Updated for 2018

One of the best approaches to achieve a low cost and well-integrated home automation environment is to focus on a system that centers around a single smart home controller and multiple less intelligent, and therefore less expensive devices.

This is a review of what I consider to be the best home automation, Z-Wave, and Zigbee, devices on the market today. In this article, we’ll examine some of the important benefits of home automation for many users, and recommend a best single controller-centered product or peripheral device in each category based on features, reliability, and price. You can pick up all of the top 5 recommended devices together for under $300, including the required controlling hub.

1. Home Automation Controller

Criteria for a top rated home automation controller during this epic battle of standards includes: 1) multiple network support, including Z-Wave and Zigbee, 2) ability to operate basic automations standalone without an internet connection 3) IFTT (if this then that) support 4) no monthly fees, and 5) an available and well-documented developer API. For a description of the protocols and terms referenced here, see the Home Automation Controller Feature Term Glossary.

Top pick: Samsung – SmartThings Hub
SmartThings SmartTiles user developed web app

The SmartThings SmartTiles web app
(now actiontiles.com)

The reasonable price of the SmartThings Hub, multiple protocol support, IFTTT integration, Amazon Echo support, and increasing level of local control capabilities make this a prime contender in the home automation controller market. Protocol support for Z-Wave, Zigbee, and Bluetooth LE (future) decrease the likelihood of this controller becoming obsolete the day after you purchase it.

The backup battery, and Apple Watch, support are a nice bonus. See why you may still want to consider a UPS as part of your system even if your controller includes a battery backup.

Many of the hubs automation triggers are still able to operate if your internet connection is lost, however, you will not be able to directly control your devices from your mobile device without an internet connection, even if you are connected directly to your home network.

The Samsung SmartThings Hub

Some of the most useful capabilities for the SmartThings hub come from user-developed and third party content, thanks to the robust SmartThings interface. The ActionTiles web client, for example, is simple to install and provides a clean home dashboard interface. It is not uncommon for a SmartThings community member to have a device handler available in less than a week after a new Z-Wave or Zigbee device hits the market, ensuring there will be a large number of new SmartThings compatible devices for years to come.

For simple device and schedule interactions, the base SmartThings SmartApp capabilities will suffice for many users. For more advanced interactions, the user-developed WebCoRE (Community’s own Rule Engine) provides what I consider to be the best and most innovative and sophisticated generic rule engine capability available for any of the home automation hubs on the market. Unfortunately, since Samsung does not currently allow this user developed rule capability to execute on the hub itself, it comes with a cloud execution latency price that can sometimes approach several seconds.

The limited local control capability and occasional cloud operations glitch are the primary drawbacks of this device. For more details, see the DarwinsDen.com Samsung SmartThings Hub V2 Review.

Also Consider:
DarwinsDen.com Best of the Home Automation Hubs Feature Comparison Table

Visit the DarwinsDen.com:
The Best of The Home Automation Hubs

If your home automation or security needs are mission critical, or you are the type of person that gets terribly annoyed with the occasional glitch, the SmartThings Hub may not be for you.

The Wink Hub 2, VeraPlus, Universal Devices ISY994i Z, and the HomeSeer HomeTroller Zee S2 offer a bit more reliability and more local execution options at the possible expense of flexibility and integration options.

For a more detailed review and comparison table of popular home automation controllers, see the Darwins.com Best of the Home Automation Hubs review.

2. Smart Smoke and Carbon Monoxide Detector

When it comes to protecting your family, pets and possessions, reliability and a reputable name stand out as critical features. There are several smart home products in this category that look impressive and can even speak to you with a friendly voice, but for a capability this important, we favored devices that were trouble-free and inexpensive enough to allow purchasing several for your home.

Top pick: First Alert Z-Wave Combination Smoke and Carbon Monoxide Alarm

This First Alert ZCombo Z-Wave combination Smoke and Carbon Monoxide Alarm is affordable and is manufactured by a trusted name in home safety. Relax with peace of mind that you will be alerted if smoke or carbon monoxide is detected while you’re away. An absolute necessity if you have pets. The ZCombo provides status on remaining battery levels; Now you can tell when to preemptively change backup batteries instead of being awakened in the middle of the night with those annoying low battery reminder beeps.

