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The best budget devices for building a starter smart home
Building a budget smart home can be a daunting task, given hundreds of products on the market, and the need to balance price versus reliability and future-proofing. The smart home industry is filled with both knock-off brands and competing ecosystems, so you could easily end up with paperweights if you go in the wrong direction.
To that end, let’s take a look at some pragmatic smart home gear that should play nice with any future upgrades you may have in mind.
The best budget smart home products
Amazon Echo (4th generation)
A smart speaker is an obvious choice for anyone starting out, given the usefulness of voice commands and the appeal of listening to music, news, and podcasts. While Amazon does sell an even cheaper speaker, the Echo Dot, the 4th gen Echo not only sounds better but comes with an integrated Zigbee hub. This can eliminate the need to buy standalone hubs for automations and remote access, though of course many Alexa devices have built-in Wi-Fi for hub-free operation.
The Echo works with Zigbee 3.0 devices from brands like Sengled, ThirdReality, and Philips Hue. Check specifications to determine support. In general, though, only a small number of proprietary implementations (like Aqara’s Zigbee sensors) will refuse to work.
See also: The best Echo speakers
Compatibility aside, the only downside to using an Echo device as a Zigbee hub is that you might miss out on brand-specific features. For example, the Philips Hue app offers sophisticated scene controls and the Hue Labs feature, which you’ll sacrifice without the official Hue Smart Hub. If you only care about basics like on-off and dimming, the Echo is still a fantastic value, considering you can always upgrade in the future.
As a bonus the 4th gen Echo is slated to be updated with support for Matter over Thread, which should dramatically increase compatibility and reliability for accessories. Expect that to happen in late 2022 or shortly after.
BroadLink RM4 Pro
Ever wish you could control your old air conditioner, ceiling fan, TV, or even garage door from your smartphone or voice assistant? BroadLink’s RM4 range can do all of that, and costs less than $50. The RM4 Pro in particular is a universal remote control for all your infrared and RF devices. If you don’t have any RF devices, you can opt for the cheaper RM4 Mini instead. I’ve owned BroadLink’s older RM3 Mini for years now, and it has come in handy for several automations.
For instance, if you don’t own a smart thermostat, you could use a routine that turns an air conditioner on and off on a schedule while you’re asleep. Another possibility might be a scene that dims the lights, turns on your TV, and navigates to your exact input of choice.
Yeelight Smart Lights
While brands like Philips Hue and Lifx are leading in the smart light industry, outfitting an entire home with their products can get very expensive, very quickly. If you’re looking for a cost-effective alternative, consider Yeelight. You can potentially score a four-pack of RGB bulbs for under $50. Other form factors exist too, like lightstrips, a table lamp, and an under-cabinet light bar.
See also: The best smart light bulbs
In case you’re worried about buying into a “no-name” brand, it’s worth noting that Yeelight is actually one of Xiaomi’s many sub-brands. In fact, it’s not even the only Xiaomi sub-brand that specializes in smart home gear — there’s also Mi Home and Aqara. Furthermore, many newer Yeelight products support third-party integrations like Alexa, Google Assistant, Razer Chroma, SmartThings, and HomeKit.
Aeotec SmartThings Hub
Samsung’s SmartThings platform isn’t as big as Alexa, Google Assistant, or HomeKit, but it certainly has a following. These days, you typically have to turn to Aeotec to get a compatible hub.
The Smart Home Hub isn’t cheap, but you also get plenty of potential. That includes better automation functionality, and broad compatibility with Zigbee, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and Z-Wave devices.
See also: The best Samsung SmartThings devices
Of course, you’ll need to pick up supported sensors, switches, and other accessories to actually make use of the technology. Aeotec has a diverse range of products, but it’s probably more cost-effective to explore outside options. Luckily, SmartThings supports dozens of brands. I typically turn to Ikea’s Tradfri or eWeLink’s Sonoff ranges of switches and sensors.
Eufy Video Doorbell
Picking the right video doorbell is more complicated than other categories on this list. While Google’s Nest Doorbell and Amazon’s Ring lineup are both extremely user-friendly, for many owners, they effectively require a subscription. You’ll get livestreaming for free, but meaningful recording costs a monthly or annual fee. Indeed Ring devices don’t offer any recording without a subscription.
See also: The best video doorbells
If you’re on a budget, a subscription probably isn’t in the cards. Thankfully, products like the Eufy Video Doorbell exist, which allow locally-stored recordings instead. This particular model is wired-only and pairs with a chime module, but you still get bells and whistles cloud-free, including activity zones, person recognition, and video streaming to Alexa- and Google-based smart displays.
TP-Link Kasa Smart Plugs & Power Strips
Like the aforementioned IR/RF blaster, a smart plug can come in handy for automating devices without any built-in smarts. That means anything that plugs into a wall outlet — a coffee machine, a dehumidifier, or even just holiday lights. The one catch is that it has to benefit from a simple on/off state.
See also: The best smart plugs for your smart home
TP-Link’s smart plugs and strips are fairly easy to use — just plug them into a socket and link them to Wi-Fi through a mobile app. The company sells models with power monitoring as well, if you’d like to know how much your TV or gaming PC hurts your monthly power bill.
Govee DreamView P1 Light Bars
While it’s not essential for a budget smart home by any means, reactive smart lighting can improve immersion while you’re gaming or watching movies. Philips actually pioneered this concept with its Ambilight line of TVs back in the day, but those were sold at a premium. These days, you can achieve a similar effect with a bunch of RGB lightstrips or, in the case of Govee’s DreamView system, light bars.
At approximately $80, Govee’s solution undercuts Philips Hue’s better-known Hue Play Bars. The only issue is that it uses a wide-angle camera mounted to the top of your display, instead of capture software or an HDMI sync box. The company does claim that the video feed is processed locally, though, so it’s still a worthwhile offering for the price.
Google Nest Wifi
Even if you have an assortment of Thread, Zigbee, or Z-Wave hubs, Wi-Fi is the backbone of any smart home. To that end, having a robust network in every corner of your household can help with stability and response times. The Nest Wifi is a mesh router with optional “points” that extend coverage and double as Google Assistant speakers.
Read more: The best Wi-Fi mesh routers
If you can afford it, we’d strongly recommend upgrading to Amazon’s eero 6 Plus for the higher connection capacity provided by Wi-Fi 6, as well as the bonus of another Zigbee hub. The Nest Wifi is stuck on Wi-Fi 5, so the main benefit is that it’s often the cheapest way to get into mesh technology.
HomePod mini or Apple TV 4K
If you’re already knee-deep in the Apple ecosystem and want the option of HomeKit control, a HomePod mini or Apple TV 4K is practically a must-buy. That’s because they’re the only devices that operate as dedicated HomeKit hubs, enabling remote access and persistent automations. An iPad can technically serve as a hub, but only if you manually enable the option and ensure your tablet is always charged and at home.
See also: The best HomeKit accessories
Of the two, our functional preference is for the Apple TV 4K, which is one of the best media streamers on the market even if you don’t own any other Apple products. The HomePod mini is substantially cheaper, however, and may be especially appealing if you subscribe to Apple Music. Spotify listeners have to make use of AirPlay instead of voice commands.