I work in New York. I live on my own. Ergo, I live in a tiny apartment. I also rent my studio, meaning I can't make major changes to my place. This, to a tech reporter covering the rise of the smart home, is like being a diabetic kid in a candy store. I looked on longingly as people tested out smart thermostats, installed connected ceiling fans and Bluetooth door locks. Lucky homeowners with connected locks could open their doors by talking to their digital assistants, like wizards saying, "Abracadabra" or even better, "Alohomora." I was so jealous. But it wasn't long before gadgets arrived that let me get my apartment connected without extensive installation. If you want to give your home a high-tech makeover but have to deal with the realities of rental life, don't worry. I've crawled on the path to connected-apartment utopia so you can run.
Your virtual assistant
The first thing to do is pick an assistant. I started out with Siri on my iPhone back when I shared an apartment with a roommate. Apple was much slower to the smart home game than Amazon and Google. So, when it came time to smarten up my home, I knew I had to find a better option, preferably one that existed as a smart speaker. I've had the opportunity to test both the Amazon Echo and Google Home, and after some time, Alexa won me over and became the head of my household.
That doesn't mean you're restricted to just one ecosystem though. I actually have both Amazon and Google products and use them almost equally. Once you've set up a smart speaker, you immediately have the ability to do things like set timers and alarms, ask for the weather or your upcoming appointments. And, of course, play music from a connected service.
But a connected speaker alone does not a smart home make. Your home becomes truly smart when you start connecting your appliances so you can control them from anywhere or, even better, without even getting up from the couch. This is where it gets a little tricky, since it depends on what your building management will allow.
I started with the lowest-risk, minimal investment options: light bulbs. There are a bunch of connected bulbs available, with Philips Hue being the most popular and established. If you enjoy colorful mood lighting, a Philips Hue light strip is a good option, while single-color bulbs are better for those who just need illumination. I started with one from Misfit that I had received for testing, before eventually upgrading to Philips Hue.
Once I connected my lights to my home network, life became significantly more convenient. I loved lighting up my apartment by simply asking Alexa for help when I came home at night, arms laden with groceries. Plus, I could turn them off from bed just by telling my Echo, "Good night." I also set up routines so that one of my lamps turned on when the sun set, and you can customize whatever works best for you.
After you have your speaker and lights sorted, the next step generally depends on your preferences. In an ideal world (i.e. living in a house I own), I'd move on to temperature control. Alas, because my apartment has central air and a thermostat I can't mess with, I didn't have a lot of options here. I could invest in a WiFi heater, perhaps, but I'm already tight on storage space and didn't want the clutter. For those who need an independent heating or cooling appliance, the Dyson Cryptonic purifiers are excellent, though they're also some of the most expensive.
I decided to leave temperature control alone, and I also gave up the idea of having smart door locks as long as I was a renter. There are options from August and Kwikset that would give me convenient remote control over my deadbolts and locks, but I've always lived in apartments where landlords banned any modification to your door at all.
I added the Google Nest Hub display in my kitchen for easy access to recipes and the Lenovo Smart Clock to my bedroom. As for my TV, I have a Chromecast that works with my Google smart speaker, which makes Netflixing even more relaxing. If you don't already have one, invest in a smart TV, which has convenient built-in apps and voice-control remotes. Those that work with smart speakers let you turn them on or off with a simple command or remotely, so you can save energy or have your favorite show already queued up when you get home from work.
If you cook every day, consider the Instant Pot WiFi or a connected slow-cooker so you can monitor your stews. Those with deep pockets can consider the Thermomix TM6, which is basically a kettle, sous-vide, mixer, slow cooker and rice cooker in one. It can do pretty much anything other than bake, and for those short on space but need a ton of cooking gadgets, it's truly helpful.
Making any “dumb” appliance smart
Here's my favorite smart home hack: You can make pretty much any appliance "smart" by hooking it up to a connected plug. I have an IKEA floor lamp that still runs on regular bulbs, and I linked it to a Belkin Wemo smart plug to get voice controls and routine-setting. If you have a standing fan, a space heater or a coffee maker that you want to have running before you get home or wake up, a smart plug is a great way to set that up. Your dumb slow cooker can also benefit from this so you can set a timer to start dinner while you're at work, or shut off after however many hours your recipe calls for. You'll just have to be comfortable with the idea of leaving the device's switch on all the time and relying on the connected plug to turn it on or off, and only do this with appliances like lamps or heaters that won't be damaged by abruptly being turned off.
There are plenty of other things you could get to upgrade your home. I have a connected Aera fragrance diffuser set on a daily timer so my apartment always smells fresh -- plenty of options are available, like Nest, Moodo and Airia. You can pick one from a brand you like, just make sure there's an app for creating schedules and remotely determining fragrance intensity. Few things are more refreshing than walking into an apartment that smells just the way you like it.
I also have a couple of security cameras constantly keeping an eye on my precious apartment. Though, with recent news about cameras being hacked and Ring giving law enforcement access to your feeds, I'm seriously reconsidering these. But I still recommend having them just for the peace of mind, especially if you live in a building without a doorman and your neighbors have a bad habit of buzzing randos in.
You could also make your bedroom smarter with Sleep Number or Eight mattresses and have them set to the perfect temperature before you go to bed. With some patience and imagination, you could also get motion sensors to trigger a soft low light when you get up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom (though, this is probably a terrible idea if you have pets). Motion sensors are also helpful for triggering your heater when you walk into your frigid bathroom, for example.
And, of course, there are robot vacuums that respond to Alexa or Assistant's commands, so if your kitchen needs a quick cleaning you can tell your bot to get to work without leaving your couch. Or if you can never figure out how long it takes to heat things up the AmazonBasics Microwave has Alexa do the math for you.
We've come a long way since the first smart light bulbs and speakers. Thankfully, us apartment-dwellers have far more options to choose from than before. Sure, we might still not be able to get, say, a smart oven or a talking fridge, but the choices we do have are plenty, and remember: When in need, a smart plug can probably do the trick.
Images: Brett Putman / Engadget (all, except); Signify (Philips Hue)