The biggest negative to the ZCombo is that it doesn’t provide a hard-wired power option and doesn’t integrate with the other First Alert/BRK installed sensors. In practice, I’ve been pleasantly surprised at the battery life of our ZCombo, which shows as 83% after nearly three years of operation. As discussed in the reader feedback though, battery life prediction on these devices can be a bit inaccurate, particularly when using Lithium and NiMh batteries. Regardless of battery type, for safety critical devices, it’s best to proactively replace batteries on a regularly scheduled cycle. You may still get additional service life from these batteries in less critical home devices.

For a review of additional smart smoke detectors, see Darwin’s Den Smart Smoke Alarm round-up

Also Consider:

If you currently don’t have a home automation hub and don’t plan on adding one, both the Nest Protect 2nd Gen Alarm and the First Alert Onelink HomeKit Enabled Alarm support remote carbon monoxide and smoke alarm monitoring via your home WiFi Network. Both alarms provide voice alerts and can support hardwired power installations.

As an alternative to a smart smoke detector, the Leeo Smart Alert plugs into a wall socket and notifies your smartphone via its WiFi connection if it hears a smoke or CO alarm emitted from your conventional non-smart detectors. This works better than you might think, and I’ve even received a call from my Leeo alerting me to a smoke alarm in my home while watching a movie that had a faint smoke detector alarming. I was so impressed with my Leeo that I ordered an extra one for a rental property.

3. Water Leak / Flood Sensor

Visit the DarwinsDen.com Best of the Z-Wave Water Leak/Flood Sensors page

Although not as devastating as a fire, a burst water heater or kitchen pipe can cause a fair amount of damage to your flooring, walls, and furnishings. For those in condominiums and townhomes, there also may be liability concerns as well. As a minimum, install water sensors at your water heater and under your kitchen sink for the best bang for the buck protection. Check with you insurance company to find out if they offer discounts or credits for installing leak detection devices. Criteria for the top pick in this category includes corded sensor prongs and a built-in audible detection alert.

For a full round-up of Z-Wave water/flood sensors, see Darwin’s Den Best of the Z-Wave Water Leak/Flood sensors review.

Top pick: Everspring Z-Wave Water/Flood Sensor

The Everspring Z-Wave flood sensor has been my top pick in this category for nearly 3 years running, due to its reliability, solid build, audible alert capability, long corded sensor, reasonable price, and suitability for both indoor and outdoor use. For a few dollars less, Lowes carries the equivalent Utilitech branded version of the Everspring sensor.

Fortunately, we haven’t yet had a leak to fully put our unit to the test, but every time I trigger it by wetting the contacts, it does its job. Our batteries so far have lasted over two years.

The Everspring’s built-in 60dB audible alert is not overly loud and may be difficult to hear from the garage or other remote location, but it is comforting to know that there is an additional means to receive leak notifications other than your smart home hub.

Also Consider:

Aside from the D-Link, All of the alternate picks above require a home automation hub. But again, if you’re considering automating your home for security, safety or convenience, I highly recommend going with a hub and the cheaper peripheral devices.

4. Light Control Switches and Dimmers

Visit the DarwinsDen.com Best of the Z-Wave In-Wall Light Switch page

The usefulness of remotely controllable switches is about as limitless as the varieties of switches that are available. Program your outside lights to turn on and off while you’re away to give the appearance that you are home. Turn your porch lights on before heading home after dark. Add a remote dimmer to your inside hall lights and program them to turn on as a nightlight in the evening for added safety and security.

Although their not requirements for many users, my criteria for the top smart wall switch includes 1) instant status and 2) multi-tap capabilities.

For a round-up and comparison of popular Z-Wave in-wall light switches, see the DarwinsDen.com Z-Wave In-Wall Light Switch Review.

