Smart Home

5 Easy-to-Setup Smart Home Gadgets for First Timers

Joel Lee 24-05-2016

Smart home automation What Is A Smart Home? We recently launched a Smart Home category at MakeUseOf, but what is a smart home? Read More sounds awesome in theory, but a lot of folks are hesitant to try it out for themselves because the learning curve seems too hard. If that describes you, then here’s good news: It’s easier than you think!


Others don’t even bother because they think smart home products are too expensive or don’t offer enough value. The truth is that smart home devices are cheaper than you think 6 Types of Home Automation You Can Actually Afford Are you ready to join the smart home revolution but worried that it's beyond your budget? Smart homes aren't that expensive, and there are plenty of components that the average homeowner can afford. Read More and are more cost-effective than other home upgrades How Much Does a Smart Home Really Cost? A smart home could change your life – freeing up time in your day and regulating your routine so you don't have to remember what needs to be done. But how expensive is it, really? Read More .

If you like the idea of a smart home, you should absolutely try it out I Lived in a Smart Home for 20 Years. Here's What You Should Know. MakeUseOf spoke with one of our regular readers and commenters, Ben Stutt, of Rock Hill, South Carolina, USA, about his experiences living in a smart home. Read More and don’t pay any attention to the various myths that keep being repeated 7 Common Smart Home Myths That Simply Aren't True Smart home devices are no different than most other gadgets -- and there are many misconceptions that people have about them. Let's clear those up! Read More .

The Smart Home Industry Is a Mess

Before we talk about which products you should think about buying, let’s quickly explore why the smart home industry is so intimidating. In short, there are way too many protocols, and this is causing confusion.

Here are some of the more well-known ones:

  • Bluetooth
  • ClearConnect
  • Insteon
  • Thread
  • Wi-Fi
  • X10
  • Z-Wave
  • ZigBee

And there are dozens of others with less traction. Combine that with the hundreds of different products on the market and it’s easy to see how someone could be overwhelmed. Maybe you’re feeling overwhelmed right now.


But don’t worry about any of that. Here’s our recommendation: stick with products that support Wi-Fi, Z-Wave, and Thread.

Wi-Fi is ubiquitous but tends to require more power and battery life, so it’s great as a last resort for connectivity. Z-Wave is supported by most major smart home brands 9 Reputable Smart Home Brands With Products You Can Trust The modern world is moving toward all kinds of smart home automation, and the longer you hold out, the more difficult it's going to be when your day of conversion finally comes. Read More and Thread recently came out with an open source implementation. Z-Wave is the now, Thread is the future.

As we recommend products, we’re only going to focus on ones that support at least two of those three protocols. This way, the hard work is done for you.

1. The Amazon Echo

The Amazon Echo is an incredible device. It started off as a voice-operated Bluetooth speaker, but has evolved into something much greater. It can now interface with various smart home products, allowing you to control them using only your voice How Amazon Echo Can Make Your Home A Smart Home Smart home tech is still in its early days, but a new product from Amazon called "Echo" may help bring it into the mainstream. Read More .


Or in other words, not only is the Echo a useful device on its own, but you can use it as a kind of simplified hub for supported smart home devices.

Amazon Echo - Black (1st Generation) Amazon Echo - Black (1st Generation) Buy Now On Amazon

What can the Echo do? A lot, actually. 7 Creative Uses for Amazon Echo and Alexa You’ve seen the ads starring Alec Baldwin, but you're still not sure what Amazon Echo does or whether you need one in your home. We’re about to find out. Read More Ask questions and it will return answers. Order items off of Amazon with a single sentence (it’s tied to your Amazon account and details). It can also stream music, play audiobooks, report news and weather, and find information on nearby businesses and restaurants.

You can also augment the Echo with two complementary devices: the Amazon Echo Dot and the Amazon Tap. Check out our overview to see the differences between all of them Amazon Echo vs. Dot vs. Tap: What Are the Key Differences? One common complaint against Amazon Echo was that it had too many features and cost too much. Amazon's response to that? Releasing two variations with smaller price tags: the Tap and the Echo Dot. Read More .


And there’s very little setup involved. It’s pretty much ready to go right out of the box, which also makes it one of the best techy gifts you can give 9 Impressive Home Automation Gadgets Family & Friends Will Love With the holidays just around the corner, now is the perfect time to snag one of these amazing smart home devices. Read More to friends and family.

But again, in the context of a smart home, the Echo’s most valuable asset is its expanding ability to connect directly to other devices and provide voice control throughout your home 7 Ways to Control Your Home Using Voice Commands One of the coolest advancements in home automation is the growing integration of voice control with all kinds of smart devices. Read More . We’re about to explore some of those devices below.

