Home automation is an ever-expanding market that is growing by leaps and bounds. Let’s face it — people like their technology, and they like to feel in control. Put those two together, and it’s no wonder home automation is projected to be a $21.6 billion global industry by 2020, according to Transparency Market Research.
When an industry is increasing with such speed, it is a challenge for the average consumer to keep up with new developments and sort through the growing offerings of products. Here at Freshome, we spent hours trying to simplify this for you by looking for smart home interfaces that are easy to use and install, and systems that cover the gamut of options available for home automation.
New technology is great, but we wanted to make sure that it was actually beneficial and added value to your home. We also added a couple of things that are just plain cool, as well as some general tips for a lot of our categories that will be beneficial regardless of the brand you choose.
Before our search, we spoke with home automation expert Travis Leo, CEO/founder of Residential Systems. Here’s what he said about choosing a system:
“Technology is moving faster than most of us can keep up with. It seems one day I was happy wearing a Timex, and then suddenly I had an Apple iWatch that gives me access to the world. When it comes to choosing home automation, I see three key steps:
“Research. Many are unaware that there is no barrier to entry in this field of work — anyone can wake up one morning and decide to become a home automation ‘expert.’ It is imperative to do your research in order to determine who you want to work with. Ideally, this will be someone who has made a demonstrable commitment to the market and who has a proven track record of successful installations.
“Demonstration. Before you even break ground, we suggest you come in for a demo to understand the scope and realm of home automation in order to make educated decisions and begin to develop a budget.
“Skilled integrator. Working with a highly knowledgeable integrator is paramount to define the scope and get accurate estimates of your plan.”
Choosing the best products for this article was difficult, to say the least; the market is inundated with smart home technology. We waded through the multitude of choices and came up with six primary categories, and identified the best product in each category.
Here Are the Best Home Automation Systems:
- Best Keyless Entry/Smart Lock: Schlage Connect
- Best DIY Home Security System: iSmart Alarm
- Best Home Climate Control: Nest Learning Thermostat (3rd Generation)
- Best Automated Window Shades: Lutron Sivoia QS Wireless
- Best Smart Home-Theater System: Bose SoundTouch 520
- Best Whole-Home System: Control4
Because choosing the best products was so difficult, you’ll find that some of the categories have close runners up. There were times when some products were so close that we chose the “best” based solely on its lower price point.
Overall, our goal was to make you a bit smarter when it comes to choosing smart home automation products. We tried to choose products that are easy to install; that have a solid brand reputation (not just something hot off the shelf); and at varying price points. Without further ado, here are our findings.
Best Keyless Entry/Smart Lock: Schlage Connect
Schlage is well known for its quality products in the home security/door lock industry, and that reputation carries over from traditional locks to smart locks. We have chosen the Schlage Connect ($187-$300) as the best offering for keyless entry/smart locks.
According to the company, the Connect has a Grade 1 security rating (highest in the market), features a motorized deadbolt, has capacity for 30 separate user codes, and can be locked, unlocked and monitored from anywhere “when paired with a third-party home automation or alarm system.” It is Z-Wave-enabled and offers three options for alerts: activity, tamper or forced entry. (Z-Wave is a wireless communications specification designed to allow devices in the home to communicate with one another for the purposes of home automation.)
There are a few things to be aware of with this lock. The lower price point listed above is for a smart deadbolt; you may also need a hand lever or doorknob, so — depending on what you have in place already or the combo you buy — that could incur some additional costs. If the door you are planning to use this lock with is more than 1.75 inches thick, you will also need to purchase a thick door kit.
The Connect has an outdoor temperature rating of -31 degrees to 151 degrees Fahrenheit — conditions beyond those ranges can result in usage problems, but it is an outdoor lock and built for weather conditions within the listed ranges.
Schlage Connect Reviews
Product websites offer plenty of useful information, but what do actual users have to say about the Schlage Connect? We sifted through hundreds of reviews and were rightfully impressed with the overall feedback on the Connect; 79 percent of the reviewers gave it 4 or 5 stars (out of 5).