Top pick: HomeSeer Z-Wave WD200+ Dimmer and WS200+ On/Off Wall Switch

Opportunities abound for smart switch innovation – considering their convenient location options in every home and easy access to power. I’m not sure why other companies have failed to give these comparatively simple devices the full attention they deserve, but HomeSeer definitely gets it. With the release of their new 200+ series switch and dimmer, HomeSeer has once again hit it out of the park on what I consider to be one of the most useful Z-Wave devices on the market today.

While the previous 100+ series switches were extremely well liked from my observations (and device handler code link click stats), the two most common complaints were that the white LED’s did not match the standard blue of many other popular Z-Wave switches such as the GE’s and also that there was no “night light” option for the dimmer to set the bottom LED when the dimmer was set to off.

These new switches have the same look and feel as well as instant status capability as their 100+ series predecessors while addressing the issues mentioned above. In addition, these new offerings expand on the multi-tap features and provide an intriguing LED status mode option allowing individual control of the LED color and blink status.

As with the 100+ series predecessors for these devices, the instant-on and multi-tap capabilities worked well for me and the dimmer produced no noticeable hum or flicker. I noticed no degradation from the prior capabilities and I had no issues controlling the LED colors in both status and normal modes.

These switches are compatible with nearly all Z-Wave controllers, but for the advanced multi-tap and LED status control capabilities, you’ll need a hub that supports advanced customization capabilities such as HomeSeer, SmartThings, or Vera. A simple use case for these advanced features might be to turn on your porch light with a single press, include pathway lighting with a double tap, and also include flood lighting with a triple tap.

HomeSeer 200+ Series Features

  • Instant status
  • Multi-tap/hold (2-5 tap) and hold indication via central scene commands
  • 500 series Z-Wave Plus module sporting extended range and network-wide inclusion (NWI)
  • 7 configurable LED colors (blue, yellow, magenta, green, cyan, red, white)
  • Configurable bottom LED “night light” option
  • Optional almond color paddle

Based on my evaluation, these are not only my favorite Z-Wave switches, but also one of the best home automation peripheral products on the market today.

For a full review and SmartThings Device Handler information, see the DarwinsDen.com HomeSeer 200+ Evaluation post.

5. Energy Monitoring Switch

“We believe that electricity exists, because the electric company keeps sending us bills for it…” – Dave Barry

In addition to allowing you to control power to your appliances and devices via timers, rules, and remote manual operation, by having at least one portable energy monitoring switch in your home, you can gain an understanding of how much energy your devices are using. Is your refrigerator energy-efficient compared to the latest models? Is your old cable modem an energy vampire?

We were appalled at the power utilization of our two air purifiers, and once we were done measuring the power usage of our appliances, we moved our switches back over to the purifiers and scheduled them to only run in the evening during the much-reduced time-of-use rates. With the cost savings on the air purifiers alone, these low-cost switches will pay for themselves in just over a year.

Top pick: Zooz Zen06 Z-Wave Plus Smart Plug and the Zooz Zen15 Z-Wave Plus Power Switch

I am disappointed that Aeon labs appears to have stopped production of my previous best entry pick in this category, the DSC06106-ZWUS – Z-Wave Smart Energy Switch. I’ll leave the link here in hopes the switch will return to production, but in the meantime, my recommendations for best device in this category are the Zooz Zen06 Z-Wave Plus Smart Plug and the Zooz Zen15 Z-Wave Plus Power Switch. Unfortunately, I can’t recommend Aeotec’s latest Z-Wave plus switch as an alternative due to reliability concerns.

With two USB charging ports and an LED indicator that displays Z-Wave signal strength and power usage, the Zooz Zen06 earns my pick for the best home automation device in the power switch metering and monitoring category.

The ZooZ Zen06 Z-Wave Plus Smart Plug

The Zooz Zen15 power switch allows you to safely control and monitor heavy-duty 110V appliances from your Z-Wave smart home system, and features a corded design that is convenient for hard to reach receptacles while ensuring that the other outlets won’t be blocked.

