Our Top Pick for 2018: Amazon Echo
Read our full review.
As we approach the level of gadgetry that is often featured in a bevy of sci-fi publications and films, a means of interconnecting them all becomes a goal that is now becoming more and more of a reality. The first of these types of home automation systems became available in 1978, when X10 products produced a 16 channel command console that controlled lamps, appliances, and electronics. Today, you can control your lighting, your music, get news updates, and automate your security systems all from the comfort of your connected smart device. As our tech becomes increasingly interconnected, the amount of choices will continue to increase. We’ve done some research and produced three picks that are among some of the best on the market today. Take a look at some more ways that you can automate your technologically advanced household.
#1. Amazon Echo
Our Gold Pick is one of the most popular picks on Amazon, which is appropriate considering that it is an Amazon product itself. The Amazon Echo was initially released by the retail giant in 2014 and was an Amazon Prime member only item. As Amazon began to produce more and more software revisions, the Amazon Echo became available for those who don’t have a Prime account in June 2015. As our Gold Pick, a product has to be both a critical and consumer darling, and as of this writing, Amazon has sold over three million of the Amazon Echo units.
Firstly, when you look at this device, you’ll be taken by the fact that it really looks like a relatively large Bluetooth speaker. It’s fully cylindrical, about nine inches in height and three and a half inches in diameter. The top of the unit is ringed in a LED strip that can take on different hues depending on the setting and operation. Circling the base of the unit is an omni-directional speaker that produces pretty good sound, though not quite as high of a quality sound than you’d receive with a dedicated Bluetooth speaker.
For those who aren’t discerning audiophiles, this is a great speaker system that also happens to primarily function as a home automation hub. This unit’s sounds are created by a dedicated 2.5 inch woofer that delivers crisp, thrumming bass tones, and a 2.0 inch tweeter that does a great job providing crisp and clear high notes. The Echo also utilizes a reflex port around the top of the unit to enhance the bass output of the woofer. This ensures that, even at high volumes, the bass generated by this device will be distortion-free. Overall volume is adjusted at the top of the device’s sides where you’ll find a spinnable ring, turn the ring one way (clockwise) to boost the volume and the other (counterclockwise) to throttle it downwards.
Along the top of the unit, and hidden from sight by a circular grill, there is a recessed array seven of microphones that are designed to pick up voice inputs from any direction. When you utter the word “Alexa”, you’ll activate the devices virtual assistant of the same name. This is quite a step beyond other virtual assistants like Siri, who you have to hold the Apple button down to activate, Google Now,which requires that you have to say “Ok Google” on certain screens to use voice commands, or Microsoft’s Cortana, where you have to say “Hey Cortana” to activate the system’s simulated AI.
Atop the unit, ensconced in the already mentioned circular LED, you will find two buttons. One of these buttons displays a crossed out microphone icon. This icon turns off voice commands and protects the device from those situations where the term “Alexa” comes up frequently in conversation (maybe you know someone by that name?). The second button, which is only adorned with a single central dot, is the action button; this is used to wake the device, dismiss alarms, or set up the Wi-Fi connectivity for the device.
If you want to jam out to a track, or set up some good reading music, this automation system has you covered. There are several music catalogs that Alexa can contact, including Pandora, Intune Radio, iHeartRadio, Amazon Music, and Spotify. Simply tell Alexa the track you want to hear or tell her what kind of genre you’re interested in, and she’ll pick you out an appropriate selection of music. The sound is generally good, but don’t be surprised if the sound is slightly tinny; still the Echo has many functions that more than makes up for a very slight degradation in sound quality.
Do you like to keep up with the headlines? Simply ask the Echo to read you the latest headlines from places like Huffpost, the daily news, or you can simply say, “Alexa, news briefing,” for a generalized account of the most newsworthy information. Other services are also available through this home automation system, including ordering a car through Uber, checking on when you need gas through services like Automatic, finding when your favorite show airs, or ordering food directly from places like Dominos. Also, since this is an Amazon product, and Amazon started with books, you can even have Alexa play back audio books bought through the service; a feature that’s perfect for when you want to drink a glass of wine and be whisked away to another literary world.
