Echo Plus

If you're looking to create a Smart Home, this guide is for you! To help you set up a Smart Home that actually works, we've sorted through a huge range of gear to make sure that you're not just getting something that's been hyped on KickStarter or Indiegogo, or been tested in an office cubicle in Silicon Valley, but something that will actually make your home smarter! 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.

Arlo

The big news for Fall 2017 is that there's finally a little civilization coming to the Wild West: Amazon has drawn its "big guns", introducing an Amazon Echo voice controller with a built-in Smart Home hub. Is this a big deal? Oh yes, it's a very big deal. While Smart Home has up until now been very much a trial-and-error process, with many Smart Home products ending up being "unplugged" by their creators, Amazon is putting its weight behind the Zigbee communications standard and has integrated Smart Home controls into its Alexa app. Frankly, we believe this is going to change the entire Smart Home landscape over time, but for now, it does mean that going with Amazon means you're going to be more or less limited to smart lighting, along with WiFi-connected cameras (like the class-leading Arlo), thermostats, and vaccuums. Sure, Google, Apple, Samsung, and Microsoft are all in the voice control business too, but just ignore them. Amazon got way out in front with its Alexa voice service, and at this point we're convinced no one else will ever catch up.

Now, if you'd like to do a whole lot more, you'll need to step up to a Wink Hub. With its half-dozen built-in radios, it can communicate with virtually anything, and allows for integrating the functionality of more devices, allowing them to control each other, rather than relying on you the user to control them. Yes, there are alternatives, but no, they aren't worth buying. Wink's new Hub 2 is way ahead of its competitor SmartThings, and also makes infinitely more sense than a proprietary hub such as those that optional with so many individual Smart Home products.

To help our readers decide what products make the most sense for them, we've divided this guide into two categories: those that do not require a hub other than the Echo Plus itself, and those that do require a Wink Hub to operate. In short, if you want a simple, fool-proof system, go with the Echo Plus and the devices that work directly with it. If you're feeling adventurous, get any Echo, pair it with the Wink Hub, and get ready to tinker! By the way, you'll also need a wireless router to run your Smart Home, and if yours is more than a few years old, you should probably check out our Wireless Networking Buyer's Guide for potential upgrade options!

Prices shown in this guide use real-time pricing engines, so they are always up-to-date. If you decide to purchase one of the cards we profile, please use the links we provide, which helps support continued development of this guide.

Smart Home - Fall 2017

No Hub Required

    The All-In-One Hub/Voice Controller:

    Amazon Echo Plus

    This changes everything. We'd been waiting years (literally) for Amazon's other foot to drop into the Smart Home ring, and it finally happened with the October 2017 release of the Echo Plus. From the beginning, the Echo allowed for voice control of various devices, but it always relied on third-party hubs for most of this functionality. Now, Amazon has built the hub directly into the Echo Plus, meaning it's a "one-stop shop" for a true Smart Home experience! And the best part is that you can use either the Echo Plus as a voice controller, or the Alexa smartphone app as a manual controller - all devices connected to the Echo Plus will show up in the app, meaning you can also control devices from afar. For a limited time, the Echo Plus even comes with a free Philips bulb!

    The Guru's Tip:

    There's one catch, and it's a pretty technical one, but also significant. The Echo Plus has just two modes of communication available to connect with Smart Home devices: Zigbee and WiFi. It cannot control devices that use competing standards, including Z-Wave, Bluetooth LE, or Lutron Connect. That limits you to very select third party devices, and we list the ones worth buying below.

    The Tunable A19 Smart Bulb:

    Sylvania Smart+ A19

    There are lots of connected bulb manufacturers out there, and even more peddling the "latest and greatest" LED bulbs. Among all the players, we think Sylvania has now taken the lead. Its bulbs have the three features we think are most important: they're dimmable, use Zigbee communication for true Smart Home integration, and have selectable color temperatures. They are also quite reasonably priced, and work with either the Amazon Echo Plus or the Wink Hub 2.

    The Guru's Tip:

    To be clear, this bulb actually does require a hub to operate, but it will work directly with the Amazon Echo Plus' built-in hub.

