Skip to main content
Header links
 

Smart homes: everything you need to know for an easier life

Eva Tucker,
Tech journalist

A device-by-device breakdown of how a smart home works – and how smart technology can benefit you

Smart home

If you’ve heard the term ‘smart home’ bandied about, but aren’t sure what it means, we’re here to help. Because now, at our new Google Assistant-powered Smart Home in our Oxford Street store, you can experience first-hand what one looks like (and more importantly, what it does).

You’ll step into a brave new world – but one that’s designed to humanise what can sometimes feel like completely alien technology. Find out what it would be like to control everything – from the TV to your Christmas-tree lights – using your voice, from wherever you are in the house.

Partner & Smart Home Buyer Katrina Mills says: ‘We’re also excited about showcasing the new Google Home Hub. Customers will be able to see how it enables them to set up routines. Using a short command such as, “OK Google, goodnight,” it can turn off the lights, acclimatise your bedroom and even set an alarm for the morning.’

Once you’ve learnt how easy it is to set up a smart home – and how much it can benefit your life – you’ll never look back. Want to get a head start? We spoke to three experts about the products to try, and how they’ll help you.

Smart security

‘Whether you’ve got kids, pets, or would just like peace of mind, smart-home monitoring products mean you can set up cameras to check on your home, even if you’re in another country,’ says Holly Brockwell, founder of tech website Gadgette. ‘You can either watch a live stream through your phone or tablet, or just get alerts when the motion sensor is triggered.’

Smart health

One of the most exciting developments in smart technology is in health and wellbeing, with gadgets that help you keep an eye on your fitness, blood pressure, temperature and weight. You can even share the information with your family doctor, if you like.

‘You can see how your physical activity is impacting your body-fat percentage, and how well you sleep after a workout,’ says Holly. ‘There's a range of smart wellbeing products, including activity trackers and heart monitors.’

Smart energy savings

‘Ever left the central heating on when you’ve gone out for the day?’ asks Holly. ‘Smart thermostat systems let you turn it off instantly from your phone – no matter where you are – or you can tell them when you’re heading home to switch it back on, so it’s warm when you get in.’

Thermostats like Nest, with the ability to learn, go a step further. They can figure out your routine and customise your heating and hot water so it’s on when you need it and off when you don’t, helping to reduce your energy bills. Similarly, smart lighting like Philips Hue can be set to turn on when you enter a room, and off when you leave, plus you can change the colours and brightness to suit your mood. Both of these can also be controlled by Google Assistant.

Smart home monitoring

Smart kitchens

‘Smart home tech can be fun, too,’ says Holly. ‘Say you’re having friends over for dinner that night. You’re in the supermarket, trying to remember what’s in the fridge and whether you need to top up supplies. A smart fridge takes a photo every time you close the door, which you can access on your phone while you’re out, so a white wine shortage is averted.

‘When you’re cooking, you can use the screen on the front of the fridge to find the recipe you need, or use it to mirror your smart TV so you can cook along with your favourite chef.’

Smart family

Tech journalist and TV presenter Georgie Barrat explains how smart speakers can benefit a family home: ‘The family home is a complicated beast – it has to cater for many tastes and tasks. From the hub of the kitchen to the comfort of your living room and the sanctuary of the bedroom, each room has its own unique function.

‘If you’re looking for a home audio overhaul, a wireless speaker setup like Sonos should be top of your list. Wireless play not only allows you to have the same music playing in all the rooms in your home in glorious unison, you can also control from your smartphone exactly how loudly you want your kids blasting out their tunes. Setup is simple – just download the Sonos Controller app and you’ll have access to all your music, streaming services, podcasts and radio.’

Smart socialising

YouTuber Tom Honeyands says: ‘My housemates and I can never agree on what music to play. But whether we listen to Tom Petty’s Free Fallin’ [my choice] or Ed Sheeran’s Galway Girl [no comment], we all agree that buying a speaker was a great investment for the house as opposed to listening out of a phone or laptop’s tinny speakers.

‘We wanted something small enough to chuck in a bag or move between rooms, waterproof for the inevitable beer spillages, and good value for money. Most portable speakers will last at least 10 hours on battery or charge and are easy to connect to through Bluetooth or WiFi.’

Smart home speaker

How do I pull my smart home together?

With a smart speaker. You know how iPhones have Siri? That’s a voice assistant. But Apple isn’t the only company with one, and they no longer just exist inside your phone. Amazon and Google both offer voice assistants, and they live inside high-quality speakers. Amazon’s assistant is called Alexa, and Google’s is Google Assistant.

One assistant can exist in lots of different devices: Alexa has a smartphone app, the Amazon Echo and Dot speakers, as well as the Amazon Fire tablet and the Fire TV Stick. 

How will a smart speaker benefit me?

We’ve all got too much to do. Being able to command a virtual assistant to do something for you saves time, and it also means you can multitask more effectively. If your hands are covered in flour but you need a two-minute timer, you can set it by voice without even having to stop kneading.

Because virtual assistants live in a speaker with a microphone, they’re present in your home whenever you need them. Talking to one is like thinking out loud – instead of saying to yourself: ‘I need to buy bin bags,’ you can say: ‘Alexa, add bin bags to my shopping list,’ or if you’ve left the house: ‘Google, I forgot to turn the heating down,’ and it’s done.

What can a smart speaker do?

The main thing many people use their virtual assistant for is music. Both Amazon Echo and Google Home include high-quality speakers, and you can use them to dictate the music you’d like to listen to. You could say: ‘OK Google, play The White Album’ or ‘Alexa, play the song that goes “I would do anything for love,”’ and they’ll do it. You can play, pause, skip and change the volume hands-free, too – ideal for singing along while washing up.

Voice assistants can play digital radio stations, or read you the news. They can tell you what’s on your schedule for the day, what the traffic is like, even whether you’ll need an umbrella. 

Smart home nest

I’m not technical – how do I set up a smart home?

‘Don’t worry if you’re not a whizzkid,’ says Holly. ‘The majority of smart-home products are designed for everyone.  A few products might need professional installation, but that’ll be clear before you buy. For most, if you can use apps on your smartphone, you’re more than qualified.’

Can I mix and match brands, or do they all need to be the same to work together?

‘It depends on the product, but different brands often synchronise easily,’ says Holly. ‘Your Amazon Echo Dot will happily work with your Bose speaker, and the two together can control your Netatmo Thermostat. Similarly, Philips Hue lights can team up with Nest products and can be controlled through Google Assistant, and Withings smart scales work with Fitbit fitness trackers.’

What kind of WiFi do I need for smart-home products?

‘Most smart-home products actually use very little data, but they’ll need a stable connection,’ says Holly. ‘If you can use streaming services like Netflix on your WiFi, it’s easily good enough for most smart-home products – but do make sure you’re installing them in an area with strong signal.’

How can I get started?

‘A good place to start is your smoke alarm,’ suggests Holly. ‘It’s an essential safety tool that often gets neglected in busy homes, and smart tech can help you keep on top of maintenance. A great “set it and forget it” is the Nest Protect alarm. It detects both smoke and carbon monoxide fumes, tests itself 400 times a day and lasts up to 10 years. When it goes off, you’ll be alerted on your phone, and you can turn it off remotely from the garden when you realise you’ve burnt dinner.’

The Google Assistant-powered Smart Home will live permanently in our Oxford Street store and will open soon in Leeds, Oxford, Edinburgh and Southampton.