A guide to building your first smart home

Updated on May 9 2018

The advent of the smart home is upon us. Automated technology has allowed us to embrace convenience. And yet, not every household in Singapore has equipped itself with the right technology. With the introduction of Google Home into our local market, however, perhaps that will soon change.

Instead of getting out of bed to turn off the lights, we now have the option to do it with a simple voice command. But changing our behavioural habits might be daunting. Not just that, outfitting our homes with the right appliances would be quite a challenge, as there are so many out there. You must be asking yourself: Which light should I get? Do I need a thermostat? What about my television?

Here is a basic introduction to building your own smart home. We’re not going to dictate which product you should use, as each household has its different needs. But hopefully, this will steer you in the right direction of making your home smarter and more efficient.

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Choosing your assistant
The platform you want to base your smart home on is the most important. It needs to fit comfortably with the ecosystem you’re currently using, not the other way around.

smart home
The Amazon Echo

The most common assistants out there are the voice-activated ones: Google Home, Amazon Echo, and Apple’s HomePod. The former just launched in Singapore, while the latter two are currently not available locally. However, they can always be brought in from other markets.

The main difference between the three is the ecosystem you want to use. Apple loyalists have the HomePod that is powered by the HomeKit and Siri, while Google fans should use Google Home, a shiny housing for the Google Assistant. Amazon’s Echo (powered by Alexa) is a neutral party in this case but has an edge over the rest with its greater variety of devices and skills.

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Setting the atmosphere
Our home environment primarily focuses on lighting and the climate. So it’s no secret that the two most prominent smart home products in the market are the Philips Hue bulbs and Nest thermostats.

Before you start adding all that into your cart, you need to know your requirements. If you regularly have guests over, coloured lights will help create a more inviting ambience. Light strips give you more freedom with your lighting. Place them above your kitchen counters and wardrobes. Hide them in recesses so your room looks more elegant and less cluttered. They might not have the flair of an Edison bulb, but they are a lot more versatile.

Besides the Philips Hue, there are other options that are more design-savvy. The Nanoleaf Aurora lets your imagination run wild with the infinite possibilities you can place them in. They can also pulse to the rhythmic beats from your home speakers, transforming your room into a pseudo-disco.

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This setup with the Nanoleaf Aurora light panels would be perfect for the Crazy Rich Asians movie.

Then, there is your comfort. How nice would it be to come home to a cooled house? You might think a thermostat in Singapore wouldn’t make a difference as we only have one season. On the contrary, a smart thermostat automates your home’s climate and temperature while saving energy.

The Tado does this with any air-conditioner through an app on your phone. With intelligent control systems like that, you can set up schedules to suit the climate and keep better track of your day-to-day energy consumption. It also tracks the location of your phone, turning off the air-conditioning once you’ve left the house.

If you prefer the consistent breeze of ceiling fans, you can get them from the aptly-named Big Ass Fans. It’s the company behind the giant fans you might have seen around Singapore, and also has smaller, more appropriate fans for the home through its brand Haiku Home.

However, a truly smart home can take actions on its own using proximity sensors. The Samsung SmartThings Home Monitoring Kit lets you do all that and more. It can detect when your windows are open or if there’s someone at your front door, and can turn the lights off if there is no motion in the room.

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Configuring the hardware
If it’s too much of a hassle to refit your entire household with smart appliances, you can start with smart plugs. They’re there to make your “dumb” devices like floor lamps, kettles and standing fans smarter.

smart home
A smart plug like the Belkin Wemo Mini lets you control your everyday appliances with your smartphone or tablet.

Plugs like the Belkin WeMo Mini and TP-Link Smart Plug let you venture into the realm of a smart home without it getting too technical. An app on your phone can control these plugs and set timers and schedules. Some even come with compatibility with your home assistants so you just need to use your voice to turn off the fan.

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Entertainment
The problem with streaming services like Netflix or Hulu is the awkward search function. A streaming device or a smart TV makes your life a lot easier. That said, you will need to ensure your entertainment dongle is compatible with your home assistant: The Google Chromecast and Google Home; Apple TV with the HomePod; and Amazon Fire TV with the Echo. This way, you get the most out of the devices as they all “speak” to each other, and you can speak to them too.

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Move over, cable television. Streaming devices like Apple TV are here to stay.

The efficiency of asking your television to play your favourite Indiana Jones movie is much easier than having to flip through a channel guide. If you’re not feeling particularly chatty, you don’t even have to say “please” or “thank you”. Just a simple (and curt) “Alexa, watch Star Trek Discovery” will suffice.

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Protecting your privacy
There’s always a conundrum when surrendering your life to technology. How much data are the big corporations gathering? Is your personal information safe?

If you’re concerned with privacy, Apple’s ecosystem would probably be your best bet. The tech giant’s stance on privacy is one of its most valuable intangible assets. Its commitment to privacy is so extreme that there was once a huge tussle between it and the FBI over obtaining access to an iPhone used by a shooter.

On the other hand, Apple’s limit to a consumer’s data means that its smart assistant is not as smart. Siri has always been in the shadow of Amazon’s Alexa and Google Assistant, so much so that it has been the butt of many jokes amongst smart assistants.

Meanwhile, Alexa and Google Assistant’s intuitive learning about your habits provides more depth in what they can do for you.

While some consumers prefer a smart assistant to have more capabilities, others value privacy above all else. This is a decision you have to make yourself.

Turn it on

Once you’ve picked out the parts, it’s time to go home and link them all together. No one said building your first smart home was going to be easy. There will be tons of manuals to read, troubleshooting errors, and frustrating moments. But when all the cogs in the machine start to turn in tandem, and your house starts to gain an intelligence you thought wasn’t possible, it will be worth it.