The Zooz Z-Wave plus plug and switch operate as standard on/off switches with most Z-Wave controllers. For advanced energy monitoring features, you’ll need to apply advanced configuration options for controllers that support it. For the SmartThings Hub for example, you can download and install the Zooz Power Switch / Zooz Smart Plug Device Handler developed by Kevin LaFramboise.

6. Smart Home Thermostat

Programmable thermostats have been around for decades, and even the simplest of these devices have served the needs of most users. Now, with the built in capabilities of some thermostats, or by using the power of IFTTT recipes for others, it is possible to boost the performance and energy efficiency of your home HVAC system to a new level. Adjust your home temperature to account for the effects of humidity or outside temperature. Set up a rule to adjust your temperature or send a notification reminder to open your doors and windows if the outside air is at a more comfortable temperature than the inside.

Top pick: Nest Learning Thermostat

I’ve had a love-hate relationship with our Nest thermostat. The Nest is an aesthetically pleasing device, with an elegant and reliable web and mobile interface, and a physical interface that feels like a piece of jewelry. When it comes to its intended purpose for me though, I sometimes feel as if its learning capabilities at the expense of basic manual controls can actually lead to increased home energy usage, unless you also leverage your home automation controller to further automate your system.

While the Nest’s web and mobile UI is clean and easy to use, it can be frustrating to use for some basic operations. With a 60 minute minimum interval limit in it’s manual program, it is not practical to pre-cool or pre-heat your home for just a few minutes before time-of-use rates kick in. That said, the Nest is compatible with a large number of home automation controllers, and I do recommend it if you are willing to pay its relatively high price for this otherwise very polished and impressive product.

The Nest has previously had a unique discriminator with its ingenious C-Wire workaround, but now the option of adding a Venstar Add-A-Wire may eliminate that advantage for many.

Also Consider:

7. Smart Doorbell

“You can ring my bell” – Anita Ward

It’s puzzling to me that this singular button that can trigger entry into your home has been so neglected by smart home automation device developers. As a minimum, I would like to receive an alert, text message or email if someone is pressing my doorbell so that I can quickly view my front door security camera or turn on my porch light. Did I receive a UPS package? Is someone with ill-intent attempting to verify that I am away? Enhanced automated responses might include turning on an inside light to give the appearance that I am home or taking snapshot security camera images. Unfortunately, since the awesome Sage Doorbell Sensor is no longer available, the the actual implementation of one of the most imprtant home automation devices is a much more complicated issue than it should be.

I really wanted to like the Aeon Labs Aeotec ZW056 Z-Wave Plus Doorbell Gen5, but after evaluating it, I found that the button itself feels a little cheap and is frankly just not something that I am comfortable placing by our front door from an aesthetic perspective. Despite the glass face of the doorbell, the white plastic housing just looks out of place in our entry. A metal housing – ideally with standard brushed nickel or bronze metal finish – would be much more appropriate. I would also still like my conventional wired doorbell chime to ring. I do not want to be forced to rely on the battery powered button to work perfectly every time.

I do however still recommend this doorbell device for one key feature: the doorbell speaker itself provides a unique capability to play customized audio clips in response to events and triggers in your home automation system. I am currently using this speaker connected to the SmartThings Hub to play audio clips such as “water heater leak detected”, “front window is open”. For a full review of the Aeotec Smart Doorbell and details and links on speaker customization, see the DarwinsDen.com Aeon Labs Aeotec ZW056 Z-Wave Doorbell Review.

Option 1: Nexia DB100Z Z-Wave Doorbell Sensor

While Ring and the Aeotec Doorbell may work acceptably for many, neither are ideal for my situation. The Nexia DB100Z Doorbell Sensor and satisfies my requirements for the top pick in this category, but with one unfortunate, but important caveat.

The DB100Z works with Nexia, HomeSeer, OpenHab, and the SmartThings Hub. For more information on this device and SmartThings device handler details, including information on the possibility of needing a doorbell transformer upgrade to use this device, see the DarwinsDen.com Nexia DB100Z review.

