Home Hacks

Confessions of a Smart-Home Skeptic—& the Products I Actually Use

Home automation is only as complicated as you make it—we’ve got you.

May 21, 2021
Photo by Ty Mecham

Every single time I think about “smart home” products, I think of two things: one, the terrifying “parlor walls” in Fahrenheit 451 that lull families into submission, plying them with meaningless images. And two, the 1999 Disney Channel original movie Smart House, in which a computerized house takes on the personality of a controlling mother trying to lock the children inside—doors flapping, blenders whirring, automated screaming, and all.

So yeah, I’m wary of smart homes. Even though I’m of the generation that grew up with cell phones, technology tends to freak me out. Not so much because I’m concerned about all the spying done by governments and private companies alike, but more because I’m unnaturally concerned about the potential for my house to turn evil and try to lock me inside?

Okay, that’s not my biggest fear—but it does linger at the back of my brain. My main bone of contention is the speed with which technology becomes obsolete. My father has always been very into gadgets, computers, and the latest tech innovations—outfitting our home with smart light switches, contributing to countless tech Kickstarters, and introducing us to Alexa long before she was cool. It never appealed to me, honestly, and I’m habitually frustrated by technology that fails to do what it swears it can do.

That is, until I got my own Alexa (or the Echo Spot, as she is really known). Even as I set her up and signed away all my information, I was dubious. Was this little thing really going to make a difference?

Sigh. I love it. I’ve gradually added to my smart home products, too. A dimming bulb here, a voice-controlled plug there, another Echo hub in the kitchen. I find myself using it (her) all the time, to set timers while I’m cooking, to tell me the weather before I leave my apartment, to ramble off the day’s news. She’s really become part of my everyday life, which I did not envision for myself just a few years ago.

Sure, there’s lots of people who attend CES every year and have their homes absolutely tricked out with the latest and greatest, and they’d love to give you a lineup of “must-have” smart home products. But take it from me, someone who was (and still somewhat is) resistant to bringing more technology home—these few items might actually improve your quality of life, if you let them.

Smart Home Hub

There’s not much you can do, automation-wise, without a smart home hub. This is the heart of the smart home, and all the accessories (which are the organs and veins, of course) connect to it—you’re likely very familiar with them already. Amazon Echo products have Alexa built in, Google Nest Hub products have…Google, Samsung SmartThings has the lesser-known Bixby, and Apple HomePod has Siri, of course.

With home automation becoming more ingrained in our daily lives, there is now an absolutely overwhelming amount of smart home hubs on the market, all with different compatible accessories, abilities, and price ranges. Your best bet, though, is likely to stick with one of these big four brands. They’re long-standing, have the most compatible accessories, and have been troubleshot (leading to newer, better models) the most. Once you choose one “ecosystem” to go with, you can then start building and adding automation with other products that work all together.

The important thing to think about when researching which home hub to go with is what you’ll be using it for. If you intend to research and read lots of recipes in the kitchen, maybe opt for one with a large display, like the Google Nest Hub Max. If you’re planning on keeping it at your bedside as a smart alarm clock, I adore my Echo Spot, which has a small clock display when not in use. Or, if you want a hub that doubles as a high-quality speaker, you might consider the powerful Apple HomePod.

Light Bulbs

If there’s only one type of smart home accessory you buy, let it be light bulbs. I really don’t want to sound dramatic, but turning my lights on and off with Alexa is one of the best things to ever happen to me. I absolutely love barking orders at Alexa when I get home to turn the lights on, or rolling far away from the bedside lamp with the same capability to turn it off as if I were right next to it. I used to think automating the lights was another tacky move like the Clapper, but I’m amazed each time Alexa actually listens to me and turns the lights off.

I have multiple Phillips Hue bulbs in various lighting fixtures in my apartment, some with the ability to dim and change warmth, others with the ability to turn a whole range of colors, in case I really need to turn the living room blue. They’re ridiculously easy to install, too—just screw them into your light fixture and use your hub or connected app to add them to the network. I can control them with my voice or the Alexa app, which I do most often when I want to shift from daylight to warm white as the sun goes down.

These bulbs work with both Google and Alexa, which reminds me: When looking for smart home accessories, always check the box or online description carefully to make sure they’re compatible with your particular home hub. Lots of brands support multiple ecosystems, but it’s best to double-check before you’re stuck with bulbs that work only with Google, and not your Alexa.

Security Camera or Smart Doorbell

I’ve contemplated ordering a security camera many times before, mostly because I wanted to install it in my old apartment lobby to catch the package thieves on camera. I don’t actually have one, but my dad has a Ring Floodlight Camera at the back door, and a Ring Video Doorbell at the front—and my family loves them.

The Ring Doorbell can be battery-operated (great for apartment dwellers who can’t hardwire a doorbell), or hardwired to your home’s existing doorbell connection (which is preferred, if possible, so the doorbell never runs out of battery and therefore functionality). The benefits here? You’re able to see who’s at the door without getting up, you can speak to someone through the system (i.e., ask the delivery person to leave a package on the step), and you can pull footage from the camera later in case you need it.

The Ring Floodlight Camera works similarly to the doorbell, capturing video of the goings-on at the back door and broadcasting your voice to someone at the door if need be, but it also has motion-sensored floodlights that turn on when it detects movement. This is helpful both from a home security perspective (scaring off intruders and making sure they’re well-lit on camera) as well as in a practical everyday situation, like lighting the way for the dog to do his duty at night.