2. Smart Thermostat

A smart thermostat is perhaps the second most useful smart product you can buy. Not only does it make your life more comfortable and convenient, but it can also save you money in the long run.


For example, the Nest Learning Thermostat costs about $250 but can end up cutting your heating bill in half 7 Nest Automation Tricks to Cut Your Heating Bill in Half If there were a Nest thermostat in every home, it would have the biggest single impact on energy consumption in history; and it could save you more money than you might imagine. Here's how. Read More during the cold winters, all without sacrificing much of your comfort. You’ll recoup the initial cost in one or two years.

Google, T3007ES, Nest Learning Thermostat, 3rd Gen, Smart Thermostat, Stainless Steel, Works With Alexa Google, T3007ES, Nest Learning Thermostat, 3rd Gen, Smart Thermostat, Stainless Steel, Works With Alexa Buy Now On Amazon $225.00

And even though the Nest involves a little bit of setup, the process is easy enough that you’ll be able to do it even if you have no experience dealing with thermostats. Consult our guide to installing the Nest thermostat How to Install and Use the Nest Thermostat to Automate Energy Savings If you've ever considered getting started with home automation, purchasing a Nest thermostat is the perfect way to start. In just a week of using it, we cut our energy consumption in half. Read More to see just how easy it is.

The best part is that the Nest thermostat can now interface directly with the Echo by enabling the Nest skill in the Alexa app. Use voice commands to change the temperature or provide Nest with comfort level feedback.

If you don’t like the Nest, the Echo can also interface with two other smart thermostats: the Ecobee3 Wi-Fi Thermostat and the Sensi Wi-Fi Thermostat.

ecobee3 Smarter Wi-Fi Thermostat with Remote Sensor, 2nd Generation ecobee3 Smarter Wi-Fi Thermostat with Remote Sensor, 2nd Generation Buy Now On Amazon

These are two alternatives to the Nest thermostat Looking to Buy a Smart Thermostat? 5 Nest Alternatives When it comes to controlling the temperature of your home, the Nest smart thermostat is king, but there are plenty of options out there. Here are 5 you should consider if you're looking to buy. Read More that are actually quite formidable and worth checking out. Despite Nest being the most popular choice, a lot of people are starting to see the value in both Ecobee3 and Sensi.

3. Smart Light Switches

Many users recommend smart home newbies to start with smart lighting and bulbs 4 Ways a Smart LED Bulb Can Keep Your Home Safe & Secure Did you know that a few LED bulbs could be the difference between a home robbery and peace of mind? Sounds weird, but it's true. Read More because they’re easy, but I personally don’t think that smart bulbs provide much value because they are so limited in what they can do.

Instead, opt to purchase smart light switches or smart outlets! They can be used to toggle all kinds of devices on and off, including the bulbs you’re already using throughout your home.

Where should you start? We recommend the WeMo Wi-Fi Light Switch which is basically a regular light switch that can be turned on and off from anywhere.

Wemo Light Switch, WiFi enabled, Works with Alexa and the Google Assistant (F7C030fc) Wemo Light Switch, WiFi enabled, Works with Alexa and the Google Assistant (F7C030fc) Buy Now On Amazon $30.98

One thing that might scare you away is the price tag, but I promise you it’s worth it. Three smart light switches might cost $150, but it won’t take long for you to fall in love.

The best thing about the WeMo Light Switch is that it’s directly compatible with the Echo. You can label each one (e.g. “coffee pot”) and then use voice commands to toggle them (“Alexa, turn on the coffee pot”).

The setup for the light switch is basic and only takes a few minutes. If you don’t feel comfortable doing electrical work, you can always ask a friend who has some experience, or just hire a professional.

If you don’t want a light switch, you can instead get the WeMo Insight Switch or the TP-LINK Wi-Fi Smart Plug. Both of them are also directly compatible with the Echo, but we prefer the light switch.

4. A Smart Hub + A Few Sensors

If you want to take your smart home from the basics to the next level, you’ll want to start using a smart home automation hub Which Smart Hub for Home Automation Is Best for You? For a while, people thought of the idea as nothing more than a gimmick, but recent product releases have shown that smart home automation is starting to live up to its promises. Read More , of which there are several to choose from. However, for us, nothing beats the newbie-friendliness of the Samsung SmartThings Hub.

The hub doesn’t do anything on its own, but acts as a central “brain” for dozens of other SmartThings devices. Connect them to the hub, the hub controls the devices, you control the hub from afar — and the setup is easy plug-and-play.

Samsung SmartThings Smart Home Hub 2nd Gen. Samsung SmartThings Smart Home Hub 2nd Gen. Buy Now On Amazon $49.99

Yet again, the best part is that this smart hub is also directly compatible with the Echo. You can now control most aspects of the SmartThings Hub just by using voice commands with Alexa.