The suite of devices and peripherals that can be controlled by Alexa is already immense and constantly growing. As the list of automation controllable devices broadens, Amazon seemingly finds ways to bake connectivity into the ever-updating Echo firmware. You can control Phillips Hue lighting through the software, lock doors connected to Smartlock systems, adjust your home’s internal temperature through smart thermostats, and activate home security systems; all through voice commands.
As mentioned, the Echo is a very popular device. On Amazon, there are over 36,000 reviews, and out of this vast number, 86 percent are positive; garnering at least a four star rating. Many customers seem to agree that the Echo makes life easier, and sound quality issues aside, the device is well built and very functional. Here is an example of one Amazon testimonial:
“The best money I’ve ever spent on Amazon – hands down. This device has exceeded my expectations so far, and it’s still growing every week! I really believe that this is the immediate future of working with computers – through voice. The IOT (Internet Of Things) is here to stay and this is one of the first real home-use examples of it. I also believe that this will serve as a great *gateway* to other IOT devices in your life – to the point of you not even realizing you using them.”
#2. Samsung SmartThings Hub
Our Silver Pick is a very different style of device than the one we selected for our Gold Pick selection. Developed by SmartThings, a company that specializes in home automation that was purchased by Samsung electronics, this device is designed to interface seamlessly with a myriad of gadgets that you can have around the house; even the Amazon Echo. This device is a great addition to any household, and will ensure that your living space progresses easily into the next generation of connected homes.
Simply put, the Samsung SmartThings Hub was created to provide a very specific solution to owners of many different smart devices; this hub centralizes what can be a very confusing tedious control scheme. The bottom line is, if you have a plethora of these types of devices, you often will have to access one application for your Phillips Hue bulbs, another for your Garagio smart garage control system, and yet another application on your phone to control your home security system. While this might seem like a slight foible that is easily overcome with diligence, it would be nice to have everything centralized, like how a universal remote functions.
Fortunately, this is exactly what this SmartThings Hub accomplishes. All of your devices will be directly supported in the application that for the device. The hub is able to broadcast in both Z-wave and Zigbee protocols, so you won’t have to worry about compatibility issues. There is a plethora of supported devices as well as an online community of developers that develop control schemes for unsupported peripherals before Samsung officially does so. The result of all this is, this home automation system has some of the best connectivity on the market.
Aesthetically, the SmartThings hub is a very simple-looking device. Designed to fit in anywhere, the home automation hub is white and rectangular; it just looks like a small white box that has a small indentation on the top and rounded, upward tapering corners. While mostly nondescript, there are several connectors positioned on one corner of the device. These include two USB ports for future expansion, an AC adapter jack for powering the unit, and an Ethernet port. This unit cannot connect to your home network via Wi-Fi, so you’ll have to connect it directly to your router via Ethernet cables.
The application that grants all of the connected functionality is available on Android, iOS, and Windows devices. Some have found its user interface to be a bit clunky, but there are definitely some great features inherent in this application. One of the most useful features that you can utilize on an Android Smartphone or tablet is the ability to create a dedicated widget for your most used commands. You can set this widget up anywhere on your phone’s home screens so that you’ll be able to easily turn off lights, start up your HDTV, and control your ambient temperature through a smart AC or through a smart home thermostat system like Nest. You can even set routines through the widget that will activate your home security system while you are away or activate a series of connected gadgets when you wake up in the morning.
When using sensors to establish home security, you can use the application to monitor the status of different rooms in your house; as a matter of fact, there is also a SmartThings kit that also provides a few of these types of sensors if you want to start out, though you can use third party sensor systems as well. To check the status of monitored rooms, simply click the ‘Home’ tab and you’ll see the status of all sensors in all rooms as well as any status messages that have been broadcast in the past.
