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The Smart Home Device Buyer’s Guide
Absolutely everything is on the internet these days.
That includes a host of new internet-connected home devices - anything from video doorbells to thermostats to speakers to refrigerators. "Smart" is the latest upgrade for home appliances and entertainment, with a bevvy of hot ticket items available for gift purchases and home improvements.
The terminology can get a little confusing at times, and as with anything new, there’s a bit of a learning curve involved.
What do you need to know before you grab the latest gadget?
Optimum has a few key tips to make sure your next smart home purchase is worth it.
Investigate smart home device setup requirements before you buy
Each smart home device has a different setup process. Most are fairly simple and straightforward, although whenever technology is involved, "simple and straightforward" can be a relative term for you or your gift recipient.
Setting up a smart device on a home network usually requires the following:
- 1. A power supply for the device, usually A/C to wall plug or battery charger, but potentially hard-wired into a home electrical system via professional installation
- 2. A home internet connection, preferably with a wireless router (knowing the network name and password is always helpful)
- 3. A Bluetooth-enabled smart phone, computer, or tablet, connected to the same network - at least at the time of setup
- 4. A profile, login, or device link through an app or website with preference settings, controls, and/or subscription
Depending on who’s setting up a device and where the setup happens, the above requirements could either be fast and easy or a little more labor intensive.
It’s worth knowing before you purchase a device.
Look into online reviews of devices to gauge how easy the setup process is and how frequently troubleshooting may be necessary. Also look into instructional videos related to setting up any given device before making your purchase.
Especially keep in mind that parts of the setup process might need to be repeated in case of a power outage or internet service interruption. This can be a major consideration before buying a gift for out-of-state friends and family who might not be technologically savvy.
Learn about smart home network connectivity before you buy
Some smart home devices are "smarter" than others, with varying levels of connectivity. The IoT - or "Internet of Things" - is actually several different internets.
Your connected home can become complicated in a hurry if your new thermostat connects to your phone but not your home assistant, or if Siri, Alexa, and Hey Google can’t see eye to eye.
Keep the following in mind:
- 1. What “base system” does my connected home run on? Even though each device connects to your home internet and offers some degree of remote control, some “base systems” for voice commands and smart home assistant devices (e.g. Siri for Apple devices, Alexa for Amazon-enabled devices, Google, Facebook, etc.), aren’t compatible with each other. If you’re just starting out with a connected home device, consider which device will host your “main” device system. This could be controlled through a “main” assistant or smart phone with voice command ability.
- 2. How compatible is each device with my “base system?” We’ve all seen commercials where smiling professionals turn up their home thermostat while still in the car, but not every device offers this feature for every base system. Level of connectivity and compatibility is a selling point for connected home devices, and can be a key differentiator in finding the right price point for your needs. Make sure you consider how easily each device can talk to each other before making a purchase.
- 3. What connectivity features do I actually need? You might not actually need to splurge on “mega deluxe” connectivity devices, and instead just prefer to stop fishing between the couch cushions for your TV remote without needing to control everything from anywhere in the house. If so, a connected speaker, compatible TV, and home assistant combination might be fine for now. You can always upgrade later. Look into feature capabilities for each device, and if the list of things a smart device can do is much longer than the list of things you want it to do, consider other options.
- 4. Which level of privacy control am I comfortable with? In order to communicate between you and the internet, every smart device needs to share data. Some share a lot in order to be more responsive and capable, others have fewer features but share less in order to protect your privacy more strictly. It’s worth looking into the controls that each device offers before making a purchase (or giving a gift) that causes discomfort.
Remember, smart home devices are that much smarter when they connect with each other rather than simply to the internet. Figuring out which features and levels of connectivity each option offers is a key value point of any purchase.
Unfortunately, there’s no easy boilerplate way to do it, because each person has their own preferences and requirements.
Evaluate internet connection speed and bandwidth before you buy
Many smart devices are “always on” - continuously sending and receiving at least a small amount of data from the internet.
This data signal could involve as little as an occasional "ping" back and forth from a thermostat or refrigerator just to make sure the device is ready to receive a command. But it could also take up as much bandwidth as a video feed from a connected doorbell, internet-enabled gaming to a handheld device, or 4K Ultra HD streaming.
The more connected your home is to the internet through multiple devices, the stronger and faster the connection you’ll need to keep everything running smoothly.
If you (or the person you're gifting a device to) often struggle with internet connection speed-related lag when video chatting or streaming, it may be advisable to boost your internet connection speed before adding another device to your home network. After all, you wouldn't want to have to turn off your new doorbell before you can make an important conference call.
There are multiple ways to do this:
- 1. Connect your smart device to your modem using an ethernet cable if possible to ensure it has a clearer, faster signal.
2. Amplify your home wifi signal by using an amplifier device, clearing obstructions around your wireless router, or moving the device closer to your wireless router. 3. Upgrade your home internet connection speed by contacting your internet service provider for a faster package.
There's a lot worth considering before making a smart home device purchase, whether it's for your own home or intended as a gift. Taking a little extra time to investigate your options, read online reviews, and familiarize yourself with device features and options is a great way to start.
Now you know what questions to ask!
Good luck, and happy connecting.
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