Option 2: “Roll Your Own”

The DB100Z Doorbell Sensor

For the fearless and intrepid home automation enthusiast, the roll your own doorbell option might be right up your alley. Here are a few examples using Z-Wave contact sensors, relays, and reed sensors:

For a table of door and window sensors that support dry contacts, see DarwinsDen best of the Z-Wave door and window sensors.

Also Consider:

8. Security Camera Surveillance System

“Every breath you take, every move you make, every bond you break, every step you take, I’ll be watching you.” – Sting

Due to their generally high cost, potential for high bandwidth usage, and installation complexity, the selection of which camera device is best for you is highly subjective. The top 2 criteria for me for video surveillance systems are: 1) Minimal to no monthly fees 2) Outdoor operation. Whether it be for home automation services or streaming video, monthly service fees for cloud-based services can quickly consume several times the amount you spend on the devices themselves.

Top NVR Based Camera System Pick: LaView NVR POE Camera Security System

While I wouldn’t recommend this option for the technological faint of heart, an Network Video Recorder (NVR) based camera surveillance system is my preferred approach for video surveillance due to its ease of maintenance and robust capabilities once installed. An NVR supporting Power over Ethernet (POE) can greatly ease the installation process. Depending on your needs, an 8 channel system is often sufficient for the typical home and may even leave some room for expansion.

NVR’s are typically more difficult to install, but generally simpler to maintain. They can be the best choice for technical and network knowledgeable users willing to spend the time and effort required for the sometime complex installation effort.

I personally use the HikVision NVR in my residence, and although this device has been rock solid for me, I can only recommend it to those comfortable with basic network configuration capabilities. Hikvision is the world’s largest manufacturer of video surveillance solutions, but HikVision systems purchased independently are not supported, unless sold and serviced through authorized installers/dealers. Especially in the case of these NVR systems, ensure the device you intend to purchase is supported for your geographic region by the supplier – otherwise be prepared to take on the support risks yourself.

LaView offers a great compromise by offering DIY rebranded Hikvision NVR systems that include warranty and technical support for up to two years. You may also want to check out EzViz NVR systems. EzViz is the consumer and residential-focused subsidiary of Hikvision. If I were currently in the market for a fully supported commercial product today, I would choose an LaView or EzViz system over the Hikvision NVR, to ensure I received full technical support.

Before ordering an NVR system, make sure you are comfortable with the supported number of channels, video quality/bit-rate, included hard drive (if any) storage size, and included cameras (if any).

If you end up going the NVR route, you may find the NVR box fan noise annoying. I ended up replacing the fan in my Hikvision with an impressively quiet Noctua fan and the noise problem is no longer an issue.

For the more intrepid, you may want to consider hosting Blue Iris video security software on your own dedicated hardware.

Top Wi-Fi Camera Pick: Arlo Pro 2

WiFi cameras are generally easier to install, but can be tedious to maintain – especially when considering battery powered devices. They are typically the best choice for quick installation at the possible expense of increased maintenance needs later on down the road.

If ease of installation is a top concern for you, I highly recommend the Arlo cameras. I’ve been quite pleased with the operation of the mine, and they are about as simple to install as a camera can be.

If frequent battery replacement sounds particularly annoying to you, Netgear offers an optional Arlo solar charging solution.

So which is best, an NVR or Wifi camera system?

Of these two approaches, my personal preference has been the POE camera and NVR system over the standalone WiFi and battery operated devices. There’s not always a power outlet in the vicinity of where you would like to install a security camera, and WiFi video cameras can really burn through batteries. I would much rather spend a couple of afternoons installing a low maintenance NVR system and never have to worry about replacing a camera battery again.

Modern NVR’s still offer remote monitoring and video and image capture capabilities, and its very comforting to me to know that my camera feeds are being recorded 24-7 on the NVR, instead of relying on the motion detection capabilities of the camera.