Another cool function of the application is the ‘Things’ tab. This tab categorizes devices by room. For example, one room will be setup as ‘kitchen’, from this selection, you’ll be able to directly monitor the lighting in your kitchen, and start up your smart coffee pot when you get up. From another selection, like the ‘garage’ button, you can check the status of lights and devices in your garage. This is particularly helpful in those situations where you’ve left a light on; simply cycle through the rooms and any still illuminated, connected light source will display as ‘on’ in the app UI.
The next tab is where Smart Apps are hosted, this is very important to the overall experience as these are where supported and developer released apps for your smart home will be housed. Here is where you will be able to select a color for your Hue bulbs, manage your various smart locks, or manage the temperature in the sometimes freezing area through Nest.
Of the nearly 700 reviews on Amazon, only 52 percent are positive. The reason for this is that there is a current problem with a software patch that Samsung is working on currently. Prior to these issues there was a much higher approval rating of over 70 percent. Even bearing this unfortunate situation in mind, those that have given this unit a five star rating have done so with exceedingly glowing reviews. Here is one example:
“These really work as described. I’ve had very few problems with me and it seems like Smart Things got it right with this. No monthly fees, connect to hundreds of devices. This is really the best gun on the market.”
#3. VeraEdge Home Controller
Our Bronze Pick is the VeraEdge Home Controller. This device is produced by one of the first home automation companies on the market, The company formerly known as Mi Casa Verde, but now simply called Vera. Vera is dedicated to providing simple and intuitive controls for your home peripherals, and of all of the devices on our list, this home automation system has one of the best app interfaces. The VeraEdge controller certainly delivers when it comes to devices like these, and you won’t have to pay a lot of money to get this level of home connectivity.
To start, this home automation system has a unique design aesthetic that allows it to both blend in with your other devices and also possess a pleasing design aesthetic. The shaping of this unit is rectangular with a measurement of 4.6 inches in width, 3.7 inches in depth, and 1.7 inches in height. The device is also very lightweight; weighing only 10 ounces or so. This black colored unit isn’t just rectangular though, its detached top plate is raised somewhat and culminates in a curved center that makes the whole top of the unit somewhat rounded.
Along one side of the device you will find the connectors. These include a USB for future expansion, an AC adapter jack for powering the unit, and an Ethernet connector for connecting the device directly to your router. Along another side, you’ll find a couple of tabs that are positioned side by side. The first of these tabs is used to sync a device up to the VeraEdge through the Z-Wave network. This is very useful for when you don’t want to have to manually sync devices through the Vera web interface. The second switch is used to pair devices through WPS; this is a Wi-Fi based system of pairing.
When it comes to home automation, the VeraEdge is designed to establish pre-programmed scenarios that will enable you to control your devices naturally. Going to bed? Then, simply select ‘Sleep’ and a preprogrammed selection of activities will commence that might include turning off the lights in your living room, turn down the heating on your NEST controller, lock your doors, and arm your security system. Selecting ‘Evening’ in the app can do things like warm up your living room, dim the lights around your home theater, and activate the security system in your garage. These scenario-centric model of control is really intuitive and allows you to establish set behaviors without the need to hit every on-screen switch and button.
When it comes to security, this home automation system does a great job keeping you up-to-date on what’s going on throughout your household. When using a lot of security cameras, this device utilizes an excellent dashboard that lets you cycle through video feeds very seamlessly. This is the perfect option for when you’re away and you want to check in on each room of your household.
Altogether, the VeraEdge can manage up to 220 devices; a great amount for the most connected of homes. One weakness that this device has is that it doesn’t connect to Zigbee or Bluetooth only peripherals. With this in consideration, you’ll still have the ability to connect to many of the home automation devices currently existing on the market.
