If you've purchased smartphones, tablets or even digital cameras within the last few years, you've probably built up a collection of tiny AC adapters. Well, guess what? You can toss them all. USB-equipped power outlets aren't just a niche product anymore -- your local Home Depot probably stocks a half dozen varieties, and some (very recent) homes may already include them. If you don't have one installed, don't be deterred. Assuming you're able to cut the power to your outlet using a fuse or circuit breaker, replacing your standard 120-volt outlet with one that doubles as a USB charger takes just minutes to complete.
Amazon's a great place to start. The e-tailer stocks dozens of different USB-equipped receptacles. Pay very close attention to the USB port amperage -- the product name may include the total output, including the standard power outlets, but you'll want USB ports that support at least two amps in order to charge larger gadgets, such as tablets and cameras, more quickly. Leviton's outlets are available both online and at brick-and-mortar retailers for about $25, but regardless of which manufacturer you pick, opt for a receptacle with two USB ports and two standard outlets, so you don't end up with fewer slots to use with traditional gear.
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Making changes to your home's electrical system may sound intimidating, but assuming your wall box can accommodate the slightly larger footprint of a USB-equipped receptacle, it takes five minutes or less to make the swap. You don't need to replace every outlet in your house, but even if that's what you want to do, you should be able to accomplish the task in a single day.
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If you'd prefer to avoid swapping out a power outlet, you can opt for a device that sits on top of your existing outlet, instead. Amazon sells a variety of wall plates with USB ports built-in, and while that solution isn't quite as elegant, it's very easy to install.
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You've probably heard of a smart TV -- Samsung's been using the term in its own marketing for years -- but we're talking about something a bit different here. While that company does let you control some of its televisions with a smartphone or tablet, performance can be a bit hit or miss. You can pick up Logitech's Harmony Smart Control instead. The $130 add-on gives you full Android or iOS smartphone control of all your existing entertainment devices, including TVs, cable boxes, Blu-ray players and more. The bundled Harmony Hub acts as an IR blaster, and since it doesn't need to be within your phone's line of sight, you can tuck it away with your electronics, hidden in a cabinet or even in another room.
Logitech's Harmony Smart Control is available on Amazon and at BestBuy.com for just under $130. It's also currently in stock at many Best Buy retail locations.
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Even though you don't need to screw anything into the wall here, setting up this Harmony rig can require a fair amount of patience. You'll need to complete the process using an Apple or Windows laptop, which involves adding in each device and setting up macros to automatically turn on your gear and select inputs for certain activities, such as watching a Blu-ray movie or regular TV. Budget at least an hour to get up and running.
[Photo credit: Logitech]
If your phone has an integrated IR blaster, you can use that and its companion app instead. Several mainstream smartphones, such as the Samsung Galaxy S5, the LG G3 and the HTC One Max sport this functionality, letting you control just about any device on the cheap. You will need to be within line of sight of your gadgets, though, unless you add on an IR extender.
Wirelessly connected lights have been available for a couple years now, but a relatively high price has helped to curb demand. Still, if you have the cash to spare, Philips' Hue bulbs, which communicate with a dedicated hub using a protocol called ZigBee, let you adjust the brightness and color of each and every lamp, enabling an unprecedented level of control. An available SDK means there are plenty of third-party apps for controlling Hue, too, ranging from Hue Disco, which provides a club-like effect with changing colors and even a strobe mode, to Hue Control, which adds in support for Android Wear smartwatches. The Hue Menu app, while still a bit buggy, lets you make granular adjustments from your Mac's menu bar.
The Philips Hue Starter Pack, which includes three standard bulbs and the mandatory wireless bridge (you only need one per home) will run you $200. It's available at a wide variety of retailers, such as Staples and the Apple Store, or online at Amazon, where you can also order individual standard bulbs ($60), flood lights ($60), Lightstrips ($90) and Bloom ($80).
[Photo credit: Philips]
Regardless of which model you opt for, all of the screw-in Hue bulbs are as easy to install as an ordinary light bulb. Bloom, a standalone lamp, plugs directly into an outlet, as do the Lightstrips, which come with an adhesive back. Once you plug in the wireless bridge and power up each bulb, you'll need to use the app to complete installation, after which you can customize each bulb and set up light recipes (macros).
Hue is more expensive than some of its simpler counterparts, but Philips' product comes along with a developed ecosystem, enabling seamless integration and control with other smart home products. You could spend thousands of dollars swapping out all of your light bulbs, but if you're willing to get up and running with just three at first, the $200 kit is a reasonable purchase. Other connected options include Belkin's WeMo switches and outlets, or Emberlight, which is currently available for pre-order on Kickstarter -- both products let you turn bulbs on and off and set up macros and timers, but they don't support color control.