POE NVR camera systems

Pros:

  • Responsive real-time local operation
  • Low-maintenance
  • 24/7 video storage
  • Optional physical monitor display
  • Typically no off-site video storage fees

Cons:

  • Typically more expensive initial purchase
  • Local storage means potential for theft/destruction of evidence
  • Typically complex installation

Wi-Fi camera systems

Pros:

  • Cloud based off-site secure storage
  • Easy installation
  • Typically less expensive initial purchase

Cons:

  • May require frequent battery replacement
  • Large system can end up costing more than for an NVR POE system
  • Typically only events are recorded. Does not keep a 24/7 video record
  • May require off-site video storage fees
Also Consider:

 

I have all these already. What’s next?

The above picks I feel are in general high value for the average home environment from a safety, security, liability and cost-savings perspective, without being overly complex and perhaps more importantly without adding significant additional security risks or general annoyances to the average homeowner. So what if you have integrated all of the must-have home automation devices, or just don’t agree with my must-have picks, and are looking for the next device to complement your system?

After the must-have picks, the following will be great additions for many, but these devices may not all be worthwhile for all users and may come with their own complexities, annoyances, and potentially additional home security concerns.

 

9. Home Automation garage door opener

Most garage door openers could be considered simple home automation devices to begin with, so why would you want to add additional smart garage door opener controls?

  1. The Linear GD00Z Z-Wave garage door opener

    If you’re like me and have countless times driven out of your neighborhood wondering if you had left the garage door open. With this device and a corresponding Z-Wave capable controller, you can check on the status of your garage door while you are away, and close it if it is open.

  2. As an additional means of entering the home if you do not have your key or a standard garage door opener, but do have your phone or as an additional or emergency means to grant friends or trusted neighbors access into your home or garage while you are away.
  3. If you want to receive notifications when your garage door is opened or closed, or you want to receive a notification if your garage door is currently open during a certain time of day or night. For example, you might want to receive an alert or SMS Text message as a reminder if it’s after midnight and your garage door is still open.
  4. So that you can add additional smarts to your system such as voice control, or to define rules on when to automatically open or close your door.
Top pick: Linear GD00Z Z-Wave Garage Door Opener

The GD00Z is UL certified, works with the vast majority of sectional garage door openers, and is compatible with many popular Z-Wave controllers including: SmartThings, Nexia, Lowes Iris, HomeSeer, Universal Devices, Staples Connect, Wink, Vera Edge, and Almond+.

While there are other options such as the Chamberlain MyQ and Garageio that don’t require a separate home automation hub, the GD00Z provides a generally lower cost, reliable option that is easily integrated into existing home automation systems. The added advantage of the GD00Z is that you are then able to leverage the power of your existing home automation system to link user defined rules, alerts, voice commands, scenes, and potentially even integrate IFTTT recipes. Last but not least, with the GD00Z you are able to utilize your existing home automation controller software and do not need to install yet another application on your mobile devices. For a full review, see Darwin’s Den: Linear GD00Z Z-Wave Garage Door Opener Review.

10. Door/Window Sensor

“She came in through the bathroom window.” – Paul McCartney

Door and window sensors rank perhaps right up there with security cameras when most people think about components of home security systems. These sensors let your controller know when a door or window is open or closed in order to trigger corresponding alerts, messages or actions.

Aside from the obvious security benefits for intrusion detection, door and window sensors can also allow you to quickly verify that all of your doors and windows are closed – and give you reminder alerts if a door or window remains open after a certain time at night. In addition these sensors can be critical components in smart home automation systems, allowing you to set up rules regarding when lighting and fan automations are performed, or simple child monitoring capabilities such as triggering a short beep on your Z-Wave speaker whenever a door to the outside has been opened.

These sensors are relatively inexpensive, and there are quite a few products on the market to choose from. While they definitely have their place in the more general home automation arena, not everyone wants to worry about alerts when opening windows and doors (or configuring a home/away configuration on their systems), or replacing the batteries on these devices.

For a full line-up and comparison table of these and other Z-Wave door and window sensors, see Darwin’s Den’s Best of the Z-Wave Door and Window Sensors page.

