices these days, including lighting, wifi security cameras, plugs, doorbells, audio systems, locks, alarms, doorbells, thermostats and TVs. Once installed, you can set routines to make multiple devices work together at the same time, or use automation to schedule the devices to work without needing your input at all. The ultimate aim: to make your life easier.

How to create a smart home

Most smart home devices connect via your home internet and an app, meaning it’s usually a case of connecting the power (or battery), adding your wifi details and downloading the official software for control. But the last thing you want is to be sifting through multiple apps every day to manage a dozen different smart home devices – so the real task is to have your connected products communicating with each other in tandem.

When first setting up smart products you’re usually forced to start with the official app, before then linking it to Amazon’s Alexa, Google Home or the Apple Home app. You control the product with either method from then on.

Delve deeper into smart jargon and you’ll see loads of names for wireless communication protocols (essentially the way your devices can chat with each other) alongside Bluetooth and wifi – in particular, Zigbee, Z-Wave and Thread. Many of the most popular smart home gadgets work fine with multiple protocols, but not always – for example, Amazon’s Echo speakers directly support Zigbee, but not Z-wave. This slightly confusing situation is partly what makes creating a frictionless smart home so difficult.

One protocol to watch out for is Matter. This has the support of Google, Amazon, Apple and Samsung and should (theoretically) help to make those brands’ products communicate better than they are now. Yes, viewing a Ring feed on a Google display could soon be a reality.

Not sure which device works with your ecosystem? It sounds simple, but check the box or the specs. This will be described as “Works with Google Assistant,” “Works with Alexa,” and “Works with Apple HomeKit” – and don’t forget that not all smart devices are made to work with all three.

Picking your brand

Before you even think about installing any actual gadgets into your home, you’ll need to pick an ecosystem as your foundation: Amazon Alexa, Google Home or Apple HomeKit. While there are others – such as Home Assistant or Samsung SmartThings – we think newcomers to the smart home world will find one of those big three brands to be the smoothest overall experience, and they have the most compatible devices.

Amazon Alexa

One of the more affordable entryways, Amazon sells loads of smart home gadgets and has strong third-party support. All of the gear works with the Alexa voice assistant so you can control them with simple voice commands – such as “Alexa, play music” or “Alexa, turn the living room lights on” and it’s all controlled via a single smartphone app. It’s also easy to set up “routines” that automate how your gadgets work in sync, such as turning on the lights and playing some soothing music at a specific time of the day.

Google Home

One of the main competitors to Amazon, Google sells a variety of smart home products, including speakers, displays, doorbells, security cameras and thermostats. They all have Google Assistant built-in for voice commands, and we generally find that it’s slightly more conversational than Alexa. Google Home also has strong third-party support and is compatible with lots of other brands like Philips Hue, Nanoleaf, Dyson, Arlo, Tado and Roku. These gadgets are all controlled via a single Google Home app.

Apple HomeKit

A clear winner if you’re already ingrained in the brand and have iOS products at home, HomeKit is the name of Apple’s own smart home platform. It lets you run all of your smart home products from your iPhone or iPad, or using the Siri voice assistant. The amount of compatible gizmos is limited compared to Amazon or Google platforms, but there are still a great variety of options and strong third-party support, including speakers, plugs, cameras and bulbs. These are controlled by the Home app. And, as always, Apple products are easy to set up and work seamlessly with each other.

Smart speakers

This is arguably the best place to start when creating a smart home. One of the best smart speakers also serves as a hub that’s used to control the rest of your smart gadgets. These work by connecting to your wifi, and can be controlled either by an app, buttons on the device itself, or the built-in voice assistant, whether that’s Alexa, Siri or Google Assistant.

They come in a range of shapes and sizes – from the tiny Echo Pop to the much larger Echo Show 15 – and are ideal for music (launched using voice commands or from a streaming app like Spotify or Apple Music), or giving you the time, real-time weather or news reports.

Amazon’s Echo series wins for pure versatility as its speakers come in lots of different sizes, power levels and price points. Google has two Nest speakers, and Apple also has two options: the HomePod and HomePod mini. Other speaker brands come with voice assistants built in – including some of the best multi-room speakers, such as the Sonos Era 100 or Bose Speaker 500.

Smart displays

While the functionality is similar, unlike smart speakers, displays have touch screens so you can navigate the menus or change settings with swipes and taps, alongside the built-in voice assistant. They’ll show you the date and time, let you watch videos, use apps and check your calendar while working as a hub for controlling other smart devices.

We prefer these as bedside devices as you’ll clearly see the time illuminated on the screen, and they fit nicely into our decor because you can change the background wallpaper or the layout of the homepage to suit your design choices. We use ours to show family photos.

Smart speakers are ideal for reading along with recipes while cooking (while also catching up on a streaming show episode, too) and for checking out album artwork as you listen to music. Amazon and Google both have displays (the Echo Show and the Nest Hub), however, Apple does not currently make one. Google has a Pixel tablet that also doubles as a smart display.

Smart lighting

Another way to expand your smart home is by installing smart lighting – wifi-connected bulbs or fixtures that are controlled by an app or voice commands via a smart speaker or display. You can change their brightness, choose from a massive selection of colours or even add automation that switches off all the lights in your home at a specific time of the day.

While they still need your physical switch to be on for power, we adore the convenience of smart bulbs, particularly for providing mood lighting and being able to remotely handle the dimming. Forget to turn off the lights after getting comfy in bed? You can solve that with a tap.

Some smart lighting pairs with your home wifi network while other models use Bluetooth or a wireless technology such as Zigbee or Z-Wave. Some of the more expensive models – especially Philips Hue – require a “bridge” hub to act as a go-between if you plan on using dozens of bulbs – this extends the range you can control the bulbs from.