    The Tunable BR30 Smart Bulb:

    Sylvania Smart+ BR30

    This model is simply a BR30 version of the bulb above. It's a great pick for most recessed lighting.

    The Guru's Tip:

    Again, this is a Zigbee-equipped bulb, allowing it to communicate with either the Amazon Echo Plus, or alternatively the Wink Hub 2 (described later in this guide) for more sophisticated Smart Home setups. 

    Smart Thermostat:

    Ecobee4 Smarter Wi-Fi Thermostat

    There are a lot of contenders for "best" smart thermostat, but we think the ecobee4 takes the prize for being a truly smart thermostat, going beyond just giving you a digital display and remote monitoring and control. By using its stand-alone sensors, the ecobee4 can monitor temperature all around your home, not just in the room where you mount it on the wall! The ecobee4 comes with one remote sensor in the box, but you can buy extra sensor 2-packs for around $80.

    The Guru's Tip:

    The huge new feature that the ecobee4 added over the ecobee3 is that it has Amazon's Alexa voice service built in, which means you can speak commands directly to it, and can actually use it for may of the same things you'd use a stand-alone Echo Dot for. Despite this huge improvement, it costs the same as the previous version!

    The Ultimate Security Camera:

    Netgear Arlo Pro 2

    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: Netgear's new Arlo Pro 2. With fully wireless battery-equipped cameras capable of 1080p video and two-way audio, this is the solution enthusiasts have wanted for years. Use it indoors or outdoors, wirelessly, plugged in, or even equipped with a solar panel (see below). This two-camera system also includes the required base station, as well as a siren for security use.

    The Guru's Tip:

    One last big benefit of the Arlo system: it includes a free recording package. Most of its competitors give you recording for a month, and then become utterly useless unless you're willing to pay a fee (usually around $10 per month!). Netgear isn't going to nickel and dime you like that!

    Solar Panel:

    Netgear Arlo Solar Panel

    For true outdoor security and versatility, you really need a solar panel system for power. While there are dozens of outdoor cameras available that plug into the wall, that's inconvenient and unsightly. And while Arlo on its own can run for months on a battery, to get the most out of it, hook it up to a solar panel for truly unlimited run time.

    The Guru's Tip:

    The only limitation to using this solar panel is that the camera will have to be relatively close to a sun-lit area.

    Connected Robotic Vacuum:

    Shark Ion Robot 750

    Yes, we know robotic vacuums have been around a very long time, but the Shark Ion Robot 750 is truly the next generation of robots. In addition to working really well as a vacuum, it can be controlled by Amazon's Echo, allowing you to launch, pause, and return it via your voice.

    The Guru's Tip:

    Other nifty "Smart" features of this vacuum that can be called up by voice include checking the battery level (it reports an exact percent, not just low, medium, or high as on the device itself), getting a problem report, and even having the vacuum play a sound if it's gotten lost somewhere in the house!

Hub Required

    The Best Smart Home Hub:

    Wink Hub 2

    If you'd like to step into next-generation Smart Home control, go with the new Wink Hub 2. Building on everything Wink learned with the original, you get a wired connection to your router for the most reliable operation, along with the option of either 2.4GHz or 5GHz wireless if you'd prefer. You can individually control or schedule devices like lights and cameras, or you can use Robots, which is Wink's system for triggering one device with another. With built-in Zigbee, Z-Wave, Bluetooth LE, and Lutron Connect radios, it can interface with virtually any Smart Home product on the market, allowing for limitless possibilities. Trigger lights and switches with cameras or motion sensors, unlock doors from the other side of the world, lower shades when you turn on the lights... the list goes on!

    The Guru's Tip:

    To learn more about the Hub 2 and how to set it up, see our full review

    The Bargain Voice Controller:

    Amazon Echo Dot (2nd Generation)

    Frankly, every home should have an Echo of some sort, and with the Echo Dot, it's really affordable. It's the perfect low-cost voice controller for a Smart Home system. Heck, even if you want to do nothing more than listen to your favorite radio station or streaming music channel, you should pick up the Dot.

    The Guru's Tip:

    To make Echo Dot the center of your Smart Home, you'll need to pair it with a hub, and we recommend the Wink Hub 2 above. It will then allow you to use your voice to control lights, locks, and other devices in this guide.