The thing my family uses these most often for, though? Reliving moments captured by the cameras. We’re able to watch a video back of a transformer blowing outside the house, setting fire to my mom’s garden (unbeknownst to her) until the neighbor ran over with a bucket of water to put it out. Another time, the dog fell in the pool while no one was around, and we watched back to find out just how long the poor little guy was paddling around (he’s a pug, so not a great swimmer).

Smart Plugs

The last, and perhaps most versatile item on this list: smart plugs. These guys turn any outlet into a voice and app-controlled outlet, which have truly endless applications. You can circumvent smart light bulbs with smart plugs for freestanding lamps, you can ensure any hot appliances like curling irons get turned off by switching the plug off (even from outside the house), and my favorite application: putting a timer on my window AC unit so my bedroom is already deliciously cool when I get home. Plugs like these take up almost as little space as a regular plug, but do way, way more.

Have you dipped your toe into smart home technology? Let us know in the comments!

Grab your copy

It's here: Our game-changing guide to everyone's favorite room in the house. Your Do-Anything Kitchen gathers the smartest ideas and savviest tricks—from our community, test kitchen, and cooks we love—to help transform your space into its best self.

Grab your copy

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Hottel
  • Nate
  • M
  • Susie Williams
    Susie Williams
  • Liz Summers
    Liz Summers
When I'm not writing & editing for Home52, I'm likely to be found DIY-ing a new piece of furniture (or restoring an old one), hanging things on the wall in my apartment, or watching hours of vintage RHONY.


Hottel June 30, 2021
I have two echo shows, all my lights are controlled by Alexa, my TV, and my thermostat. I have installed all these myself (including the thermostat). I also use the calling feature often and since I'm 70 years old and live alone, I asked my daughter to use Alexa Care Hub for both of our peace of minds.
I have several routines set. When I say "good morning," it turns on my bedside and kitchen lights, it tells me the weather, day and date, what's on my calendar that day, and then it turns on NPR which is stereo paired so it plays on both units. I have several other routines like for going to bed or leaving the house. I use smart outlets to control my Christmas lights. I ask Alexa to play stereo-paired music or I play quizzes to keep my mind active. If I'm on vacation, I use my Alexa to control lights on/off. Alexa makes my life easier and more fun!
Nate May 25, 2021
There is a new open source standard called Matter which is to be supported by Google, Amazon, Samsung, Apple et al. The standard will mean that products can be used interchangeably with Alexa, Google etc. The standard is launching this year and most products such as the hubs will be updated via an update to the firmware. Apart from the hubs, other products will also receive a firmware update - Phillips Hue being one example. I recommend checking with the manufacturers as to what they plan on doing with their existing products. Once properly launched, products will mention on their packaging that they're Matter compliant.
Caroline M. May 25, 2021
Great to know, thank you, Nate!
M May 24, 2021
If you're concerned about the privacy, or marrying one overall system, you really don't need to pick an ecosystem to have some basic smart home perks. Hue, for example, has a bridge that works with the lights, smart plugs, etc, and can communicate with its own app, plus Siri and other ecosystems.

And as handy as they can be, they are still wifi devices that can act erratically and refuse to turn on and off, need reboots, or work differently every day. Nothing like arguing with a disembodied voice that insists the light is on in your dark room.
Caroline M. May 25, 2021
This is true! I found using different apps for different products to be a hassle, so I love having them linked up to one device. Plus, if the hub happens to be acting up, I can just use the Alexa app to control my devices.
Susie W. May 21, 2021
I live in an old apartment building. Upsides: Location - on a little-known street in the heart of a big city, across from a city park; No rules other than don't bother anybody. I can have pets, paint the walls whatever I please, have a real vegetable garden and compost pile; Price: it's cheap. Downside: No pest maintenance; I've had to replace expensive electronics - even a Vitamix - from bug damage. I unplug everything except the frig when not in use. I keep the bugs in line with a lot of cleaning, boric acid powder. But, no Alexa for me.
Liz S. May 21, 2021
Two echo dots, a retired Echo spot, 7 smart plugs ... all you wrote has also been my experience (haven't tried smart bulbs) ... I use both names and timers via the Alexa App: a salt lamp and a plug for chargers. I do not like to leave a charger on all night when it doesn't need to be: fire hazard. I had an unusual experience getting caught outside (I live rurally) at night with my young dog ... got disoriented but was able to turn my house lights on via my phone for quick orientation. GPS is a little slow in the woods in my area so the lights were the fastest. Bottom line, I have experienced both tech fun, convenience and safety with some very simple items.
Caroline M. May 21, 2021
This is exactly the kind of smart home application I love! Simple ways to make your life better without bogging it down with excess tech. Love this!
Liz S. May 21, 2021
Your response made me think of something else. I have purchased all Amazon/Alexa/ "brand" plugs. They are "plug and play". I did purchase 1 of another brand and it worked, but it requires an additional app that communicates between plug and Alexa app and it seemed a bit quirky plus one more step. The Amazon plugs are more $$, BUT if you watch for bundle sales you can get a dot and plugs, etc. I accumulated all except the original Spot via bundle sales and special offers. And for me, it is worth keeping to the brand to keep things simple and frustration free. For the record, I am an I.T. professional (programmer) but I still prefer my tech simple :)