The Smart Home Buyer’s Guide – Spring 2021

By Ari Altman | Published March 8, 2021 | Updated March 8, 2021
If you’re looking to create a Smart Home, we have the guide for you! To help you create a Smart Home that actually works, we’ve sorted through a huge range of gear to make sure that you’re not getting something that’s been overhyped and under-reviewed, but something that will actually make your real home a safer, more comfortable place to be! We know these products not only work, but work well and work consistently. And that’s a challenge in the Smart Home space, as a lot of start-ups have arrived with great new ideas, but their first-gen products don’t always pass with flying colors in real-world testing.

Our goal is to make sure that whatever path you take to turn your home into a Smart Home is as easy and fulfilling as possible! And that means sticking with a single “protocol” for all the devices in the system. There are actually a number of different protocols out there, from WiFi, to Bluetooth, to Z-Wave, plus a number of proprietary ones that we won’t even bother mentioning. The one we believe in, and most of the industry experts have decided on, is Zigbee. It’s so robust and effective that it was actually chosen as the communications protocol for NASA’s ingenuity helicopter on Mars! If Zigbee is good enough to control a helicopter from a million miles away, it’s good enough for you! (just kidding, it’s controlled by the Perseverance rover, but still, it’s got to be good if it works on Mars!).

What this all means is that while in the past we have recommend users run multiple “hubs” in their homes to cover a wide range of protocols, today we think that’s just too complicated. If you already have that running in your home (like we do), good for you. Frankly, you probably don’t need this guide. But for folks who want to jump into Smart Home today without jumping into the deep end, we’ve decided the best way is to piggyback on Amazon’s ubiquitous Echo ecosystem.  Several of Amazon’s Echo devices have built-in Zigbee controllers, and that’s what we recommend you use if you’re getting started today.

Just to be clear, we’ve tested every major hub ever released, and have been reviewing Smart Home devices since Smart Home hit the mainstream, around 2013. So we know there have been a lot of start-ups with big, bold ideas that went nowhere. We think the world is ready to move on, because Smart Home should be as reliable as a furnace or toilet. If you needed to “reconnect” those devices every few days, we have a feeling you’d be over them quite quickly. That’s why we no longer recommend all the products that have been favorites of the tinkering crowed. Again, if that’s where you see yourself, that’s fine with us, but we’re not writing this guide for you!

With this as your starting point, there’s almost nothing you can’t achieve in a Smart Home. For security cameras, Ring is a clear winner, for lighting, we’ll go with Leviton switches and Sylvania bulbs, for HVAC controls Ecobee is the only one to consider, and for locks, our recommendation is Schlage Connect. It’s that simple. Everything else is a waste of money. By the way, in addition to a reliable Hub, you actually will want a robust wireless home network to ensure that your Smart Home doesn’t get “disconnected”, so if your router is more than a few years old, you should probably check out our Wireless Networking Buyer’s Guide for potential upgrade options, but we’ll recommend one “mesh networking” system in this guide as well, because a mesh network is definitely what you want for a great Smart Home experience!

As always, we appreciate if you use the products links we provide to purchase any of the products we recommend.

The Smart Home Buyer’s Guide – Spring 2021

Hubs, Controllers & Networking

  • The All-In-One Hub/Voice Controller

    Amazon Echo Show 10 w/ Motion

    The Echo line is known for its voice control capabilities, and they are indeed a crucial element to any Smart Home system. But the Echo Show adds two other features that make it nearly essential in any Smart Home. First is the integrated Zigbee Smart Home controller (or hub), which allows it to connect to countless devices for Smart Home control. But the screen on the Echo Show is also very helpful, as it will provide touch controls and setup for many of your Smart Home devices. It really is an all-in-one device. Another huge benefit of having a screen: you can call up live feeds from your security cameras, or just call up your best friend, family member, or neighbor, as the Show can make video calls either to another Show device, or to any Android or Apple smartphone! The latest Echo Show even tracks you during your conversation so you’re always in view as you walk around the room. How cools is that?