What can you connect to the SmartThings Hub? Sensors, mostly. That might sound boring, but trust me, these sensors are very useful, flexible, and can even prevent thousands of dollars in potential damages Attention Homeowners: 5 Smart Home Features Worth the Extra Cost Which smart home features are worth it? Which ones can be safely tossed aside and ignored? Let's take a look at a few that are actually worth the money. Read More .

  • The SmartThings Motion Sensor can detect motion and trigger actions accordingly, such as turning off lights, turning on the thermostat, or toggling outlets.
  • The SmartThings Water Leak Sensor immediately sends you an alert (or triggers an action, like turning on a light) whenever it detects excess water. Very useful for emergencies and preventing water damage.
  • The SmartThings Arrival Sensor is a portable device that relays its position to the hub. You can use it to know when people or pets leave or arrive at home, be notified when someone is out late, trigger actions, etc.
  • The SmartThings Multipurpose Sensor can detect vibrations, orientation changes, and temperature changes. It can adjust the thermostat or even alert you if a window or drawer is unexpectedly opened.

I wouldn’t consider these to be essential purchases, but they definitely have a lot of potential to do good around the house. If you’re on a tight budget, feel free to skip these, as the sensors can really add up over time.

5. A Smart Home Door Lock

The last “practical and easy” item I want to highlight is the smart home door lock. There are many models to choose from, but the one we recommend is the Schlage Connect Touchscreen Deadbolt.

The Schlage Connect is a replacement for any door lock. There’s a bit of setup involved but the instructions are simple enough that anyone can follow them. Or if you aren’t comfortable, you can always ask a friend to help.

Schlage Connect Century Touchscreen Deadbolt Smart Lock w/ Alarm (Matte Black) Schlage Connect Century Touchscreen Deadbolt Smart Lock w/ Alarm (Matte Black) Buy Now On Amazon $167.27 ($2.75 / oz)

The Schlage Connect has up to 30 unique PIN pad entry codes, a built-in alarm that alerts you when it detects suspicious activity, and ANSI Grade 1 security durability.

The Schlage Connect doesn’t work with the Echo, but it does work with the SmartThings Hub. This allows you to lock or unlock remotely via the web, with your smartphone, or with one of the SmartThings sensors.

There are other smart home door locks Buy One of These Electronic Door Locks and Ditch Your Ancient Keys One area where smart home technology shines is home security. And while security cameras and motion sensors are great, neither has more of a wow-factor than an electronic door lock. Read More if you don’t like this one, but many of them have unreliable ratings and reviews. The Schlage Connect is effective, convenient, and built to last.

Now You Have a Functional Smart Home

With these five pieces, you should have a smart home setup that didn’t take much effort to put together, yet offers a lot of practical benefits in your day-to-day life. The bonus is that all five of those pieces can seamlessly interact with each other!

For now, we recommend that you DON’T purchase novelty items like smart garden devices 5 Smart Devices To Help Manage Your Garden Turns out, a smart garden is completely possible, thanks to the devices we are going to take a look at today. Read More or unitaskers like smart robot vacuums Robotic Vacuums Are a Waste of Money and Here's Why The appeal of smart vacuums is undeniable. But they’re not for everyone. You should think long and hard before buying one. Here’s why. Read More as the bang-for-buck just isn’t there at this time.

What’s your biggest reason for not having a smart home? Or if you do have a smart home, which devices have you found to be most valuable and useful? We’d love to hear about your smart home experiences in the comments!

Image Credit: kid playing with a smartphone by wk1003mike via Shutterstock

Related topics: Smart Hubs, Smart Sensor.

Affiliate Disclosure: By buying the products we recommend, you help keep the site alive. Read more.

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  1. Anonymous
    May 25, 2016 at 12:45 pm

    Must be nice to be rich. Almost a $1,000 for just 5 devices that do what can be done just by getting your butt off the couch.

    "1. The Amazon Echo"
    Since it's on all the time, listening for a voice command, does it send anything it hears back to Amazon?

    • Joel Lee
      May 27, 2016 at 1:52 am

      Yeah it's a lot of money but people spend $1,000 on "unnecessary" things all the time: oversized TVs, computers, cutting edge smartphones, etc. Convenience definitely has a price tag, but some people are willing to pay it. After all, when you buy a brand new computer rig, paying for top performance is really just paying for convenience, isn't it? :P

    May 25, 2016 at 3:00 am

    It's my understanding that WeMo devices aren't dimmable. Just sayin'.

    • Joel Lee
      May 27, 2016 at 1:50 am

      I don't think they are. Something to keep in mind. Thanks Robert!