What is a smart home, and do you need one?


I find the simplest way to explain the concept of a smart home is that it’s a natural evolution of our homes. A smart home isn’t fundamentally different from a “regular” home — it’s just the improvement of one. In the same way that electricity made our homes better and more functional, so is connectivity improving the way we live in and use our homes.

I’ve lived in a smart home for a decade. Every morning at 5AM, the lights in my living room and kitchen turn on, the pet feeder feeds my border terrier, and my security system disarms. Around sunrise, the shades raise, and the thermostat goes from sleep to home mode as the house prepares for its people to get out of bed. Upstairs, the bedside lamps slowly brighten and adjust their warmth to rouse us with some simulated natural light before the alarms on our smart speakers go off. 

I dismiss my alarm by tapping it, and my voice assistant reads my calendar appointments for the day and tells me the weather so I can plan what to wear. As I walk into the bathroom, a motion sensor turns the lights on, and — if it’s after 6AM — the smart speaker starts playing the radio for 15 minutes. 

This Ecobee smart thermostat uses sensors to automatically adjust based on where I am in the house as well as the time of day.

When we leave the house for the morning school run, the door locks behind us, the lights shut off, and the robot vacuum starts its chores. When I arrive home an hour later, the robot returns to its dock and empties itself, the door unlocks as I approach, and the lights turn on. 

At 8AM, as I walk upstairs to my home office, the smart thermostat adjusts, and the lights downstairs turn off. In the office, I press a smart button, and the lights switch to daylight mode, the ceiling fan starts whirring, my monitor powers on, an air purifier kicks in, and the smart speaker starts playing music quietly as I begin my workday. 

Every action in this morning routine is automated. The lights, locks, thermostat, and other appliances are connected to each other and the internet by wireless protocols that allow these automations to control them. I can also make adjustments at any point via an app on my phone or with a voice command to a smart speaker. All of this is because I live in a smart home.

What is a smart home?

A smart home contains more advanced versions of common household appliances, such as this Yeedi robot vacuum that can mop and vacuum your home autonomously.

Smart homes contain “smart” versions of common household appliances: light bulbs, light switches, electrical outlets, thermostats, locks, doorbells, vacuums, refrigerators, washers and dryers, and so on. What makes a device smart is its connectivity — either to the internet, to other devices, or often both. As we put chips into more and more devices, we’re creating an Internet of Things. How a device connects varies (more on that in a bit), but broadly the connectivity allows for three things: remote control, communication with other devices, and over-the-air updates. 

Ultimately, just as our cars have done, our homes will become sophisticated computers.

By being connected, smart devices have a number of benefits over their non-connected counterparts. A smart door lock still locks your door, but now, you can lock and unlock it when you’re not at home. A smart sprinkler system will still water your garden, but now it can avoid overwatering by not running before, during, or after a rainstorm. A smart light switch will still turn the lights on and off when you flip it, but it can also turn them on automatically using a motion sensor and even turn on lamps and lights in different rooms. 

Another distinction between smart devices and their standard counterparts is intelligence. With embedded sensors, software-powered artificial intelligence, and machine learning, some smart devices can understand the environment they’re in and react a certain way. A smart shade with a temperature and light sensor can lower when it starts to get warm; a robot vacuum can avoid your pup’s accidental bathroom deposit because its camera knows what dog waste is; a smart doorbell can learn who visits your home and tell you when someone you know — or more importantly, don’t know — is at the door. 

A smart video doorbell can show you who is at your front door through a smartphone app. Some can also identify pets, people, packages, and vehicles.

Smart devices can talk to each other. A contact sensor on a window can tell a thermostat to shut off when it’s open, an air purifier can tell a fan to start running when air quality is poor, and a motion sensor can tell lights to turn off when no one is in the room. And, as with my morning routine, multiple devices can be grouped into routines that adjust everything in your home automatically.

Finally, and most importantly, smart devices can receive over-the-air updates. This means they can get better (or, in some cases, worse) over time. Unlike a standard thermostat, a smart thermostat can be updated with features and abilities it didn’t have when you bought it. For example, Ecobee’s smart thermostat launched with Amazon’s Alexa voice assistant built-in. After an over-the-air update, it now also works with Apple’s Siri.

But beware, what can be given can also be taken away. A recent example is Google announcing it’s ending support for its smart security system, Nest Secure, leaving users with useless paperweights (although Google will help you recycle the devices). Anything connected to the internet needs regular security updates. And while companies are starting to provide timelines for how long they will support their hardware with software updates, if and when they do, that device may not continue to work as designed as long as its non-smart counterparts. While basic functionality should remain in most cases (although not with the Nest Secure), the fancy features you paid extra for could be gone.

Why would you want a smart home?

Smart plugs, smart speakers, and smart displays can make everyday life a little easier in your home.