    The Guru’s Tip

    We think every home should have an Echo Show, but if you truly don't want or need video, you can choose the standard Echo, which also has built-in Zigbee controls.

  • The All-In-One Hub/Voice Controller

    Amazon Echo 4th Gen

    The Amazon Echo has taken many forms of the years, but it is still the industry standard for a high-end voice controller. And this model doesn’t just have great speakers and microphones, it also has the all-important Zigbee Smart Home controller built in. That makes it an incredible bargain in the Smart Home arena!

    The Guru’s Tip

    To be clear, you don't need both this and the Show. Choose whichever you'd like to be the centerpiece of your Smart Home system.

  • The Bargain Voice Controller

    Amazon Echo Dot with Clock

    We guarantee you that once you have your Smart Home set up with one voice controller, you’ll want one in every room! And that’s where the Echo Dot (with clock!) comes in. We love this model because it’s affordable and replaces something you probably already have (or could use) in your room: a clock! While it doesn’t have a Zigbee Smart Home hub built in, it will allow you to control any device in your home by relaying your requests through one of its larger cousins, either the Echo Show or the Echo.

    The Guru’s Tip

    In addition to controlling your Smart Home, having a Smart device in every room also allows you to listen to music, get the news, or make calls, adding to the overall value of each device.

  • The Mainstream Mesh System

    TP-Link Deco X55 3-Pack

    Back in 2016, a few small players entered the WiFi market with a unique solution: bundling multiple routers into a single, sleek package, branded as “wireless mesh networking.” But those early devices were rough around the edges, being hard to set up and somewhat unreliable. Wow, how far we’ve come, and TP-Link is the undisputed leader in value. This model will provide access across your entire home (3 nodes are good enough for 6500 sq. ft and an amazing 150 devices), allow you to manage your whole home’s network via your smartphone, and set limits on individual users (i.e., kids!) by device, so all their connected products are cut off at dinner time or bed time. And thanks to its use of WiFi 6 (802.11ax), it can provide speeds of up to 2400Mbps to the latest devices.

    The Guru’s Tip

    While not technically a Smart Home product, this mesh networking system will be critical to getting great performance from any WiFi-connected devices, specifically the thermostat and the security cameras and doorbells listed in this guide.

Lighting, HVAC & Security

  • The Tunable A19 Smart Bulb

    Sylvania Lightify+ Tunable A19

    For locations where investing in a wall switch doesn’t make sense (e.g., desk or floor lamps, as well as switches that only control one bulb and don’t require manual control), you’ll want to go with this low-priced but ultra-high-quality Zigbee bulb from Sylvania. We’ve tested a lot of bulbs, and these are by far our favorite. This model also provides tunable light color, which is surprisingly helpful depending on your needs and the time of day. Want to look good in a Zoom meeting? That takes a different kind of light than what you’ll want for your dining room!

    The Guru’s Tip

    Need a BR30 for track lighting locations? See the option below!

  • The Connected BR30 Bulb

    Sylvania Smart+ BR30

    Just like its A19 cousin, this BR30 bulb is your best choice for locations where you don’t want to invest in a switch. It uses the Zigbee standard, so it can be voice controlled and scheduled via Amazon Alexa. This model offers a single color temperature, 2700K, which is ideal for most uses.

    The Guru’s Tip

    If you have a whole room full of track or recessed lighting using BR30 bulbs, we suggest using a switch instead, as it will be more economical.

  • The In-Wall Zigbee Dimmer

    Leviton DG6HD-1BW Decora Smart Dimmer

    Assuming you want to control more than one bank of lights, you’ll want to get at least a few of these Decora dimmers. They are the best solution for a Zigbee-based Smart Home system.

    The Guru’s Tip

    Note that you will need a white neutral wire in your gangbox to install this dimmer.

