Smart Home Starter Kit and Gift Ideas

With the holiday season here, I thought it’d be the perfect time to put together a combo smart home gift guide/starter kit. There’s going to be no shortage of sales and special deals springing up, so if you have a tech geek in your life (and that someone might be yourself), now’s the perfect time to jump in.

When it comes to smart home gadgets, this is my favorite time of the year because you can find some pretty crazy deals all season long. So keep that in mind with all of the things I’m going to recommend. And to be up front, some of the products that I have linked to Amazon are affiliate links, which won’t affect the price you pay, but will help to support the channel.

The second thing to point out, and is something I’ve said on other smart home videos too, is that I strongly recommend smart home products that are as cross-platform as possible. Most of my recommendations will work with Alexa, Amazon, Apple, and can even be linked into systems like SmartThings and Hubitat. A few are more narrow in focus, but the more integrations, the better. You never know if you’ll want to jump from one service to another at some point.

To kick things off, the most common smart home gadget people like to get are lights. Whether it’s just about adding some smart functionality to the lights you use every day, or adding a little eye candy to movie time, there’s no shortage of choices.

Philips Hue

My first recommendation would be Philips Hue. They’re a little pricier than some of the other options out there and require a hub, but they’re versatile and offer nice functionality. If this is your only smart home tech in your house, they work great standalone. Since their lights and hub use the wireless Zigbee protocol and not wifi, you can also get their lights working directly on other Zigbee enabled smart hubs out there down the road, like the Amazon Echo Plus or Hubitat.

Their hub and system is a snap to setup and integrates into pretty much everything out there from Amazon, Google, Apple, Home Assistant, Hubitat, Logitech Harmony, you name it. You also have a pretty rich ecosystem of lights to choose from with light strips, spot lights, garden lights, and more. Including switches. I’m a big fan of their standard, white A19 bulbs that you can usually pick up for about $15 each, or save some money buying them in packs of 2 to 4. I also have a bunch of the light strips around my house: behind my desk, TV, headboard, and above a window in my living room. They do a great job of adding ambient light to a room without taking up any space … and … they look cool.

Lutron Caseta

As easy as it is to use smart bulbs, they don’t always make sense for lights connected to a physical switch. That’s where Lutron Caseta comes in. It’s another hub-based system that you can use standalone or integrated with pretty much every other major service out there. If you live in an older home, like I do, you may not have neutral wires with your light switches. This really limits your options for changing things out to smart switches. Of the ones I’ve tested, Lutron Caseta is the easiest to install and get up and running. If you’re new to switching out light switches, don’t worry. They include good instructions and you can usually swap a light switch out in about 10 minutes. You can even get three way switches swapped out.

Yes, it’s another hub-based system, but it’s rock solid and I’ve never had issues with it. If you get the “Pro” hub, you’ll have more options with integrations down the road, but even the non-Pro hub can be integrated into systems like Google, Alexa, Apple HomeKit, Logitech Harmony, and more. Hopefully you can see the trend with the first two suggestions. Products that work great out of the box, but leave options open for you down the road.

Ecobee Smart Thermostat

This one not only looks nice, but it will also save you a lot of money in the long run. If you don’t have a smart thermostat already, you really should look at Ecobee.

They have several models to choose from based on the features you want, but for me it’s the version with multiple temperature sensors you can place throughout your home. It knows which rooms are occupied and uses that info to adjust the heating/cooling system to make sure you’re comfortable where you actually are. It can automatically cycle down if the house is empty, but you can still layer scheduling on top of its built-in smarts. You’ll get detailed reports on how often your system is running, as well as a breakdown of how well your system is operating compared to others in your area. It’s one of the best smart home gadgets to get to save money and energy heating and cooling your home. There are other great options, like Nest, but Ecobee works with pretty much every system out there … just like Philips.