Here’s a look at some of the benefits a smart home might offer you:

A safer home: Connected home alarm systems, cameras, locks, and lights can be controlled remotely and monitored from a smartphone or tablet, so you can always know what’s going on in your home wherever you are. Smart lighting can be set on schedules to make it look like someone is home. Smart locks let you give someone access to your home without putting a key under the flowerpot.

A more energy-efficient home: Individual devices like a smart thermostat and smart sprinklers can help conserve resources and save money by lowering energy and water use. Smart energy monitoring of appliances can identify patterns of use and offer suggestions for ways to save energy. More recent technologies, such as Samsung’s SmartThings Energy service, use artificial intelligence to proactively adjust energy use based on the data it collects. For example, if it knows you never open your fridge between 11PM and 5AM, it will increase the temperature by one degree overnight. 

A more convenient home: The first smart device people buy is often something that solves a specific problem. If you’re always forgetting your key, you can get a smart lock that opens with your phone or fingerprint. If you never know when the mail arrives, a contact sensor on your mailbox can alert your phone or smart speaker. If you can’t reach a window to close the shades, a motorized blind paired with a smart speaker lets you control it with your voice. If you don’t want the doorbell to ring when the baby is sleeping, a smart doorbell lets you turn the chime off. 

A more comfortable, fun home: Having lights that turn on and off based on a schedule or your presence is a convenient feature. But smart LED lighting also adds to comfort and fun. Color-changing LED lights can enhance movie time and take dance parties to the next level. Tunable white LEDs can help keep your circadian rhythm on track by automatically adjusting the tone of white light to energize you during the day and help you wind down at night. Smart speakers have made multiroom audio much easier and more affordable than ever before — pair a few sub-$50 smart speakers together around your home, and you can stream your favorite tunes in every room all at once.

The Echo Dot is a smart speaker that lets you control smart home devices with your voice.

A more helpful home: Smart appliances such as robot vacuums, smart fridges, washing machines, and ovens can take care of some chores for you and help you do others better. A smart fridge can keep track of what food you have and prompt you when you’re running low, a smart washer can tell its dryer counterpart which setting to use for the load it just finished, and a smart oven can adjust the cooking time so your turkey doesn’t overcook.

A more accessible home: All of these functions, while helpful, can be game-changers for people with limited mobility. Controlling locks, lights, shades, appliances, and more by voice or with a touchscreen device such as a phone or tablet can allow people with disabilities to have more independence. Smart buttons that can trigger automations and routines offer a simple, accessible interface for children or those with limited cognitive or physical functions, and programming routines in someone’s home so that they happen automatically can make a huge difference in someone’s daily life. 

If we kit out our homes with connected devices today, they can take care of us tomorrow.

For example, an automation for an older person with limited mobility who lives alone can turn smart lights on in the morning, open the shades, brighten the lights during the day, and then dim them at night while closing the shades. This can mean the difference between sitting in the dark all day or being able to feel more connected with the outside.

Accessibility in the smart home is not just about helping people with more challenges than most. It’s also the smart home’s long play. All of us will get older, and most of us want to stay living in our own homes for as long as possible. Smart technology can help us “age in place.” If we kit out our homes with connected devices today, they can take care of us tomorrow.

How does a smart home work?

Good Wi-Fi is the foundation of your smart home. People with larger homes or who have a lot of connected devices will want a mesh Wi-Fi router.

At its core, a smart home is built on connectivity. To have a smart home, you need the following:

  • An internet connection.
  • A Wi-Fi router (if your home is larger than around 800 square feet or you have a lot of connected gadgets, consider a mesh router).
  • Smart devices, such as light bulbs, locks, thermostats, speakers, and security cameras.
  • A smart home app and / or platform to set up and program the devices. 
  • A way to control them, such as a smartphone, tablet, or voice-controlled smart speaker.

Smart home devices use wireless protocols for connectivity. There are several in use today, and you can mix and match protocols in your home as long as the smart home platform you choose supports them. There are some proprietary protocols, but most smart home devices use one of these five:

Some of these protocols require a hub or bridge to work; others just rely on a Wi-Fi router or smartphone. All can work with Matter, a new open standard that provides a common communication standard for devices and is seen as a unifying technology for the smart home. This means that whatever protocol a smart device uses (unless it’s Bluetooth, which is only used for onboarding in Matter), they have the potential to work with Matter. However, whether the device actually will is up to the individual manufacturer.

This Eve motion sensor uses the Thread protocol to connect to other devices and the internet.

To use and set up smart devices, you’ll need an app on a smartphone or tablet. Nearly all devices come with their own app, but as you add more devices to your smart home, you’ll likely find you want a single smart home platform to control them through. This also lets you connect devices from different manufacturers together into routines and automations. 

There are five major platforms, all of which support Matter. Plus, there are a number of smaller ones that fit more specific needs and more complicated setups. We’ve written deep dives into each of these platforms on The Verge, and they’ll be available later this week:

  • Amazon Alexa
  • Apple Home
  • Google Home
  • Samsung SmartThings
  • Home Assistant

What are the drawbacks of a smart home?

