Home is where Alexa is: A beginner’s guide to smart homes

Turn on your lights, fan, AC or geyser – all by shouting commands into the air.

ByVinay Aravind
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Home is where Alexa is: A beginner’s guide to smart homes
Shambhavi Thakur
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If you are old enough to have witnessed the early days of home internet access, you’ll remember how “sci-fi” it was. The fact that you could send a letter or message and someone halfway around the world would receive it instantly, the fact that you could read the latest news from far-off places while sitting in your house in Kerala, or the fact that you could look up some information about a subject without ever setting foot inside a library.

Over the years, with the internet being more and more ubiquitous and with more of our lives being closely entwined with it, that sci-fi aspect has mostly disappeared and we tend to take what the internet offers for granted.

But if you really want to inject some of that sci-fi back into your life, the simplest way to do it would be to embrace the “smart home”, yet another wonder of modern technology where you can improve your life if you’re willing to sacrifice your privacy. Once you do this, you can make lights and fans come on, change your AC temperature, or turn on your TV or geyser or robot vacuum – all just by shouting out commands into the air.

There are a few ways to hook yourself up to the “internet of things”, the catchy and/or creepy (depending on your take on these things) phrase that refers to connected devices that you can deploy to make your home “smart”. But the simplest starting point these days is to get a voice assistant-enabled smart speaker such as those from Amazon’s Echo line, or Google’s Home or Nest lines. If you’re deeply embedded in the Apple ecosystem, you could also pick up one of the Homepod devices from Apple, but by all accounts they are considerably less smart than their rivals, cost a great deal more, and have fewer devices that are compatible with them.

But Apple will do a better job safeguarding your privacy than Amazon or Google, and also offer very good sound.

Now, it’s not essential for you to use a voice-activated smart speaker to control your smart home. You can just install a bunch of smart devices, control them from your phone’s app, set timers etc, but then you really lose out on the sci-fi life. And that’s what smart homes are all about, in my very personal opinion.

Once you’ve installed a smart speaker or several (depending on how pervasive you want the smartness to be, and how comfortable you are with Jeff Bezos’s minions listening to what you’re up to in the bedroom or kitchen), you’ll have to get down to making the various devices that you wish to control with the power of your voice, smarter.

The cheapest and simplest smart devices to get are smart lights. There are inexpensive smart bulbs available from brands like Syska and Wipro for around Rs 500 (or even less at times) which work with both Google and Amazon systems, and are drop-in replacements for regular bulbs. Spend a few hundred rupees more and you can get lights that can be set to millions of colours, enabling you to embrace that 1970s Bollywood disco vibe with very little effort.

You can turn these lights on and off using your voice, adjust their brightness and their colours, turn on/off all the lights in a set (such as those in a particular room or area), set them to turn on or off at particular times, and so on. This is useful functionality that’s very easy to get used to. The only downside is you then feel mildly aggrieved when you have to get up and go to a switchboard to switch on your non-smart lights.

At the next level, you can go three ways. From the most expensive to the cheapest, these are (1) invest in smart versions of the gadgets you already have, such as smart fans, smart ACs, smart vacuums etc; (2) smarten some of the functionality of your non-smart devices using a smart IR remote transmitter; or (3) smarten the on-off aspects of simpler devices by installing smart switches or smart plugs.

Let me get the first option out of the way. Unless your existing gadget is nearing the end of its life and is in need of an upgrade, it’s a bit of a waste to buy a new gadget just for its smarts. The marginal utility of getting built-in smart functionality in something like an AC or TV simply doesn’t justify the cost of a completely new appliance unless you really have money to burn. You can, of course, introduce some level of smart controls to your TV by getting an Amazon Fire TV device, and this may be a useful upgrade.

Even smart fans start well in excess of Rs 3,500, more than triple the cost of a regular fan, although I have to concede I’ve gazed covetously at some of them.

The second option is limited to those of your gadgets that are infra-red remote controlled, but that covers a good number of things, including TVs and ACs. Infrared transmitters from companies like Oakter and HomeMate can be deployed to act as voice-controlled remotes for your devices. These don’t always work smoothly, and compatibility with different devices can be inconsistent, but there’s still a good amount of value in installing one of these. Even the ability to switch on or off your TV or AC using your voice, is a useful value addition for the price (these devices are roughly in the Rs 1,000 range).

The third option has a simple approach and a complicated approach. The simple approach is to use smart plugs. These are available from various brands including Wipro, Syska and Oakter for below Rs 1,000 each, both in 10 amp and 16 amp variants. Essentially you plug the smart plug into the existing plug point, and plug your device (such as a geyser, or lamp, or table fan) into the gadget. These are perfect for simple activities like switching on/off a geyser or a table fan – devices that don’t have a lot of complex controls or settings and where on/off is the most important control input.

The more complicated approach involves installing smart switches. These involve modifying or replacing your switchboards at home. So, while these may not be expensive to purchase, they are perhaps a bit more complicated for most people’s comfort, so I personally wouldn’t recommend going this route unless you are committed to making every single thing in your house smart.

There is, of course, much more to smart homes than I can possibly cover in the length of this column, but I think I’ve introduced some of the basic information that would help you get started on this without too much effort or knowledge. But I must warn you here that smart homes are a rabbit hole of consumerism, and once you start going down the rabbit hole, you may find yourself contemplating the most frivolous of purchases to introduce some very marginal improvement to your life.

Contact the author on Twitter @vinayaravind.

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