    The Ultimate Voice Assistant:

    Amazon Echo Show

    Like the Echo Dot, the Echo Show can function as a voice controller for your Smart Home system, but it does so much more. With its 7" touchscreen, it can really start to feel like a personal assistant. Call up video news reports, movies, and TV shows using just your voice, see song lyrics as you sing along to Amazon Music's 2 million free songs, view security cam live feeds, and of course control all your smart devices! One of the coolest features of the Show is the ability to make video calls just using your voice, either to another Show device, or to any Android or Apple smartphone.

    The Guru's Tip:

    Remember, unlike the Echo Plus, the Echo Show has no built-in hub, so it can only control devices connected via WiFi, which excludes all the lighting products listed in this guide.

    The Appliance Switch:

    Leviton Decora Plug-in Appliance Module

    This switch allows you to remotely control small appliances. It's perfect for turning on and off a humidifier, air purifier, or coffee machine remotely or on a schedule!

     

    The Guru's Tip:

    This will also let you control floor-standing and desk lamps that are equipped with non-standard bulbs. Just note that if a lamp can take a standard A19 (60W-equivalent) bulb, we recommend you use a Smart Bulb instead, as it's cheaper and just as functional.

    The Deluxe In-Wall Dimmer:

    Lutron Caseta Dimmer with Pico Remote

    Lutron's been in the lighting business longer than most smart-tech companies have been in existence, and these switches are the very best in-wall models on the market. In addition to allowing automated, smartphone, and wall switch control, this model comes with a free-standing remote. That's perfect for placing next to your couch for quick controls without reaching into your pocket for a phone. The remote will even work from across the house! By the way, if you're looking for excellent dimmable "dumb" bulbs for use with Lutron's dimming switches, we suggest Philip's latest BR30 models.

    The Guru's Tip:

    One of the very best uses of the Lutron Pico remote, included in the box with this switch, is in 3-way lighting applications. All you need is the Pico wall plate adapter! You don't even need wiring to make this happen - it's all wireless!

    The World's Best Dimmer:

    Lutron Caseta Wireless ELV Dimmer

    OK, this product requires a bit of explanation. It's nearly twice as much as the standard Lutron Caseta dimmer profiled above, and yet include neither the faceplate nor the handy Pico Remote that you get in the box with the cheaper model. While it does add the "favorite" button in the middle that returns it to a preferred dimming level, that's not enough to justify the higher price. So what's the deal? The deal is Electronic Low Voltage, or ELV for short. We've been testing LED bulbs for years and have asked multiple manufacturers how to address buzzing, flickering, and the inability to turn on at low dimming levels. The answer they've always given us: ditch your magnetic dimmers and go ELV. Until now, that was impossible if you also wanted a Smart Home dimmer, but it's impossible no more! Lutron's ELV dimmer is the future of Smart Home, and we anticipate that once prices come down, ELV will take over the market. 

    The Guru's Tip:

    ELV dimmers are not the same as other "LED-compatible" dimmers, which often work terribly with LEDs. If you want guaranteed smooth dimming, no flickering, and most important to us, no buzz, you want to go ELV. As an added bonus, ELV dimmers also dissipate far less power as heat than magnetic dimmers. There's just one little catch: this dimmer requires a neutral wire, so make sure your home has a neutral available before investing in ELV.

    Smart Lock:

    Schlage Connect Camelot Touchscreen Deadbolt

    While plenty of companies are peddling smart locks nowadays, there's one company out there that's been in the business of making really good locks for a long, long time. And no matter how good the connected features of a lock are, if it doesn't properly secure your door, you're out of luck. That's why we believe the Schlage Connect lock is the only one to go with. Not only does it have seamless integration with the Wink Hub 2, it also has a nifty touchscreen to allow for locking and unlocking without a key. You'll never need to fumble for a key (or a smartphone) to get into your home again!

    The Guru's Tip:

    Keep in mind that you cannot unlock this lock, or any lock, with via Amazon Echo voice controls. That's based on the potential for a security breach by an intruder using voice control to gain access to your home. You can, however, check the status of the lock, as well as lock it, via voice.