Start building your smart home with these gadgets

We’re not living in a Jetsons future quite yet — I’ll keep waiting for a do-it-all robot that can knock out the laundry, scrub the dishes and then rub my feet at the end of the day — but today’s smart home tech revolution is growing faster than you can say “Siri, what’s a ‘tiny home’?”

According to a recent survey, nearly half of all Americans either already own smart home technology now or plan to invest in it in this year. With prices dropping and setup getting simpler, now’s a great time to give your house an IQ upgrade.

Power Outlet Revolution

Remember when phones just made calls and ringtones sounded like an angry hamster? Once the smartphone came along the ability to chat became just one of dozens of features we now expect from our cellular devices.

That’s kind of where we’re at with power outlets and a new class of gadgets called smart plugs. These new devices are like mini computers that plug into existing outlets and offer surprisingly sophisticated home automation with very little work on your part. The idea here is that even if your home’s lighting is “dumb” by today’s standards, you can at least make it act smart.




One of the coolest that I’ve reviewed so far is the Zuli Smartplug, a sleek little Bluetooth-connected smart socket is only about the size of a box of Tic Tacs. Plug a lamp or other electronic device into it, download the companion Zuli app, and sync it to your iPhone. Then, whenever you walk into a room, your presence — assuming you carry your phone with you — will prompt your lights to wake up. Walk out and, depending on your preferences, you can set them to turn off right away or on a delayed timer.

The more you use Zuli, the more it learns exactly how you want it to act. It even plays well with other smart home gadgets, and can adjust the temperature on a Nest Thermostat, and set Philips Hue lights to the perfect brightness. If you carry your phone around all the time or have other gadgets work with Zuli, it’s like magic. The starter pack comes with three Zuli smartplugs for $160 or you can buy individual plugs for $60 each.

Zuli’s presence detection is unique, but the Belkin WeMo Insight ($50 each) works with both iPhone and Android phones to make dumb outlets smarter too. It works via Wi-Fi rather than Bluetooth, which makes it a little more complicated to set up, but that also means you can control and monitor your gadgets from almost anywhere. WeMo uses IFTTT (“if this then that”) rules to make your connected gadgets work together.  If you want to turn on your coffee maker when turn on the kitchen light in the morning, that’s an easy set-up. I’d recommend you consider this only if you’re a bit more tech savvy though, and have a strong Wi-Fi signal flowing throughout your home.

If you’ve already bought into Apple’s HomeKit, check out the iDevices Switch ($50 each). Though it’s not as flexible as the WeMo or as smart as Zuli, it’s the only switch here that works with HomeKit to control anything plugged into it using Siri.

Lightbulbs With Brains

Oh the humble light bulb. Yet another gadget the latest smart home technology is giving a new time to shine.

I almost didn’t have a go with the  BeON Home ($200 for three bulbs) strictly due to the cost. I mean, how could any lightbulb be worth so much? Here’s how: BeON’s bulbs have their own set of Bluetooth brains that perform all kinds of complex tasks designed to keep you and your home safe. I mean really, have you ever had a lightbulb as a security guard?

As you go about your daily routine the bulbs learn what your natural patterns are — like when you turn on your living room lights or flip the switch on your bedside lamp — and then mimics those same patterns whenever you’re away. Would-be intruders will have no reason to think your house is potentially vulnerable, no matter how long your vacation lasts. It’s like those old outlet timers, but a lot more high-tech.

Even if a particularly brave bandit ventures to your front door when you’re not home and tests your doorbell for a reaction, the BeON bulbs “hear” that sound and respond by sparking light in one or more rooms, sending thieves back into the shadows. The lights also automatically activate by the sound of your smoke or CO alarm. In the case of a power outage, the built-in backup batteries can keep your home glowing for five hours or more.

Setting up the BeON bulbs is a fairly straightforward process, requiring you to select a location for your lights, plug in the small module that acts as the brains of the system, and then sync it with your smartphone. The app guides you through the basic syncing procedure and helps you train your bulbs to listen for specific sounds — like your doorbell or smoke alarm — and produce the appropriate responses.

These crazy features don’t make the $200 price tag any easier to swallow, but you do get a 100-day trial and free returns if you don’t like the system — and the bulbs themselves are rated to last 22 years and the smart modules keep kicking for at least 5 years — or the company says you can get your money back. By the time the BeON bulbs run out of juice, I assume I’ll be able to carry on a lengthy conversation with my toaster.

If you’re willing to swap sheer utility for a bit of colorful fun, you should also considerIlumi ($60 per bulb). These Bluetooth bulbs bathe your room in whatever color you choose — via the Ilumi app — and pulse along to your music, too. Programmable color routines let you set the bulbs to change color throughout the day, so you can wake up in the morning with one shade and doze off in the evening with another.

They’re more fun to use than most other smart bulbs, and just as easy to set up, but at $60 per bulb you’ll be paying slightly more than Philips popular color-changing Hue lights, and nearly as much as BeON.

If money is no object, you can really go all-out with Senled, which has taken the whole “smart bulb” thing to an entirely different level. Sengled sells smart bulbs of all different shapes and abilities —there’s the Boost bulb ($49.99) that amplifies Wi-Fi signals, the Everbright bulb ($19.99) that comes with a built-in backup battery, the Solo bulb ($59.99) with its stereo speakers (yes, they play music…) and several more. I wouldn’t recommend this type of whole-home makeover for beginners, but once you’re ready to commit, the combinations Sengled offers are practically endless.