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Some older homes have separate steam-based heating and window units for AC, but if you're lucky enough to have a central HVAC (Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning) system, stepping it up to the digital age should be relatively straightforward. Thanks in no small part to a whopping $3.2 billion Google acquisition, Nest's second-gen thermostat is the most prolific and best-funded of the lot. The device is easy to swap in, and it enables smartphone control of your existing HVAC setup. Ultimately, it's designed to save you money by learning your heating and cooling habits and adjusting the temperature up or down to meet your needs.
There's no shortage of places to acquire Nest. Regardless of which retailer you choose, you'll pay $249 for the latest version. It's available at home improvement stores, including Home Depot and Lowe's, big-box retailers, like Best Buy and Target, and online stores, including Amazon. And because the company is now part of Google, you can even buy one through Play.
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According to Nest, three out of four customers install the thermostat in 30 minutes or less. But first you need to make sure your system is compatible using the compatibility checker on Nest's site. If you're good to go there, you should be able to get up and running quickly. Nest's handy installation video makes it easy to get the wires hooked up, at which point you'll be able to connect the thermostat to your WiFi network.
[Photo credit: Nest]
Honeywell is another big name in this space, with several WiFi and Z-Wave thermostats available that can connect directly to your smartphone or other smart home products. The company's new Lyric device was created to compete directly with Nest -- it has similar functionality and a familiar design, though it's a bit pricier at $279.
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There are a variety of smart appliances to choose from. If simple on/off app control is what you're looking for, keep an eye out for Belkin WeMo-enabled appliances, such as coffee makers and air purifiers. The first device to hit will be a WeMo Crock-Pot, which lets you adjust the cooking time, temperature and power using a connected Android or iOS smartphone. The cloud-connected Zuvo faucet is something to watch, too, though that product has yet to ship. As for large appliances, LG and Samsung have a few WiFi-enabled refrigerators on the market, including one with an integrated 8-inch LCD. Both companies also sell connected washing machines that let you track a load with your phone.
Crock-Pot's WeMo-enabled slow cooker ships beginning August 1st for $130. Amazon has confirmed that it will have the device in stock, but it's not yet clear which retailers will offer it in-store. LG's WiFi fridge can be ordered on Best Buy's site for $2,500, while Samsung's equivalent is available for the same price. The WiFi washers are a bit tougher to come by, but they're available through smaller distributers for about $1,400 each.[Photo credit: LG]
For larger appliances, including fridges and washing machines, you'll need to have a pro make the delivery and get you set up. You'll probably be on your own for WiFi connectivity, however, which should be straightforward as each device includes an integrated display. As for WeMo devices, Belkin's setup process is relatively straightforward. Each device has a default SSID, and once you connect, you'll be able to add your home WiFi info via the app. After that, each device should show up whenever you launch WeMo on your phone.
Wireless appliances are a bit gimmicky at this point. Sure, it would be nice to get a push notification when your laundry is done, but it's easy enough to listen for the chime or drop by to check the display. Having WeMo in a coffee maker would be convenient, since you'll be able to set a timer in advance or start a brew from bed. You could also accomplish the same with a Belkin WeMo switch, though, which you can buy now for about 50 bucks.
[Photo credit: Belkin]
You can absolutely count on your pet to take your connected home for granted, but that's ultimately what you want -- technology that makes life easier without getting in the way. And fortunately for cats and dogs (or unfortunately, depending on how much they enjoy interacting with you), a handful of smart pet products will help you automate their lives, too. I swear by ScoopFree's self-cleaning litter box, which does a good job containing my cat's waste and only requires a thorough cleaning every few weeks. There are also several automatic feeders to choose from, which dispense kibble according to a pre-programed schedule, to mixed reviews from pet owners.
[Photo credit: SEBASTIEN BOZON/AFP/Getty Images]
An automated litter box doesn't come cheap, at $160 with an optional plastic hood (you're going to want the hood) plus $15 for each disposable litter tray, which lasts up to a month depending on your cat's size and diet (basically, how much he or she poops). Automatic pet feeders run about $50 each, depending on the model and capacity. All of these devices are available on Amazon's website or at select pet stores.
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The litter box is a pleasure to set up the first time. It takes only a few minutes to unpack and assemble, and it's a lot of fun to watch your pet discover their new toy. After the first month, though, things can get pretty gross, and after a year or two of use, you'll want to throw the entire unit away and start fresh. For feeders, it depends on the model you choose, but you can count on creating a schedule using a tiny display to be just as much fun as programming a VCR.