Top pick: Fibaro Modern Miniature Z-Wave Door/Window Sensor

While the Fibaro Modern Miniature Z-Wave Door/Window Sensor may be one of the more expensive options available, door and window sensors are typically one of the most visible part of a home automation and security system – and their aesthetics are an important consideration for many. The Fibaro is one of the smallest and most discreet products in its class, and is available in seven colors to best match your door or window frame.

From left to right: Ecolink, Fibaro, Strips sensor

I generally recommend Z-Wave devices unless you are certain that your controller has been tested with specific Zigbee device variant, but the latest Zigbee Gen2 Iris Contact Sensor has worked well in my testing, and is comparable in size to the Fibaro – at less than half the price. If you’re ok with a white sensor, have an Iris or SmartThings Hub, or you know that your controller supports it, I highly recommend this Iris device.

If you don’t mind a little drilling, and aesthetics are top priority for you, Aeon Labs provides the even more discreet and less expensive ZW089-A Z-Wave recessed door sensor that is installed hidden in the door frame. If aesthetics are of less concern to you than price, the slightly larger Schlage RS100 Z-Wave door/window sensor and the identical Ecolink DWZWAVE2-ECO are highly recommended inexpensive alternatives.

In addition to conventional window open/close sensors, you may also want to look at installing a Z-Wave shock, vibration, and glass break sensor or an audio glass break detector on windows or rooms that you are particularly concerned about. Samsung also offers their Zigbee SmartThings Zigbee Multipurpose Sensor, which includes vibration, temperature, as well as standard open/close capabilities. The Samsung sensor can be placed on a window frame to detect not only open close conditions, but also vibrations that could be the result of glass break attempt. In practice, these shock, vibration, and audio capabilities have mixed reviews, with reported issues ranging from false alerts to low sensitivity.

An unconventional alternative

I’ve been quite pleased with the Sensative Strips ultra-thin Z-Wave+ Strips door and window sensor. At $55, it’s a bit more expensive than most other contact sensors, but my personal preference now is to use Strips sensors instead of other door and window sensors for installations where these sensors can be appropriately installed and where aesthetics is of prime concern – or where weather resistance is required. For a full review of the Strips sensor see the DarwinsDen.com Strips Z-Wave Door and Window Sensor Review.

11. Smart Door Lock

Smart door locks are an obvious device to consider for your smart home, and there have been several new door lock gadgets introduced over the last year or so, each with their own benefits and issues. Along with the promise of added convenience and safety, these devices also have the potential to open the door (pun intended – again, sorry) to additional security concerns. Your choice for a smart home lock should not be taken lightly. It’s bad enough that your digital information security can be hacked, but the idea that your physical security system can also be hacked is a scary proposition. Similar to our thoughts on smoke and carbon monoxide detectors, reliability and a reputable name stand out as critical features for these important devices.

Top picks: Z-Wave Deadbolts: Schlage Connect Century & Kwikset 910 SmartCode

Both the Schlage Connect Z-Wave Deadbolt and Kwikset 910 Z-Wave SmartCode Deadbolt are affordable and manufactured by trusted names in physical home security that have been around for over 170 years combined. Both devices allow for not only remote key-less lock/unlock control from your smartphone, but each include a keypad entry as well. If you don’t care for the keypad and want to save a little money, Kwikset also offers the 910 Z-Wave model without a keypad. Updating only the deadbolt on your door provides that extra peace of mind while you are sleeping that the other knob or lever lock on the door will do it’s job regardless of the status of your digital home security system.

There’s a decent chance your other home locks are already manufactured by Schlage or Kwikset in which case you’ll likely want to continue with the same make so that you can have your cylinders all keyed to the same physical key as your other home locks.

The August Smart Lock may be worth taking a look at if you’re not willing to replace your entire deadbolt mechanism, but it is currently not supported by most of the popular home automation controllers, and I think many will find its non-integrated look to appear a little out of place on an elegant front door.