Consumers were impressed with the unit’s appearance and solid construction; they said it was well designed and they loved the push-button locking feature. The vast majority of owners reported that it was easy to install and program, usually taking less than an hour to be up and running.
It seemed that if there were problems with the installation, it had more to do with the existing door frame. Multiple people suggested checking YouTube for installation videos if you needed help beyond the manual, but most individuals found the manual to be all they required.
Programming the unit was a positive experience and an easy task for most homeowners as well. The Z-Wave connection gives a lot of options for usability, and the reviews had a running list of the hubs that the Connect plays well with, including Smart Things, Wink, Vera and ADT security systems. It’s not an all-inclusive list, so check the compatibility of your hub and the Connect before you purchase.
If you have connectivity issues in your home with other Z-Wave devices, you may want to pair it while near your hub and then install it on the door. The alarm volume was likened to a smoke-detector alarm, and people appreciated the notifications they received on their smartphones or other devices.
There are a few issues to be aware of. As this is a motorized deadbolt, it is going to make some noise. One reviewer likened it to a 1-second Dustbuster, while others were a little less creative and said it was louder than they expected.
This is a smart device, but it requires a connection to a third-party hub or security system to enable all of its functionality. A few issues were reported that may be most influenced by your specific location, including the keypad numbers being difficult to see in direct sunlight and some feedback that the unit’s batteries seem to drain more quickly in colder weather. If you do run into problems, we recommend that you contact Schlage, as the reviews of the company’s customer service were outstanding.
One other issue worth mentioning was the potential issue of the system telling you that the door is locked (deadbolt extended) even when it is not closed. The system may be correct that the deadbolt is extended, but if there is no contact with the strike plate, your door is not actually locked. Schlage will hopefully develop a fix for this known issue.
The Schlage Connect boasts an illuminated, fingerprint-resistant touchscreen to protect against smudges and wear patterns. No one commented that there were any problems with the resistance level of the Connect, but as a general piece of advice, we recommend that you create entry codes with a wide variety of numbers.
No matter what brand of smart lock you go with, using the same four to six numbers for each code will make guessing a code relatively quick work for someone with bad intentions. Spreading the numbers out among users will keep wear patterns if your lock does begin to show signs of wear.
There is new technology that offers the ability to open your doors by voice command. Schlage has developed the Sense, which offers the ability to use your iPhone, iPad or iPod Touch to work with Apple HomeKit technology to create user codes or even encrypt your voice to unlock your door. The technology has a release date of November 1, 2015.
We are following the advice of our home automation expert, Travis Leo, who stays away from voice recognition in his company because the technology “has not reached its peak of user friendliness.” But it is certainly cool, and one to keep an eye on as the issues get worked out.
Best DIY Home Security System: iSmart Alarm
Just like its name, the iSmartAlarm reminded us of Apple’s iPod with its shiny white, streamlined appearance. The cube-shaped hub is reminiscent of a vintage iPod speaker dock. Essentially, the design will blend well in a tech-savvy home.
For a test of DIY security systems, we purchased an eight-piece iSmart Alarm set for $189; it came with an alarm hub, two window sensors, two door sensors, a motion sensor and two keychain remotes. The premium package ($295) adds a security camera. An HD camera with audio and motion detection and recording capability also is available for $150.
Our setup was seamless despite one glitch that required us to remove the batteries and reinsert them in order for the app to recognize all of the components. After the system was up and running, there were a lot of things that we liked about it: We could control everything via the app or the keychain, settings were customizable and the app tracks all events.
We noticed a minor negative when we couldn’t customize what happens after the alarm was triggered. Notifications by text, email and phone (there’s no way to select a preferred method) was a little overkill but not a huge problem. A bigger issue was the fact that there is no battery backup — if the power goes out, then so does your safety.
iSmart Alarm Reviews
Other owners of the iSmart Alarm had similarly positive things to say; 66 percent of the reviews on Amazon gave 4 or 5 stars to the package (and its supplementary components, since there is no way for reviewers to differentiate). As with our experience, people commented on the ease of setup and the system’s reliability.