[Photo credit: Getty / Vstock LLC]
I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that you should probably just scoop the poop and fill the kibble bowl yourself. Caring for a pet isn't tremendously time consuming. If you travel frequently and need to leave your cat behind for a few days (with friends checking in!), then an automated litter box is an acceptable addition, but pets and electricity generally shouldn't mix, so keeping technology away from your furry friends isn't such a bad idea.[Image credit: Getty]
If you don't always leave your home with a handbag, carrying keys can be a pain. Yes, a traditional lock is generally more secure than an electronic one, but if you trust your hardware to keep strangers out, keyless entry is the way to go. There are two variations to consider here: localized and connected, with the latter bringing multiple access codes, entry logging, app control and remote unlocking for contractors and friends. If you add a home automation server, such as the $99 SmartThings Hub, you can interact with your lock in many more interesting ways, such as turning on the lights and air conditioning when you unlock your front door.
If you're planning to buy a keyless deadbolt or lever lock, it makes sense to spend a few extra bucks and get a connected version that interfaces with other Z-Wave devices. Kwikset and Schlage are the most trusted names here, with each lock costing about $200. You can pick one up at home improvement stores today, or place an order at many e-tailers, including Amazon.com.
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Each lock comes with an installation kit, letting you swap out most standard deadbolts and lever locks in only a few minutes. You're dealing with security here, so pay close attention to the instructions -- just as with modifying your home's electrical system, you'll need to be very careful when installing a lock. Most are battery-powered, so don't worry about having an outlet nearby. Once it's installed, plan to spend a half hour or so adding access codes and setting it up with your network.
If you're concerned about securing your home, it may make sense to pair a connected lock with a traditional deadbolt. This renders the Z-Wave lock useless for access control, but you can lock the deadbolt only on extended trips. Alternatively, you could hide the deadbolt key nearby, and tell your guests where to find it -- it's like two-factor authentication for your house.
[Photo credit: Hide-a-Key]
We're venturing into uncomfortable territory for some homeowners. Installing cameras inside is a big step, and if you have fears of hackers watching your every move, you should probably avoid positioning web-connected cameras in sensitive areas. Many online access portals are protected as well as your bank login or email account, but if you fall for a phishing scheme and inadvertently hand over your password to the bad guys, you may be dealing with a pretty uncomfortable intrusion. If you're very careful when it comes to online security, however, you should be in the clear. Cameras integrate well with basic home automation systems, too, letting you capture footage (and audio) when motion is detected elsewhere in your home.
Dropcam is probably the biggest name in the connected camera space. That company's basic WiFi camera is available from retailers and websites for about $150, while Dropcam Pro, which adds better optics and an improved field of view, will run you $200. Piper (also $200, available at getpiper.com) is another solid option. This all-in-one device adds integrated motion and environmental sensors, and it works seamlessly with some other Z-Wave accessories, such as outlets and door sensors.
[Photo credit: Dropcam]
Dropcam and Piper are designed to get you up and running with minimal time and expertise. Both require a nearby power outlet, but with integrated WiFi, you don't need to be within range of an Ethernet jack. Expect to spend about 30 minutes getting each product installed and configured, with Piper requiring a bit more time if you plan to add in other Z-Wave gadgets as well.
Again, depending on your ability to secure your network and web experience, the safer option here may be to avoid adding a WiFi camera altogether. And if you do install one in your home, make sure sensitive areas like bedrooms and bathrooms are not within the field of view. Also, keep in mind that even if your camera is currently secured, it may be recording your movements, and accidents do happen. It's best to keep sensitive footage far away from the cloud.
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With the exception of USB power outlets and pet appliances, which don't connect to the web, adding WiFi devices to your home does create an opportunity for hackers. Depending on the level of integration and your sensibility when it comes to choosing passwords, someone could gain complete access to your home if they get their hands on your login info. That means unlocking doors, watching live footage, and even turning up the heat, powering on lights and activating appliances. In other words, a very expensive mess that could even end up injuring a pet stuck at home.
That's a worst case scenario, of course, and if you take care when it comes to securing your login credentials, you should be in the clear. Since account information stored on a server under someone else's control (like your email or credit card credentials) may be vulnerable, select a unique login for accessing your home, with a password that you haven't used anywhere else ever before. And avoid emailing it to family members and friends -- you can create a unique code that they can use to unlock a door, so there's no need to share your login at all.
[Photo credit: Getty / Moment Editorial]
With that out of the way, it's safe to say that connecting your home can be very rewarding. Some devices, like refrigerators and washing machines, are probably best left off the grid, but enabling smartphone control of your lights, thermostat and home entertainment system can be quite practical, especially if you have a larger house. As you build out your own system, consider working from the top of this list down -- by the time you're ready to add a Dropcam, you'll be well aware of the risks and rewards associated with bringing your home online.