August Smart Locks

Securing your house should start with your locks, and one of the easiest options for retrofitting a smart lock in your home is an August Smart Lock. I’m a bit fan of August. They have a good track record with security and keeping their system up to date^1, and are super easy to retrofit on existing hardware. This means you can keep the look of your exterior door hardware and are only switching out the deadbolt turn piece. A nice benefit of that is from the outside there’s no indication that you have a smart lock installed, and your existing key will still work. The model I have runs on four AA batteries, which last for several months. I use a couple of sets of rechargeable batteries that I keep on hand and charged up, so I only have to spend a minute a few times a year switching them out. August has several versions of the door lock that support Apple Homekit, Z-wave, wifi-adapters, Google, Alexa, and more.

Home Entertainment & Audio

When it comes to home entertainment there are a lot of smart gadgets available, but there are three that jump to the top of my recommended list.

The first are Logitech Harmony Remotes . To be specific, any of their hub-based remotes like the Harmony Hub, Harmony Companion, and Harmony Elite. I did a full review of the Harmony Elite a while back, so if you want deeper dive check that video out. What makes the Harmony Hub line of remotes special is the hub itself, which opens up a lot of integrations and controls you don’t get with a standard universal remote. You place the hub with your cable box, media streamers, game consoles, and TV, which is what sends out the infrared commands typically sent out by the remote itself. The hub also has bluetooth built in, so you can even link it to devices like a PlayStation 4 via bluetooth. The benefit of this type of setup is that it doesn’t matter where you’re pointing the remote control when using your devices because it’s communicating wirelessly to the hub. Your devices could be in another room or closet out of sight and everything still works exactly like you’d expect.

Setting it up is pretty painless too. There’s no programming in strange codes like you usually see with a universal remote. Just enter in the name and model of your device and Harmony takes care of the rest. The cheapest model only includes the hub, so you’d be relying on your smartphone and tablet to control your devices. Step up to the Companion or Elite and you also get a physical remote. The latest models have great remote designs that seem extremely well built, feel good in the hand, and have logical locations for the buttons.

And I’m saving the best for last, but you can integrate the remote into your smart home. You can link your hub up to Amazon, Google, Philips Hue, Nest, Ecobee, Lutron, LIFX, Smartthings … you get the idea. When linked up with Amazon and Google, you can ask your voice assistant to turn on your TV, game console, change the volume, or even the channel on your cable box. Link it up with your Philips Hue and Lutron lights and have the lights automatically dim when switching to “watch a movie” mode. It’s really an awesome addition to your smart home and entertainment center.

Next up are my recommendations for smart speakers and assistants. If you’re in the Google-sphere, I’m a big fan of the Google Home Hubs, which I’ve done reviews of in the past. Both the Google Nest Hub and Google Nest Hub Max are fantastic additions for a room like a kitchen. Both can act as a digital photo frame when you’re not using it, but when you are using it, having a screen smart device at your beck and call is really nice. See timers you set for yourself while cooking a meal, view your upcoming calendar events when you’re starting your day, or bring up one of your favorite YouTube videos while making lunch. The sound quality of the smaller Nest Hub is adequate, but not great. The sound quality of the Nest Hub Max is much better and great for casual listening.

But if you want better sound quality, that brings me to my last recommendation: the Sonos One. It’s another one that I’ve done a deeper video or two on, and it’s still my go-to recommendation for the best well-rounded smart speaker. The sound quality is great for casual listening in pretty much any room. Pair it up with another for full stereo, and link it up to your broader Sonos speakers for a true whole home listening experience. There are better smart speakers for sound quality, like the Apple Homepod, which I absolutely love, but the Sonos makes my recommended list because of the broader support it offers. Built in you can link it up to either Google Assistant or Amazon Alexa. It also supports Airplay 2 out of the box, so if you’re an Apple user, you can use it as an Airplay 2 speaker in a mixed speaker environment without ever having to go into the Sonos app. I often sling audio from my iPhone to my Homepod and Sonos speakers at the same time. It’s great. And this is absolutely the best time to buy Sonos speakers. They rarely go on sale, but you can usually snap up some great deals around the holidays. Well worth it.

Now, you’ll notice I didn’t get any specific prices because whatever I state today will most likely not be the case tomorrow. Be sure to keep an eye out on these guys for deals because this time of year you can often find them for 10 to 20% off, which can mean some big savings.

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