How To Choose The Right Platform To Run Your Smart Home

How To Choose The Right Platform To Run Your Smart Home

Maybe you’re taking your first tentative steps into the smart home market, or maybe you’re expanding what you’ve already got, but at some point you’re going to want to get everything working together—or else be faced with using dozens of different apps every day to get your smart gadgets doing your bidding.

Here we’re going to take a look at three of the major options: Amazon Alexa, Google Assistant, and Apple HomeKit. Each of these platforms will happily control a bunch of smart home gadgets for you, bringing different devices from different manufacturers into one cohesive whole.

Crucially they should also work with devices you already own — like an Echo, Android phone, or iPad. Other options, such as Samsung’s SmartThings platform, are similarly robust, but also require buying a separate hub and still require one of the aforementioned options for any kind of voice interface.

As always, the best one for you is going to depend on what you’ve already got set up and the devices you’re already using, but we’re going to point out the main areas where these platforms are similar or distinct.

Amazon Alexa: the most comprehensive

Once you’ve got at least one Amazon Echo device up and running, you can connect it to a whole host of other devices through the app. The Amazon Echo Plus is slightly better in this respect, because it comes with a built-in Zigbee hub, so any Zigbee-compatible gear can connect directly to it — the Echo Plus means fewer hubs in your home, in certain cases, but any Echo can control a bunch of other devices.

Check here for a current list of “works with Alexa” gear. You’ll notice big names like Philips Hue, Wemo, Ecobee, TP-Link, and of course Ring here, as well as a huge variety of devices — remember that Amazon even makes an Alexa-compatible microwave. Alongside the usual smart home gear you’ve got printers and televisions and much more besides.

In terms of the sheer number of compatible devices then, Alexa is an obvious choice as your overarching smart home platform.

So what about ease-of-use and functionality? Amazon Alexa scores very highly here too: You can’t do everything with your third-party devices that you can do through their own third-party apps, but you can do an awful lot, either through the Alexa app for Android or iOS, or by speaking out commands to your Echo speakers.

You can cast your security cameras to a big screen (like an Echo Show or a Fire TV stick), you can change the colours and the brightness levels of your smart bulbs, you can group devices from different manufacturers together in a room and control them all at once, and so on. Smart home devices can be added to Alexa routines as well, so you could get all your lights switching off with an “Alexa, goodnight” command.

The companion apps that came with your smart home gear are still important though: You can’t schedule Philips Hue lights to turn on and off on a schedule via Alexa, for example. Alexa isn’t a way of completely ditching the other apps and hubs you’ve got.

Alexa works well and supports lots of devices, but you’re obviously going to need some hardware to follow your Alexa commands too. Again, there’s lots of choice, with more Echo devices and more Alexa-enabled devices on the market than ever. It’s a close call but at the moment we’d say Alexa is the most comprehensive option for a smart home platform.

Google Assistant: the most intelligent

Google Assistant is very similar to Amazon Alexa in regards to the smart home: it’s not a full-on smart home platform per se, but it is a tool for getting disparate smart home devices all connected together. As with Alexa, all those devices can then be controlled with your voice or through an app, which in this case is Google Home for Android or iOS.

You’re going to need a phone with Google Home and Google Assistant on it, or a Google Home speaker, to get up and running. You then need smart home kit that works with Google Assistant — there’s a full list here, and it’s just about as long as the Alexa one. Both lists feature most of the big brand names and both lists continue to grow and grow.

As with Alexa, connections are handled via an app on your phone, and can be set up in just a few taps. As with Alexa, you’ll then see the devices in Google Home, and you can control them from here as well as in the apps that came with the kit itself — turning lights off, changing their colours, locking your doors, and so on.

As with Alexa, you can use voice commands (through Google Assistant) instead of the app, but Google does have a slight advantage here: You can speak out these commands to Google Assistant on your phone rather than finding a nearby smart speaker, something you can’t yet do with the Alexa app.

Again, you can organise your smart home devices into groups and rooms and control them all together, and just like with Alexa you can set up routines so that several actions are taken in response to one command. Google and Amazon have obviously been taking notes from each other, which has led to two platforms that interface with your smart home in very similar ways.

With only minor differences between Alexa and Google Assistant when it comes to the smart home — from the number of supported devices to the way you control them — it really comes down to which digital assistant you prefer (or which company’s smart speakers you like best). We’d say Google Assistant remains the most versatile and most capable of the two right now, though both continue to improve and expand at a rapid rate.

Apple HomeKit: the most complete… potentially

Apple HomeKit works somewhat differently to Alexa and Google Assistant when it comes to the smart home, though it supports Siri and so the smart voice control is still there (“turn off the lights”). HomeKit aims to be a more fundamental underpinning of your smart home and all the devices on it.

To that end there are more options in terms of automation and control than with Alexa and Google Assistant, though to get all these extra goodies you need a HomeKit hub — either an iPad, a HomePod, or an Apple TV. Without that hub device, you’re basically just tapping to turn smart home devices on or off via your iPhone.

As with Alexa and Google Assistant, there are a lot of devices that work with HomeKit — you can see Apple’s list here. The list isn’t quite as long as it is for Google and Amazon (check out video doorbells), and you don’t get Siri in as many devices either, but it should still cover the majority of your smart home needs. It’s worth noting that in recent months, Apple has made a determined push to get its HomeKit and AirPlay functionality into more non-Apple devices.

Getting these devices added to a HomeKit network is straightforward enough, but not quite as straightforward as it is with Alexa and Google Assistant. You need to scan a code, or put your iPhone close to a device, rather than just adding it over wifi as you can with Google Assistant or Amazon Alexa. The interface feels a little more fiddly too, and not quite as intuitive as its rivals.

On the plus side, HomeKit works via Bluetooth as well as wifi — your smart home devices don’t necessarily need to be connected to the internet, or to a central hub. The fact that HomeKit uses a hub, supports Bluetooth and wifi, and is actually built as a smart home platform is why we’re describing it as potentially the most complete… it’s just that the barrier of entry for those without an Apple device is rather high.

One area where HomeKit really stands out is the automation you can set up, which can even be linked to the location of your iPhone — you can have all your lights turn off when you leave, for example, without lifting a finger. That earns some points over Alexa and Google Assistant, even if HomeKit isn’t quite as intuitive or as far-reaching in terms of compatible devices.

So is HomeKit the best choice for your smart home? If you’ve got an iPad, a HomePod, or an Apple TV to act as a hub, then we’d say it’s a very appealing choice — it works reliably, gives you lots of flexibility, and works with a lot of devices. For ease of use, intuitiveness, broader device support and voice control, Amazon and Google just have the edge at the moment, especially if you want to operate your smart home from a device that isn’t made by Apple.

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