If you’ve gotten this far, you may think: this is awesome — where do I start? But here comes the warning label. There are myriad issues with the smart home, from compatibility to complexity — not to mention privacy and security. Even if those issues don’t concern you, one big problem is that the smart home suffers as soon as you try to scale (unless you spend a lot more money for a professional installation). Individual devices work great, and gadgets from the same manufacturers normally work well together, but as soon as you try to tie multiple devices into more complicated automations and routines — the ones that really add value — problems can arise. 

Here’s a look at the biggest drawbacks of today’s smart home. 

It’s not all compatible: Not everything works together. The smart lamp you bought may work with Apple Home and your iPhone but not with your son’s Android phone. Your roommate might have two Google Nest smart speakers, but because you have Amazon Echos, no multiroom music in the whole apartment for you. If the smart lock in your new home is Z-Wave, you can’t control it without buying a smart home hub.

These are just a few examples of why compatibility is such a problem. It causes confusion and frustration and leads to the next issue.

It gets complicated: While it’s hard to know which devices to buy that will work with what you have. Once you have chosen your new gadget, setting it up can be tricky. Then you also need to spend time figuring out how to get the most out of its features and how to connect it to your existing devices to set up those automations that make a smart home feel, well, smart. 

Both of these issues are exactly what Matter was developed to try and solve. A giant industry collaboration involving Apple, Amazon, Samsung, Google, and many more, Matter has the potential to fix compatibility issues, which will go a long way toward making the smart home easier to set up. But Matter is still very new, and until there is industry-wide adoption, it’s not a solution for today.

It’s costly: Adding smart tech to a light bulb, door lock, or garage door opener makes them more expensive. Additionally, more and more device makers are adding subscription fees to devices to manage the ongoing costs of cloud servers and resources for providing both feature and security updates to their products. While you get more for your money — a garage door you can close from the office versus one that stays open all day because you forgot to shut it — when it comes to choosing to buy a new garage door opener or a retrofit smart controller, is that enough reason to spend more? 

It doesn’t always work: From an overreliance on the internet (if your Wi-Fi is down and you can’t control your lights, you are not going to be happy) to weekends spent troubleshooting why your smart speaker no longer understands the command it had no problem with last week, the smart home is often… not smart. When it all works, it’s pretty magical, but when it doesn’t, it’s very frustrating. 

It’s scary: Security and privacy concerns in the smart home are very real. Ultimately, a smart home requires trust. Even with advances in machine learning on the edge (where devices don’t have to use the cloud to process data), you are still sharing intimate details of your life with the companies whose devices you bring into your home. Right now, I’d say that’s the biggest reason to consider not adopting the smart home in its current form

What is the future of the smart home?

Are home robots the future of the smart home? Amazon thinks so. It introduced the Astro last year, which can monitor your home and bring you a beer (if someone hands it the can).

Today’s smart home is mainly about remote control and preprogramming devices to help you. You can use voice control to turn lights off when you’re lying in bed so you don’t have to get up. You can schedule a robot vacuum to run every day at 10AM so you don’t have to think about sweeping your floors. But the smart home of tomorrow has the potential to become proactive and do things for us without our prompting — or even, perhaps, without us even knowing. 

Here is where artificial intelligence could transform the smart home. We already have hints of it today. A smart leak detector that knows when the dishwasher is overflowing can shut off the water. A smart thermostat that knows when no one is home can adjust the temperature to save energy. Amazon’s Astro home robot can recognize and find people in the home. But many of these experiences are siloed, relying on specific hardware and software. By deploying its predictive capabilities on unifying smart home platforms, AI could be used to collect, analyze, and interpret data from different smart home devices so you don’t have to.

Even if you don’t like the idea of a “smarter” home, how about a better one?

For example, today, you can set up an automation that will unlock your door, turn on your lights, start your sprinklers, shut off your HVAC system, and have your cameras start recording video when a smoke alarm goes off in your house. But the key word is you — all that will only happen if you put in the work to set up the automation. In the future, a smart home could have the intelligence to do all of these things automatically, and — crucially — only if there is an actual fire, not just when you burn the toast. 

For this interoperable future to be a reality, however, we need a common connectivity protocol so that all devices can talk to each other and not be limited by only working with certain platforms. This is where Matter becomes key to the future smart home. The other major piece of the puzzle is data collection.

A smart home is only as smart as the information it has. Today, we have to stick motion and contact sensors in our rooms to tell us when things move or open and close, but newer, less intrusive technologies, such as mmWave radar, ultrasound, and Wi-Fi sensing, could provide the context smart devices need to make our homes truly smart rather than just remote controlled devices. 

Ultimately, just as our cars have done, our homes will become sophisticated computers, capable of self-diagnosing and even fixing problems while intelligently responding to our needs. It’s a natural evolution. And, even if you don’t like the idea of a “smarter” home, how about a better one?

Photography by Jennifer Pattison Tuohy / The Verge

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