Glowing comments included “worth every penny,” “surprised Apple hasn’t bought it yet!” and “love this system.” The reviews of the additional camera were also positive. The lack of monthly fees and the ability to add onto the system were viewed as very positive.
The few negative comments echoed what we had noticed regarding the lack of battery backup in case of power loss. If it is unplugged or loses power, it will stop working and cannot be rebooted remotely or switched to an alternate power source. Purchasers noticed that the remote buttons can be bumped too easily, creating some unplanned actions from the system. One user also reported that his pets set off the alarm, even though they weighed under the recommended 30 pounds.
The majority of complaints boiled down to confusion and frustration from not fully understanding the abilities of the system and how the components work together. There were some useful suggestions from tech-minded users. Reviewers who reported delays in notifications may have more of an issue with Wi-Fi than with the alarm system. It was recommended that consumers buy directly from ismartalarm.com to get the most recent version of the product.
The website is also full of user forums for tips on how to use the system, including developing “recipes” on IFTTT (If This Then That, a web-based controller for smart technology). The iSmart Alarm website also includes a forum for “wish list” items, and the company is allegedly developing an auxiliary alarm to protect against the power-loss issue.
Best Home Climate Control: Nest Learning Thermostat (3rd Generation)
The Nest Learning Thermostat has been leading the climate-control market since 2011, and the latest generation of its learning thermostat follows in the large footsteps of its predecessors. According to the company, the stylish third-generation Nest ($249) features a larger, sharper display; Farsight technology that lights up to show the set temperature or time from a distance; and Furnace Heads Up to alert you when there are potential problems with your furnace. And these are only some of the newest developments.
Like previous Nests, this thermostat depends on you working with it for a week while it “learns” your routines, allowing it to program itself and anticipate your needs. The website guides potential customers through a somewhat detailed analysis of the wires in your home to see whether they are compatible with Nest technology. It is a useful step to take prior to committing to a Nest for your home. A C wire from your furnace will make installation a lot quicker but is not required.
If you run into problems, reviewers noted that the customer support from Nest is excellent; one customer even reported that when a circuit blew during installation, the company paid for a technician to come out and connect her unit.
Nest Learning Thermostat Reviews
Reviewers of the 3G Nest seem to be made up largely of those upgrading from a previous Nest, although new users were represented in smaller force. They were impressed with the improvements to the display and enjoyed the Farsight feature — no more dancing around in front of their previous Nest to have it wake up.
The 3rd generation integrates with other Nest products flawlessly. Reviewers appreciated the new safety features such as the Furnace Heads Up and the ability to set Safety Temps to guard against extreme highs and lows (think overheating or shutdown). The system works with IFTTT, a big plus for users who want to extend their control.
There is something unique about the more-negative comments on Amazon: Nest responds to them. Almost every critical comment had a reply from the company, often encouraging the user to contact Nest any time for assistance. Those responses did include why Nest shows the set temperature so prominently instead of the actual room temperature (a common complaint).
Reviewers showed some discontent over the temperature drift that the Nest allows for during usage, though the company says it is to prevent wear and tear on the HVAC unit. One other repeated complaint was that this relatively costly unit does not come with drywall anchors for installation, and users had to go out and buy them before being able to get their Nest up and running. Although a nuisance, it seems like a relatively small issue.
Runner Up: Honeywell Wi-Fi Smart Thermostat
Even though the Nest had strong positive reviews, we felt that the Honeywell Wi-Fi Smart Thermostat earned a nod as runner-up in this category. It is a bargain at about $175, offering Wi-Fi energy programming to those who don’t want to spend as much for the benefits of this technology.
Like the Nest, the Honeywell system is easiest to install if you have a C wire, according to owners. It is easy to program, has customizable color display choices (it can match your walls), responds to humidity levels and even shows the weather forecast for your area. It has options similar to a standard thermostat and so much more, with screens and controls “for everything,” as one owner put it.
The unit can also be run by app or automation hub. It works with four schedule points in each day: wake, leave, return and sleep. One reviewer said that the Honeywell is a better fit for real life than learning thermostats.
