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The best budget devices for building a starter smart home
Building a budget smart home from scratch can be a daunting task with hundreds of products on the market. And while it’s tempting to pick the absolute cheapest options, you’ll have to be a bit more careful if you care about future-proofing. The smart home industry is currently filled with competing ecosystems, and you could easily end up with incompatible devices once you start expanding.
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 might seem like an obvious first choice to anyone starting out on their smart home journey. However, the fourth-generation Amazon Echo has an additional ace up its sleeve — it comes with an integrated Zigbee radio. This eliminates the need to buy a standalone hub, like in the case of Philips Hue.
While compatibility is not universal, the Echo works with Zigbee 3.0 devices from brands like Sengled, ThirdReality, and Hue. Beyond this list, you can look for third-party or customer reviews to determine compatibility. In general, though, only a small number of proprietary implementations (like Aqara’s Zigbee sensors) should refuse to work with the Echo.
See also: The best Echo speakers
Compatibility aside, the only downside to using an Echo device as your main Zigbee hub is that you might miss out on extra features and functionality. For example, Philips’ app offers sophisticated scene controls and the Hue Labs feature, which you’ll lose without the official hub. If you only care about the basics like on-off and dimming, the Echo is still a fantastic value, considering you can always upgrade in the future. Just keep in mind that the cheaper Echo Dot doesn’t have any Zigbee capabilities whatsoever.
BroadLink RM4: A smart IR blaster and RF remote control
Ever wish you could control your old air conditioner, ceiling fan, television, 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 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 over two 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 on and off an air conditioner on a schedule while you’re asleep. Alternatively, you can create a scene that dims the lights, turns on your television, and navigates to the exact input of your choice. The potential scenarios are endless.
Yeelight Smart Lights
While brands like Philips Hue and LIFX have the smart lighting market cornered, outfitting an entire home with their products can get expensive pretty quickly. If you’re looking for a cost-effective alternative, consider Yeelight instead. You can score a 4-pack of RGB bulbs for under $50 — that’s less than a single Hue bulb! Other form factors exist too, of course, like LED strips, 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 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 Mijia and Aqara. Furthermore, many newer Yeelight products support third-party integrations, including Alexa, Google Assistant, Razer Chroma, SmartThings, and HomeKit.
Aeotec SmartThings Hub: Centralize your budget smart home
Samsung’s SmartThings is easily one of the most robust and fully-featured smart home ecosystems on the market. While the company no longer makes its own hardware, it instead licenses its brand and software to third-party manufacturers like Aeotec.
A SmartThings hub does cost more money than budget options like the Amazon Echo or Philips Hue hub, but you also get much more smart home potential for your money. That most notably 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 also need to pick up sensors, switches, and other devices to pair with the hub. While Aeotec themselves have a diverse range of first-party accessories, they’re admittedly a little expensive. If you’re on a budget, consider third-party devices instead. Luckily, SmartThings supports dozens of brands. I typically turn to Ikea’s Tradfri or Ewelink’s Sonoff ranges of switches and sensors for a cheap and reliable option.
Eufy Video Doorbell
Picking the right video doorbell is more complicated than other products on this list. While Google’s Nest Doorbell and Amazon’s Ring are both extremely user-friendly, they come with a subscription. In other words, a livestream is generally provided for free. Still, if you want to record several days’ worth of footage for later viewing, you’re looking at an additional cloud storage fee.
See also: The best video doorbells
If you’re on a budget, a monthly subscription fee is likely not something you’re looking forward to. Thankfully, products like the Eufy video doorbell exist, which allows you to store recordings locally instead. The cheaper 1080p option offers a microSD card slot in the wireless chime, while the 2K doorbell comes with a hard drive built into the base station. The devices also offer all the usual bells and whistles like activity detection and facial recognition.
TP-Link Kasa Smart Plugs & Power Strip
Like the aforementioned IR blaster, a connected plug can come in handy to automate devices without any built-in smarts. With one, you can automate just about anything that plugs into a wall outlet — a coffee machine, dehumidifier, or even just Christmas lights. Alternatively, you could control them with your voice using a smart speaker.
See also: The best smart plugs for your smart home
The TP-Link smart plug and strip are fairly easy to use; just plug them into a socket and provide your Wi-Fi credentials through the app. You don’t need a hub, but you can choose to bring them into the SmartThings ecosystem. The company sells plugs with power monitoring as well, if you’d like to know how much your gaming PC or television adds to your monthly power bill. All in all, these fit into any smart home where budget constraints prevent you from upgrading to new “smart” appliances.
Govee Flow Pro: Reactive smart lighting on the cheap
While not essential for a budget smart home, reactive smart lighting is a pretty cool feature that can improve immersion while you’re watching movies or gaming. Philips actually pioneered this concept with their Ambilight line of televisions back in the day, but they were, and are still, sold at a premium. These days, you can achieve a similar effect with a bunch of RGB light strips or, in the case of Govee’s Flow Pro, two light bars.
At approximately $80 for the Flow Pro, Govee’s solution undercuts Philips’ Hue Play by nearly 50%. The only catch is it uses a wide-angle camera mounted to the top of your display, instead of Philips’ capture software or an HDMI splitter. The company does claim that the video feed is processed locally, though, so it’s still a worthwhile offering for the price.
Google Nest Mesh Wifi System
Unless you go out of your way to exclusively buy Zigbee or Z-Wave gear, a good number of inexpensive smart home devices these days still use Wi-Fi. To that end, having a robust network that’s available in every corner of your household can help with connection stability and response times. This holds especially true if you own many connected devices, as congestion can wreak havoc as well.
Read more: The best Wi-Fi mesh routers
All in all, a mesh system like the Nest Wifi is a solid upgrade for anyone looking to build a larger smart home. While not the cheapest option, it still manages to undercut many higher-end mesh products.
HomePod Mini or Apple TV 4K
If you’re already knee-deep in the Apple ecosystem, the Homepod Mini or Apple TV 4K can be a surprisingly good starting point for a budget smart home. This is because these devices can also double-up as a HomeKit hub, opening the door to a myriad of potential device pairings.
Virtually all major brands support HomeKit these days. In most cases, you connect compatible devices directly to the HomeKit bridge via a QR code on the device — negating the need to download a manufacturer-specific app.
See also: The best HomeKit accessories
You can even get an iPad to work as a Homekit hub, as long as you leave it connected to your home Wi-Fi at all times. The HomePod Mini and Apple TV 4K offer an extra feature, though — they both support the upcoming Thread smart home protocol that may see widespread adoption in coming years.