There are lots of affordable third-party options compatible with the major smart platforms, including WiZ, Nanoleaf and TP-Link. Not sure if the smart bulb is compatible with your chosen ecosystem? Look out for a sticker on the box stating if it “Works with” Google, Alexa or Apple HomeKit.

Smart plugs

If you think your coffee maker, floor lamp or slow cooker can’t fit into your smart home, think again. You’ll want to pop them into a normal wall socket via a smart plug. These connect to your home wifi network and let you control appliances or gadgets from an app on your smartphone.

You pair the plug to your wifi during setup, then you can use it to switch on and off any appliance that’s attached to it – or even schedule them to activate or turn off at specific times.

It’s another way the smart home adds to your daily convenience. Some also measure how much energy is used by whatever gadget is plugged into them, and they’re ideal if you’re someone who’s always forgetting to turn off your red-hot hair straighteners or electric blanket after leaving the house.

We’ve tested the best smart plugs – featuring top brands such as Humax, TP-Link and Meross – and there are lots of options whether you’re on Alexa, Google or HomeKit. One of the best aspects of smart plugs is affordability: you can pick up a basic model for under £20.

Home security

A smart home is a more secure home. A video doorbell shows you the view outside your home and lets you chat with visitors, and a smart lock lets you use your phone to allow access to your door without a physical key.

A wifi security alarm system includes sirens, cameras, motion sensors and floodlights. Installing indoor cameras gives peace of mind for your private space while doubling as a way to keep an eye on your kids playing.

All of these pair to your wifi and are controlled via an app. Some, in particular doorbells and cameras, can also be controlled via whichever voice assistant you’re using in your home – or send alerts and live feeds to a display. Installation of some security gear (such as locks or sirens) requires professional help, but the majority of these smart products are DIY.

We’ve been using a fairly simple setup for the past few months and it’s an affordable way of bulking up home security.

We have a Ring Video Doorbell (Gen 2) and that shows a live view of the front side of our home (it’s also helpful for quickly checking out the on-street parking situation!), with pings going straight to our phone and the multiple Amazon Echo Dot speakers around the house when a visitor presses the button. Covering the back door is a SimpliSafe Indoor Camera with motion detection alerts that also come directly to our smartphone in real time.

Smart thermostats

The best smart homes simplify your life, so why not consider adding a smart thermostat to help monitor the temperature of each room at home using your smartphone or tablet? These can learn your routines to adjust the heating as needed and can be controlled via a voice assistant. Once set up, you can ask your smart speaker to set a temperature for you.

These work by connecting your boiler to your wifi. A hub component is installed into the boiler (this needs constant power so light wiring is required), and this communicates to a thermostat controller. You’ll download an app that wirelessly connects to the controller, which can be mounted onto your wall or propped up on a cabinet.

Smart thermostats sense the temperature in a room and make changes to the settings based on your preferences, update the thermostat if it senses the room is getting too hot or cold, or use geofencing to change the settings as you enter and leave the home. They won’t directly save you money on energy, but we find they’re good for monitoring energy usage.

Starting small and naming

It’s tempting to go overboard, but starting a smart home doesn’t have to be complicated. We recommend starting with a speaker and smart lighting or a simple plug and building it out from there.

An Amazon Echo Dot speaker paired with a Ring Video doorbell may not sound as fun as motion sensors and automated routines with music and lights, but this bundle is a great entryway into the smart home world.

Every smart device you add to your home setup will have its own name, and we highly recommend choosing wisely so you’re not confused about whether you should be blasting music at full volume through “Echo Dot 1” or “Echo Dot 2”. Trust us, you’ll end up waking the children. Go for names like “Bedroom Echo Dot” or “Living Room Echo Dot” instead.

So, assign devices simple, easy to understand, names and it’ll be much easier to tell them apart when glancing through the apps. This is very important if you plan on expanding the number of devices you have in the future.

Automation and routines

If you want to take your smart home to the next level we recommend adding some automation and routines. This is when multiple smart home devices are working in sync – for example, lights dimming and music playing at a specific time of the day or when you say “good morning,” or how about pinging a notification to your smartphone and playing a sharp chime when a motion sensor in your home is triggered.

All of the major platforms – Amazon Alexa, Google Home, Apple HomeKit, Samsung SmartThings and Home Assistant – let you create routines and automation as long as your smart devices are connected to the relevant app.

A routine is when multiple functions work under a single command via an app or voice assistant. Automation is when devices (usually security or heating systems) operate without your input – a prime example is geofencing, which creates a virtual perimeter around your home and senses when you come or go, then starts or stops smart devices.

Getting the perfect routine will likely take some time, and not all devices play well with each other (as we mentioned earlier the upcoming Matter protocol could be really helpful with this in the near future) but it’s a fun way of experimenting with more complex smart home capabilities, and adding even more convenience to your daily (or bedtime) routine.

Security and privacy

When you start a smart home, you’ll possibly be welcoming cameras and microphones into your private spaces.

We recommend using strong passwords and only buying smart devices from brands that have trustworthy reputations and positive reviews, and it could be worth a check to see if the manufacturer has suffered data breaches or hacking incidents where user information was compromised.

If you want to use an indoor camera, consider what (or who) will be in its field of view when it’s on, and consider popping it into a smart plug so you can turn it off remotely if needed. Devices with microphones usually have a way to mute them or deactivate the voice assistant, and doing this is a good way of ensuring they aren’t listening in by mistake.

Most reputed smart home devices let you use multi-factor authentication, also known as two-factor authentication, and we recommend it. This lets you add a secondary device (usually a phone) when logging into your account, and you’re sent a code or PIN to that device to get access. It extends the time it takes to log in, but can limit the risk of unauthorised access.