On Amazon, out of 198 reviews, our Bronze Pick has garnered only a 53 percent positivity ratio. This is mostly because the VeraEdge, despite its robust feature-set, doesn’t have the same type of functionality as some of the other picks. Namely, this device doesn’t access the Zigbee or Bluetooth protocols for connectivity. While this might be a problem for some, many devices on the market can make great use of Z-Wave including mainstays like Hue, Nest, and Garagio.
#4. INSTEON 2245-222 Central Controller Hub
Are you a 100 percent certified baller on a budget who is looking to add a great level of automation to your home? Then, have no fear, our ballin’ on a budget pick has all of the home automation functions you need at a sub-$100 dollar price point. Insteon, a pioneer in the connected devices field, has been in operation since 2005 and produces technology that can utilize power lines and radio frequencies to connect devices that range from thermostats to light switches. With a recent partnership with tech giant Microsoft, Insteon has certainly become a leader in this technology space.
Unlike the other devices on our list, Insteon uses the aforementioned power line and radio frequency connection systems to communicate with their suite of devices. As a result of this, if you intend to utilize this system for home automation, you’ll have to use devices that work on this connector type. Fortunately, this system allow for a lot of range on connected devices and a lack of some of the lag that can be caused by a slow internet connection.
To connect, you simply sync all of your Insteon connectors through the Insteon hub. From there, you can control the behaviors of all the connected devices, even if they’re not smart devices, through the iOS, Android, Windows, and iWatch compatible application. Whereas all of the devices on our list can be controlled through a Smartphone or through voice commands, the fact that you can control this through a wearable is a really great feature.
With this home automation kit, you can attach cameras for home security, create power schedules for light dimming or thermostat adjustment, or even control your locking systems from the comfort of your device.
On Amazon, this home automation system has an overall positivity rating of 48 percent. Primarily, this is because of the system of connectivity that isn’t compatible with protocols like Zigbee, Z-Wave, or Bluetooth. Many users that aren’t technically inclined feel that this is a great system to have as it’s easy to set up and operate.
Zigbee or Z-wave
These are the types of protocols that help the majority of Smarthome applications function appropriately. These two systems are the languages that nearly all Smart Devices use to communicate; these protocols are neatly transferred into Wi-Fi by your Smarthub and thusly controlled through your router and Smart Device. Zigbee was developed by the folks at the IEEE alliance and uses a wireless 802 standard of communication, while Z-wave was developed by Sigma Designs to utilize their chipsets and provides the protocol language that all of the devices in the Z-wave alliance utilize.
App Connectivity and Voice Input
While each of these types of Smart Automation systems are accessible directly through a Smartphone interface, some like the Amazon Echo utilize a voice assistant to make your automation hands-free. Systems like Alexa and Google Now really add a degree of futuristic input to your everyday life, but these systems are far from perfect. These systems tend to falter with range and the responsiveness of the technology, so be aware of these limitations. Fortunately, systems like Alexa can be bolstered by a Bluetooth remote, but even this has a range limitation of about 30 feet. App connectivity, on the other hand, can be controlled as long as you have an internet connected Smartphone or tablet, and will allow you to cycle on your lights before you come home, or start up your favorite track from the comfort of your bed. The type of input will vary based on these two systems, so before you go out and buy a Smart Automation device, be sure to know which kind of system you’d prefer.
One of the greatest aspects of home automation is the fact that it interfaces with the current generation of Smart home security systems. The type of home security that these styles of connectable devices provide can vary greatly. Some utilize old Smartphones to provide you a continuous video feed that you can access while you are away, and some utilize more traditional systems of window proximity sensing to provide you a sense of security and home safety. If you don’t own an unused Smartphone, companies like Insteon and Samsung have dedicated cameras that will monitor your home; these systems can even upload streams to the cloud that will be accessible by you when you’re on the go. In addition to these systems, there is even a selection of Smart Lock devices that will provide front end security. Each of these types will have a deadbolt and a direct interface with your Smartphone or tablet. Just be aware that many of these require batteries, though many will alert you when the unit’s batteries are running low.