The Honeywell did have its critics, who cautioned against its flimsy plastic back plate and mounting tabs that are not 100 percent secure. As with all smart thermostats, there is an allowable temperature swing with the Wi-Fi Smart Thermostat as well.
Customer service proved frustrating for a fair number of users, but an equal number stated how helpful and responsive it was for them. One other minor note with the Honeywell: the touch screen requires a little more pressure than we have all become accustomed to with our smartphones and tablets.
Best Automated Window Shades: Lutron Sivoia QS Wireless
Admit it: The idea of controlling your window treatments via remote or app is cool. It’s also a little over the top for most of us, because of the sizable price tag for the motorized shades and installation (23 windows could run about $10,000).
Lutron, a respected leader in the motorized-window-treatment industry, has brought that price point down into the hands of the more average consumer (although still significantly more expensive than non-motorized window treatments). Its Sivoia QS Wireless technology starts at $299 per window.
The Sivoia Wireless system has many different offerings, so depending on the material, style and optional features you choose, some treatments will keep you at the higher price point. But there are new options available for those wishing to conserve energy and reduce glare by controlling the sun’s impact on their home. (Cool has multiple meanings when it comes to motorized blinds.)
The honeycomb shades offered by Lutron at this lower price tag still look impressive; they are way beyond the temporary ones held up by adhesive tape. The approximately 100 choices in fabric should cover even the most unique decor scheme. Sizes will accommodate windows up to 84 x 84 inches.
Lutron Sivoia Reviews
While we could not find many reviews, one person who has professionally installed all types of Lutron window treatments was impressed with the quick installation (about 10 minutes), saying that it was no more difficult than a regular blind placement.
This budget-friendly version from Lutron features battery power with patent-pending Triathlon energy technology that should run for approximately three years before needing to be changed.
Even though there are factors keeping the price point lower, the wow factor is still there. You get remote control over your window treatments, including the ability to use a keypad, a remote or an app. You can program the blinds to respond to your activities, such as watching a movie or going to bed. There’s even an option to run your window treatments in harmony with the ever-changing sunrise and sunset.
Lutron offers several options for those wishing to dive into automation of their window treatments and willing to pay the price. If you just want to get your feet wet, and finally deal with those unreachable foyer windows, the Sivoia honeycomb shades offer an excellent starting point.
Best Smart Home-Theater System: Bose SoundTouch 520
Although more and more companies are trying to claim a piece of the audio industry, Bose has a firm reputation as a leader in sound innovation and quality. With products such as the SoundTouch 520 ($1,500), it is not hard to see why we chose a Bose model as our best smart home theater system. It includes five wired speakers (yes, wired), a wireless adaptor, wireless Acoustimass (bass) module, control console, remote and ADAPTiQ headset for optimal speaker placement and calibration.
Bose SoundTouch 520 Reviews
This is a new release, so the majority of the reviews were for free product that was sent out for testing. We did also gather some professional reviews. The one thing to expect from Bose is high-quality sound, and this system delivers. Many people consider Bose the industry benchmark in sound quality, and there were certainly reviews that reiterated that.
The user guide and quick-start guide for the system made for an easy and efficient assembly, and the control app was well regarded. Users enjoyed the dialogue boost that Bose has to counteract speech being drowned out by background music in movies or shows. The SoundTouch 520 is Bluetooth compatible, pairs with several different devices and lets you use your Wi-Fi network to stream online music services such as Pandora and Spotify.
Not even Bose can get off criticism-free, so there are some things to be aware of before purchasing this system. Foremost, don’t be misled by all of the “wireless” references. Yes, it can stream music wirelessly and some of its components are wireless, but the speakers that you will place around your living space are wired, which could lead to placement challenges.
Speaker stands and mounting hardware are not part of the package. If you have a very large space, you may not have enough speaker wire to install the SoundTouch 520. Also, this unit comes with only one HDMI cable, so you’ll need to get more if you have multiple components.