12. Voice Controller

I’ve found that the desire to have voice control over smart home devices can be a very personal thing. Some would put it on the top of their short list of best home automation devices, while others view it as a bit gimmicky, terribly annoying when the command is misinterpreted, and mostly only useful as a means to impress friends. For me, while I don’t consider it to be a must-have for everyone, I do find using voice control convenient at times when I can’t find a remote, have my hands full, or frankly don’t feel like getting off the couch… or out of bed. OK there, I admitted it.

Top picks: Amazon Echo, Tap, and Dot

The Amazon Echo, Echo Dot and Tap are popular and easy top picks for this category, not only due to their compatibility with so many home controllers and with IFTTT, but these Amazon devices also have a wide range of functions outside of the home automation arena, including streaming music and on-demand news and weather reports – all using a surprisingly high-quality speaker system and generally impressive far-field voice recognition technology. Although the Echo and Tap have only WiFi and Bluetooth interfaces, linking them with most home automation systems (see the Home Automation Controller Comparison Table for a list of popular Echo compatible controllers) is generally a very simple process, allowing voice control over all your Z-Wave, Zigbee, and/or Insteon devices.

After using the Echo in my home now for nearly two years, I would be reluctant to give it up. I have been impressed with how well the Echo’s voice assistant, Alexa handles voice recognition in a noise-cluttered and echo-prone tile floor environment, but it does sometimes still get annoying when she misses or misinterprets the occasional voice command that sounded clear to me.

Amazon EchoSince Alexa currently does not provide feedback as to what smart home automation devices actually end up getting controlled with any given command, I recommend only enabling home automation devices that you actually know have been commanded such as lights and TV’s – or recommend that you link an obvious indicator like a strobe or dedicated light to the device in question. Certainly, only enable devices that you don’t mind being turned on or opened accidentally. Granted, I’m sure some issues can be corrected with better device naming conventions on my end, but more than once I had my hallway thermostat temperature increased after asking Alexa to set the hallway light level. I briefly tested my garage door opener with the Echo, but then disabled it when I was done. It just worried me a little too much that Alexa might open my garage door when I asked her to turn on the kitchen light.

Oh, and in addition to pulling pranks like turning on the thermostat when I ask for the hall light, Alexa is pretty good at telling jokes too.

13. Audio/Video/Multimedia Controller

Looking back, the programmable remote I purchased decades ago for my integrated television and surround sound/audio devices was an early step on the way to the promise of integrated home device control. At the time, it solved the daily ritual and riddle of remembering and selecting the needed inputs and devices required for watching TV, listening to a CD, radio, or playing a video game.

My how things have improved! Today, these multimedia controllers can do so much more than just allow you to select a single button to configure the perfect combination of devices for watching TV or playing music. You can now simultaneously toggle and dim lights at the same time you hit the universal “watch a movie” button on your remote to turn on the appropriate A/V components. Have your hands full carrying a snack to the couch, or just don’t want to bother with the button? By adding both a $50 Amazon Dot to the mix, you can use your voice to control your A/V system. Can’t find the remote at the moment when it’s time to leave the house? Just ask to have the television turned off as you are walking out the door.

Top pick: Harmony Hub

Logitech continues to dominate the universal remote control market, and when it comes to integrating your smart home and audio-visual devices, nothing else can come close at a similar price point to the Logitech Harmony Hub.

The Harmony Hub seamlessly integrates your IR and WiFi controlled television and A/V components with an optional RF remote, your mobile devices, several SmartHome systems including the SmartThings Hub, as well as cloud-based services such as IFTTT.

If you simply want to integrate your smart home with your television and A/V system, and you’re content with using your convention A/V remote(s) or your mobile device as a remote control, the Harmony Hub is all you need. I’m currently using the Harmony Hub and Companion remote combination as the basis for my family’s integrated smart home and A/V system, and have been quite impressed. The remote is solid, intuitive, and very responsive. One downside to the Companion remote is that it does not have an LCD display, so you will need to remember – and educate your family members on which remote buttons control which modes. If you’re willing to spend the extra money, and the family acceptance factor is important to you, or guests frequently use your system, the Harmony Elite remote provides a customizable LCD display with named buttons.

Originally Published: 28 February 2016

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