Avast Academy Privacy Digital Life How to Build a Smart Home: A Beginner’s Guide

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.

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Written by Colin Asher
Published on September 17, 2019

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.

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    Smart home devices, also known as IoT (Internet of things) devices, are made to wirelessly connect to each other, thus creating an automated system in your home.

    Before you begin to invest in a smart home, you should consider the following:

    • What you specifically want from the system

    • How many people will be using the system

    • How much money you’re willing to spend

    Speaking of expenses, let’s take a more in-depth look at how much building a smart home will affect your wallet.

    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.


    It should be noted that the pros and cons mentioned here apply in general to the given line of smart speakers. Different models within a brand vary, but we’ve aimed to give you the best general overview of their different capabilities. Also, like all technology, smart speakers are a rapidly evolving field, so if you’re planning on investing in one of the above, use these pros and cons as a starting point, but always check the newest versions as certain features and pricing will be different.

    Building your smart home system

    Not only is a given smart device more capable than it may first appear, but there is now a very diverse array of smart devices on the market. Though it may initially seem tempting to smart-out and automate nearly every household item you own, you should consider whether these new devices are actually well-made and useful. For many products, the original analog version still beats the newfangled version in effective simplicity.

    So, it’s probably best to stick to the essentials. We’ve already covered smart speakers, which are the hub of many a smart home, but in the following sections, we’ll cover several other fundamental smart home devices. When connected to your Wi-Fi network, smart home devices can be controlled by voice or an app via your home smart speaker whether you’re at home or away (using your smartphone).

    And don’t forget: security first! The foundation of your smart home isn’t complete without  good security like Avast One. Get it to protect your router and all your online devices, whether you’re at home or on the go.

    Smart lighting

    While a single smart bulb is much more expensive than a regular light bulb, it will save energy and last longer. Consider the fact, though, that you may have to get quite a few smart light bulbs for their addition to amount to more than just a novelty in your home.

    Like most IoT devices, smart light bulbs have features that are quite useful, and others that are more for amusement. The ability to be dimmed or brightened using your phone or even a voice command is probably the most central, useful feature. Changing colors is probably less necessary, though many people find this a charming aspect of smart lighting.

    If you’re really into automation, you can customize your smart lighting. This means that you can set timers for the lights to go on or off (so you’ll never forget to turn them off again when leaving the house). More sophisticated bulbs make use of the GPS in your smartphone (the primary controller device for most IoT products) and can tell when you enter/exit a room and adjust the lights accordingly.

    Smart temperature systems

    Smart temperature systems work on the same principles as smart lighting: the higher-level systems are designed to know what you want and automate much of the standard manual adjustments that one has to make with non-smart systems.

    For example, the smart thermostat company Nest, which recently joined forces with Google, makes a “learning” thermostat that figures out what your preferences are and begins to adjust them accordingly after it collects enough data on your habits. This way, it can keep you comfortable and save energy while you’re away.

    And, many companies like Nest/Google that make one type of smart device also make companion devices to work perfectly with them, which eliminates your need to extensively research compatibility between different brands.

    Smart security devices

    The field of smart home security devices is rather diverse. You may choose to invest in a whole system or a single device.

    Some are DIY (install it yourself), others require professional installation. Then, some systems require you to do the monitoring yourself, while others involve a subscription fee where you pay to have your home monitored round-the-clock and the police/fire department contacted when the alarms go off.

    Video doorbells are one of the most popular single security devices. Yes, the days of the simple peephole are over: now you can look at your smartphone screen to see who’s standing upon your threshold. For some people, this device may have a paranoid ring to it; for others, it may just be a reasonable way to avoid going all the way to your front door and pretending to not be at home.

    And having a home security camera doesn’t mean you need to hire a lonely guard with coffee and newspaper to sit watch. IoT security cameras have sophisticated motion sensors that can be tweaked to overlook the movement of pets, falling leaves, etc. In the event of an actual threat, they will notify you via — guess what — your smartphone.

    Smart household appliances

    Fridges, washing machines, vacuum cleaners — yes, as we’ve mentioned earlier, almost everything can be a smart device these days.

    Samsung, for example, is producing more sophisticated washing machines than ever before. Have you ever scratched your head in front of an abstruse control panel? Well, their smartphone interface makes it easy to select exactly the kind of wash you want, including notifications when it’s done. No more having to listen to that plaintive shriek coming from your basement.

    Smart vacuums are a very popular type of IoT device, so they are worth mentioning here. These machines use their sensors to learn the layout of your house. You can then control them on the app in order to set them to clean certain parts of your home at certain times. Figuring out your habits is what makes a good smart device tick, so if a vacuum’s data-collecting feels invasive to you, as it’s been reported to be, well then you may be in the wrong e-shop aisle — or, consider the security options we’ll expound on later in this article.

    There are now many types of smart home appliances (garbage cans, coffee makers, slow cooker pots) but of course the refrigerator is always a main contender for the main home nucleus. With this in mind, Samsung has perhaps attempted to disrupt the smart speaker market by outfitting its Family Hub refrigerator with its own voice assistant: Bixby. Samsung’s fridge is indeed an overachieving monolith of technology, which basically has a vertical flatscreen television embedded in its door. This screen is where you can track the produce in your fridge, along with expiration dates, and plan shopping lists. You can also interact with a multitude of other apps like ridesharing, food ordering, recipes, and you can even watch your favorite TV shows on its screen if you don’t want to miss that big touchdown while you’re slow-roasting pork.

    Smart plugs

    Many smart plugs are compatible with Amazon and Google products, but as you may suspect, fewer work for Apple, so take a look at the specs for the plug you want to buy. Some smart plugs let you monitor how much energy you’re using, but after that, the conclusions you reach are up to you (Hey Junior, no more Nintendo!). The great thing about smart plugs is that they let you control non-smart devices without having to actually buy whole new devices. You can even program devices to activate in unison, for example, turn lights down low, turn music on, and turn up the heat...well, you can use your imagination. Such unison programming is referred to as “scenes”, and with them your home will start to approach the charming levels of automation at one time reserved for the jaded protagonists of sci-fi movies.

    Securing your smart home

    Let’s face it: smart home devices have come under a lot of fire for their security risks. And while it’s understandable that these concerns may all merge into one large paranoid stew, it should be noted that there are different sides to IoT security concerns: those that are fundamental to the functioning of IoT devices, and those that represent more exceptional breaches of these machines.

    On the basic or fundamental side, there’s the issue of your data and its use by smart device creators. While big companies don’t want to pillage your bank account (at least not directly), they do want to make money off knowing your habits and maximizing all the personal data collected by your smart devices. Being brutally honest, if this very idea frightens you, then you should probably refrain from investing in a smart home to begin with. While companies could always play safer with your data — this issue will become more important every year — data collection of your home and your habits is what makes smart home devices smart in the first place — it’s germane to how they function, so don’t expect this situation to rectify itself.

    And on the more exceptional side, there is the possibility of meddling by hackers. And since all your smart devices will likely be connected, one device being attacked can compromise your whole system. Smart devices are especially vulnerable to inclusion in a botnet, since they typically don’t offer strong security measures.

    On a basic level, there are various precautions you can take. On a deeper level, securing smart devices is the new frontier for companies like Avast. Unfortunately, many smart devices weren’t built with security in mind because it would be quite expensive to equip each device with the necessary security. That’s where a strong cybersecurity app like Avast One comes in. Detect threats in real time and keep your home network and all the devices connected to it safe.

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    Digital Life
    Colin Asher