Reviewers expressed some discontent over the lack of customization and preset options for such a pricey system. The SoundTouch 520 is surprisingly lagging behind most other systems (even car audio), with only six presets available and no AM/FM receiver included. The user interface is a small LCD screen on the console, with no option for onscreen TV viewing.
Even with the critical comments, the Bose quality and performance carries a lot of weight with consumers and reviewers, leading one customer to proclaim it “the best home theater I’ve ever owned.”
Runner Up: Sonos 5.1 Home Theater System
The Sonos 5.1 Home Theater System ($1,796) is our runner up for a number of reasons. The system includes a nine-speaker PLAYBAR soundbar, a SUB for bass and a pair of PLAY:1 rear speakers for surround sound. You will need to connect the PLAYBAR to your network router or purchase a Sonos BRIDGE so the system can create its own network. The SUB and speakers are truly wireless but still need to be plugged in for power. The system can be controlled via remote or apps available for iOS or Android.
The high price point and some customer complaints regarding the ability to achieve true 5.1 sound quality placed this in the runner-up category, but there is one feature that we really felt warranted its place on this home-automation review: Sonos has created a system that makes for incredibly easy expansion.
Add any Sonos wireless speakers, press a button, and that speaker is part of your system, yours to command via the app. Expanding your audio into the kitchen? Not a problem. Want to let the kids watch a movie in the living room while you listen to tunes upstairs? Totally doable. Although this system is expensive, don’t count it out.
Best Whole-Home System: Control4
Now that you know what some of the best home-automation products and capabilities are, maybe you’re thinking, “But I want to do it all!” If you’re looking to automate your entire home, or to start with a smaller piece but plan to expand over time, consider a whole home automation provider — specifically, the Control4, which tops our list.
Whereas other items can be pieced together and installed yourself, a total home-automation program will typically require a professional install — and deep pockets. Control4 offers a variety of services, beginning at $1,000 for a basic setup and moving into the $10,000-plus range for an entire home.
Control4 can automate and unify more than 7,000 consumer electronics products, working with items that you already own. Its system covers energy management, lighting, thermostats, window coverings, environmental sensors, door locks, garage doors, security cameras, entry sensors and home theaters. The Control4 Mobile App and 4Sight with Anywhere Access gives you complete control over your automated home from anywhere in the world.
There is quite a bit of flexibility for both wireless and wired systems, providing options for homeowners who never plan to sell as well as renters who are planning their next move. Control4 operates on a wide variety of platforms and operating systems (iOS, Android, Apple OS X and Windows Vista, 7 and 8.1), but since it is sold only through authorized dealers, there were fewer unbiased online reviews.
A few reviews mentioned some drawbacks to the installation of this system, including finding good customer support (depending on your dealer) and the need to have a professional incorporate any new purchases into your home’s automation. Essentially, if you have a great dealer in your area who is well-informed with the system, then you are in luck. Other feedback highlighted the system’s flexibility when it comes to equipment choice and ease of use.
Runners Up: Savant and HomeSeer
Two others worth mentioning are available at different ends of the spectrum. For those who live and breathe by their iPhones and Macs, Savant offers an Apple-based home-automation system requiring professional installation and a considerable cost. The starting price of $10,000-$15,000 will not include security (that’s an additional expense), but if it’s within your budget and you want to control your world via your Apple device, it could be the system for you. The Savant system will be available in December 2015.
On the other hand, if you are a tech-minded DIY’er who wants to reign in your budget, HomeSeer is another versatile system that lets you be in charge of your own home automation. It plays well with IFTTT and claims to control your personal data more rigorously than other smart hubs. HomeSeer controllers start at just $200.
The home automation industry is huge and expanding every day. Some products, such as smart thermostats, save money and energy; some, like automated door locks with recording capabilities, offer peace of mind; and some, such as smart home theaters, provide a more enjoyable home-entertainment experience.
We didn’t even touch on the countless “smart” products that are just fun; touch-screen shower controls, TVs embedded in mirrors and mattresses that analyze your sleep are just a few examples. The future is here. Armed with this list, you’re ready to grab it. Which products would you rank highest on your home automation wish list?