Without a doubt, one of the biggest areas of growth in technology currently is in home automation, or smart home technology. Over the recent Christmas holiday I decided to take my own first tentative steps into this world.
Up to this point, to some extent, I have been skeptical about smart home technology, asking myself for example "Isn't it actually easier to flip a light-switch on the wall as I enter the room than to invoke a smart assistant such as Siri, or to take my phone out of my pocket?" In addition, there are a lot of different manufacturers offering products, and a lot of difficult language and references to hubs and bridges, so getting started seemed quite a daunting task. But in truth I know there are benefits to be had, and I am someone who likes to stay up to date with the latest tech, so decided it was time to take a closer look.
My situation is a tricky one when it comes to this, as I live in a rented apartment and have very limited ability to make changes, so things like smart door locks and perhaps some other items are out of the question for the time being at least.
Without going into unnecessary detail, the central heating system is very poor here, so I and most of my neighbours rely instead on plug-in electric radiators. Mine do not have an ability to set timers, at least not an accessible way, so I often have to wake up to, or arrive home to, a cold apartment. This makes them the perfect place to start my smart home technology journey.
My decision was to purchase a couple of smart plugs, one for the electric radiator in the living room, and one for the heater in the bedroom. The ones I got, or in fact were gifted to me, were from TP Link, though there are many options available. Through their app for iOS, called Kasa, setup was a breeze. By following a few simple steps, I had my plugs, and therefore my electric radiators, connected to the wifi and manageable from my iPhone.
Things do get a little more complex from here. I'm no expert in this area as I eluded to at the beginning, far from it in fact, but stick with me as I try to explain what I can and can't do with these plugs out of the box. These plugs connect directly to the wifi, and therefore do not require a bridge or hub. As long as I am in my home and connected to wifi, I can switch them on and off, and crucially for me, set up schedules.
What I did not know or expect was that I would not be able to control the plugs from outside the home, at least not without a hub or bridge of some sort. I could have chosen, so far as I can tell, to go out and buy a bridge from the same manufacturer, or a compatible one. Instead though, a magical little cylinder called the Amazon Echo stepped into the breech for me.
As well as being able to switch the plugs on or off with my voice using the Echo, I can also switch them on or off when outside of the home via the Amazon Alexa app for iOS. This is fantastic. As it turns out, the particular plugs I got are enabled for both Amazon Alexa and Google Home, but not Apple's HomeKit. If they were HomeKit enabled, I would also be able to use the Home app on my iPhone to achieve the same thing, with my Apple TV or an iPad which is on the wifi network playing the role of the Amazon Echo for remote access to the plugs.
The story doesn't end there though. I have much more study to do on this subject, but it seems that many smart home devices do still need a hub or bridge, and cannot simply connect directly to Apple HomeKit or Amazon Echo. Most smart lightbulbs for example it seems require a hub or bridge. This is because while my plugs communicate via wifi, many other smart devices use different connection protocols, in part to be more energy efficient, and so need that bridge to, well, bridge the gap.
So where to next for me? Well I'm absolutely delighted with my smart plugs, they have brought much needed warmth into my apartment this winter and are very easy to manage and use. I am still a little sceptical about smart lights, though can admit that there are circumstances where they could be useful. My next priority though is to investigate whether I can get a smart panel for my hot water system. Wish me luck!
My advice if you are sceptical about smart home technology, or find it all a little daunting, is to start as I did with something simple like smart plugs. You may stop there, or decide to keep building. If you use Apple products it is advisable to look for products which are compatible with Apple HomeKit, though depending on what other tech you have in your home, that may or may not be essential. It's still relatively early days for this technology, but it looks to be growing and growing. Best of luck with building your home of the future!