Size and Form Factor
In a world where our gadgets and appliances seek a unobtrusive form factor, having a Smart Automation system that is barely noticeable is something that many technology adopters seek. Luckily, many of the smart devices that are available on the market today utilize a smaller size so that they are barely noticeable. Even smart security systems such as those offered by Insteon and Korner are tiny devices that can easily fit in the corner of your window or on a corner table. These types of items are great for boosting your home’s inherent connectivity and keeping your living space from becoming a cluttered, boxy, techno-hovel.
Connectable Devices ad Compatability
The market has become proliferated with a veritable plethora of ‘Smart Home” devices. These styles of devices can control your lighting systems; from simple on and off commands to various color changing options, they can also control your smart locking systems, your air conditioning, and some will even help manage security systems you have around your home. Here is a list of brands and products that you can look into that create items that will enhance your connected home experience.
• Hue Bulbs by Phillips – One of the originators of Smart Lighting, Hue bulbs are completely controllable by your Smartphone. Want to color your household in vivid colors? You have a myriad of color combinations that each Hue bulb can generate using LED tech.
• Quirky – This includes a bevy of products. The Quirky brand has partnered with companies like General Electric to better promote their line of smart products. A few that are well known are:
o Quirky+GE Pivot Power Genius – This is a connected power strip that will allow you to set profiles and timers through the Quirky Wink application. A neat feature of this power strip is the fact that you can bend it at the pivoting angles to whatever shape is most convenient for your home.
o Quirky+GE Aros Smart Air Conditioner – A very cool addition to any sweltering home. This smart style of AC has an on-panel LCD display and Smartphone connectivity that will allow you to control your AC’s cooling profile from the comfort of your couch.
• Belkin WeMo Insight Switch – Belkin has been manufacturing power options for decades now and their insight switch is part of a new generation of Smart Devices that allow you to control the peripherals you plug into the outlet. It also will measure power usage, and you’ll even be able to curtail your energy footprint with auto-shutoff being an option if there is too large of a power draw.
• Insteon – You’ll immediately notice that our ballin’ on a budget pick is also an Insteon device. Insteon has a bevy of products that fit into the smart category and will work to create a relatively cheap Smart Network in your home. These include a starter kit, dimmer switches, security cameras, and thermostats.
• Oso Technologies Plant Link – With this technology, you’ll have the ability to cultivate SmartPlants! Just kidding, but with this system you will be able simply place the device into your plant’s soil. When you plant needs water or plant food, you will receive a notification via your Smartphone.
• Korner – An elegant Smart Security system, simply place the Korner in, you guessed it, the corner of your window pane. The Smart product serves as a DIY entry sensor and will notify you in case of intruders.
• Yale Real Living Touchscreen Deadbolt – There are an increasing number of Smartlocks on the market right now and this one may be at the top of the pile. This Smartlock can read either Zigbee or Z-Wave transmissions and features a LED touchpad that looks super high-tech.
• Garageio – This grants you app-based control of your garage door. You can use your phone to choose to open it up or close it, similarly to how a dedicated remote worked in older garage units. A major difference would be you could command your Echo to open this by saying, “Alexa, tell Garageio to close the garage doors.”
Conclusion (Wrapping it up)
As the internal processes of our homes move further and further into the 21st century, more and more of these will be almost fully automatic. You’ll wake up to freshly prepared coffee, head outside to a newly warmed up car, and know ahead of time if you need to fill your tank up before you go to the office. While many of these processes seem to be out of an Arthur C. Clark novel, they each are available today. As you start the process of automating your home, we hope that our list of picks helps narrow your selections considerably. Take a look at these worthy entries, consider what we’ve set aside for your pre-purchase process, and your household will start the process of becoming much more automated.