What if all the devices in your life could connect to the Internet? Not just computers and smartphones, but everything: clocks, garage doors, speakers, lights, doors, windows, window blinds, door bells, hot water heaters, appliances, you name it. And what if those devices could all communicate, send you information, and take your commands? It's not science fiction; it's the Internet of Things (IoT), and it's a key component of home automation.
Home automation is what it sounds like: automating the ability to control items around the house—from window shades to pet feeders—with a simple push of a button (or a voice command). Some activities, like setting up a lamp to turn on and off at your whim, are simple and relatively inexpensive. Others, like advanced surveillance cameras, may require a more serious investment of time and money.
Still, imagine monitoring your home using an interface on your computer, tablet, or smartphone, or even panels mounted around the house. It's like going from using the Clapper to beaming up to the U.S.S. Enterprise.
Home automation is going mainstream. Your house is going to get smart, no matter what. Get in on the ground floor and become the family home automation expert. Here's how to get started.
Before you buy a bunch of home-automation products, it helps to understand the technologies involved in setting up and using them. These products use many different communication protocols. Some are wired, some wireless, and some are a combination. Try to stick with one protocol when buying products, or get a hub/gateway that supports multiple protocols.
This granddaddy of home automation protocols dates back to the 1970s and has gone from power line-based to wireless. X10 is not known for robust speed or great communication between units on the home automation network. It is, however, typically inexpensive.
ZigBee is a wireless 802 standard from the IEEE, which is to say, a bunch of gearheads came up with it before an outside group (the ZigBee Alliance) made up of vendors created products that use it. One of the key elements in IEEE 802.15.4 (its real name) is that it makes a mesh network so that most of the devices communicate equally. It's also very low power. (You may also hear about Thread, a new wireless protocol that uses the same radio chips and frequency at ZigBee, and connects up to 250 devices in a home to the cloud.)
Another wireless home automation protocol, Z-Wave is owned by one company, Sigma Designs, which makes all the chips for other vendors to make Z-Wave-capable products, known as the Z-Wave Alliance.
This may be the best of all protocols because it combines a wired power line-based protocol with wireless. Both work as a mesh; all nodes on an Insteon home automation network are peers that can communicate when in proximity. If one fails, the other mesh can take over. You can buy Insteon devices at Smarthome.com, which is run by SmartLabs, the developers of Insteon. It's compatible with X10.
This is the networking protocol we're all used to for sharing an Internet connection among laptops, game consoles, and so much more. It's super-fast and ubiquitous. So, of course, it's inevitable that some vendors would make home automation products to take advantage of it. The other protocols use less power and bandwidth but Wi-Fi's reach can't be understated, even if it is overkill to use it to turn a lamp on and off.
A staple of every PC, smartphone, and tablet, Bluetooth is better known for connecting items at a short range like keyboards, mice, headphones, and earbuds. But a lot of new products use the Bluetooth 4.0, aka Bluetooth Low Energy, aka Bluetooth Smart. It doesn't require purposeful re-connection all the time, making it a good solution for select IoT items.
Top-Rated Home Automation Products
Just as there are many home automation protocols, there are many product categories, so you can control everything from lights and temperature to locks and security in your home. Here's a quick rundown of our favorites.