  • The Appliance Switch

    Innr Zigbee Smart Plug (2-Pack)

    This 2-pack of switches allows you to remotely control small appliances. It’s perfect for turning on and off a humidifier, air purifier, bug zapper, or holiday lights remotely or on a schedule! It uses the Zigbee, of course, so it will fit right in with all the other products in this guide.

    The Guru’s Tip

    We specifically have selected a non-dimmable product here, as dimmers could cause most appliances to malfunction. If you have a standing lamp or desk lamp you want to control, we recommend a Zigbee bulb like the one listed earlier in this guide.

  • Smart Thermostat

    ecobee SmartThermostat

    There are a lot of contenders for “best” smart thermostat, but we think the ecobee SmartThermostat clearly takes the prize for being the best smart thermostat, going beyond just giving you a digital display and remote monitoring and control. By using its stand-alone sensors, it can monitor temperature all around your home, not just in the room where you mount it on the wall! The SmartThermostat comes with one remote sensor in the box, but you can buy extra sensor 2-packs for around $80.

    The Guru’s Tip

    Amazon's Alexa voice service is also built in, which means you can speak commands directly to the thermostat, and can actually use it for may of the same things you'd use a stand-alone Echo Dot for. Note that it cannot play music.

  • Smart Lock

    Schlage Connect Smart Zigbee Deadbolt

    No Smart Home is complete without a smart lock, and we’ve tested every lock out there. The Schlage Connect Smart Deadbolt is by far the best. Offered in two different styles and a multitude of colors, this model has the best keypad, the longest battery life, and the best reliability, bar none. Remotely lock and unlock your door, lock via voice command, schedule it via the Alexa app to lock every night… so many options, all giving you more control and confidence in your home security!

    The Guru’s Tip

    Make sure to get the Zigbee version of this lock. Earlier models were Z-Wave only.

  • The Connected Family Cam

    Ring Indoor Cam

    Want a Ring camera for indoor use? The low-cost Indoor Cam from Ring is the one to use!

    The Guru’s Tip

    This is great for use as a baby cam or pet cam, and can be viewed from an Echo Show, or your smartphone!

  • The Wireless Security Camera System

    Ring Spotlight Cam Battery

    There are lots of options for home security out there, and just about all of them are half-baked. There’s just one system that we think is truly worth considering for a serious Smart Home system: Ring. It integrates with everything in the guide and what really sets it apart is integrated spotlight, which is great for lighting up dark areas, either to shine a light on trespassers or to make it easier for you and your guests to walk around!

    The Guru’s Tip

    To save recordings, you can pay $3/mo per camera, or $10/mo for unlimited cameras. Even better, you can pay $100/yr for unlimited cameras plus Ring Alarm monitoring!

  • Smart Doorbell

    Ring Video Doorbell 3

    Just about anyone can imagine why a Smart doorbell would be of use, and our favorite is the Video Doorbell 3. Thanks to its use of a doorbell’s existing power source, it can perpetually charge the included battery (although it can also be set up without wires). Either way, it’s very easy to install, and integrates perfectly with the Ring ecosystem. You can even use this doorbell if you have no internal chime by wireless connecting it to the Ring Chime.

    The Guru’s Tip

    Remember, one annual membership to Ring's service covers all your devices!

  • The Connected Home Security System

    Ring 5-Piece Alarm

    The perfect low-cost home alarm system, Ring offers not only a great price, but also a very low cost of ownership, thanks to a fabulous $100/yr pro plan that includes all recordings for all cameras and professional monitoring of your alarm. Plus there are no contracts, making it a risk-free solution. This kit includes the alarm base station, one motion sensor, one door sensor, one keypad, and one range extender (which is helpful if the door sensor is far from the base station).

    The Guru’s Tip

    While this starter kit is perfect for apartments, if you live in a house, you'll want to use one of the larger kits, available from the same product page.

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